Interviews with NYC's Indie Theatre Directors
CP: So, there you are, having finished a successful run of three plays at the Edinburgh Fringe Festival, and you decided to come to New York, to celebrate a friend’s wedding and to learn more about producing. Is that about right?
LVH: Well, that’s the excuse I gave. I really just wanted to have space. I wanted to find myself. And I love it here. I love New York. I think New York is THE city.
CP: Had you been to New York before?
LVH: No, no, no, I hadn’t had a clue. New York was never a part of my vocabulary. I knew nothing about New York. Then I came for the wedding, which was actually in Boston. And I stayed with friends in New York for a few weeks. And then I just stayed. It was tough. I remember having 35 cents a day, and I remember I used to have a bagel, with cream cheese, and that would be my meal for a day. In some ways, leaving England was self-destructive. Because there we used to live and breathe theatre, not so much any more, but that’s what it was like when I grew up. Why leave a city that lives and breathes theatre? It was very tough coming here. I would never do it again. I’m GLAD I did it. I love New York. I don’t want to leave. My husband wants to go and live in England, and I’m like, “Bye! See ya!” I’m not starting over again.
CP: Well, London may have been living and breathing theatre, but they weren’t doing it YOUR way.
LVH: Oh, no, of course not! I course I had to come here. I was a ‘New Yorker’ before I came here. Honestly, I came here and anything that I wanted to do was difficult, but people – they supported it. A friend of mine started a reading group, so we used to have readings once a week. Which was FABULOUS. Do you know how great it is just to get together with a bunch of people and just read scripts? It was great; it was really great. I worked two things out when I arrived here. Firstly, I had always worked in the classics. That was what I was interested in, because I didn’t know there was anything else. Then when I got here I suddenly realized, “Oh my god, there are NEW plays! And if we don’t do new plays, we’re not going to have any more classics!” You have to understand, this was 25 years ago – now, everyone’s doing new plays. But that was one big realization, and the other one was that the people in real estate are telling us what’s going into our theatres. Of course, it’s business, I get that – it wasn’t about that. It was more about feeling, style, content to a certain extent. More comedies, more musicals. So, I went, “Oh my god, it’s real estate – that’s what’s governing this. Okay, I need a space.” And the big question was: do you rent a space and risk getting kicked out, cause I’d seen it happen to the Three Dollar Bill company, at what is now the Atlantic. They had had the vision, they saw that this could be a space, they renovated it, and then the landlord doubled or tripled their rent! But buying – you had to deal with a deposit, and then, there are all these spaces with columns… In the meantime, I had to find a way of earning a living that would not take me completely away from theatre, so I started a cleaning company. I knew how to clean, my mom was Austrian, right? (lol) I hired people and had a cleaning company – and the less said about that, the better. So, then I got a space. But I was very lucky, because I’d been looking for space for a year.
CP: So, you bought your space at the Greenwich Street Theatre?
LVH: Yes, I did. I saw the space – it was the first space I saw, but I hadn’t really made up my mind yet – it took me a year to figure it out. So, I stepped away from that space initially, but a year later, it was still available, and after seeing all these spaces, I went, “Oh my god, that space on Greenwich St! It’s perfect!” After a YEAR, it was perfect. It was a very tough first year, personally because my mom died, and professionally because the market crashed. But, I owned a theatre, which was my mission. And of course the original plan was to do all our own work. Well… it cost money to do your own work. Plus you’ve got the mortgage to pay. And when you’ve got a co-op, you’ve got maintenance to pay. And you need lights, and we had to soundproof the ceiling, and a whole bunch of stuff. It was expensive! So we became a rental house, doing our own stuff whenever we could. And we did all this development stuff, did new works, and that was all great, and I got to direct. But the conditions were not great – because you’re worrying about the payments, and the cleanliness and the audience, and running the space – you get into rehearsal, and you’ve barely done your job as a director, you’ve barely prepared. So, the productions were ‘fine,’ luckily, but “fine” isn’t good enough. I mean, I was happy doing it, but we sort of grew, and the producing stuff kicked up a notch, and then all of a sudden I did another show in the West End. Then, eventually, after looking at a lot of different plays, I came across “The Countess.” I optioned it, and we put it on in 1995, and it did really well.
CP: Did you do it in West End first, or here first?
LVH: I did a tiny production of it in my theatre here. TINY. And everyone was like ‘we’ve got such good reviews’ -in the tiny local papers- and they were like ‘we could move it!’ But I said, “Uh-uh, it’s not ready. It needs work.” Everyone was like “you’ve gotta be kidding me!” I think everyone hated me. Eventually, we did it again in 1999, when the script WAS ready. And we got a really good review from the Times. Thank you, Anita Gates! She came on a night where someone had an asthma attack or something – there was all this labored breathing. And one of the actors was losing it. He hadn’t experienced something like that. Fortunately, the lead actress helped him, “Look in my eyes, don’t focus on it, look in my eyes.” I thought I was going to vomit, actually. I went to the bathroom, and thought I was going to throw up – all that work! And I could literally see the whole production, everything, going down the toilet. But she saw past that. She was taking copious notes, because she understood the play, which is about a woman who is being idealized. She gave us a really wonderful review!
If you have a really good review, then you have to keep it going. So we moved the show. We did not have good houses at Greenwich Street for The Countess. I moved it based on that review, and on the fact that I believed in it. That’s why I moved it to the Beckett, which no longer exists, in the way it was -all these little independent theatres- and then they were re-done into the complex which is now called Theater Row. We closed that theatre; we were the last show in there. We were in there for 10 months. We were going month to month. So we couldn’t market it like a normal show. We were constantly doing “scramble marketing” – it was a like a stay of execution. We kept thinking they were going to get the bulldozers in, but they kept putting it off. You know, construction is all about permits and stuff. And we would have run SO much longer, but at the end of the day it was a 99 seat theatre and we would have run out of contract. I mean, we went from a mini-contract, ran out of those weeks; went to Off-Broadway-A, then an Off-Broadway B. It was unbelievable. Then they closed the theatre so we moved to the Lamb’s. And then the Lambs was going to be sold, and then it closed – it doesn’t exist any more. Which is sad because it was gorgeous. We ran there for 7 or 10 months, I can’t remember. That was the 350 seat theatre, so we were on an Off-Broadway C or D contract.
CP: And then you took it to the West End. Your second West End production. What was that like?
LVH: Oh, that was quite a difference experience than Long Day’s Journey. The West End had changed a lot since when I’d been there before. Just as Broadway has, for that matter. Being a producer and director is always tough, but even more so when you’re far from home. And after doing both for so many years at my theatre…
CP: Right – you owned the Greenwich Street Theare for 17 years, yes?
LVH: Yeah. Eventually, I had to sell, for three reasons: I didn’t feel like I was really doing my mission, which was to do our own work. I had to rent it, and as a rental business it would have been fine, but…
CP: But you wanted to concentrate on your own stuff, and weren’t able to.
LVH: No. Not completely. When I think about it now, there was a lot that was great, and I wish I could do some of it again, but knowing what I know now. With a little bit of wisdom about life and how things work.
CP: Has that little bit of wisdom led to any changes in your directing style over the years? Has there been an evolution in your directing style?
LVH: Yeah! Much more structure. I didn’t have ANY structure before. I know how to structure, how to get through scenes – well, I mean I always sorta knew… I remember one time doing a play, and the lead actress took up ALL the space in the room, because I didn’t have enough of a plan, a rehearsal schedule – we’re doing this scene, then this scene. I remember that she took up most of our time, and the rest of the actors were fit to be tied. Still a good production.
CP: You’re doing Final Analysis at the Midtown Festival, so, let’s talk more about festivals. I think Festivals are a conversation in and of themselves. New directors, coming to town – would you encourage them to work in Festivals?
LVH: Absolutely. Absolutely. It’s guerilla and that’s great. If you’re young and have the energy – I think us older people shouldn’t be doing that any more. (lol)
CP: I understand that! But for many, they seem like such a great opportunity.
LVH: I actually chose the Mid-Town Festival for this piece. We were a very late entry. I feel it’s an opportunity sort of below the radar to develop a new piece, and it’s a slightly cheaper way of doing it. It’s still expensive, but it’s a slightly cheaper way of developing a new piece of work. Because if you had to go and rent a theatre in mid-town, and you’re doing it on your own…with a festival there’s some stuff built in. There’s a safety net. There’s other things going on, you feel like you’re part of something. I think it’s a really good way to do new works. I think it’s really important way of doing new work. And if you’re wanting to develop, to work somewhere that’s more hidden, then you should be downtown, or in a Festival.
CP: I think one thing that we really lack here is a place to “fail” safely. A place to risk things.
LVH: That’s very important. And that’s what the showcase contract used to be. But now, the showcase is … everything. It’s a precursor to doing an off-Broadway contract. And in some ways that’s great, but you still have to do the “pre” to do that – and what does that mean? Does it mean you’re using non-equity people because that’s the only way to do it? I mean, that’s not the way I necessarily want to work! I think the chance to fail is very important. It’s the thing that Arthur Miller and Tennessee Williams, and all of those guys, had. Their stuff was done all the time. But it’s hard to do here, in New York, because the spotlight is so strong here. I remember when Arthur Miller was in London looking for young directors. He wanted to have a dialogue with young directors about his work. I had just finished Long Days Journey. So, I came in, and I had read The Archbishop’s Ceiling – I had read his other work, too, but had fallen in love with this piece- which is a play I might want to do someday. I don’t know who runs his estate, I should find out. And I met him and I said that I wanted to do The Archbishop’s Ceiling set in Europe, and he said, “Yes, you can do that.” But then I moved here. And I didn’t realize that the option was only for London! So, I was outraged. I had put together a production; I had cast it. Ironically, when they then did it at the RSC, because I had spoken to him about it at great length, they used half of my cast! So, we had a big…not a fight, but a discussion, and he said, “You have chutzpah!” Well, you have to understand that I had no clue what that meant. So, I said, “What does that mean?” So he explained it to me. He was a BIG man, and he was standing with his back to me, looking out the window at his agent’s office, and he told me about chutzpah. I said, “Well, if you REALLY believed I had chutzpah, you’d give me the rights to do your play in New York!” But what I didn’t understand is, that even Arthur Miller couldn’t do his play here. He explained it to me, but I didn’t really understand it til much later. He was right. They would have killed it.
CP: That’s the thing about being in New York. If a show, or a director, fails somewhere else, they can survive it. But if you fail here, it’s a more difficult trench to dig out of. It’s one of the challenges of working here. There’s a lot of pros and a lot of cons. Joys and challenges. What have you been your joys and challenges?
LVH: I think the pros and cons are identical. The pro is that there is so much theatre here, and so, there is a facility for making it happen. But that’s also a negative. There is so much stuff here, and a bunch of it is crap. So, how do you rise above that? The pro is that you’ve got something called a showcase – the negative is that you’ve got something called a showcase! (lol) Because while it gives you the opportunity to do it under certain conditions, those conditions become your rope, your handcuffs. Because god forbid you do well! God forbid that you actually present something that has the possibility of having a run! All of a sudden it’s bonds, and mini-contracts, and you go from something that, in theory, is costing $35,000 and all of a sudden you’re looking to raise a hundred, two hundred, three hundred, four hundred thousand dollars! New York is a very competitive market, so you’re always under the gun. And I think that has pros and cons, like I said before, all the good stuff about it is equally all the bad stuff. But I love that. I love the fact that I always find that working in New York, you’re competing against yourself. You want to do better. And I like that. Maybe it’s the same everywhere, maybe it’s just part of life’s journey, but I find it very specific in New York. I find it a very competitive city, and I like that.
CP: You started off the interview talking about “If I could do it over again, I’d do some differently?” Can you talk more about that? What would you change?
LVH: I would go to grad school – in New York. Cause what I’ve noticed in New York is that people that go to Yale, or NYU, those good places, are pretty much set.
CP: Right – because they walk out with a network. When people study which school to go to, that’s the part that’s a little less talked about – that what you get out of going to Yale or NYU, is that you walk out with a network of people you can reach out and touch hands with.
LVH: And that’s what I would do differently – go to grad school, and network. I mean, I’m lucky, people like me – well, maybe not everyone! (lol) I’m a people person, I like people. But I don’t like networking, I don’t like LOTS of people, and little nothing conversations. I’m getting better though! But yes, I’d go to school, I’d affiliate myself with a theatre, I’d get career counseling, I’d network, I’d talk to as many people in the business as possible, I’d get proper mentoring from people in the business. I think mentoring is important, and I think that, even though we haven’t “made it” we still need to talk to the young people and tell them things, even the little things. For example, pet peeve: actors who do not put their names on their headshots! PET PEEVE! Put your name on it! And have a business card with your picture on it. Actors need to do that! And on the back, hopefully, is a list of what you’ve done. Preferably, you have it online. I don’t like getting those packets at shows – I think you should have it online, or on a CD or something. Directors, even though we haven’t been mentored sufficiently, we need to help the next generation.
CP: Let’s talk more about mentorship – specifically, female directors, as I know this is something near and dear to your heart. If a woman wants to come to New York to be a director, how do you suggest they go about getting mentored or career advice?
LVH: I think for women, it’s a lot harder because- Look, directors get hired because their work is known and they are trusted. You’re basically the captain of that ship, for that piece. You’re responsible for getting that ship from A to B. And it’s expensive. If you mess up, there are careers at stake, there’s money at stake, the play, the producers, all of it. So, who are they gonna hire? People they know. And who do they know? A bunch of the guys. Cause those are the ones that are being hired. And that’s why, even though philosophically I don’t agree with separating the sexes, I actually believe that we need to go much further – we need… what is that word, when you favor something even though it may not be fair, but just to give it a push ahead… right! Affirmative action! That’s what I think we need. I know that’s shocking, but I think that if every theatre that’s planning a season – if you have five slots, three go to women. Just for a few years! Just til we’re in the consciousness. Directors, same thing. Three out of five slots, etc. It has to happen. And affirmative action just means you’d get an edge on it. And I think they should go to our union, the Society of Directors and Choreographers. SDC has panels and networking – lots of different resources. I think you should get your college professor to give you some entrées. Who do they know? They must know somebody. They must know somebody who knows somebody! Get into a theatre as quickly as you can. Volunteer in theatres. Get to know people in the field. Volunteering, or being an intern is important. Identify the theatres that do the work that you respond to, and see if you can in there somehow. Even if it’s just to usher. Just do what it takes til you understand the business from all sides. For example, for an actor, one of the best things to do is to be a reader for auditions. Because you get to see what not to do. You get to hear what people say when an actor leaves the room. You also get to show your skills, because guess what, you’re just the reader, but they start to like you!
CP: Lots of great, really useful information there! Okay, now we’ll move on to the Fast Five. Are you ready?
CP: What’s your favorite NYC spot for inspiration? or for after rehearsal?
LVH: Well, after rehearsal, I walk. I have to walk. It’s very important to me. To clear my head. Rehearsal can get sooooo intense in my head!
CP: Are there places where you like to walk around, or to, or through?
LVH: Yes – to home! So, hopefully rehearsal’s a long way away from my home. I just love the streets of New York and I love walking.
CP: What’s your favorite theatre superstition or ritual?
LVH: Oh, I don’t know about superstitions… though I HATE second nights! But that’s not really your question, I guess. I don’t know that I have a ritual…
CP: I have a thing where I have three books on directing that I re-read before each new project.
LVH: I’ve never read a single book on directing. I must do that one day – I’m a very bad person! (lol)
CP: No, no – not bad, just different! I’m just saying that this is one of my rituals, one of the ways that I get myself into that mode again, into that world.
LVH: Oh, oh, I see! Yes, I have that kind of ritual. I create a massive big chart. I love to read, and research, and go to museums and listen to music – music is very big for me. I will put stuff on my iPod that is of that period or of that world. And I listen to it, over and over. That’s key for me. I love to read about the period – I’ve done a lot of period stuff. I love to read about the place. So, I create the chart. I go thru every single scene and think about lighting ideas, and costume ideas, and what day of the week it is… whatever informs the world. I look at every single strand
CP: What’s the oddest prop you’ve ever had on stage?
LVH: Humm… I can’t think of an odd prop… I don’t know. Once I had to find a portable chess set, from 1910. You wanna know how hard that is? (lol)
CP: What’s your favorite tech rehearsal snack?
LVH: Nuts. I mix them up. I buy them from Trader Joe’s. And I put in chocolate!
CP: What’s your most valued or favorite trait in an actor?
LVH: I like an intuitive actor – somebody who trusts themselves enough that they trust you. And they are willing to go right off, in the wrong direction, in order to find the right direction. My process is very organic, very intuitive. But that’s just me – everyone does there own thing, their own way. That’s what makes us unique!
CP: Viva la différence! Thank you for sharing your time with me. Break a leg at the Mid-Town!
LVH: You’re welcome!