Interviews with NYC's Indie Theatre Directors
CP: Welcome, Ludovica! I’m so very glad that we got this chance to talk.
LVH: Oh no, thank you for having me. This is such a fascinating thing. Before we start, I have to ask where you got this wonderful idea for this blog, these interviews?
CP: Ah, well. Originally I had the idea to do this as a book, but a book can take so long to get out there, and someone suggested a blog. So, I’m posting a portion of the interview on the blog to get the info out there quickly, and then reserving the full interview to put into a book.
LVH: But you’re not just interviewing women directors, are you?
CP: No, no, I want a diverse group. My imaginary audience, the people I hope will read this, are people living out in somewhere like Wyoming (I don’t know why I always use Wyoming, except that it seems so beautiful there, so different from NYC. It’s a place I’d love to go to.) and they’re thinking about moving to NYC to be a director – what would they want to know? And I wanted to make sure it was the Indie level directors because I don’t think we get enough press, and because a person first coming here, this is probably the level that they would start directing at. What would directors here want to say to them?
LVH: Ah! Well, there’s so much to know. If I had to do it again, I’d certainly do it a lot differently.
CP: Which is something we’re gonna talk about. But let’s start at the beginning. Where did you get your interest in theatre?
LVH: My dad took me to the theatre when I was around 2, 3 or 4. And people told him, ‘Oh you can’t take her, she’ll be screaming and bored’ and he said, ‘no, she won’t.’ And I wasn’t! I sat there — gobsmacked! “WooooW” So, I had an early introduction to theatre.
CP: I know you have a multi-cultural background as well. I’d love to hear how that informed your directing style.
LVH: My parents were not English. My father is Spanish, and my mother was Austrian. And they were immigrants in England and had just arrived a few months before I was born.
CP: Where had they met?
LVH: In Paris. My mother had worked in Italy as a governess – that was the old fashioned term. She was a pediatrics nurse. And she worked as a governess. And my father could not live in Spain because he was on the wrong side of Franco, and if he’d gone back to Spain he would have been…dead. So, they had to think of somewhere to live and they picked England because of the education and because of the opportunities, which was very smart of them. They probably didn’t consider so much the language, because they were both linguists.
CP: My father is a linguist – a Chinese linguist.
LVH: Oh really! That’s great! We have very similar backgrounds.
CP: Yeah, and I think it shows up in our love of language, and the love of playing with language.
LVH: I LOVE language! My father spoke to us in Spanish, my mother spoke to us in German, and I went to a Spanish nursery in some convent, in the south of London, in Wimbledon. And I loved it there! Beautiful gardens – it’s really one of my fondest memories. So, I grew up speaking Spanish and German. We didn’t speak any English. So, I go to school but I can’t speak any English. And that suited me down to the ground. Eventually I understood, but I didn’t let on that I understood. I thought it was quite alright – me being in my own little world, and them being over there. Til one day I gave myself away, because the teacher said something and I reacted. And the jig was UP!
CP: How old was that?
LVH: Maybe 5, maybe 6, I don’t know. At that sort of age. And then the headmistress hauled my parents into her office and told them I needed Speech and Drama lessons, elocution lessons, because I had “this accent.” Well, of course I had an accent! I was hearing Spanish over here, German over there and English over here. And that wouldn’t do. She insisted that my parents stop speaking to me in Spanish and German. And my Dad -I guess I get some of my attitude from my dad- I mean, he was on the wrong side of Franco and he was quite rebellious.
CP: Rebel father – rebel daughter!
LVH: Completely! So he says to her, “Absolutely not! Giving language to children is a gift. My children are going to be speaking other languages, but we will spend the money on these classes you’re telling us about.” Which was very difficult for them financially. It was a very big deal. So, I ended up going to these lessons. And I was very fortunate because the teacher who taught these classes was passionate about the theatre. And the way she taught the speech part was through the drama part. I was able to connect to the language very early on. We did poetry and bible readings, and all these things. And there were festivals and competitions. But eventually I learned how to speak English properly. And the point is that the “bug” was there. I loved it!
CP: Did you study theatre in school?
LVH: Yes. I thought I wanted to be an actress, because I had loved that earlier work. I loved the freedom, and I loved the language, but I didn’t really know what being an actress was all about. So I went to this private school, from 6 to 12, all girls. Every morning there would be assembly, and someone would read from the Bible, and every few weeks it would be me. And I loved it – LOVED it! It wasn’t the religious part – I liked the getting together, in the morning, before the day begins and everyone is together and you’re all sort of “on the same page.” And that’s something that I try to do in rehearsal, as well. Trying to get people together on the same page, because we’re all coming from different places. So, I’ll try to do a scene as a warm-up, and it isn’t about the scene, it’s about getting us all together on the same page. So, there I was, doing the elocution lessons, and I was also doing Festivals, AND exams at Guildhall. The Guildhall School of Music and Drama is one of the best schools, but I was too young – I wasn’t doing it proper full time or anything. So I had to stop at 17 because I’d gone as far as I could go, the next thing to do would be the teacher training, which I never ended up doing. In terms of the “smart” way of doing things, that is something that I probably SHOULD have done. But I always did things on the periphery, my own way, you know. I did what I felt like doing. And I don’t mean “felt” as in willful, but “felt” as in that’s what I felt would work. I worked intuitively. So, I took a year off. My mom was in terrified that I wouldn’t go back to school, but I did. I chose a degree, which was a ‘compromise’ degree – I did Spanish, because that was the “practical” side, and Drama, which was what I wanted to do. And I was very lucky that I could do this course. You had to audition. I found a monologue, and it was something that I really connected with, and I. GOT. IN! Unbelievable. UN-believable. And part of the course was that you had to do something in addition to the acting training. So I said, “What’s this directing thing? I’ll try that.” And I loved it.
I did very little that was part of the greater studies, but, I read enough that I “discovered” a play, called Long Day’s Journey Into Night! By this playwright, “Have you heard of him,” I asked innocently, “Eugene O’Neill?” I’d discovered somebody new! That’s how little I paid attention to what was going on in the world. (l0l) At the end of the course, we had this thing we had to do at the end, which was sort of like a thesis. It was a practical, but also written, and also had an oral element. And I did Long Day’s Journey. It was really tough! But I didn’t care – I was totally obsessed. And I basically fell in love, and that really helped me because I have to fall in love with something. I can’t do it by the numbers; I have to connect with it. And I did. I did all the costume designs, all the research; I just really went at it. And they were like, “Oh, she IS alive!” I got through the degree – just. But you see, when I grew up, just going to university was a big deal. You have to understand, my mum was one of 13. She grew up in the bloody hills of Austria, on the border of Italy and they had 14 cows and 2 goats. There was one schoolhouse, and if you wanted any kind of education you had to go into the town, which was an hour away. She grew up during the time of Hitler! My mother begged her mother to let her do this course, a formal course, on how to be a pediatrics nurse. So she was the only one that got an education, out of all 13, because she was so interested. She got an education and then went to Italy to work. So, she was “different.”
CP: TWO rebel parents! You didn’t stand a chance.
LVH: LOL! Exactly! So, for me, just going to university was a big deal. My parents wanted me to have a proper education. It was very important to them. So, after I finished the big project, the so-called thesis, and then I went, “Oh, I’ve got to do this play!” You know, a full production. I’d finished school, and I went to waitressing. -Course one has to do that, one has a degree in theatre!- My mission at this time was to do a production of Long Day’s Journey into Night. And I had to answer a very big question: What is the difference in doing this play -because I am going to do this play- in a church/pub/townhall kind of thing -At that time, in England, we did theatre in church basements and pubs, above the pub there are rooms which, when I was growing up, were theatres and they’ve come back again. They’re fabulous!- Or should I do it in a “legit” theatre? I wasn’t going to cast it differently. I wasn’t going to do a different set. I mean, it may be on a smaller scale, but the essence of the production is going to be the same. I wasn’t going to change the production. I wasn’t going to change my passion for it. Nothing about it was really going to change. And I went, “Oh. No difference. Just money.” And I walked into the Arts Theatre Center, which is in the West End. It’s a small theatre, 350 seats. I liked it. I felt it was the right canvas for this play. And I walked in, and they must have thought I was a right lunatic, because I said, “How much does it cost to rent this space? And do you have it available in March?” I hadn’t a clue what I was doing, but they showed me around, and I said, “It’s perrrrfect!” So, I had backed myself into a corner, which is the way that I often make things happen. I think I need a gun to my head, sometimes. So, I’d committed to this theatre, right? And I hired different people – ironically, most of them were women. And so, 18 months later, I did Long Day’s Journey into Night in the West End, at 23. No clue what I was doing. And then we moved it – we transferred it.
CP: Wow – that’s major. Well done.
LVH: Yeah, it was amazing. But I’m telling you I didn’t know what I was doing. But the passion…
CP: Sometimes, not knowing is better. You can just crash through barriers that you didn’t even know were there.
LVH: Absolutely, absolutely! Anyway, it ran for a few months at the Arts Theatre, and then I had the experience of transferring a show. There were no theatres available except for a Quaker theatre called the Westminister. and we went there, we transferred it, and we lasted for several months. And I remember Cameron MackIntosh was coming in after us. So that was that experience. And then I RAN to Edinburgh. I think that one of the dangers of doing a project, is that when it stops, you go into a massive depression. I think when we stop a project that we have all of us IN -mind, soul, body- that project, and then it STOPS. Right now, I’m directing Final Analysis –by Otho Eskin- and in it Sigmund Freud meets with Gustav Mahler (among other people!), and Mahler tells Freud about a dream he has in which the music STOPS. He’s a composer, the top composer and conductor of the time, and the music STOPS. And he’s devastated! And I think the same thing happens with us. And I think that’s what happened to me after that show.
CP: So, you’re next stop was Edinburgh – was that for the Edinburgh Fringe Festival?
LVH: Yes – which is quite an experience, let me tell you! I was approached by someone to do a couple of plays – I decided to do a third one as well. They came to me with a new play called María Estuardo by Dacia Maraini, the Italian playwright. It was an English translation and it was two actresses who then also played each others ladies in waiting. They were each other’s confidantes. So, one actress played Elizabeth, and the other played her lady-in-waiting; and then they’d switch – the other played Mary Stewart and the other was HER lady-in-waiting. And it was set in the 1500s. And then I did The Stronger which was set in the 1800s. Strinberg wrote the piece for his wife at that time. They were living in Germany, and she spoke absolutely no German. But she was an actress. So, he wrote a piece between two women, who you find out later are the mistress and wife of one man. But the wife doesn’t know, and she comes into the coffee shop, and she’s going on about gifts for the children and this and that. And the mistress says not- one- syllable. But she’s reacting. And eventually the wife pieces it out, she works it out, even through the silence. Oh. My. God. It’s really powerful, and it’s a very difficult exercise in terms of directing and acting. And we did that with the same actresses. And then we did something by Linda LePlante, who later became known for doing Prime Suspect with Helen Mirren. Again, we used the same actresses for all of the shows. So, it was the 1500s, the 1800s, and then the 1900s. It was this really interesting concept, to use the same two actresses.
CP: Sounds like a great way to develop a process.
LVH: I think so. It helped me determine how I like to work. I like organic, I like intuitive, I like it when we all come together to explore the text. I don’t come in with all the answers. I have a very good idea of what I want, don’t get me wrong, okay? But we do it together. We shape it together. I know what’s right and what’s wrong, and in the end what my vision is. So, if you’re veering off, that’s great, we can go in that direction (to see what we can see), but I can pull it back if needed. And also, if you FEEL it… you know what, actors KNOW what they’re doing, they don’t really need to be told! I don’t block. Never blocked. I don’t believe in it. I don’t tell you how to eat, so guess what, I’m not telling you how to walk. I will help you, if you are stuck. Cause if you’re stuck, it’s not about the blocking; it’s about the way you are emotionally. Once you figure that out, then you just move. If you feel it, if you are connected, if you know where you are as a character – then you’ll know what you need to do. You don’t need to think about it, you MOVE! Don’t get me wrong, I have a sense of the flow of it, I know where I want it to go. I just like for us to work it out together. I know that others do it much differently. I would imagine that you would block, right? Your blocking for that show… I thought what you did with the vultures in your last play, [in Parts of Parts & Stitches] which symbolized so many things: the evil, the predators, the watched, the watchers – Oh, it was just really, really great. I remember how you used the space in that huge theatre, and thought it was fantastic. The use of space is very important.
CP: I do what I call “spirit” blocking. Mapping out the required bits but letting the actors use the spirit of the character, the scene, to impact the next move. And the use of space is one of the things that I was taught very early on – to use everything around me, to make the best- But, wait, I’m supposed to be interviewing you! (lol)
LVH: Okay, so where were we? Yes – the Edinburgh experience. And I remember it feeling like I was breathing for the first time. Which is very interesting, and I knew then that I was doing the right thing. And that’s how I became a director. All of a sudden, I felt alive.
CP: So, for the first time you found something that used all the parts of your personality, to it’s max.
LVH: Absolutely. And I didn’t care about the work – that I had to run around and find costumes, or prop pieces, or set pieces – I didn’t care. I wanted that world. I wanted to create that world.
CP: So you did Long Day’s Journey in the West End, then you moved it, then you went to Edinburgh… Then what?
LVH: And then I came to the States.
CP: And why’d you come to the States? Did you specifically mean to come to New York City?
LVH: Yes. I came because a couple of friends were getting married and I was one of the bridesmaids. But that was just one of the outside reasons. The real reason was because I had said, “I want to learn how to produce.” Because I was producing, right? I had fallen into producing – I was producing because I wanted to direct. But, you know, it wasn’t REALLY that I wanted to learn how to produce. It wasn’t that I was interested in producing, per se. I think there was a piece of me that DID want to know how to make it easier to do the plays that I wanted to direct. But I’ve always had to find the hardest way to do anything. I’m trying to un-learn that habit now. It’s taken me a very long time. For example, after Long Day’s Journey, anyone with half a brain, who knew anything about careers, would have said, “I need to maximize this.” I know it now, but I didn’t know it then. Get the agents in the door! I should have got an agent. But I didn’t know about agents, I just wanted to do a play, so I did a play! I was directing because I wanted to direct! I didn’t KNOW about the business. This is what they need to teach kids. Every aspect of the business. It’s really important.
CP: That’s why mentorship is so important.
LVH: Yes! If you still want to do it after you’ve learned about all the ugly warts and stuff, then that’s great, but at least you’ve got the bloody toolbox! I didn’t know about the tools, let alone know about the toolBOX! Long Day’s Journey was such a huge success, and I had interviews all over the place. And this interviewer, Melvin Bragg who ran something called the South Bank Show, came to see it at the end and he said, “Wow, this should be nominated for a …” oh, what was it called at the time… – Society of West End Theatre Awards, they’re called the Olivier’s now… he said, “You can’t stop now!” Course we had to, Cameron Mackintosh was coming in the next day! So, when I was asked, “What are you going to do next, Ms. Villar-Hauser?” “Umm…. I don’t know.” What – is there a career path? I didn’t know that. That’s what anybody with any guidance, who knew what they were doing – would have known! I should be working at the National! Or any of the wonderful theatres in England – I should have been going after that! After that beginning, that’s what should have happened. But I ran away, to Edinburgh.
CP: And what happened next? (You’ll have to read Part 2 to find out!)