DirectorSpeak

Interviews with NYC's Indie Theatre Directors

Director Mark Finley

Mark Finley

Mark Finley came to NYC to be an actor, but soon learned that his true potential lay in the field of directing. He has kept his career moving steadily forward, both through the theatre company TOSOS, and free-lance work. He is also the first director of the DirectorSpeak interviews to have directed Off-Broadway. Join me as he tells about his journey.

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NAVIGATION HELP – Click on a topic of interest

* The Beginning * Coming to NYC * Artist or Craftsman * Directing Style * Doric Wilson * Other Artistic Outlets * TOSOS * Off-Broadway * More TOSOS * About NYC * About Indie Theatre * The Fast Five

Mark Finley made his Off-Broadway directorial debut with Chris Weikel’s PENNY PENNIWORTH. Most recently he directed Kathleen Warnock’s OUTLOOK which debuted at the Dublin Gay Theatre Festival and Michael Lynch’s LIVING ON THE REAL which also went to Dublin following its premiere at Dixon Place.  He is the artistic director of TOSOS, a writer, an actor and a graduate of the North Carolina School of the Arts. For a more detailed bio, click here.

CP: Welcome, welcome to you, Mark! Thank you so much for talking with me and contributing to the DirectorSpeak interviews. Let’s just jump in and start at the beginning of your directing journey – how did you get your start in directing?

The Beginning

MF: I didn’t start off as a director. I went to school, at North Carolina School of the Arts, to be an actor.

CP: A very good school, I hear. Did you enjoy it there?

MF: Yeah, yeah, I really did. I was going when it was in a real transitional phase, and it’s definitely a different place now then when I went to school.

CP: Someone once told me that it was called the “bunhead” school!

MF: Well, we called them “baby bals” – the 12 and under ballerina girls. Here’s a funny memory about them: we didn’t have a football team, because we were an arts school, but we had a Homecoming, because we liked parties. So, all the guys who loved to play football -the male dancers who “definitely” weren’t gay, and the D&P guys (the designer/production guys) would have their homecoming game against one of the fraternities from Wake Forest. Since we didn’t “officially” have a football team, we also didn’t “officially” have cheerleaders. So, one year -I can’t remember which year it was, but at the risk of dating myself, Phil Collin’s “Sussudio” was out- this great big black, modern dancer, Caroline, was the “head cheerleader.” And she comes marching out on the field, and behind her is a line of about 10 “baby bals,” doing this funky-ass, drill team dance to “Sussudio!” It was almost performance art, it was bizarrely, funnily wonderful! And that’s in my head forever from that school. I don’t know what that has to do with directing, but I guess it was the mention of “baby bals.”

CP: I’m glad it sparked that memory; that was too funny not to share! Okay, we’ll get back to it – so you went to School of the Arts to be an actor. Did you go to theatre a lot growing up?

MF: No, not really. I just KNEW that it was what I wanted to do. I did some writing, and did some plays in the back yard – all the typical stuff. And I continued to write in high school and at the School of the Arts. When I was a freshman there, the senior class that year turned out to be kind of a prestigious class: Joe Mantello was in that class, as was Peter Hedges. And Peter started this company called “Onyx Contemporary Ensemble” which was a student performance theatre, and it encompassed all disciplines: theatre, dance, music. One of the first things I ever saw at the school was Peter’s play “Oregon,” which Joe directed and T. Scott Cunningham was in. I remember it was in the lighting lab, in a big garage, and the play took place in a car. So, you watched this dance piece, then you moved to another place to listen to a music piece, and then you came down this hill to a parking lot. They had set up these luminaries along a big driveway to guide you to the place and the garage door went up and you just saw headlights. And then you went in there and you saw the play in the car! That’s what I loved about School of the Arts. It was an amazingly creative place. On the down side, if you were there to be an actor, that was all you were supposed to focus on. They did not encourage you to try anything else. So these things like Onyx allowed people to explore other paths. I found a way to work on the writing, and a little bit of directing. But I didn’t go to school for directing. Then I came to New York in 1987, and things got REAL. I started auditioning for some stuff, but my acting career didn’t really take off the way I thought it was going to!

CP: Didn’t become an overnight star?

MF: Not immediately, no! (lol) I did finally get my union card through a kids show, but most of the stuff that I was auditioning for, I wasn’t getting. I got into some improv groups, some sketch comedy groups, but that’s not what I wanted to be.

CP: As a little tangent, let me ask you this: was it very important then, and do you think it is important now, for actors to quickly get their union cards?

MF:  Looking back at it now, I don’t think so. At least not right off the bat. I had felt that if I didn’t get my card, I wasn’t a professional; that I wouldn’t be taken seriously. And that’s just not true. It’s NOT true. If you’re young and just coming to NYC, it’s not a good idea to get your card right away, because it’s going to limit the amount of work that you can do. Without it, you can work a lot of non-union jobs. They’re not all going to be banner jobs, and you’re not going to get paid all the time but you’ll be able to work – a LOT. And, you can meet people. THAT’S how you continue to work. If you get a union card right away, you’re going to get great jobs, but there may be YEARS between them! And if you’re okay with that – great. But if you’re not, then maybe waiting is the way to go.

CP: Absolutely agree. Thanks for that info. I think it’s very useful for people to hear. But now back to you. So, you arrived in NYC…

Coming to NYC

MF: Yes, I got here, and I did some auditioning and knocking around, but then I found, as people often find, that the way to work was to create my own work. Luckily I could write, and I fell in with a bunch of people who were in kind of the same boat. So, I started writing, directing and acting with them. One of the first places that I worked was an offshoot of the Iowa Writer’s Workshop here in the New York, called “Madness.” We would meet at the West Beth Theatre in the Village, and would start at 9 or 10pm and it would be short theatre pieces, of any kind.

CP: Do you know that there’s a new group now called “New York Madness.” I just met with the Artistic Director, Cecilia Copeland and she said that it was something that came from Iowa, via a professor at Ohio University who had participated in the Iowa program – small world!

MF: Yes, that’s where it came from! That’s where the original idea came from. The Iowa writers came to New York and did it here for a while.

CP: The good ideas stick around. How cool that she’s brought it back. Another opportunity for theatre artists.

MF: Yeah! All kinds of people were involved. Writers got their writing chops in, and actors, directors got to explore lots of different kinds of theatre. And I was part of another group with friends of mine from school. We started writing and acting for each other, and doing short pieces. I started directing stuff without really knowing it. You didn’t look for a director, you just said, “Okay, let’s do this; let’s do that.” So, that’s how I started directing, unofficially. “Officially” I started much later, in the late 90s. I had started working with another group called the Native Aliens Theatre Collective. I had only really acted for them in the past, but I was still writing, so I wrote something for them. I’m better with dialogue than plots, so I was always looking for plots -hey, if it’s good enough for Shakespeare, it’s good enough for me!- and someone had given me this book, called “Young Stowaways in Space” which was written in 1960, by Richard Elam.

CP: I remember reading about that, in your interview with OffOffOnline.

MF: Oh yeah! It was a seminal event in my life! So, I read this thing and I could not believe how homoerotic and sexist and crazy this KIDS book was. And I was thinking, “Well, I can’t really improve on it, but it needs to be on stage somehow.” So I did an adaptation of it and I had a lot of ideas for the production. And rather than handing it off to someone else, I thought, “I’ll direct it myself.” So, I did, and I found that I really liked directing. I REALLY liked it. There are things about acting that I do not like at all. There are things about writing that are really frustrating. As an actor you are given all this responsibility and no control – at all! Sometimes, you can’t even control your own performance, and it’s you out there – it is YOU, body and soul. As a writer, you almost have even less control – you take the script and you throw it out in the sea and hope someone gets it. As a director, you’re absolutely responsible for everything that happens on that stage. You’re absolutely responsible for the audience’s experience. And I liked that. I liked being able to control the environment like that.

Artist or Craftsman?

CP: Let me ask you a question I haven’t posed to anyone else yet: do you think that directors are, or should be, craftspeople or artists?

MF: Differentiate between the two for me.

CP: I think that most people think of a writer as an artist, a painter as an artist. But some people think that directing is a craft. Meaning, if you put together a chair in a certain way, no matter who’s doing it, it’s going to look like a chair, and perform a chair’s function. And some think that directors just put the pieces together in a certain fashion, and that anyone who knows how to put those pieces together will get the same result.

MF: I think there’s definitely an element of craft, but you’ve got to have an artist’s sensibility to know what you’re doing, and why. To really have a sense of it. I think, actually, that a director can be both. Sometimes you ARE just putting things together because it needs to be done. Sometime, if you’re hired out on something that you’re not particularly inspired by, you still know that your job is to communicate the story. Therefore, the best way to do that is this X+Y way. But if it’s something that is setting you on fire, then you ARE an artist, because you’re investing some of your soul there. Maybe it’s really up to the director.

CP: Yeah, I can see that – you could say that a writer can be both. Writing is a “craft” – you have to know the nuts of bolts of how structure works. You know the old saw: “You have to know the rules before you can break them.” But not everyone who knows the structure can actually write.

MF: Right! And not everyone who can tell people to move on this line and turn the lights up here and down there is an artist – it doesn’t make you a really good director.

CP: The “art” part is the knowing “why” moving on that line or changing the lights on that beat is important.

MF: Yes, it’s the intuitiveness of it. I think that applies to direction, and I think that applies to acting too. If you’re playing the lead “fig newton” you’re acting, (lol) but are you investing part of your soul in that? Who knows! (lol) Same thing with writing – if you’re writing something that you care about vs writing episode six of a stupid series because you need to get paid… Again, there’s an element of artistry there, but then I think your craft really comes into play.

CP: Agreed! Thanks. It is an interesting topic. So, you got started by directing your own work.

MF: Yes. I really enjoyed it and it took over. I do still write, and I do still act, but my focus now is directing.

Directing Style

CP: What would you say is your “style” as a director?

MF: I think its – this is going to sound really queer but I’m going to say it anyway – I feel like an engineer, like I get this “kit” for the play, and I put it together. I used to tell Doric [Doric Wilson] that I made ‘flying machines.’ I get all the pieces in front of me and I build it, and then throw it up in the air to see if it flies! So, I feel like I’m more of a ‘mad scientist/mechanic” type of director.

CP: Which goes back to what we were talking about with the ‘craftsmanship.’ Science, to me, is a hard, concrete thing: you put this together with this and you’re going to get THIS – every time. But there are scientists out there that are putting things together and creating a whole new thing – creative science. Then they put it on our grocery shelves and call it “food” but hey, that’s a whole ‘nuther post!  So, moving on… I suspect I know the answer to this question, based on your background as a writer, but here goes: what leads you into a play – text, images, movement?

MF: Text – big time. When I first started, I was kind of a text nazi. I feel bad that sometimes, due to schedule, or lack of time, or lack of ability to get things word-perfect, I’ve compromised on that. But I feel like because of my own work as a writer, and the writers that I’ve worked with, you don’t monkey around with their text! And the real pros don’t – they DON’T. I was really excited about the first play that I wrote that got produced in NYC. It was cast perfectly. But the guy couldn’t remember the fucking lines! And it was a play about language! I remember going up to the director and saying, “I didn’t sit up in my room for months on end, coming up with the perfect sentence just so he could make something up!”

CP: You work with a lot of new plays, right? Do you prefer that?

MF: I’ve found that I do about 95% new plays, but I’m kind of hungering to do some more standard texts, because I think doing something that’s been “carved in stone” will make me rise to new levels.

CP: You get to put your own stamp on it. I read once that -if you’re a producer and you’re going to a play to see a director’s work- you want to see them do a classic, so that you don’t focus on the play – you’re there to see their work, and see how they lived within those well-worn walls.

MF: The tricky thing is that the best direction doesn’t show. So the challenging thing about building a career as a director is how do you prove that you made this invisible thing. It’s tricky. Unless you do “concept” productions, which I am not a fan of. Write your own play! If you have a concept that only works for part of a play, then just use that section as a springboard, and write your own!

CP: Do you have playwrights in the rehearsal room with you throughout the process? 

MF: It depends. I’m lucky enough to work with playwrights like Chris Weikel – I like to have him at rehearsal, just because he likes to be there and I like to have him around. But conversely, Doric would never show up. Well, he’d come to the first read-thru but then after that he didn’t come. The first time we worked together he came for several rehearsals, and then he told me, “Every time I was going to say something, you’d say it. So, I know you’re doing the right thing, and I don’t have to be there.” Occasionally we disagreed – maybe twice in the whole time we worked together.  So, it depends. It depends on the chemistry with the playwrights and the actors, because sometimes, especially early on, the actors can be a little “careful,” not as free when the playwrights around.

Doric Wilson

CP: I’d like to take a little side-line to talk about Doric Wilson. I met Doric at a party, Kathleen Warnock introduced us. He had seen a play at Schreiber [T. Schreiber Studio] that I had directed – he came over to me and said how much he really liked the play. I was astounded, and so impressed that he would have noticed me and taken the time to say something.

MF:That was one of the things that I really loved about him. He would get so enthusiastic about people who were doing theatre well, or were doing it for the right reasons – according to him. He was just unabashedly a fan. He never did anything half way, so it wasn’t “I like you, or I respect your work.” It was like, “I ADORE YOU!” He would get passionate about it. And it would go the other way too – “Oh I can’t STAND him.” It was never anything in the middle. He’s another hero of mine. You know, gay theatre – Off-Off-Broadway theatre – didn’t exist before him! Wasn’t there! Until he and those guys MADE it. Carved it out of the wall. He founded the original TOSOS which was the first Gay/Lesbian company in the city and was one of the first playwrights to be produced at the Caffe Cino.  I wonder if artists that work in the Indie theater like we do really know the debt we/they owe to Doric and artists like him.  They practically invented the milieu that we work in.  Also, AIDS wiped out an entire generation of artists who would have been a sort of a cultural bridge to the survivors in my generation and the one just behind us.  Knowing Doric and getting to hear a first hand account of what things used to be like, and share in his enthusiasm for what things could be like, was a pretty amazing gift.  I count myself very lucky for having known him.   Doric passed away last year and the reality of that is starting to sink in for all of us at TOSOS.

CP: And throughout the OOB/Indie community. He was a larger than life artist and we are made less by his loss. Thanks for sharing a bit about him here.

CP: What kind of environment do you like for your rehearsals? Is it structured, or casual?

MF: I want to say “loosely structured.” There is a structure at work, but it’s not rigid. Since I didn’t formally train as a director, I based my training in reaction to directors that I liked, and directors that I did NOT like. Basically, I really strive not to waste anybody’s time. So, I like to let people know what they’re responsible for when they get in there, what we’re going to cover for that night, what to look at for the next time. I like to map out the whole schedule before we go start – which can be challenging because I often don’t know how many times we’re going to meet. I like to have it plotted out. I like to rehearse in pretty sterile spaces, like rehearsal halls. I don’t like to work in people’s apartments; I like a work environment.

CP: How soon do you start blocking? Early or later?

MF: Right away. Because -and this goes back to my acting training- some actors can’t remember the words if they don’t know where they are on the stage. So, even if it’s a rough block, we do that first. Some of it will change, but it’s a place to start. I don’t like to do table work – I HATE table work. I don’t know how people can do it for a WEEK. Unless you’re doing something like a restoration play or something like that. It would drive me bananas to have to sit at a table for a week.

CP: Have you ever considered directing outside of theatre? Like operas, the web, tv or film?

MF: Oh yeah – I would LOVE to direct opera, LOVE IT! I think I’d be good at it, too. Film and TV, I would also love. Most of my writing is pretty filmic – although I call it “film for stage!” I’m a big film nut.

Other Artistic Outlets

CP: Do you have other aspects of your life that you incorporate into your directing? Hobbies, or other interests, for example.

MF: A couple of things: I read a lot, and I’m a film junkie. So a lot of that translates into what I do. I read a lot about people – biographies, and non-fiction inspire me, because it’s “actual,” it’s real life. I always look for stories about my heroes in theatre. In school they didn’t know what to do with me – I was not the tallest guy, I was not the shortest guy – I was the funniest guy, but I wasn’t the funniest-looking guy. So I never played the Shakespeare clowns or anything like that. I still had the passion to do this, but once I realized that my path wasn’t going to be the standard path – you know, that’s a huge monkey wrench. So I like stories about people that make their own way. People like Charles Busch.  He’s my hero, because he did that – he carved his own niche in New York Theatre. It wasn’t there before, he MADE it. And now he’s a star! Another good book is the Edward Albee bio that came out a few years ago. Because it really gives you a sense of what theatre was like in the 60s. Albee came to this town and turned it upside down, on it’s ear, with an OOB, one-act play, which didn’t even premiere in the US. They premiered “Zoo Story” in Germany because it couldn’t get done here. And that resonated with me, because that’s kind of what it’s like now. It’s so expensive to produce that no one is going to take any chances on anything.

CP: Speaking of carving your own niche: how has being a white, gay man impacted you as a director in NYC?

TOSOS

MF: It’s interesting – TOSOS is a gay company – that’s what we do, that’s our mission statement. We want to tell the stories that aren’t really getting told.  Doric didn’t want to do any “will I ever find a boyfriend” plays and although you don’t see much of them any more there used to be a lot of AIDS plays.  We were also founded with a notion to get gay plays that have fallen out of “the canon” back into the public consciousness.

CP: Does it help you as a director when you can personally identify with someone in the play, or is it fine regardless because it’s about relationships no matter who’s involved?

MF: I find it easier to identify with the story if there’s something in it that’s relatable – not just characters or people, but also ‘how” the playwright’s telling it, the structure. For instance, Chris’ [Chris Weikel] play, Secret Identity. I love it because it’s about this 16 year-old gay kid who never once says he’s gay. Everybody else tells him he’s gay. He and his best friend are writing a comic book together, which informs how the play is done. So, it’s the way the story is being told that attracts me, and also because I’m a big comic book geek! It’s about superheroes! Oh, that’s another of my hobbies – my sick love of comic books. (lol) They tell great stories, succinctly and incredibly visually. I was thinking the other day that there are things in comics that you can’t do in the movies, or TV, or on stage – only in a comic book format. Somebody told me that even with the big move to digital for publishing in other formats, that the comic book industry is actually doing better – it’s not shrinking.

CP: It’s a manageable format – you can read it fairly quickly – and yet it’s a serial, too. So you keep coming back to it.

MF: Yeah, absolutely. It’s as big or as small as you want it to be, and it’s all up to you, as the reader.

CP: Which helps remind us of the power of the audience’s imagination. And how much theatre can benefit from that, from letting the audience connect the dots.

MF: Exactly! And I think that the less you do for the audience, the more they get to do and the more invested they’ll become in the production. That’s what I love about Penny Penniworth. We don’t bring out a set onto the stage, the actor’s “act” it, they suggest it. And because of that we can flip back and forth instantly, which is more fun.

Off-Broadway

CP: It sounds very exciting. And I’d love to talk more about “Penny Penniworth” because that’s the production that you “crossed over” on. You took “Penny” to Off-Broadway. Would you mind talking more about that experience? Where did it start, and did you move it intact, or did the cast or production change?

MF: It was pretty much intact, although the companies were different. It started at Emerging Artists in 2002 and 3 of those 4 original actors stayed with it all the way through. It was about 45 minutes long in it’s first incarnation. We did it there first, as part of their EAT Fest, then we brought it back for a “Best of EAT Fest.” Doric LOVED that play, and wanted to do it, so TOSOS produced it as part of the Fringe in 2003.  Then EAT bought the rights to do it on an Off-Broadway contract. So, Emerging Artists expanded it to an Off-Broadway contract.

CP: And you were still directing it, with both companies?

MF: Yes, I directed it. We ran it as an Off-Broadway show at TADA! Then we ran it again a year later. We got some producers interested in it and we were planning on moving it, but at the very last moment our major funder pulled out. And when the big ticket went, some of the smaller tickets went, and we just didn’t have enough money to do it. We were looking at running it somewhere like D2 downtown, or New World Stages, for an extended run, but it just never happened. We’re still hoping that someday it will, but that’s where it is now.

CP: As a director, when you moved to an OB contract, was there a big difference? Did clouds part and angels sing?  (lol)

MF: I think something kind of happened, mentally, to us. Somehow it just felt different to be doing something on an OB contract, because it was a lot more … steady, you know? There was just something intangible about it, like we were doing things in a more businesslike manner. There were certain reports that had to be filled out, contracts had to be signed, you had to check in with the stage manager with some things, understudies had to be rehearsed. Another thing that was really interesting was that you get a completely different audience. It was like an overnight change after we opened, after we got the Times review. A whole different kind of person started to come in: a slightly older, moneyed person.

CP: Sounds like the OB crowd wants or requires a “vetting” of their shows, before they’ll go see it.

MF: Yeah, they need to know that it’s “okay.” I think that the reason why people want a production “vetted” before they go is that Broadway is always kind of a safe, easy bet, whereas with Off-Broadway you want to make sure that if you’re going to spend that much money, that it’s not going to suck.

CP: It sounds like it was a good experience overall. Would you like to do more Off-Broadway work?

MF: Yes. I would like to do that a LOT more. I would like to not have to do a “day job” anymore!

CP: So, you started directing in the late 80s/90s – do you still think about theatre and directing in the same way? How has your style changed since then?

MF:  I think I’m a lot looser about it now then I used to be – which is a good thing and a bad thing! (lol) I’m a lot more trusting of actors and I don’t micro-manage the way I used to. I’m willing to let things go – like if things don’t work out exactly the way I had imagined them to in my head. I’ve come to realize that if you want it to be like that, then you really should be directing film. Because theatre is “live” and it’s never going to be the same way twice. I am better about trusting people to do their work. I’m more open to different kinds of work – I’m a bit more into experimenting.

CP: So, you work with TOSOS and freelance outside of it. How do you get your work?

MF: Honestly, every job that I’ve ever gotten was from doing something that somebody saw. Either someone saw some of my work themselves, or someone who saw it told them about it, and they contacted me.

CP: Word of mouth – that seems to be the key. Is there a dream directing gig out there for you? Some particular place or play?

MF: I don’t know about a dream play, but I do have a theatre “dream.” I’ve always wanted to have a theatre home in NYC, like Mamet has with the Atlantic. When we have a million dollars, I would love TOSOS to have that kind of space and reputation.  I would make it my home base, and if I’m interested in a project, then we’ll do it there.

CP: Are you the primary director for TOSOS?

MF: Yes, I’m the Artistic Director, so I direct there a lot, but we do use other directors, and I would like to do a lot more of that. I think that in order to go to the next level as a theatre, we should branch out a little. It doesn’t look great if every single project is directed by one person.

CP: So, what would you want a director to bring to you and TOSOS? What fits your mission statement? What is a gay-themed play?

MF: Well, it’s odd, because when you say “gay play” that raises the age-old question: what IS a “gay” play? According to Robert Patrick, it’s a “play that sleeps with other plays.”

CP: (lol) I LOVE Bob! He’s hilarious. Maybe I’ll bring one of the Bob’s plays to you!

MF: Yeah! That would be great. That certainly works. The playwright can be known as a gay playwright or it could be a play with an interesting gay character in it.

CP: And like you said earlier, maybe it could be about identity, or bullying – BULLYING! Bullying is something that I get completely passionate about because I just HAAATE cowards, and bullies are always cowards. If you’re beating up on a dog, or a kid, or a woman, or anyone that is “other” then I’ll be at your throat in a heartbeat. But… well, enough said there.

MF: Sure. There are all kinds of definitions. Doric and I always differed on whether “Penny” is a gay play. I don’t think it is at all, but he did. Because at the end it is revealed that Penny is actually a man. So, he felt that it’s this big gender issue thing, but I don’t think it’s that at all. That’s just a plot twist! However, I do feel that it fits into the TOSOS ethos, because of the style of it. There’s a certain level of camp that’s going on, literary camp if there is such a thing. Therefore it works for TOSOS.

More TOSOS

CP: We have touched on TOSOS a little already, but I’d love to know more about what having a company, having that home base, does for you as a director.

MF: It’s been great for me to have a company because it gives me a “lab.” It gives me a place to actually DO what I do. With friends, and like-minded people. We don’t produce as much as we would like, so when we do produce, we can’t really muck about. It has to be something that we all believe in 110%. It would be great if the world agreed with us, but maybe that’s not really being experimental…. (lol)

CP: Well, I would argue with you a little bit. Because you talk about having a “lab” to try things, to see if it succeeds or fails – the failure may be that the audience doesn’t receive it the way you want them to – but you still succeeded in creating the thing that you wanted to in your lab. And no one else is going to give you the opportunity to try.

MF: That’s true. And part of that “lab” is our reading series. It’s kind of the glue of the company –  where we find people, where we get to bond as a company, hear new work, and where 90% of our productions come from. It gets the plays read and heard, gets them out in the universe, and it gets company members talking to each other. Because although it’s great to produce stuff, usually when the company is doing a production, everyone is focused on that. The reading series gives company members an opportunity to get together and just talk. Yeah, we talk about the reading we just heard and possibilities for it, but we talk about everything else, too. “What are you doing? What am I doing? What do you want to do next?”

CP: It feeds your community.

MF: Exactly. And, like you said, it gives us the chance to fail. If a script comes in, a playwright we like – we get to hear if it’s produceable or not, for us. Maybe it’s something that we like but that we aren’t in a position to produce. For example, we read Ludlum’s “Caprice,” which I would love to produce, but we don’t have the money to do it right. It has a cast of about 12, and it’s about fashion, so you have to have great clothes and the ability to make weird shit, ya know? Which I think is a little different in 2012 than it was in 1976. But the play is brilliant! And the reading got everyone turned on about that play.

CP: Do you have a regular group of actors, an ensemble?

MF: Yeah.

CP: Which helps in a reading series because you know who to put in what role.

MF: Exactly. And it’s also a good way to try out new people, to see whether they’re going to be good before doing a full production. We have a pretty solid company that way. And I’m lucky to have a really talented group of actors.

CP: Does having a company ever feel stagnant or confining?

MF: Yes and no. I don’t really seek other paths, but I’m always open to going other places, because I don’t want to get too used to stuff, don’t want to get lazy. Conversely, I don’t want to only be identified with one group because I don’t just direct gay theatre.

CP: You have to have an outlet, so you can grow.

MF: Yeah – and, I don’t pay myself at TOSOS, so I’d like to work where they pay me! (lol)

About NYC

CP: Now let’s talk about New York. Why did you come to New York?

MF: When I got out of school, I wanted to move to a city, because I was from this little place in North Carolina -which I loved- and I’ve always wanted to live in a city. New York was a little scary so I looked at Chicago first. But for weather reasons, I decided to come to New York. (lol) Seriously, one time I was there, I came out of someone’s apartment, and the wind came off the lake and went right up my coat, and I thought, “I’m not doing this. I can’t do this!” So, I came to New York! The thing about New York is that there’s always the chance that somebody’s watching your work. You can do your kind of work anywhere in the city and there’s always the ‘chance’ that somebody –somebody that can help take your work to the next level- is going to be watching it. Whereas, in a smaller pond, you just don’t have as many of those opportunities.

CP: Did you have friends and colleagues already here in NYC? Did you have a network in place already?

MF: Yes, I had a little bit of a network established. In Chicago, too, to a lesser degree. But going to Chicago would have been more about the comfort factor than a career factor. Although there was, and still is, a LOT of theatre in Chicago. I still think that if I get get sick of New York, that I’ll go to Chicago.

CP: What are some of the challenges that you see inherent in directing in NYC?

MF: The number of people doing what you do. Trying to find an audience. You want to find “your” audience. You know, we’ve been lucky enough to do Street Theatre which Doric wrote, at the Gay & Lesbian Center every year. And this year, we got people that had never seen it before. It was nice to look out and see people that I didn’t know. Especially with that play, dealing with what it’s about, really educating the public on what caused the Stonewall Riot. Also, the genius of Doric’s play is that is doesn’t try to be a docudrama.  It’s a satire about what was going on that made Stonewall inevitable.  It disarms the audience with its humor.  I had young actors, and young audience members come up and say, “Oh my god – THAT’S what Stonewall was?” What I’m saying is, you also want to try to find YOUR audience that will go to YOUR theatre.

CP: And of course, you have to deal with space, competition for actors, losing actors – especially if you’re not on a contract. Unions!

MF: Dealing with Equity is a big challenge in New York, period. Probably more than any other city. And the economics of running a company – renting a space and all that – the sheer economics of your daily life! You can’t take a few weeks off and direct a show. You can’t do that if you want to make your rent!

CP: What about the joys? Do you find any particular joys inherent in directing in NYC?

MF: If you have a “hit” -you really communicated it, and you can feel it- knowing that you did that HERE, in a theatre town, is really rewarding. To hear about yourself from other people, people who “get” theatre.  You meet someone in the lobby and they’re like, “Oh, I saw Penny Penniworth. You directed that!?” THAT. That is really, really special.

About Indie Theatre

CP: Narrowing the focus a little, let’s discuss “Indie” theatre. How do you feel about the use of the term “Indie” rather than “off-off?”

MF: I like it a lot more than “off-off.” Because “off-off” seems like … there’s a certain feel of ‘lesser than.’ And it’s like somehow it’s away from the “model” and therefore is less. But it’s not less – it’s different. You look at something like a big Hollywood production versus an indie film – it’s that kind of feel. Some of the stories we tell wouldn’t be told on a Broadway stage – you couldn’t do it.

CP: What are your thoughts about the general state of “Indie” theatre.

MF: I think it’s gotten so much tighter, richer. There seems to be more of a community. They were probably always out there, but you weren’t aware of everybody else. One of the big changes is the NYIT Awards. Through the IT Awards, everybody is much more aware of everybody else now. Because of that, you can use the same resources: the same people, the same space. There’s this kind of great, unwritten network going on and it’s a great way to find actors and find out about all the great new playwrights coming up. It doesn’t feel like you’re operating in a vacuum any more.  And there’s a more adventurous spirit. If you go see something at Atlantic, you know what to expect. But if you see something on the Indie level, the variety is endless. You can see things that are really, really raw, that may not be perfect, but there’s something tremendously exciting about it. You can see first time playwrights, or maybe you see a show and you don’t dig the whole thing but maybe one actor was fantastic.

CP: In wrapping up, what would you say is the most important thing that a director, especially a director who might be coming to NYC, should know?

MF: I think directors have to SEE theatre. A lot of different kinds of theatre.

CP: Every director that I have interviewed has said that. That it’s important to go see theatre. So you learn what you respond to, learn who’s doing the kind of work that you like…

MF: Yeah! It’s the basic thing. You have to go. You might meet someone, which is how you get work in this business. And it gives you a reference – you see Clyburne Park, and a week later you meet someone at a party, and you can discuss that production. It just gives you knowledge, a connection, and something in common with others in theatre. You have to be able to speak the vernacular.

The Fast Five

CP: Alright then, let’s close with the “FAST FIVE!”

 

CP: What’s your favorite NYC spot for inspiration?

MF: The Film Forum!

CP: Favorite spot after rehearsal?

MF: Home. With my cat.

CP: What’s your favorite theatre superstition or ritual?

MF: I think it’s saying “Break a leg” and not “Good luck.” I used to go kinda crazy about whistling in the theatre. Then I realized it’s just because I don’t like whistling! Had nothing to do with superstition.

CP: What is the oddest prop you’ve ever had on stage?

MF: A wombat. A wombat on a stick, for “The Secretaries” at the Fringe. It calls for a wombat in the script, specifically a wombat. So I figured we’d just have it there, and hold it up on a stick and then take it off. So – wombat on a stick!

CP: What’s your favorite tech rehearsal snack?

MF: Diet Ginger Ale. And I live on Clif bars.

CP: What trait do you value most in an actor?

MF: Willlingness – just trying something before they want to change it.

CP: Well, I’m not sure I’m “willing” to end this conversation, but we must. Thank you very much for taking the time out of your schedule to meet up and share some of your journey with us.

Check out Mark’s reading recommendations in our library. And don’t forget to leave your comments below! Are there questions you wish I had asked? Questions you’d like to have asked in the future? Let me know!

Peace
Cat

One comment on “Director Mark Finley

  1. Pingback: Director Samuel Buggeln « DirectorSpeak

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