Interviews with NYC's Indie Theatre Directors

Director Daniel Talbott – Part 1

Daniel Talbott is an actor, director, playwright, producer, and artistic director. He is a graduate of Juilliard. Daniel is one of the literary managers at Rattlestick Playwrights Theater and the artistic director of Rising Phoenix Rep.

For the inaugural interview on DirectorSpeak, I turned to one of the most interesting people I know: Daniel Talbott. Talking with Daniel  is a little like jumping into a strong-flowing river. He talks without any regard for punctuation or protocol. His heart directs his mouth, not his head, and his heart knows very few boundaries. He brings passion to everything he does – and he does a lot: director, actor, playwright,  father, husband, artistic director, committee member,  producer – the list goes on! So, put on your life jacket and enjoy the ride!

CP: So, Daniel – welcome! You’re my first director on my quest to interview some of New York City’s “Indie” directors. Just to give you a basic outline, there’s 3 sections: the first part is talking about you as a director – why you’re a director, how you got there, what your process is like as a director. Then we’re gonna talk about what its like to be a director in NYC, and then the final is what I call my Fast Five.

DT: Like Inside The Actor’s Studio? “What’s your favorite cuss word?”

CP: Yeah, those questions are so good, but I couldn’t steal them, I had to be a little original, so I created the “Fast Five.” I really appreciate you spending some time with me, chatting through all these various topics. Of course, I’ve read a lot about you, getting ready for this interview, and there was one article where Denis Butkus, who is evidently a long-term friend of yours–

DT: He’s one of my best friends.

CP: He says you have a “downright dirty sense of humor“…

DT: I do, I do, yeah! I’ll try not to bring it out during our conversation…I have such a foul, foul –

CP: No, no – you have to, cuz my first question to you is to tell me one of your foulest jokes.

DT: Well, I don’t really tell jokes, it’s more that I just have a very dirty mind, (laughter) and as you work with me – I have really foul mouth and a really dirty mind…

CP: I think working in the theatre encourages it. Everyone thinks my dirty mouth came from the military but it really came from working in the theatre!

DT: Yeah, mine totally- everyone thinks mine came from baseball, but it came from…well, it was pretty foul in baseball too, but more so from the theatre…

CP: Does it come out in rehearsal?

DT: It comes out All.The.Time! When you get to know me really well, I am a total potty mouth, and I have a 6 year old, so I have to curb it at home.

CP: Well, on that note…  how did you get into directing?

DT: I started off wanting to be a marine biologist as a kid -well first, I wanted to be an archeologist and then I wanted to be a marine biologist. I wanted to be in the field but I am terrified of sharks – I know, that’s crazy! When I tried to get my scuba diving license I would have massive panic attacks, and so I just couldn’t do it. And I didn’t want to just sit in a lab, because I’m more into animal behavior and being in the ocean, being on a boat, then I am being in a lab, or being a scientist in that way. So, sadly, that went away. I’m still obsessed with whales and sharks. I love them but I’m also terrified of them, so… Then I started playing baseball and became obsessed about it. And then some kinda big stuff went down in my family and I ended up moving in with my grandparents. So I started playing baseball in the Bay area and played in a bunch of different leagues, and started doing Stanford’s summer thing, with their coaches, and so I was thinking about trying to go play baseball at Stanford. I was with this girlfriend, named Annie Gillin, and we would make movies together. These kind of OVERLY special effects-y, crazy vampire movies. She had done a play at ACT in San Francisco and had gone to Young Conservatory there, and she said that I should try to go to an acting class there. And before I even started class, as I was going up in the elevator -I had a kinda “chaotic” upbringing, I guess that’s the word I’ll use- and going up in the elevator that day, something in me just clicked and it was the first time in my entire life, up to that point, that my life had made sense. And I just had this feeling that ‘I know I’m going to do this the rest of my life.’ And I hadn’t even started the acting class! I’d never done anything like this, except these movie things with Annie, but I just knew that things were going to be okay in a strange way, and so that even if I was crappy at it, I was gonna do this. I took the acting class. I was terrible at it. I was terrified. I’d spent my whole life training as a baseball player, or a lot of my life, and I was a total jock, a kinda effeminate, weird jock, but ya know…

CP: I think lots of people in theatre feel like they were “misfits” and then found a family when they found the theatre.

DT: I was frickin’ terrible and I was terrible for two years and I didn’t even audition for a play for two years because I thought you had to train for things before you “competed,” in a way. I still thought of things in terms of sports. I read every book I could read, read every play I could read, took every class I could take and ya know, like, I finally auditioned for my high-school play, Skin of our Teeth, a Thorton Wilder play, and I got cast in that. Then I did Diary of Anne Frank and that’s how I met Julie Kline, who’s also one of the heads of Rising Phoenix Rep. And I just kinda have never stopped from there.

CP: What was the first thing you directed?

DT: The first thing I directed was, a group of Harold Pinter one-acts, including One for the Road and A Kind of Alaska, in San Francisco. I knew when I went into the theatre that I wanted to try to do a lot of things. I knew this – I don’t know how I knew any of this. I was not raised with the arts, ya know. I moved around a lot with my mom. The only person who ever really  gave me any kind of background (in the arts) was my grandmother. She always made me watch old movies, and musicals, and she would take me to see theatre whenever I was with her. But I hadn’t really seen or done a lot so I don’t know how I knew that I wanted to do this stuff, but I knew that I wanted to start a company, and I knew I wanted to direct. I knew that I wanted to have  a small company. That was very influenced by the Bay Area theatre – I love the Bay Area theater scene, I owe a lot to it – companies like Berkeley Rep, Encore theatre, the Magic theatre, ACT of course, New Conservatory Theatre, Center Rep – people who gave me my first jobs—

CP: And how was your first directing experience?

DT: It was awesome! It was really hard, I think I was also really… baaad! (lol) It was really over-wrought, and airy, but so much fun and I love Harold Pinter. Pinter’s one of my favorite playwrights. It was so much fun and we did it at a space in the Marsh, in San Francisco – the very first Rising Phoenix Rep production.

CP: So Rising Phoenix started there?

DT: No, it started in New York. It was during my first year of Julliard that I started it, but we planned it for San Francisco because I wanted the first show to be where my roots were, and so we rented The Marsh, and we did 3 nights there. It was really, really fun… SO much fun. So many friends in it, and mentors in it, and, I remember it really fondly, though I’m sure I was terrified!

CP: Did you take directing classes while you were studying, or did you learn from watching other directors?

DT: I only took one directing class. I was lucky to have worked professionally and most of my learning came from observing, from being an actor and observing directors like Tony Taccone  and getting to watch other wonderful directors work. But the only directing class that I took was with Amy Mueller, at Young Conservatory, and I worked on, I think I worked on Six Degrees of Separation. So, yes, I didn’t have a lot of experience, when I directed the Pinter One Acts. Weirdly, I sometimes feel more comfortable as a director and a playwright cause I can be a little quieter, a little more on the out-skirts, than I can as an actor. And I love acting. I’ve spent most of my life acting, but … And I still very much consider myself an actor, but I’ve been doing more directing, and playwriting and producing and artistic directing lately.

CP: Do you remember a moment in your early days of directing, sort of like the elevator moment was for you in a general sense, but sometime when you were directing, when you had an “a-ha” moment, where you were like “Yes, I like this?”

DT: I try not to separate it like that. Like, I think of myself as a ‘theatre artist’ before anything individual, and it’s all equally as important to me. So I don’t really consider myself more of a director than an actor, more of a playwright than an actor — I consider myself a theatre artist. So I think looking at the whole thing as what I want to do for the rest of my life, and just trying to find as many ways to do it as possible, so that if I was really shit at 3 of the 4 of them, maybe I’ll be okay at the fourth! To me what’s important is that in the end, everyone feels empowered to do their best work and we’ve all kinda come to the center – to the play, and hopefully honor the play in the best way possible. That’s the most important thing to me, and I think the director has to be malleable, and the actor has to be malleable and the playwright has to be malleable in certain circumstances. Ya know, obviously Shakespeare is a very different experience, and there are contemporary playwrights that are so lyrical and their language is really such a strong sense of what their play is, and that’s different, and I think you really have to honor that language, but that’s a different circumstance, you know what I mean?

CP: So you do what’s best to serve the play, whatever that is within the parameters…

DT: I think that the best advice any theatre artist can hear is “The play’s the thing!” Go back to Shakespeare –  ALWAYS go back to Shakespeare! (lol) – ya know what I mean? “The play’s the thing!” But “the play’s the thing” also doesn’t mean that it’s just about one person, ya know what I mean, it’s not even about the playwright over someone else- it’s about the play.

CP: And doing the same script in Montana versus the Bay Area…

DT: Would be a completely different experience, oh my god, of course!

CP: Each different production has different things it needs, so it’s served differently in differently places.

DT: And you let the space talk to you, and you let the environment and the community talk to you. Who is the audience you’re doing it for? What’s the time you’re doing it in?

CP:  The “given circumstances” of the world impact the “given circumstances” of the production. Life affects Art affects Life.

DT: Yes, my life definitely affects my work! It’s weird that you’re interviewing me now because it’s been one of the craziest, most extreme years of my life. It really has been a really HARD HARD HARD year, and an amazing, amazing year, and the biggest things that I am trying to take out of that are compassion, vulnerability, action, and that an artist looks out, and opens out. They don’t suck in, and make it about themselves. Our job is to share, and put out into the world. It’s not to make it about ourselves. It’s not about a narcissism. It’s about a reaching out. That’s the biggest thing I’ve learned from this year. And I think it’s huge! I feel so much clearer about how I want to move forward and what’s important to me. And I feel like, for so much of this country, and I’m going to throw out a stupid statistic that probably won’t make sense, but I would say that 97% of this country doesn’t give a fuck about what the theatre does. And I think theatre is–along with song and dance- one of the oldest art forms, period. They are campfire art forms, ya know? They are caveman art forms, and they’re story-telling. And I think that theater is the most essential art form because it combines everything into an active form to combat the questions: “Why? Why did my kid fall into a fuckin’ hole and die?” Ya know, it’s asking the questions about life and death, and sex, and why the fuck are we here? So, I think for me it’s the oldest, most profound art form and in this day and age has so much power because we are moving further away from ourselves, and our physicality and our connection with human beings. But the theatre can feel so insular right now, and I feel like it’s our job to ask “Why are people not coming to the theatre? How do we reach out? To stop judging people that we don’t like, or people who do things we don’t like, ya know what I mean?

CP: It’s not about boundaries.

DT: No! It’s about … it’s gotta be universal, it has to be less prejudiced – we have to find a way to be as essential as the art form that we’re practicing actually IS. In the modern world. We have to do better – it’s our job as artists.

CP: So, for you, it’s about concentrating on going “outward” and not in.

DT: It’s about concentrating first and foremost on the work, and making the work as great as we can, and then sharing the work. And then going as deeply into the work and THROUGH the work ‘out’ as possible, if that makes any sense. Kinda like a rabbit hole – you fall through the ‘rabbit hole’ of your work and then you fall out the other side and you open it out and share it, along with everyone you’re working on it with. We’re doing what I think of as -and a lot of people might disagree with me- the most essential art form, and yet we’re nonessential overall in the country we live in. There’s something wrong, there’s something we’re not doing well enough, do you know what I mean? There’s some way that we’re not being imaginative enough, fighting hard enough, going deep enough. It’s not effective to hold ourselves above everything else, to be snobby, to be elitist. Hierarchy is the death of theatre. Just read Peter Brook’s Empty Space read the thing about the Deadly Theatre! It’s kind of remarkable! The elitism, it’s all just bullshit, and it has to do with our own fragile, fragile, fragile sense of belonging, and ego, and self. It’s just selfish, and we work in the most unselfish art form, and yet…our culture is often so selfish!

CP: It seems to come from a feeling of defensiveness, too.

DT: And fear! It’s all fear. It’s all fear.

CP: People try to keep themselves ‘safe’ by only being around people who are within their own boundaries, when theatre is about- is SUPPOSED to be about- reaching out past those boundaries, and getting to know the “other.”

DT: I think theater is a conquering of fear. Well, you can never CONQUER fear, it’s almost like holding hands with fear and walking forward, you know what I mean? That’s what it’s like for me, in an active way. And walking forward is action. And if you walk forward with fear, then fear can become an ally in a strange way. We live in a really hard, HARD environment to do that in because we live in such a corporate, institutional environment where everything is a fixed product, everything is marketing. And for me, theatre at its best, is ephemeral – you can’t turn it into a fixed product. And I feel like we’re trying to turn it into a fixed product, which is just, just, you know, cramming this fuckin’ ocean into a box and it’s crazy.

CP: Is that what led you towards wanting to do plays in site-specific locations?

DT: Well, I don’t really think about things being site-specific. I need a space, I need a text, and I need actors in the space. Instead of spending a whole year trying to siphon $30,000 off of someone for an OOB show, or $200-400 thousand for an OB show, you can always be creating theatre, and for me “site-specific” theatre is just about breaking through your idea of what theatre is, and empowering yourself to always be a theatre artist and always be working, and that you have infinite amount of theatres and spaces at your disposal, especially in New York City. Get your friend who’s a playwright who is also out of work, who’s like, “No one will produce me, no one believes in me.” And say, “I believe in you.” Write a play for 3 actors that are also out of work!. I’m SO not interested and sick of the caste system that theatre has created. Theatre is theatre. I think that labels are hierarchical, it’s defeatist, it’s BS. Would I love to work on Broadway – yes! Would I love to work Off-Off-Broadway – yeah! I just want to be working! I want to be able to support my family, and if I’m working in a bathroom in Jimmy‘s (Rising Phoenix’s home theatre space) I work just as hard on that as if I’m doing a show at Lincoln Center.  Whether I’m working in a big city, a small city, or I’m working at Berkeley Rep – I put everything I am into all those shows. I think it’s really dangerous to think that way, the caste-y, hierarchical way. The only thing that’s about is our ego, our need to separate: oh, she works on Broadway, she MUST be better than so-and-so who works OFF-OFF. I’ve seen brilliant actors that no one’s ever heard of on OOB stages — BRILLIANT actors. And I’ve seen really shitty performances on Broadway, and I’ve seen brilliant performances on Broadway. But those actors would also be brilliant if they were off-off-off-off-off-off-off-fuckin’-Broadway, down in the water, below Wall Street! Prejudice is hugely dangerous, and that’s a form of prejudice, it’s a form of sexism, it’s just an, it’s an ISM! It just about our ego, and us needing to feel strong in the face of fear. And that’s not true strength. So, I’ve been obsessed with that this year – what is true strength?

CP: Any answers?

DT: Yeah! True strength is vulnerability, true strength is compassion, true strength is action, true strength is honesty. Or attempting a search for honesty – I mean, no one knows what honesty, or truth really is -everyone has a different truth- but in the attempt of sharing that truth, I think, is strength. And never holding yourself above someone is strength. Never thinking you’re better than someone else or that the intern in the room is doing less of a job than you are, do you know what I mean? I mean, we all fuckin’ do it – I’m not fucking Buddha! I wish I was. I approach my life with too much anger, I’m really angry about how the world is right now. And if you can’t transform that anger into compassion and action, then you’re fucked.

CP:  You have to do something with it.

DT: DO something with it! And then let it go. One of the things l love about this city is that every time you start to feel that “Oh my god, everyone is just a fuckin’ MONSTER” you’ll see some amazing act of generosity or kindness on the city, or in a stupid store, or on the street. People can be remarkable that way – the city is remarkable that way. I really think that theatre is about kindness and vulnerability and holding against fear, and action and compassion and listening, and honesty. I feel that what the theatre does, is that the theatre shows back to us exactly what we are at every level. It shows us at EVERY level – infinite levels, like each level unpeels to another level. Theatre is like this ultimate truth box. At every level, from how it’s marketed, to how it’s produced, how it’s created – it shows us back to ourselves in every way. So, if we’re bored and disgusted, then we’re bored and disgusted by ourselves. It’s a mirror “up to nature” – that’s what theatre does, in my mind, is hold a mirror up to what we are. You have to be fresh, and on your feet, and reinvent everything. Theatre is about passion.

CP: This leads nicely into one of the questions I have for you, because everything I read about you, or hear about you, the word that comes up the most is “Passion.” You do everything with passion. What creates that well of passion for you?

DT: Well, I feel like you have to live your life as fully, as openly as you can. I feel like my life is very simple: it’s about work, my family and my friends… and whales, and tennis (lol). And stuff like – I like fashion, I like design, and architecture. I love gardening, I love nature. So there’s the weird little things like that. It’s very simple. And I focus everything I have on my work, my family and my friends.

CP: Do you think some of the steps that you’ve taken, both as an individual and with Rising Phoenix, to do art in places that are not part of the regular, theatrical format — is that one of your ways of getting around the NYC system, by getting art out there that is not conformist?

DT: Well, I don’t think I’m doing anything hugely special, radical. The funny thing is that I don’t really think about it. I am an American theatre artist – it can be a very flawed system, but it’s still there, and we’re all still a part of it. There’s still many, many, many, individuals and companies within it that are fighting the good fight, and are doing beautiful fuckin’ work. So, I don’t think of myself as above it, or beyond it, or out of it at all. I mean, I produce Off-Broadway! I produce off-off Broadway, the Indie theatre – I’m very much part of trying to work in the theater in this country.  Trying to make my living doing that. But, I just try not to worry about the system, of that makes any sense.

CP: You don’t ‘fight’ the system, you ignore the system – you just do the work!

DT: Yeah, I just try to do what I want, what I love, cause honestly that’s action to me.  I don’t worry about Broadway/Off-Broadway, Equity contract/non-Equity – I do the contracts, I obey them, to the law. I know about the system, and I do it because that’s how I’ve chosen to work right now, but I don’t get pissed off about it. It’s not important to me.

CP: So, what would you say is your “process?” I know that you are not solely a director, but when you are directing – where does this process of directing start for you?

DT: I think it always starts with the play – it starts with the storytelling. For me, it’s all about trying to honor the play, honoring the story-telling of the play and trying to build an active, alive embodied production of that play, with physical action. With physical, verbal, emotional action on stage. Everything is about creating an active universe through that play. Plays to me, are about action. How you tell a story in the most dynamic, alive, dangerous, extreme way possible. And in the most universal way possible. I’m not interested in people being “smart.” I’ve seen a lot of people hide behind intellect in our society – they hide from action – through image and intellect. A lot of people have their way to approach things and they can get stuck in that. I don’t like that. I want to get up and see if you can put it into action, on your fuckin’ feet, with another human being in space. And then try to create enough of a physical environment and a physically active kind of path through a play that gives you, and the actors, enough freedom to feel like they’re doing their work. I don’t like to go “Move your hand here on this line” I HATE that shit. I think it’s “sculpture” not action, it’s manipulated sculpture. And I want an actor to feel like I’ve given them enough “monkey bars” that they can swing themselves through the play, in a very active way. And yet, the monkey bars have grown out of the play – not my own monkey bars, not something I’ve slapped on. Everything comes out of the play, in the best way I know. I really TRY. I sit with the play a lot, I read the play a lot. I see whatever research…I really try to be open to whatever pops up in everybody – in our hearts and heads about it.

CP: Do you do a lot of research?

DT: Yeah, absolutely! I try to suck in everything I can get out of it. But most of it is about actors in space, with that play, on their feet. And again, how to create the most active, physical, dangerous environment… I have a thing called “good danger, bad danger.” Bad danger is anything that makes anyone else on stage feel like they’re in danger and they can’t do their job. “Bad danger” is danger that takes the audience out of the play. But it’s “good” danger if it makes everyone feel like they’re on their fucking toes and anything could happen at any point. I think all great plays are incredibly dangerous environments and need to be enhanced in that kind of danger. I want to create an environment that empowers people to hold hands with fear.

CP: Do you think you’ve always been like that as a director, or has it evolved?

DT: I think that’s always been in my heart as a theatre artist. I have always liked to work with people that are radical, and bold, and willing to go “I am fuckin’ terrified; this scares the shit out of me; let’s do this! (lol) That’s the attitude I want from everyone I work with. And there’s generosity in that. We’re not taking our fear out on other people – we’re saying “I’m fuckin scared. Are you scared? Good.” That kind of honesty lends itself to creativity and also to selflessness. I think that this creates more room for the actor, creates a more dynamic, alive, dangerous form of theater. So, I’m very interested in working as a director that way. What I don’t like to hear is “I think they feel like this at this moment, and I think that maybe she’s crying right now.” I believe in cause and effect a lot, you know, like in nature, if you slap someone, they’re going to do something back to you. I feel that often you don’t see a logical form or cause and effect on stage, actively. If in a scene, this man, out of jealousy, strangles his wife to death, what is the cause and effect, what is the human cause and effect -which is physical action and internal action- that leads to that strangling?  The building blocks that add up to strangling. I think that often actors, when they feel uncomfortable, they’ll go, “Well, I don’t believe that, I don’t know why I’m doing that.” What they mean by that is that the director hasn’t created a physically active environment that has enough honest human cause and effect in it to really “buy” that this person could fuckin’ strangle this woman at the end of that scene. You need to ask “what is it to kill somebody?” What are the physical actions and internal actions, the building blocks of that scene that lead to Othello strangling Desdemona. So, human cause and effect.

You can see human cause and effect every day! Just watch people. Watch people! I watch people all the time! There’s that great story about Marlon Brando where he would go stand in a telephone booth, pretend to be on the phone for hours and just watch everybody crossing the street, to see how they interacted. We are so physically active as creatures. Watch a couple of teenagers on a subway. Watch the teenage boy with a fuckin’ boner in his pants, and he wants to take this girl home and fuck her, but they’re on a subway, so he can’t. So they fuck in every other way. It’s amazing to watch that cause and effect, and you never see that in “Romeo and Juliet” on stage! I tell you, you watch these kids, these Romeo and Juliets on the subway, or the Romeo and Romeos, or Juliet and Juliets, whatever it is, on the subway, and they are fucking the shit out of each other with their clothes on, in the most profoundly beautiful way. You can believe that these kids SO want each other, and are so chemically crazy because of hormones, that they MIGHT kill themselves in a certain situation. But I’ve never seen that level of behavior in any “Romeo and Juliet” I’ve never seen. I think we need to start with natural cause and effect, and physical action. You help an actor discover a physical life, and give the physical actions that are the monkey bars through the play. So that they just have to complete the physical actions and not think about crying, and not think about emotions. And all that shit will happen because they are playing the play. I think that’s what “playing the play” IS: playing the physical actions of a play.

Join us for more insights from Daniel and the “Fast Five” in Part 2 of the interview. Check out Daniel’s reading recommendations in our library. And don’t forget to leave your comments below!


3 comments on “Director Daniel Talbott – Part 1

  1. Wonderful job Cat! Very interesting guy.

  2. Cat
    July 20, 2012

    Thanks, Rod!

  3. Pingback: Director Samuel Buggeln « DirectorSpeak

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