Musicals, movies, pages and stages!
This week we sit down with actress and theatre enthusiast Bonnie Zellerbach, known by many Bangkokians for her monumental roles with The Bangkok Community Theatre (BCT). From script-writing and directing to stage design, costume design and acting, you name it, she's done it! Little did we know she has also been cast in several international movies, played a nurse to Christian Bale and penned a few plays of her own. An all round impressive lady who has made a huge contribution to Bangkok's theatre and film scene, so definitely worth a read, folks!
What drew you into the world of theatre?
One of three children, I grew up on the east coast of the United States in Greenwich, Connecticut. From a very early age, on special occasions, my parents would take me and my brothers into the city for cultural events. I remember seeing the film The Sound of Music at Radio City Music Hall when I was six years old!
I was naturally drawn to the world of drama and creative play from a young age. I remember playing Jack Frost, the lead, in the Kindergarten Christmas production at school. Apparently, the role entailed considerable memorisation for a five-year-old. Not only did I learn my own lines but in order to learn all my cues, I also learned all the other characters' parts. When anyone dried onstage, I just yelled out their lines to the great amusement of the audience!
Bonnie played Sister Robert Anne in the musical comedy Nunsense, 2012. Photo: Justin Brooks
When did you decide to become an actress?
I wanted to be an actress for as long as I can remember. I was a theatre major and took part in every production possible throughout my high school and university years. Between terms, I worked in summer stock as an actress and stagehand. However, in my junior year at university, the reality of supporting myself once I graduated set in and I decided to put my dreams of becoming an actress on hold while I tried to become financially solvent. Fast forward approximately 10 years through various jobs in marketing, two years at The Darden School to earn my MBA and a career in advertising with Saatchi & Saatchi, and you'd find I had transferred to the Bangkok office in 1991.
One of the account directors in the Bangkok office, Angela Daniel, was an active member of the BCT. Just a few months after I arrived, I went to see a very funny play that she directed and that visit reawakened all my old desires of performing and creating theatre. I began the slow journey back into performing right then and there, starting with the stage and later expanding into film and voiceover work.
Bonnie played Oberon in the play A Midsummer Night’s Dream, 2017. Photo: Kamran Wilson
You've been in some movies we see! Which movie did you enjoy working on the most?
I've been very lucky to have some amazing experiences with local and international filmmakers in Thailand. My favourite experience is probably a toss up between playing a nurse to a recovering prisoner of war (Christian Bale) in Rescue Dawn because I had the opportunity to work with a stellar cast and crew, including one of my film idols, Director Werner Herzog -- and, more recently, I worked on a small independent film about human trafficking called She Has A Name. I was overwhelmed by the passion of the cast and crew (especially the trio of director/writers, the Kooman brothers); they were an inspiration in their dedication to delivering a film that could make a difference.
What would you recommend to aspiring actors/ actresses?
I think it's really important to know yourself and to understand what you want out of the world of acting. It is rare to make a living as an actor/actress; most performers develop other skills that they use to pay the rent while simultaneously pursuing their craft. It is not an easy profession and while it can be very rewarding, it can also be demoralising when you don't get the part, again and again. Basically, if there is anything else that gives you joy, then I suggest you do that for a career and save your love of performing for a hobby. Then you'll be able to pay the rent and scratch your creative itch at the same time. If you truly cannot imagine yourself making a living any other way other than from a career as an actor, then prepare yourself to work harder than you ever imagined and best of luck to you as you pursue your dream.
When and why did you become interested in children's theatre?
When our twin daughters were just toddlers, they loved to come and watch my theatre rehearsals. When the shows were finally staged, they would beg to see them over and over again -- even when the material was way over their heads. At that time there was no theatre at all specifically for children in Bangkok outside of annual school productions. The offerings are still limited now but they are growing. So I decided to direct a play specifically targeted to young children. In 1999, I found a wonderful American playwright named Moses Goldberg and staged his delightful interactive script of Hansel & Gretel and then I continued to work my way through his fairytale offerings for the next few years.
Have you written any plays?
Well, when I exhausted Moses Goldberg's works, I borrowed his inventive format and wrote three more scripts of my own: The Emperor's New Clothes, Pinocchio and Jack and the Beanstalk. I sent Mr Goldberg the scripts and offered him co-authorship since I had unabashedly mirrored his material, but he told me he didn't want any credit and was just happy that more children's theatre was being produced. Importantly, one of the unique things that I added to the experience of young theatre-goers in Bangkok, was the addition of a pre-show craft. When I wrote the scripts, I built in opportunities for simple crafts to be used such as fairy wands and beanstalks. The children arrived early before the show to make the craft and then used it as directed during the play. It is my hope that the interactive experience introduced them to a life-long love for theatre -- which is quite different from the more passive activity of watching television or film.
What are you currently working? Also, where can Bangkokians go if they want to either a) see one of your plays or b) see you in acting in action!
Well, by the time this goes to print, BCT will have just finished a two-week run of Shakespeare's A Midsummer Night's Dream. The show has been wonderful to work on, with a small cast of eight playing over 20 roles. I am fortunate enough to be playing Hippolyta the captive queen and also Oberon, the king of the fairies. I never thought I'd get to play such an iconic male role so I am cherishing every minute of this experience. Next up for BCT will be an evening of one-act plays in late May but as that is still in its formative stages, I've no additional details at this time. And then In September we'll be staging the musical The 25th Annual Putnam County Spelling Bee (auditions in May) and we have two other shows in the works for the fourth quarter. If you're interested in volunteering, whether to audition, hone your off-stage theatrical skills or just to meet some wonderful new people, do get in touch with BCT. It is an ever-evolving organisation and we need new people to push us in new directions.