Interviews with NYC's Indie Theatre Directors
CP: In Part 1, we discussed how you got into theatre, and your process as a theatre artist. When you talked about your process as a director, you shared your belief in the importance of “creating an active universe” and how you do that “with natural cause and effect, and physical action.” In there you also mentioned what I think has to be one of the best training devices for a director: watching other people. I think voyeurism is a great trait in a director. Just go and WATCH!
DT: It’s the miracle of voyeurism. And people don’t DO it enough! We’re all into our own world, like “I’m into MY book, I’m into how I feel; I’m into MY song.” We’re a pronoun culture, and pronoun’s are fuckin’ boring! We just need to get out of our own asses and out into the world. You want to be a great director? Unplug your fucking iPad, and iPhone, and WATCH! Even if you’re listening to music, let it explode outward and effect what you’re watching outside of you, not inside of you. Reach out! Great theatre is the difference between making love to someone and masturbating with someone – do you know what I mean? There is a huge difference, and that’s the difference that makes great theatre – you’re doing it WITH somebody, and there’s response, and cause and effect, and you’re doing it together and that’s making love. And I think we’re sometimes too much of a masturbatory culture, when it’s all about us and how we feel. I talk about it in sexual terms because we’re animals and theatre is sexual, incredibly sexual and animalistic. You want to make love in the theatre, not masturbate.
CP: You touched on this a little bit, but I’d like to hear more about how you use elements from other aspects of your life in your directing. I know you’re really into tennis! Are there things that you take from the world of tennis that you use when you’re directing?
DT: I actually think that tennis is one of the best things to watch for acting and directing because it’s all action, objective, obstacle. It’s all physical action. It’s two characters in space, physically combating with action, going after each other with action. It’s all cause and effect, and response. It’s all responsive action. And tennis takes place within a space, it’s in a “theatre.” And through their physical action, the player’s character is exposed. So, to me, it’s perfect theatre. I learn so much from theatre, TV, film, acting, directing, watching and playing tennis.
CP: Tennis certainly brings in an audience – somebody’s watching that “story” evolve.
DT: Yeah, and you also don’t know what’s going to happen next – it’s just action. It’s a very simple, active game, that has simple rules, and its just people “playing,” true playing. I actually think that theatre should look so much more like sports than it does. Because sports is just pure physical action in context of a play. “The play is the thing” it dictates the rules of the world, the “given circumstances.” Like in tennis and football, then you just actively go about playing within those rules. And playing the fuck out of it, playing as hard as you can to get what you want. And that’s perfect theatre. It’s so physical, and so active, and that’s how it should feel. When theatre’s great, then an audience should be like “OOOOOOOO.” (lol) They should be on their toes like, “Oh my god, Oh my god!” Ya know? You should have that going on inside you.
CP: And the actors should have – should feel like the athletes, sweating and…
DT: Yeah, yeah, yeah! That’s what’s fun! Acting should feel like that, acting should be that much fun! Even if it’s just stillness, the motor inside you should be that active, and then that stillness is a tactic. Acting should be as much fun as sports, and if it’s not, then I don’t think we’re doing it right. And if it’s too mind-fucky, and too controlled, and too manipulated, then it becomes about images instead of action. Pure action should be that much fun. “You want this. You want that! How are you going to get it? Go!” It should have that feeling to it. Then the play creates a structure and you have to tell a story in a certain amount of time, so the element of time creates a structure, but through that structure, the movement – the forward momentum, the forward action – plays out. And it should be even more rewarding, because it’s human action. Sports is about pure action, and if actors thought about acting like sports, you would stop mind-fucking yourself, and making it more self-important. It’s ACTION. Get out there and do it. Just try to hit the curve ball or slider, you know? But then that action has human consequence to it, so it’s life or death action. And Wimbledon is life or death action; the French Open is certainly life or death action – it’s like a gladiator sport!
CP: What are your thoughts on actor training?
DT: I think studying everything is hugely important. But I get a little worried about people who get dogmatic and stuck in one form of training. It’s all important, and all serviceable, but in the end you have to let go of all the training shit, and talk to someone, to listen and respond to someone, have cause and effect with someone, go after something with action – that’s all you have to do. And if you play the character, the play will come out of the action of the play. If the character has a speech impediment, that’s the given circumstance that you have to embody and activate through that given circumstance. If the character is 400 lbs, living in Victorian England, then those are circumstances that you have to embody – you have to research the shit out of that, and find what is helpful in that. And what creates conflict with the action that you’re trying to do, because all of that will make the action more dangerous. If you’re trying to go after someone and you’re in a corset, it’s a very different thing! It’s really difficult, just to get the breath support to go after someone. I mean, you think about Janet McTeer in A Doll’s House who was so fuckin’ ferocious – in those clothes! It was almost like she was trying to rip through the cage of her clothes. Like she was trying to rip through the cage of her life, do you know what I mean? That period, all that info, became part of the physical action and part of the conflict. And that’s what I think is important.
CP: Who are your directing mentors?
DT: Mentors or idols?
CP: Let’s do both!
DT: I love Ariane Mnouchkine. I loved Les Ephemeres. I think it’s the most amazing thing I’ve ever seen. There’s so many folks who I love and look up to it’s crazy. I really feel like I’ve learned from everyone I’ve ever worked with. You open yourself and you learn from everyone you work with. I’m not interested in copying someone else’s style, I don’t think that does any good. But I feel like if you have questions, you can start to find your way through those questions by watching other people, and go, “Oh yeah, I love how they dealt with that” or “That’s an interesting approach…” And you remember that and you keep it in the rolodex in your mind.
CP: I think that’s a huge advantage you have with also being a playwright and an actor, in those situations, because you get to see other directors work through their process.
DT: I think what people mean by saying “directing can’t be taught” is that you can’t teach people how to mimic what you do, if you want to be personal and honest and genuine. What you CAN do is to try to give helpful solutions that helps guide them out of a certain circumstance, or relates to how you might approach something, but in the end, the artist’s path has always got to be their own path and that’s what makes them an individual artist. So, I don’t go, “This is how you do it! You do this. And you do that!” It’s not fucking baking – well, it IS baking in a way, because baking has multiple options…
CP: Like with a chef – you can have “structure” with a recipe, but…
DT: One person’s banana cake can turn out like shit, and someone else’s can be prizewinning. So in the end, you have to find your own individual path and that’s what’s going to make you an artist. My favorite teachers were always the ones that had helpful suggestions, but let me flounder, let me fall on my fuckin’ face. And then held out their hand and helped me stand back up, and say, “Go fall on your face again. And think about this while you’re doing it.”
CP: Let’s talk about the other aspect of theatre – the response side of it. Both from critics and from audience. Tell me about some of the critical response that you got.
DT: Here’s how I deal with that. It’s part of the theatre world, and we all have our opinions about criticism. I love hearing criticism from people that I respect. I love talking about plays, and with people who agree or disagree with me about stuff – from a place of growth and a place of respect and a place of love, and a place of friendship, camaraderie. I love that, actually LOVE that. I love that a friend might say, “Hey, I didn’t get that, or That didn’t work for me” if they’re being honest with me. I so far prefer that! Because we’re all struggling to do great work. But to be honest, most of the time, the work is going to fail in some way. To create a perfect piece of theatre is an impossible thing that we’re all trying to strive for. So, how I look at it is, if I’m proud of how I worked on a play, and how we all worked on the play together, and I’m proud of the work itself, then if it gets great reviews, then that’s – I mean, it’s so much NICER to get great reviews than to get shitty reviews, of course. I mean it’s great to have people love your play! It’s great to have people want to come see your play. If I feel in my heart that I’ve worked really hard on something, really open on it, and that we’ve done solid work and we’re telling the story, then I’m fine with it regardless of what people say – I really am. If a critic is dictating your entire sense of self, then you’re not an artist. If you need the New York Times to tell you you’re an artist – I think you’re not doing your work. And I really believe that. You’ve got to be able to stand behind your work, even if everyone else hates it – if you believe in it. That’s how you’re going to become an artist. And I know people say that all the time – I constantly hear friends say, who are like, “I don’t care! Reviews are stupid” and then “Oh, god, I need to get a good NYT review!” I mean again, it’s fucking great to get great reviews but you can’t have it be a part of how you do what you do.
CP: Well, that’s the contrast of us as artists and us as trying to do art in a business type world.
DT: Yeah, but in the end, you know what, we’re not being paid enough to worry about that! Otherwise, you are going to be so miserably disappointed, because for the most part you’re not going to be the darling of the critics, and you’re not going to win 5 Tony awards – that’s just a rarity. And a wonderful rarity! I mean, god, I would kill to have Tony Kushner’s career. It’s an amazing thing, and not to take anything away from that, it’s a wonderful thing, if you win an award, be thankful!
CP: But those people, the award winners, they’ve gotten bad reviews, and they paid no attention, they kept going! They didn’t base their work off of that bad review.
DT: You have to have in your heart, the gauge of the work you’re trying to accomplish – what you’re trying to put into the world. And if you’re sharing that, and you’re proud of it, then there ya go. That HAS to be enough, it HAS to be. Stanislavsky said, and I believe this, “Love the art in yourself, not yourself in the art.” You have to hold on to you being an artist, and believe it even if no one else does. And there’s often times when no one else will! If you really are doing work that you are proud of, and you’re sharing it to the nth degree, then no one can take that away from you. And to be honest, there’s not a lot of critics writing out there that have theatre backgrounds – there’s not a lot of critics that love the theatre. There are some! There are some huge ones that are really wonderful. Martin Denton is an amazing critic. He loves the theatre more than anyone I know. And Michael Feingold LOVES the theatre. I mean, we may not all agree with all of his criticism, but he is a theatre artist that is writing about the theatre. I respect that so much more than the ones who make it about their own narcissism and ego – their sense of power. You can hear that in the writing, it’s very transparent in the writing. And that’s when I don’t give a shit what they say. Sadly, there’s a lot of big critics that write for a lot of big papers that really don’t give a shit, they really don’t give a shit. They have idea of their context within the theatre community. And I think that’s wrong. I don’t think you have to give everyone great reviews – Martin doesn’t give everyone great reviews, Michael Feingold CERTAINLY doesn’t give everyone great reviews, but they are writing from a place of being part of the theatre community and I respect that, good or bad, hugely.
CP: Talk to me about New York. When and why did you come to New York?
DT: I came to New York because I had emancipated myself, I lived with my grandparents, and they didn’t offer to help me pay for college, and I didn’t really have any money. So I went to San Francisco State, because I could kind of afford that, through loans, and did a double major in theatre and film. I did Equus in the Bay Area, and I met this wonderful man named George MaGuire, who ran a small actors training program, called Solano College Theatre ATP, that was a semi-professional theatre company, run by wonderful professional actors in the Bay Area where you trained during the day and performed at night in this professional company. What I mean by that is that the teachers were professional actors that would act alongside you, so you were constantly being taught by them.
CP: In a conservatory style?
DT: Yeah, conservatory and almost apprenticeship, like the kind of classical companies where you train by doing. So I did that for two years, which was a really, really important time. I had a crazy, crazy upbringing, up to that point, and I had a lot of detoxifying to do, and that gave me two years in a very safe environment to clean my heart out, do you know what I mean? And so, I used that two years to do that. And I met Amy Potozkin, who is another wonderful friend of mine, and fam member, and someone who means a lot to me, and is the casting director at Berkeley Rep. I knew that I was going to apply to acting schools, and I wanted to go to DePaul because, at the time, they had where you could do a BFA in Acting and still do some playwrighting stuff. So, I was going to apply to DePaul, and North Carolina School for the Arts, Webster, maybe Carnegie Mellon. I wasn’t going to apply to Julliard because I was afraid of it, I was afraid of the name of it! It just seemed so expensive and so fancy. I didn’t think I could ever afford that. I was already so fucked and in debt, financially. So, I thought ‘Oh god, I would never apply to Julliard.” And Amy went to do a casting session in New York, and she came back and she had gotten me an application, and she paid for my application, and she said, “You’re gonna apply to this school!” So I applied to it, and the only school I didn’t get into was DePaul, which is like the story of my life in theatre! (lol) So, I went to Julliard, and it’s the best thing that ever happened to me. And I feel so proud and so lucky to have graduated from that school. So that’s what brought me to New York.
CP: What were your expectations of theatre in NYC?
DT: When I came to New York, I really thought… Look, I saw the revival of Death of a Salesman a few weeks ago, and it was one of my favorite things I’ve seen, and I was so moved by it. And I didn’t think it was perfect – I actually don’t like perfect things. But the play was the star – not anyone else, even with all the “stars” in the play. Even with Mike Nichols at the helm of it. Mike Nichols and that cast made the play the star of that show. And I heard that play in a way I’ve never heard it in any other productions. And I was so mooooved, I was so moved by it! When I came to New York, I thought this was the kind of theatre I was coming to be a part of. And I have absolutely found that with Rattlestick, and New York Theatre Workshop and with Rising Phoenix, and piece-by-piece productions.
CP: If you were talking to someone who was thinking about coming to New York for the first time, about directing in New York, what would you say to them?
DT: Well, first of all I’d say, “Why do you want to come to New York?” I would say, “Why, why, WHY New York over Chicago, or San Francisco, or where you’re from?” You’ve got to know why you want to come here. For me, the reason I stayed in New York was because over four years, I had created a community here. I didn’t have a community anywhere else any more, in the same way. We’re actually talking about trying to do more bi-costal stuff, cuz I really love the ocean, and I love nature, and I love a backyard. I love to garden and do shit like that. But we can’t afford to do that in New York. So, although I think New York’s amazing, I don’t think it’s the be-all and end-all. I think you can do great work anywhere. I think you can do great work in your home town, in Nashville, Tennessee, or wherever. And it’s probably a lot more affordable to do it there! I think NYC is not as artist friendly as it used to be.
CP: In what way?
DT: In EVERY way! I mean, we can’t afford to rent a fuckin’ theatre for less than- the cheapest black box space I know is $1000 a week. It’s so expensive to work here – it’s so difficult to create work here. And if you want a family here, then it’s 10 times harder. You want to put a kid through school here – on a theatre salary? I mean, it’s insane.
CP: The popularity of festivals is really growing here in NYC. What do you have to say about directing for festivals? Would you encourage a young, emerging director to direct in a festival environment?
DT: I would say to a young director “Work as much as you can.” The only way you’re going to become the artist you want to be is through work. So, WORK – take every fucking opportunity you can get. And learn from that opportunity. I’d say “do it” in a heartbeat. So many young directors that I know do the festival circuit, and its a great way to get your legs under you, and to get work done.
CP: Let’s narrow it down even further, from NYC to specifically the “Indie” community. You and I are on the NYIT Honorary Award Committee together, so we talk a lot about the Indie community and how we can help each other out. And grow “together.” So, what are some of your favorite examples of you or other people reaching out and interacting with the community to build a better theater conversation?
DT: Well, I think Martin Denton and Rochelle Denton does really do that, over at nytheatre.com. I think that what New York Innovative Theatre folks are doing is all about that. I mean I don’t think they were interested in producing a giant awards show, I think they were interested in trying to galvanize and bring together the Indie theatre community. Because we live within the American theater, and it can be very obsessed with awards and reviews and “What’s Best!” and all that stuff, so the NYIT folks take all the work that these scrappy, wonderful, busting-their-ass people in the Indie theatre are doing, and honor it in that way, in a very American way. They looked at the Indie theatre scene and said, “This is award worthy also.” They have created that conversation with America, with American theater. To say, ‘don’t overlook this sector.’ More new plays are being produced in this community then anywhere else.
CP: Daniel, you’ve given me so much of your time, I’m truly grateful. Now it’s time to end our chat with the Fast Five! First question: What’s your favorite NYC spot for inspiration?
DT: I love walking around the West Village, at night, or on a day when nobody’s there. I love walking along the Hudson. I love the High Line, I love museums, I love MOMA, I love Central Park. I love going to see movies. I like going to the IFC center at 11:00am on a Tuesday, when no body’s there. I love walking through this city.
CP: What is your favorite theater superstition or ritual?
DT: I’m really superstitious, (lol) so … wow… so don’t say the name of the Scottish play, don’t put your shoes on the dressing room table. If you get a tails penny, I’m really superstitious about that, so I bless it out and throw it over my shoulder, yes, I’m very superstitious.
CP: What is the oddest prop that you’ve ever had on stage, as an actor, director, or playwright?
DT: In a play in San Francisco -this is really dirty, I’m sorry- I played Puck in this crazy little Midsummer Night’s dream workshop, and I was completely nude, with a feathered dreadlocks or something like that. And I had to put a cock ring on, and paint my dick red! And my feet red and my hand hands, and the rest of my body totally … not red. And jinglebells! And so, I was Puck, completely naked, with red feet, red hands, red penis…. It was so weird!
CP: So you were the five of hearts – you were your own oddest prop?
DT: Yes, I became my own oddest prop! He was like this gnomish, naked, fairy creature. It was actually really fun!
CP: What’s your favorite tech rehearsal snack?
DT: Sadly, it WAS coke-cola and gummy bears. I had to give up the cola and chai, because I was getting too fat. It’s funny, I don’t overeat at all, but I drink a LOT of sugar – that’s where I gain my weight. I love Coke-cola, not diet coke – real coke. And I love chai lattes, and I would just DOWN all the caffeine to stay awake.
CP: What’s your favorite, or most valued trait in an actor? One word.
DT: Vulnerability. And holding hands with fear. Ballsy-ness. Courage. Openness. Generosity. Fearlessness. I don’t think I can do just one word for anything!