Musings on A Life in Story-Telling
NAVIGATION HELP – Click on a topic of interest
CP: So, Sam, welcome to DirectorSpeak. Thanks for carving out some time from your rehearsal schedule.
SB: I’m happy to do it. This is such a great idea. What made you think of it?
CP: I had just come off a play, and I don’t know about you, but I always go through a sort of post-partum thing after a show closes, and I wondered how other directors dealt with that. But I didn’t have anyone to discuss it with because I didn’t really know a lot of other directors, because we work with actors, designers, stage managers, but not each other. [For more info on the origins of 'DirectorSpeak' click here.]
SB: Yeah, Yeah! Exactly! Do you ever find yourself sometimes, when an actor says, “Oh, so-and-so’s a really good director” or “so-and-so’s a really terrible director” and you’re like “REALLY? WHY? TELL ME THREE THINGS that director did that made you say that?” (lol)
CP: Definitely! I would certainly be all over them, “Oh yeah, tell me more!” We talked earlier about the outline of the interview, and that I’ll ask you about your “recommended reads,” meaning books, sites, etc., that have inspired you.
SB: I haven’t read many directing books, and you’ve said that it doesn’t have to be about directing, but I looked at everyone else’s books and most of them are theatre books.
CP: I’d love if it WASN’T about directing, because I think we get inspiration from lots of different places. And sometimes the best info comes wrapped in a non-theatrical package. For example, one of mine is Leadership is an Art, which is something I read a bazillion years ago, which talks about how to work with people, and the difference between leadership and management. It’s a great read. It’s written by Max DePree from Herman Miller, the famous furniture company, about the way they run their company, which is very collaborative. Another example, one of my big directing muses is Cesar Millan, the “Dog Whisperer.” I mean, the guy has a very simple message: Exercise, Discipline, Affection. That’s it – that’s IT. But he’s done 9 years of saying that. Because he comes into a different group of people, a different dynamic, and he has to instantly establish how to convey that message, which is something we do on each different project.
SB: And he has this thing, “calm assertiveness” which is really great. I’ve noticed that if an actor is pushing back, is frustrated, I used to find myself wanting to jump in and make it “okay.” Instead, I think that in a Cesar Millan way I’ve learned to relax and just watch the moment. Be with the moment, and let it pass, and then say, “Okay, lets fix this.” There’s a way to not jump into a crisis, but let it happen, and then address it. The feeling of calmness is super helpful. It’s rare to have a show where someone doesn’t freak out, so it’s great if you can turn the moment with an “Okay, I’m with you through this freak out. I’m not participating in it, but I’m with you, and I’m hearing it, we’re going to address whatever it is that’s freaking you out in a cool way.” That’s the kind of thing that takes years to learn, ya know?
CP: Yeah, it certainly becomes easier with experience! Because a lot of directors just jump in – and it isn’t necessarily an arrogance thing, it’s that they want to “help,” they want to “solve,” when often the situation is either one where it’s better to let the actor solve it themselves, or, if you can wait it out, you learn that what they say they’re upset about is not the REAL issue. And you don’t want to waste time solving the wrong issue.
SB: The process of freaking out is itself a solution, in a way. By the time they get to the end of it, they’ll know more than they knew in the beginning, and you’ll know more, too. The currency of theatre is emotion, so the ability to be okay with the emotion that’s happening, whether it’s in the scene or in the process, and not get drawn into it is of the essence. Actors have to do something that is very different from what we do, and it is a very hard thing to do in ways that are very different than the ways that directing is hard.
CP: I like to hear you say that because I sometimes hear about directors that are…
CP: Yeah! “Dick” directors. I have such a sense of -in the old-fashioned use of the word- “awe” for what actors do. I’m mean, I’ve done it, but I was terrified the whole time! The fact that they have to be SO thick-skinned to deal with rejection all the time, and yet so THIN-skinned in order to let a character in! It just astounds me.
SB: Totally! Well, a great actor’s emotional transparency, every little whisper of emotion that they feel registers on their face. Most people don’t live that way – most people couldn’t possibly do it. And good actors, in order to be able to do it on stage, kinda have to do it all the time. The levels of emotional self-protection that most of us build up just to get by in the world, actors need the opposite of those tools. So, they get rid of them, and then they enter this system where they have to face rejection again and again and again and again. It’s simply perverse. I think directors have to love actors, to be amazed by what they do. And to be really, really cognizant of how dangerous and hard and scary what they do is.
CP: And provide them with that place to risk and ‘fuck up.’ Sometimes in conversation with playwrights about when they should be in rehearsal I’ll talk about the fact that they had their time to work on the script all by themselves. They had the opportunity to try things, and sometimes fail without anyone watching. And we need that time, too!
The Eyes of Others
SB: On this show that I’m in rehearsal for now, The Eyes of Others, Ivan, who is the playwright, is in town from Bulgaria. [You can read more about Ivan Dimitrov here.] This is not just the world premiere of the play, it’s also his first production EVER, which is crazy. And we had a meeting at the beginning, along with Robert Lyons, who is the artistic director of –well, first, The Ohio Theater and now The New Ohio Theater- and a great friend and long term colleague of mine. He’s a playwright who directs his own work, and when he heard that this was Ivan’s first production, he said, “Here’s something you need to know: At the first read thru, you’re going to have the feeling of ‘Oh my god, this is great, this is going to be fabulous.’ And then a week into rehearsal, you’ll feel like ‘Oh, this is going to be terrible! None of the actors know what they’re doing any more, none of them know what the lines mean, it’s going to be a disaster.’ Just know that you’re going to feel that, and keep it to yourself, because it will be fine at the other end of the process.” I wouldn’t have thought to say that to Ivan, but I’m really glad that Robert shared that bit of advice, because it happens – that’s the process!
CP: Yeah, you learn about that as you gain experience, you learn to embrace it as part of the process. Tell me more about The Eyes of Others.
SB: It’s a foreign play, and it’s absurdist -the playwright calls it neo-absurdism. It is a different kind of play than anything anyone I know is writing, and it’s a really different kind of play than any of the actors have been in. I love it a whole lot. I think the purpose of the arts can often be to tell us something that we already know in a way that we’ve never thought of it before. For me, Mike Daisey’s style aside, the most exciting theatre, or art in general, is not instructional, it’s not “tell me a bunch of facts that I don’t know.” What’s more interesting to me is the shock of seeing the expected in the unexpected. Or the shock of recognition across time or space -across 400 years, if you’re doing Shakespeare. When we really deeply recognize these events and these people, these feelings from so long ago, or from so far away, it’s an amazing thing that the arts can do. And this is maybe the most extreme version of that feeling that I’ve ever felt. To do a play that’s written in Bulgaria, in the present, has been pretty amazing in terms of how far you have to stretch, how far you have to dig, and how many things you have to try before you realize what a beat or a scene is about. And then you find out what it is about, and it’s so vivid and so ‘right’ -it’s completely immediate- it’s now, it’s us. But at the same time, it’s very strange and very different than how any American playwright, that I know of, would get us to that truth.
CP: It’s very timely too, I would think. We seem to be so determined to see the differences between us and people on the other side of the world –Iraq, China, Afghanistan- and on the surface it can look like we’re very different, but when you take the time to peel away the differences, and you get down to the core, and you see, “Oh, that’s me.”
SB: Completely! This play is a lot about consumer culture and capitalism and products and what kind of status does wealth buy. I think it’s sort of funny that he wrote it in Bulgaria, because it feels SO New York! Anyone in NYC who sees this will say, “Oh CLEARLY this is a play about New York.” You don’t mind that we’ve just started talking in all directions, do you?
CP: No, no – that’s okay, it’s no big deal. But since we’ve paused here, I’ll ask you the first question: “why directing?” How did you get into directing?
SB: I did theatre in high school, like probably all of us did, and acted a little. I really loved the space, and the projects and the people and the world of theatre. I wasn’t a very good actor, but I had designed my first two or three sets in high school and assistant directed something, so I already started thinking along those lines. Then I showed up at university, and during the orientation day, when you go around to all the clubs, I went to the student theatre and they did their spiel. They had all these sign-up lists on the table saying “What would you volunteer for?” And it was every job from ushering to costume design, stage management, light board operator, actor, director – every single job you could imagine. And I literally went around and signed my name on every single page. I thought ‘Why not?’ And then within a week of that freshman orientation day, they phoned me because the director of the big, flagship Shakespeare production that opened their student play season had dropped out. And they were on a timeline and were screwed. So they thought, “Okay, we’ll just phone down the list and hire three directors to do a three-way co-direct of this project.”
CP: [please try to visualize my look of astonishment here] Woooow.
SB: So they called, and pitched that to me. And I was like, ‘Okay.’ The play was Othello, which I had studied in high school, and I had just seen a production of it at the Stratford Festival – I was living in suburban Toronto then. So, I knew the play cold, and I had opinions about it. We talked about approach, and I asked them budget questions -which I knew to ask because of my set design experience- and then a week later they called and said, “Okay, we’d like for you to do it.” So, I showed up at the meeting, which was at a bar, and there was a team assembled. And so we all talked and as we were walking out, I said to the stage manager, “Ummm, did you notice any other directors at the meeting?” And she looked at me like I was crazy and said, “I think YOU’RE the director.” (lol) I don’t think we ever even had a conversation about the 3-way director thing again.
CP: I think you dodged a bullet there – THREE DIRECTORS?
SB: I KNOW! Well, they had accidented into that 3-way setup the year before, and it had gone well, so it was just an idea that was floated around the company. But yeah, I know what you mean. Ultimately the show went well. And that was pretty much the start of it!
CP: So, your first job directing was something that you sort of wandered into, and it was Shakespeare… welcome to the fire! Well, here’s an interesting question to tag from this conversation: do you think directing can be taught?
SB: I will say that I can remember visualizing shows from the time I was a child. I would listen to my parents’ Broadway show albums, and visualize what was happening on stage, and move people around on stage in my mind. So I think there probably has to be a powerfully instinctual connection to this particular method of story-telling. I think many, many, many of us have the impulse to tell a story, to communicate a story in some way, by writing, or singing, or painting; but I specifically directed people when I was a child. So…can it be taught? I guess I would dodge the question by saying that if you feel like you don’t have a knack for it, don’t try to learn it, find something that you have a real knack for. But can people who do have a knack for it LEARN? Absolutely! You never stop learning. If you believe you don’t have to keep learning, I think you’re in trouble. If you think you’ve figured it out, and you finally know how to direct, then you’re in trouble. Because that place is the furtherst from effective art-making that you’ll ever be.
CP: I studied martial arts for a while, and my instructors -and theirs- never liked the term “teacher” because it inferred that you were no longer a student; no longer learning. Which was against how they wanted to live their lives. I can see some correlations, too, with directing, with priesthood, nurses, or true doctors -the ones that I call “healers”- there’s a bit of the job that is a vocation and part that is an avocation. You have to be drawn to the job in some way. You have to have something in you, innately, that connects with that methodology of telling the story. And yet, there is a part of the craft that can be learned.
SB: Absolutely. I’m a person that never did an MFA, and the thing I envy most -when I think about what I would get from an MFA and when I look at people that come out of MFA programs- is not necessarily the things that the teachers would teach me; it’s about having 2-4 years of a lab where you can try a lot of shit, get a lot of informed response, and then emerge with a ready-made group of collaborators who know each other really well, who know each other’s processes really well, who are the people that you can team up with and make collaborative work. This ends up being one of the key ways to do work in NYC, is to get together with a group of people that you know.
CP: Yes, we’ve talked about this several times in this blog, about the benefits of coming out of NYU, Yale, or Julliard, where they come in with this ready made group of people to network with. I interviewed Mark Finley, and he came from North Carolina School of the Arts and a lot of those students came here, too. I came from Texas Tech, in Lubbock, but there’s not many of us here!
SB: Did you get an MFA there?
CP: I did! And I’ll tell you what I got out of it, and the reason I went after an MFA. The short answer is “lingo.” I learned the language of set designers, of lighting designers, of a Stanislavsky style actor versus a Grotowowski style actor.
SB: I know a lot about dramaturgy, I can talk design, I can talk music, I can talk stage management. But I actually have less actor lingo. And that’s a casualty of a) giving up acting early, and b) not doing an MFA.
CP: It certainly hasn’t seemed to have held you back! And, frankly, once I moved here the design part was more important than the actor part, because I think that actors, once they get here –once you start working with a certain level of experienced actor- they know how to keep their process to themselves. They do their own homework. But sometimes you’ll be doing a play with a young person, or an inexperienced person, then it’s helpful to know their vocabulary.
SB: Yeah, their vocabulary, and their set of tools! I think that if my not knowing much about acting technique hasn’t held me back, it’s because of the sheer richness of the acting talent here. And also, one of my day jobs is to do the NY casting for Portland Stage in Maine, which is also one of the companies that I have a regular directing relationship with. So the fact that I have so much contact with so many actors has meant that I feel like I’ve been uncommonly lucky to work with actors that, as you point out, aren’t interested in my knowing the names of the things that they do to get to where they have to get.
CP: You mentioned doing set design, did you do much of that?
SB: One of the jobs that I did on the side for a long time was set design. I got out of it because I was meeting so many designers who were so much better than me. My first really good grad school designers, my first Yale/NYU MFA designers -Tony nominated some of them now!- were so terrific. The questions they started asking me about the play were so exciting! And that’s what THEY got from grad school -a way of talking with directors. The sound designer that I’m working with right now said, “So, in this absurdist play, they’re in a city. It’s a busy city. I feel like it sounds like a busy city, a cosmopolitan city. But they also talk about the fact that there’s nobody around. And so I feel like the central, philosophical question for the sound designer is “what does a very busy city sound like without people?” And I was like, “Shit, that is…you are HIRED, young lady!” (lol) You know, she’s just thinking at a level that will be stimulating for everyone involved.
CP: Let’s talk a bit about your directing style – how you’d define it. Some directors are “creators” who instigate their own products; I tend to think of myself as a “midwife” type; some are “concept” or “shepherds.”
SB: Oh wow, that’s very interesting! Hummm… I would almost say I’m a “detonator.” (lol) I’m not really a creator-from-scratach type, although I have adapted work from novels. But still, for me, someone else wrote the story, and I just want to “kapow” it onto the stage. I want to help it to shine as brilliantly as possible, to become the most “itty” it-ness of itself.
CP: So, here’s the question that started it all, the reason for this blog: how do you get work? Word of mouth? Application? Self production?
SB: That’s very hard to answer. Right now I’m coming back to NYC, after spending some years focusing on regional work. I left in the first place because I sort of burned out on NYC, both on the city and on the kind of work I was doing. I wanted to direct plays in “tastefully appointed theatres,” with plays that definitely worked, but for which I could find my own way to “detonate.”
CP: So how did you get word out to the regional theatres? Did you already have relationships with them?
SB: I got one regional gig from an actor who I had directed, and who had a great relationship with a theatre, so she brought me up for a show there. And then I got an artistic director in that region to see that show, and she and I still, 10 years later, are still trying to figure out what show I should do at her theatre. This is how it goes! We both have faith that it will happen, but we fell out of touch for a while, and time went by. I started directing at Portland Stage, because I had this gig casting with them, and I was very close to the artistic director, Anita Stewart, because we cast all the shows together. I would send her news about my OOB successes, and eventually she was like, “Okay, I’ll take a chance on this guy” and now that’s become an ongoing thing. And then your resumé starts to get around. There was a company in Michigan where I had family, where I befriended the AD, and he actually flew out to see one of my shows at Portland and then he hired me. It’s not easy though. You have to remember that many theatres have 5 or 6 shows in a season, the AD does 2 or 3, there’s maybe an associate AD that does 1, and so two shows are up for grabs. And then maybe one of them is the African-American play, or a play by and for women, or a big musical with all the kids in the community. The odds are long.
CP: How do you decide what you want to direct?
SB: Well, this one that I’m doing now, The Eyes of Others is something I kind of happened into. I had been recommended to Catherine Coray who directs the hotINK festival at the Lark, which is a great annual festival of readings of international plays. So Catherine hired me to do the reading at hotINK, and I loved the play. The reading was very successful and we had a great time. And then this opportunity came up at The New Ohio Theater just a few months later, and it just seemed “ready-made,” it seemed liked fate. Having done the reading, I was actively hungry and curiously excited about this play.
But often I don’t decide – well, I decide “if” I want to direct, but not “what” I direct. Because often theatres have their season set, they program a play and they hire you to direct it, and you just figure out a way to like it. I’ve been fortunate, of the plays that I’ve been hired to direct, there has only been a very small handful where I felt like I was walking into work and delivering a product. And boy, THAT’S a rite of passage! The first moment when you’re like, “I’m dragging my butt to rehearsal and just going for the paycheck,” that is really not – well, it’s a rite of passage is all I can say. And you try to make sure you don’t wind up there again.
CP: I guess at some point you find something – you fall in love with the actors, or you fall in love with an element – you have to find something else that you can get behind.
SB: Like pride in the craftsmanship. Pride in the execution of the thing, maybe finding a new idea or two.
This one that I’m doing now, The Eyes of Others is something I kind of happened into. I had been recommended, and got hired to do the reading at the Lark, and I loved the play. The reading was very successful and we had a great time. And then this opportunity came up at The New Ohio Theater within a few months later, and it just seemed “ready-made,” it seemed liked fate. Having done the reading, I was actively hungry and curiously excited about this play.
CP: You seem to do a lot of comedies. Are you drawn to them more than dramas?
SB: I think so. There was a moment in a job interview several years ago, and they asked, “What kind of director are you – do you like comedies more than dramas? And I wouldn’t answer it – I said, “Well, I kinda like them both.” And I think I didn’t get that job because I refused to answer that question and they just thought it was a pain-in-the-assy move. But since then, I’ve just plain ol’ decided that I like comedies better than dramas. I like to laugh. I like to be in a room when the goal is to make ourselves and others laugh – it makes me happy and just makes the texture of my day one that I like to be in! (lol) My classic example of this is that one of the early shows that I got hired to do in Portland was Noises Off and that year – this is an example of what an idiot I was at the time – that year they were also doing the play, Two Rooms, by Lee Blessing, which is a very beautiful play about a woman who’s husband has been kidnapped by middle-eastern terrorists, and is being kept in a tiny room, and she keeps her own tiny room, and they both have painful monologues. It’s dark and torturous. And I said to Anita, (insert whiney voice here) ‘Noises Off? I wanna do Two Rooms. I want to do the ‘tortured’ one.’ (end whiney voice) And she wisely said, “No.” And after two weeks of rehearsal with Noises Off, I was like, ‘God should strike me down that I looked askance on the opportunity to laugh this hard with people.’ And the same thing in the run – to make this many people happy, to spread this amount of -not to sound Pollyanna- but to spread this amount of joy, is a privilege that may I never shortchange again.
CP: Let’s talk a little more about plays and how you get started with them: how do you view your relationship to text? What about movement? Which do you start with?
SB: I start with text, always. Even when I’m directing a musical on a short timeline or a fast comedy for summer stock, I ALWAYS do table work. Lots of decision are going to happen faster and easier, and be better, if everyone knows what story we’re telling and why. So, I think it’s beneficial to take the time upfront to get everyone on the same page. I think as directors, at least for me, sometimes it’s easy to forget that not everyone reads plays the same way. Even really great actors can read plays and not see things that, to me, are patently obvious, about what the play is about. And by the same token they will probably see things very clearly -about their character for example- that Iwon’t have noticed. So it’s important, I think, to do enough table work to figure out what’s going on in the text. I have done it where I’ve jumped to blocking early, but people’s heads are still in the book, they’re still trying to figure out what certain beats mean, and you’re trying to get them to walk, or sit – in my experience it just becomes a cluster-fuck.
CP: What’s your relationship with playwright? Do you like working directly with them?
SB: I LOOOOOVE playwrights. I feel like I’m on a back-swing back to focusing much more on developing new work. Because to me, that’s really – after doing several years of “existing” plays, and putting my own “detonations” into them, it’s really great to get back working with playwrights on their new plays.
CP: How and when do you incorporate blocking?
SB: Gently. I ask a lot of questions, and I’ll often say something like “it seems like you’re stuck behind that table, I wonder if there’s an impulse in the lines leading up to this, to get out from behind it,” and then let the actors see if they have something. I just got tired of saying, “Cross on this line” and them going “ugh” or trying to explain why they should cross on a line, and make them feel like it’s their idea so they can own it. Now I just say, “We need to get you out from there, is there a way you can get out?” Then we’re all after the same thing.
CP: How do you handle transitions?
SB: Differently every time, hopefully. I like to break rules: to set up a convention and then break it on purpose. Sometimes transitions can be a good way to do that. Say you’ve a show where two stagehands come on stage and change the scenery between each scene. And then on the last one, an actor stays on stage and watches them do the change, completely puzzled about what these people dressed in black are doing in her living room. Or she can’t see them and keeps undoing changes they’ve made, in a way that helps the story, but unexpectedly. That’s what I mean by setting a rule and then breaking it. I like to play creatively with the storytelling rules that you’ve established, and it’s a real fun thing to do in transitions. Because these are the moments that are in our control, but are outside the story. So, it’s a perfect time to play with the question of “how am I telling this story?”
CP: What environment do you like in rehearsals and how do you create that?
SB: I’m a little nut-jobby about tidiness in the rehearsal room – which I’m not in real life – my partner will laugh his ass off when he reads this! But I have trouble looking at the scene when there’s a lot of junk around, so I’m ra little freakish about that. But mainly I like a really happy room. I’ve heard about directors who are “yellers” and I think that’s crazy! I can’t imagine how good work happens when people are afraid of making the person in charge angry and yell. I can’t imagine it. Not that there aren’t frustrations, not that people won’t be legitimately unhappy sometimes, but it’s how we deal with it, and how it affects the room.
CP: Do you direct outside of theatre? Operas, web, film, etc?
SB: I directed one short film, which was based on a play. That was very fun, and was an extremely serious learning curve, and it’s on my website if you want to watch it. [LINK]
CP: I watched it already! It was fun. It was based on Adam Szymkowicz‘s play, right?
SB: Yes! A short play by Adam Szymkowicz’s play, called The Question. I’d directed it for a Clubbed Thumb event, and it was super fun. And a huge learning curve because I shot it myself, and it was one long shot walking backwards. Thank god I had two really amazing actors, Susan Louise O’Connor and Michael Chernus, because I wasn’t really able to direct them. I’m willing to admit that on that day, my pal and cousin, Stosh Mintek, who was holding the boom and really helping me out in every way, saw way more and had more to say about the scene itself then I did, because I was so focused on technical things. So, at the very least, the experience made me understand what the DP does and why the director shouldn’t be that person.
CP: Are there elements from other aspects of your life that you incorporate into your directing?
SB: I love design – architecture and design blogs, and do graphic design as a day job sometimes, and I love music. I think as a director that one of the great things about the job is virtually everything you do can feed the job, you know? The music that you love, the books that you read, the thinking that you do, the conversations that you have about issues – it’s all going to get in there, which is really a great thing. You get fed by all that stuff and you never know when you’re going to belch it back out into a play. So, to keep with the metaphor – keep eating! Be voracious, be hungry, be non-choosey – just eat and eat and eat all the culture and imagery and language and art that you can. Because it’s all grist for the mill.
CP: Has being a white, gay male director impacted you, especially here in NYC?
SB: Well, I think from a political point of view, from a dis-advantaged minority kind of idea, I wouldn’t say that I’ve felt disadvantaged by it. There’s so many gay folks in theatre – I mean, you could point to the very top, highest achieving people in theatre directing and there are gay men – less so with women, probably. I think its safe to say that people of color, and people who come from truly working class, deep hard-scrabble working class environments probably have a lot more bias to overcome than middle-class white gay dudes.
CP: Does it influence your aesthetic?
SB: I’m sure it does, but it’s something that I can’t think about. It might be plain as day to audiences, but its not something that I’m able to unpack.
CP: Looking through your resume, it didn’t seem-
SB: Super gay? (lol) It’s interesting. My early work was super gay – I love gay work and gay narratives. When I was 23, I applied to a grad program and interviewed for it. It was a pretty prominent one -I didn’t get in, (lol)- and the interviewer asked, “Are you worried that your work is so exclusively about gay themes and will ghettoize you as an artist?” And I was like, “Well, a) for pete’s sake, there’s a constituency for it, and b) (pointing at the resume) this wasn’t about gays and this wasn’t about gays.” But clearly it looked that way then. So, it’s pretty funny to me that 20 years later, someone could look upon my resume, and be like, “Wow, as a gay guy, you really don’t seem very interested in your people!” Not that you said that… but it makes me think that maybe I should do more gay work.
CP: Maybe you haven’t felt like you have to strum that particular chord – you can find the themes that you want to talk about in all kinds of plays. All plays are about relationships at some point.
SB: Absolutely. I’ve been fortunate to get involved with the Lark, and I’ve done a bunch of readings there over the last many months, and of the last two plays that I directed there one was gay-themed by a straight guy, and one was straight-themed by a gay guy. I do wish there were more gay plays produced by big theatres.
CP: Have you had any turn-arounds in the way that you think about theatre or directing? Has your style changed over the years?
SB: I’m sure. Absolutely. I mean it’s mostly a process of maturing, getting better – trusting your collaborators, especially the actors. Trusting to work with the words that a playwright gives you even if they seem problematic, rather than going to them and asking them to change something to make it clearer. Trusting yourself to make that alchemy happen in the room, rather than planning things in advance. I think coming to NYC did expose me to enormous number of new voices and new ways of making theatre, new aesthetics that couldn’t help but explode my way of thinking about what can happen on a stage. And thinking outside of the box. Whenever you have a choice, it may seem like it’s a choice between this or that, then you learn that there’s usually another choice that’s completely different, completely denies the assumptions that we’re unconsciously making about the set of parameters that we have. I think that NYC taught me to do that, to aim for that. I don’t know that I’ve turned a big corner or anything, changed a big direction. I’ve just matured and deepened along my own route.
CP: Do you have a dream directing gig?
SB: I have. This will be full-circle – I am dying to direct Shakespeare. I haven’t directed Shakespeare since the very first show I directed in 1988.
Coolest Thing About Art
CP: Let me share this phrase with you. It comes from another interview that you did and I find myself fascinated by it, so I’d love for you to elaborate on it: “One of the coolest things that the arts can do is create connections between different cultures and peoples.”
SB: Well, it IS one of the coolest things that the arts can do! (lol) And I think I’m feeling it so acutely because I’m in the middle of the most extreme version of that ever with this play. And in fact, I am a little obsessed with the idea of ‘translation,’ too. The thrill for me from the get-go has been how amazing it is that we can see a play by Shakespeare or one of his contemporaries and be just minute by minute shocked by the immediacy and the completeness of our identification with the moment. And I think that another gulf, aside from time with a period play, is geography and culture. It’s similar to the feeling of the shock of something that is simultaneously very, very different AND very, very recognizable. I don’t want to say anything as simple as “deep down we’re all the same” because we ARE very different in ways that are very profound. I don’t want to minimize the vast gulfs of difference, but I think that as fascinating as the ways in which we’re all the same are, the ways in which we’re really, really different are fascinating, too. The play that my company, The Bug Company, did before was a translation of The Misanthrope, called Hater, which made the language sound very, very contemporary and recognizable. The audience was really able to recognize the people, and identify with the things they were going through, even though the circumstances that the characters were in were wildly different from today. The characters were around the palace of Louis Quatorze, and so many societal things were completely different from now, their institutions and many of their assumptions were completely different, and yet, so many of the ethical debates are exactly the same as ones that we have now. And that sort of juncture of the foreign and the proximate is really exciting to me.
CP: Tell me more about your company, Bug Company. What made you want to create a company?
SB: I feel a tiny bit tentative about talking about it. I feel the language is very unfamiliar in my mouth, talking about Bug Company as a “thing,” because it’s a very new project. We thought of the Misanthrope project as a one-off thing, and we had to come up with a name for the producing organization, and we came up with “Bug Company.” And what I like about the name, Bug Company, is that it’s about COMPANY. It’s about collaboration; it’s about the people that you love working with, and who you want to come back to again and again. If I were to talk about the mission of Bug Company, I’d say that it is “to talk about translation as a practice and as an idea.” I think that statement can encompass most everything that I am interested in. Because translating something from a foreign time is an act of translation, just like translating from a foreign language. It is extraordinary thing that the arts can do, and theatre does it live! All arts do it, but theatre does it live and that’s very irreplaceable.
CP: So, would you say that’s a strength of having a company? Working with the same collaborators?
SB: I think of Bug Company as something looser than most theater companies. What I like is the idea of having a rubric in place for when a project irresistibly presents itself, when an opportunity to make something happen that no one else is producing pops up. Where we can phone around the rolodex, to the people who have participated in previous Bug Company work and say, “Lets’s get together and make this happen.” For years, I have said, “I’m absolutely not the kind of director that’s going to come to NYC and start their own theatre company. It’s NOT going to happen. I’m not entrepreneurial in that way. I’m not adequately promotional. I don’t have that kind of energy.” But then, you look back over the years and it’s like, well I DID get together with friends and produce a number of things, and now I’m doing it with similar, overlapping groups of people, again and again, and in ways that have common themes, so it seems silly to deny that there isn’t an entity, a loose entity, that is forming itself and that we can name, and maybe get a grant some day. (lol) So, that’s Bug Company.
CP: Let me give you an opportunity for an all encompassing answer here: What is the most important thing, in your opinion, for a director to know?
SB: I think it’s: EVERYTHING. You should be voracious, you should learn. You know, there’s a very big answer and a very small answer. The big answer is ‘you should learn as much as you possibly can about everything under the sun because it will all be useful eventually.’ And the depressing, pedestrian answer is that ‘you should know not to move to NYC, or really anywhere, with the expectation of making theatre directing into a conventional kind of career.’ I’ve never seen it happen in NYC. I have seen people in mid-size cities start little theatre companies, get some grants, do pretty well, then move to be the artistic director at a mid-size theatre company, and actually live a kind of comfortable, salaried, middle-class life. And that to me is completely alien to my experience of what it’s been to be a working theatre director. I mean, NYC is an extremely rich and fulfilling place to work, but in my experience it’s just not a place where there are clear paths to earning a full-time living by directing theatre.
CP: What made you come to NYC?
SB: Well, I tricked myself into it. As a Canadian kid, I was actively non-attracted to the NYC “Broadway” kind of feeling – actively put off by that idea. Far from being a mystique that excited me, it never crossed my mind that it would happen. I came because I had done a show in Vancouver, where I was living at the time, and I guess I was a little disappointed by how it went, so during that post-partum moment, a friend of mine from college who lived in NYC was looking for a roommate. He said, “Just come for 3 months and hang out.” And after 3 months I said ‘Let’s make it 4 months.’ and then after 4 months I said, well clearly, I have to stay! And weirdly, the biggest thing that struck me was personal ads! Every personal ad has the formula, the cliche that everyone says, like “I like walks on the beach” or whatever. In NYC, I found that generic thing that every single person said was “I like to go to the theatre.” I thought, ‘that’s fucking crazyland; I just clearly moved to the right place!’ Because that’s NOT the case anywhere else! I love Vancouver, but in that town, wanting to go to the theatre made you quite a weird, marginal type. So, in some sense, personal ads are why I stayed.
CP: Did you jump right into a directing gig?
SB: No, I got an internship with New York Theater Workshop, which was great. I was assistant to Linda Chapman, the associate artistic director there. She sat me down and said, “Alright, Sam, what’s your plan?” And I said, “Well, I would like to be a professional theatre director.” She said, “You know that’s not a job.” And I was like, “Oh Linda, you’re just playing. Look at the directors that direct at NYTW, they have that job.” And she said, “Most of them teach, or are artistic directors somewhere. Do you realize that directing is not going to pay your bills? It’s just not.” And she was right! If you look at the fee -unless you’re directing regularly on Broadway, and that’s a pretty rarified little crowd- if you look at the fee, it feels like once you break through to Second Stage, Playwright’s Horizons, Manhattan Theater Club, the Atlantic, those kind of gigs, it seems like you’ve got it made. But to pay your bills in New York, you’d have to do so many of those gigs in a year that it’s impossible. It’s impossible to imagine that as a real model. I think that is a way in which MFAs do a dis-service to students maybe: I think people come to New York thinking there is a job here, that there’s a path here that leads to becoming a professional director in NYC, and having that be a full time job that pays your bills, and that’s just not – there’s no ‘there’ there.
CP: You are right. Those people out there have a concept, this idea of what it is to do theater in NYC. I certainly did! And even with some sort of knowledge of what it pays, you still have this idea of it: “Oh, Broadway! Ooohhhhh!” And when I got here the reality is that most NYC theatre takes place in tiny black boxes, with sets that get wheeled down the sidewalk on office chairs. Where out there, in the “real” world, they have SPACE and what was it you called them – “tastefully appointed theaters” – with a shop attached, and a rehearsal hall that’s as big as their theatre. Such luxury! I did a show in Texas, at Angelo Civic Theater, and they were apologizing to me that I wouldn’t get to rehearse on the stage my first week there. “Are you kidding me? 5 weeks of rehearsal on the stage is incredible!”
SB: Yeah, it’s the kind of thing that made me think, “Maybe I should spend some time in the regional theatres.” I agree with what Daniel, who is a friend of mine, said in the interview you did with him [Daniel Talbott - you can read his interview here] and I’d like to reiterate the point he made in his interview about doing theatre somewhere other than NYC. When I was at NYTW (New York Theatre Workshop), Ben Cameron, who was then the new head of TCG, came to talk to the “Usual Suspects.” And he said something that was very interesting, he said that he had been a kind of NYC based, Broadway loving person – he loved NYC theatre. But part of his “prep” as being the TCG chair, was that he traveled the country going to all these regional theatres. And he came back with the “shades dropped from my eyes.” And he said, “I’m just here to tell you that theater is local. Theatre happens in the communities where it happens. It happens everywhere. And a lot of theatre happens in NYC, but MORE theatre happens everywhere else.”
CP: Very true. There’s lots of good theatre going on outside of NYC. Although I do think we’re strengthening our “community” of theatre here, at the Indie level. What do you think about the state of directing “Indie” theatre in NYC?
SB: I feel like I’m a little “johnny-come-lately” or “johnny-come-back,” so I don’t know the community very well, but I love hearing that it’s all going on. To be honest, I guess I hope to feel more tightly part of it in the years to come. After this interview!
CP: You should go to the NYIT Awards big party, it’s coming up on September 24, 2012. Because I was at T. Schreiber Studio for so long, I also tend to feel a little lost in the Indie community sometimes, but every time I go to see the awards, I am amazed – “Look at all these people doing theatre! Look at the picture of that amazing set! Look at what everyone is doing!” It will inspire you.
SB: Oh, cool! Great! This is exactly the world I need to get back to.
CP: What do you see as the challenges and joys of directing in NYC?
SB: To do theatre in NYC, I would say, is extremely rewarding in a lot of ways. But I think mainly because of the sheer level of talent of your collaborators, it is unbelievably rich and joyful making. That is the upside of NYC, and it’s a monstrously big one. But there are a lot of down sides including how do you keep yourself happy? How do you not go crazy? How do you keep yourself inspired? How do you keep yourself from beating your head against the wall? And I think that keeping yourself inspired is the constant lot of any artist, but I think that in other places, it’s a little less crazy-making and there’s a little less of a pressure cooker atmosphere – less of the feeling of competition. I try to stay in a very philosophical place about the work – you have to keep it about the work! Of course you have to do PR, and it’s nice to be recognized, but if fundamentally you can keep it about the work, then you can stay a lot happier than if you’re thinking about advancement, or your career. That’s the key, and it’s very hard, but it’s very healthy – and probably also very good for the work!
CP: It may be one of the things that makes it more difficult here than somewhere else because although it IS very healthy to put the work first, because we’re in NYC to do this work “professionally” marketing yourself is a critical element. And when you’re in the middle of rehearsal you’re not thinking of marketing yourself. So, then when your job is done, you look around for the next gig and no one is around!
SB: Yeah, totally! It is the hardest, hardest, hardest thing. Some of the shows that we did at The Ohio -that I’m super proud of- but the fact that the big “get out the audience” effort, or the “get out the people that you want to see it so they’ll hire you” effort has to happen over fucking TECH is just brutal! It’s just brutal. That’s why you kind of need a company or a really great publicist, or be exceptional at juggling your time – just to get it all done. Which is a great time to give a shout out to our publicist, David Gibbs, of DARR Publicity – he’s terrific!
CP: Or sleep three hours a night. Like Ken Davenport – I don’t think that guy ever sleeps!
SB: Yeah, he’s a producer, right?
CP: Yes, he’s a producer for Broadway and Off-Broadway. And he has an on-going blog called “The Producer’s Perspective“ which is fascinating to read, to get the producer’s viewpoint on issues. And he never stops – he’s constantly thinking, and questioning, and provoking. I don’t know where he gets all his energy from, but I wish I could bottle it!
SB: Totally! I’d buy it. (lol)
CP: Have you directed for any of the festivals?
SB: I’ve done two Fringe Festival Shows, two NYMF shows, three Ice Factory Shows, and a MITF show. And each of those festivals is really great for its purpose. There are reasons to do shows there; there are shows that the best venue for them is a festival, for whatever reason. But I think that what I won’t do now is put a show in a festival that doesn’t belong in one. I think it’s really about knowing what the goals for the show are, and in what way is a festival the best venue for it. It’s just being smart about that. I think the great thing about a festival is that you get to do a show! They take care of a lot of the details that are difficult to take care of, and you get to do a show.
CP: Would you encourage a young, incoming director to do festivals?
SB: Absolutely. I would encourage a young, incoming person to do everything they possibly can – never say no, always say yes. Always quit your job to do a show. Always. Until you start to realize which are the shows that you really can say no to. The shows where you look at the circumstances and think, and it may sound arrogant, but there is a moment when you can look at a given gig, and say, “Everything that I could learn from that gig is something I already know – and it doesn’t pay.” But I would say it’s a good several years before the first gig like that one rolls around. For me, there are a lot of gigs that, if they were offered to me now, I would say ‘that doesn’t have much to offer me’ but at the time, I was right to do them!
The Fast Five
CP: So, here we are at the Fast Five! What’s your favorite NYC spot for inspiration?
SB: Actually, it’s a tie. I love my little back courtyard. We’ve worked on it a lot lately – got furniture, fake grass, etc, and now it’s so calming. And the other one is the Rose Reading Room, at the NY Public Library main branch, between the Lions. I love to go there and work – it’s so gorgeous, and so spacious. You have space to think and it’s free. You go there and feel like you’re engaging in a centuries long tradition of creative and academic thought and to me it is really inspiring. Even if it’s not very exciting work you happen to be doing that day, it’s inspiring just to be doing it in that room, and to feel like a part of all the thoughts that were ‘thunk’ in that room. The history of that room is very exciting. [GET PIC]
CP: Excellent! A good two-parter! What’s your favorite theatre superstition or ritual?
SB: I used to be proudly NOT superstitious, but now I have a real thing about knocking on wood, or knocking on one’s head if no wood is available, whenever you say something that tempts fate. I don’t think that’s even just a theatre thing – it’s a life thing. But I learned it from theatre people and now it’s taken over. So, it’s become MY theatre thing!
CP: What’s the oddest prop you’ve ever had on stage?
SB: Ah…. now I’m remembering Daniel’s answer. It’s hard to forget – it was his penis, right?
CP: Yes, it was his “decorated member” as they would say in a romance novel. (lol)
SB: I’m sort of a props minimalist. Humm… Oh, I once did a play where a watermelon fell from the sky and splattered on the stage! How’s that? It was a Daniel MacIvor play, good Canadian playwright.
CP: That works! What’s your favorite tech rehearsal snack?
SB: I actually have strong feelings about this. If I get into tech where the table has been stocked with candy, my heart sinks a little – because I’m not going to not eat it. I’m going to eat it all the time. It’s just a compulsive move-my-hand-to-my-mouth action, that’s a response to stress. I would so much rather it was fruit or something. There are theatres that you go into, and there’s kind of a culture of candy, and it’s gross to me. No, it’s not gross, I wish it were gross – it’s addictive to me. It’s the addiction that makes it gross. I hate to be a downer and not have a quick, peppy answer for you, but I think that as I get older, I have to think more about how to eat so that I don’t end my life early.
CP: No, I’m glad you said it. It’s very important. I love the chance to talk about it. I’ve lost over 30 lbs over the past year -started off juicing- and I’ve just learned so much about nutrition. I haven’t had a soda in over a year, and I’ve removed a lot of processed foods from my diet. That stuff IS addictive, it was hard to kick it, but I feel SO much better now. So, I’m completely supportive of what you’re saying. [If you'd like to read more about my health journey, read about it here.]
CP: What is your most valued trait in an actor?
SB: Totally fearlessness. Total “throw it against the wall-ness.” I really like actors that just boldly step into the unknown, boldly step into the wrong choice, boldly step into the ridiculous, and will just keep trying stuff. Living out loud until you get this thing that makes the scene go “bing.”
CP: Yes, because sometimes the wrong choice that they stepped boldly into turns out to be not so wrong after all.
SB: Exactly! And then you go, “Wow” and it becomes a key into another aspect of the scene that you never thought of. I’m working with actors like that right now. It’s really good.
CP: Well done! Wonderful answers. And here we are at the end. But let me give you a chance – is there anything, in summation, that you might like to say about directing? about New York? about Indie theatre?
SB: You know, I don’t know where this might fit in, but I saw a question on your sheet there, ‘Are we artists or craftspeople’ that I’d like to respond to. I had a fear at an early moment in my career, when I asked myself, “Am I a ‘stylist?’ Is that what I do? Am I like an interior decorator of plays?” Which kind of speaks to the ‘craftsperson’ fear. I think we’re artists. And I think owning that is really important because the going is going to get tough – not only in the pedestrian “how do I pay my bills” ways – but even just in keeping yourself motivated and inspired. Okay, to backtrack, the little anecdote about the “quitting your job” thing is that I had a roommate once who was a publicist. She was classic – she would quit her job to focus on a better project, and then get to the point where she had $20 to her name and not know where the next check was coming from. And I once asked her, “What are you going to do?” She replied, “Well, admission to the Frick is $18 and I REALLY want to see those Vemeers!” Now THAT’s a good answer! If you can get your attitude there, you’re really doing well! I was in Poland briefly this summer, and there’s this beautiful small building in Krakow, the Palace of the Arts, which was built as an art museum around the turn of the century. and there are these beautiful friezes around the outside, and one side represents Faith, Hope and Love, and the other side represents Doubt, Despair and Pain. Hilarious! So Eastern European! And the little guidebook said, “Because this mix is the lot of every artist.” In a weird way, I found that reassuring! (lol) You have to have a little ‘dark night of the soul’ occasionally, if you’re creative. It’s just having perspective on the more challenging times is very helpful when you’re in them. You know, surf it out. Read a good novel, get a dumb little day job, meet some new people, whatever.
CP: Surf it out. I like that. Thank you, Sam, for sharing so much time and generosity with me and the DirectorSpeak readers. I look forward to seeing “The Eyes of Others” and continuing to keep in touch.