Interviews with NYC's Indie Theatre Directors
CP: Hello Rachel, and welcome to the DirectorSpeak interviews.
RK: Hello! Thanks for having me.
CP: DirectorSpeak was originally formed just to give me the opportunity to talk with my fellow directors, as it can be so helpful to know people that understand what you’re going through. And you know all about that because we originally know each other from the Directors Discuss support group. What a great group of people, right?
RK: I just love the Directors Discuss group. I don’t go as often as I should, but it’s like my support group. I hit them up whenever I have some batshit crazy thing going on. They know – as soon as they see me walking into the room, THEY KNOW – “Oh boy, Rachel’s got some stories!” I’ve met a lot of really great people from it. On my last project, I had a question that I felt a little too close to, and I wanted to get another director in just to observe and tell me their thoughts, and Shaun Peknic, and Kelly Johnston, fellow members of the DD group, came instantly to the rescue and had a lot of helpful things to say about it, really helped me clarify some things. It’s really important to have that kind of support system to be able to rely on.
CP: Yeah, I think its such a wonderful thing. Directors can get so isolated sometimes, so having a resource that you can just reach out to for suggestions or just vent to, is wonderful. I recently interviewed Marshall Mason for a podcast, and he talked about how he would invite a bunch of directors over to his dress rehearsals to get their feedback. But that could seem a little daunting to most directors!
CP: I usually start these interviews at the beginning of your career, but I actually would like to talk to you first about your latest project. By all accounts, Dead Dream Machine is not a typical production. I’m told it is a “crazed horror anthology that incorporates song, dance, puppetry, aerial, magic and more to create an out of body theatrical experience.” How does directing this type of production change your process?
RK: My background is in both legitimate theater and in dance, and my productions are often insanely large and visual and circus-y, so staging a show with choreography and other extreme elements falls right into my wheel house. Often the dance and circus elements are integrated into the script, but because the Dead Dream Machine is an anthology piece, the pieces are segmented, so it gives me the additional challenge of making it all flow together. I have not worked with magic before, which has been incredibly fun, as well as puppetry. This process has had tons of moving parts to incorporate. It’s full of short plays and pieces, so working on them all separately while trying to keep them reigned into one universe and simultaneously have each piece be unique has been a challenge, which I hope I’ve done justice to.
CP: Tell me more about the puppetry. That sounds fascinating.
RK: We were originally going to be using hand puppets, but then they evolved into these crazy, amazing body puppets, so they’re enormous. The actors are acting from within, it’s not like traditional puppeteering where they are separate, it becomes an extension of them. So that’s very choreographed. They are both terrifying and hilarious! But that has been interesting because before they were finished, when they were mid-way thru development and we were rehearsing with them, it was like, “where do I look?” Do I look at the actor’s face – because the actor is still acting – or do I look at the puppet – because the puppet is also acting. Now that they are fully developed you see the separation.
CP: I know Dead Dream Machine is showing out in Bushwick, and I’m so excited about more art coming out to Brooklyn. What’s your take on coming out to BK?
RK: We HAD to move to Brooklyn – no one can afford Manhattan anymore! Individuals started moving out there years ago, and now art is migrating out there as well. There’s no way we could have done this show in Manhattan, unless we had a serious theatrical sugar-daddy! We’re working in a warehouse space that we’ve gutted and are converting into a performance venue. It’s called La Luz Performance Space, and after Dead Dream is over, the space will be rented out as a performance venue. I do enjoy working in Brooklyn, but I am nervous about getting Manhattanites to leave the island! Yes, there still are people who don’t “do” Brooklyn.
CP: Silly folks! Brooklyn is the new IT place! Before I ask you more about directing such a unique production, let’s go back to the beginning: how did you get into directing?
RK: I think I wanted to direct before I knew exactly what it even meant to be a director. I saw Edward Scissorhands in the movie theater as a child and was mesmerized by the larger than life methods of visual story telling: the precise color schemes, and the character choices. From that point forward I knew I wanted to do whatever that was, creating environments and performance-scapes, rather than performing in the pieces themselves.
CP: How and when did that morph into, or maybe expand to include, directing theatre?
RK: Even as a child I was in drama class and ballet class, and there was a push for me to be a performer. But I really didn’t like performing, but I knew I wanted to be close to that world Then I started understanding visualization, making things epic and big, making things melodramatic. It was Edward Scissorhands that triggered that for me. All through my teenage years I wanted to be a filmmaker, but upon investigation I saw that filmmaking today has a lot to do with technical engineering. The thing that had drawn me to it to begin with was the theatrical, expressive nature of older films, so I re-appropriated these ideas to the stage.
CP: I feel like we need more of that – the larger than life aspect- on stage these days, because so many plays these days are ‘kitchen sink dramas’ that seem to be trying to emulate the naturalism of film on stage. Why would we want to? Why try to be like film? I suspect its because that’s what we’ve grown up on. Most of today’s theatre artists have seen a LOT more film than they have theatre.
RK: I see it a lot with actors, too. We still have a few balls-to-the-wall, bravado stage actors, and god love ’em, but I’m seeing more and more actors that are used to film work and their acting is small, with tiny, minute detail. And they think they’re acting up a storm because they ARE going through their own process, and all the emotional layers that they need to – but from 30 feet back, you can’t see it! You have to work with them to get out of their comfort zone and be ‘seen’ on stage, and it’s a challenge.
CP: Yeah, its a challenge to be ‘theatrical’ – which has come to have a pejorative meaning, but really shouldn’t. What kind of things have you used to help an actor break out of those boundaries?
RK: The first thing I tell them is that if they feel uncomfortable, they’re doing it right! LOL If they say, ‘This feels weird, it feels unorganic’ then I say, ‘Great! Organic is for the grocery store! Don’t try to think about what feels natural to you, because if you’re performing something, it should be open and exposing.’ Basically, I say everything that in directing school my mentors told me not to say. You’re not supposed to tell an actor “Be bigger” and yet I feel like that’s the most consistent note I ever give. It needs to be huge, so huge! Get it into your body, and then we can start applying the psychological nuances to it, after you have the physical framework. It’s almost like working choreographically with them.
CP: I think it also has a lot to do with how much they can trust you as a director – that bond between actor and director. You are the first audience, so they have to trust that you won’t let them look ‘bad.’
RK: I have a company of actors, and I’ve been working with a lot of them for about 7 years now, and we have a short-hand. They know what I want, and they are all ridiculously large actors, and that’s kind of what they’ve tailored themselves to do when we work together. But lately, almost every show I’ve done is a project that I’ve been hired to do, so I’ve been working with actors I’ve never worked with before, and have completely different backgrounds. Earning their trust in the beginning has sometimes been a challenge, but once I can get them to “go there” things ease up. But at the beginning I got a lot of questions that I haven’t had to address in a long time, “why am I standing here? why am I not looking at the person I’m talking to” “this feels awkward to me.”
CP: It’s the advantage of working with a company, you don’t have to explain yourself as often.
RK: Yeah, I had become accustomed to working with people that understand what my brain is doing, and they trust me implicitly. But some of the new actors are more used to working with older directors, or directors that used to be actors, or who approach things in a different way. Where I’m like, “Great, we’ve had one day of table work, now let’s put this up on its feet. We’ll go back to the table once we have the archetype set, but you need to know where you’re standing.” Some actors love it, but some of them resist it. They feel like they don’t know the character well enough yet, they don’t know why the character is doing that physical action. And I say, “Great, let’s talk about it. Let’s figure out, for you, why he’s doing it. Cause he’s going to be doing it, sorry!
CP: How do you decide what to direct?
RK: I always look at a project and decide whether or not I can put the material in an expressionistic world. I don’t exactly have producers approaching me with kitchen sink dramas, and I am totally okay with that. I am intrigued by magical stylization, and discovering methods with an ensemble of actors that build a universe for the play that sets it apart from reality.
CP: How much research do you do?
RK: Tons. If it is a period piece, I will read everything I can to prepare me for what I am embarking upon, and always bring color pallets and visual source material to my design meetings as well as to the first rehearsal, so that the actors are prepared for the style they will be working within. It can sometimes be overwhelming for the actors, but it needs to be, so that they understand what they’re walking into. That way there’s no surprises later on. For example, in many of my productions people will often be in sexy outfits, and actors need to know things like that. You can’t just spring that on an actor. And when they have an understanding of how big the set elements are going to be, or how ridiculous the props are, or how expressionistic-film noir-abstract the environment is going to be – it helps to inform their performance.
CP: What is your rehearsal process like?
RK: When working on text driven work, I like to begin minimally at the table, then get an exoskeleton blocked out, then take it back to the table to make sure that each moment in the story is being communicated. Then back on its feet again, and so forth. With movement driven work, it’s a bit different. I show up with movement ideas and music, then work with my ensemble to create the stage pictures together.
CP: Your work seems borderline “devising” in a lot of ways – would you agree?
RK: Yes, absolutely. The productions that we do with the company are absolutely devised, we build the whole story together. We usually end up creating the costume and prop elements together, too. I really like convertible costume pieces, things that start off one way and then turn into something else onstage. And sometimes that is mapped out in advance, but sometimes its more like “this moment in the music makes me feel like this should be happening, and this is what we’ve set for this scene, so why don’t we do THIS” and then we create the idea as to how the innovative prop/costume piece is used. Even when I have a script, there’s still a lot of devising in a way – creating the physical archetypes of everything, creating the visual language of the show. It’s definitely a developmental process with the actors throughout rehearsal – script or no script.
CP: So, when you’re in rehearsal, is blocking something you work on at the moment or do you come in with a structure?
RK: I’ll come in with a basic, very loose skeleton of a structure – like where I want things on the stage, but then I work with the actor on where they need to be. Sometimes it doesn’t look as good on the stage as it did in my head, so I just use sort of a blueprint.
CP: How do you handle transitions?
RK: I always choreograph the transitions between scenes. I hate to see a production disrupted by a blackout and crew people on stage moving scenery. You’re watching a scene, and then the whole story is disrupted by stage hands coming out with a blue light shining on them. Are you kidding me? This isn’t Brecht – get off stage! I can’t stand it. I usually have the actors picking up things, and then spinning with them, twirling or dancing with them. Or have a row of actors coming out downstage and have the set change happening behind that. Make everything very deliberate and the environment transforms in front of the audience. I think that it makes things more seamless. I don’t like putting blackouts in shows either, til the end. I always just ignore them in the script. I like to have a smooth flow.
CP: Any transition conventions that you’ve created that you are particularly proud of?
RK: When I did Symphony of Shadows at Dixon Place – we had a kajillion performers and aerialists. It was about a woman who’s nightmares were attacking her, and affecting her waking life. So, for the transitions we built a frame story to link every production number together. I had people in these hideous drab grey suits walking on like, the Viewpoints grid, so there was a whole slew of people just weaving in and out of each other, except our heroine. She just deteriorated a little more each time, each transition. And it would completely cover the furniture being moved, and the aerial rigging being moved, and it was all integrated. So, it became the story – it started out as just transitions between nightmares, but then it evolved into being the actual story itself. And so the nightmares, instead of them being individual little stories, became production numbers within the story.
CP: I think that’s really cool. I love it when you can find something in the transition that then informs the story. It continues the story. The audience never feels, ‘okay that segments done, now we’re moving to something else.’ It’s just one interwoven story. Moving on to something a little different, what are your thoughts on new technology (social media, web) and it’s impact on theatre and your career?
RK: It’s hard for me sometimes. I still like to pretend it’s the 90s and we can print postcards and hang up posters… but the reality is, the entire world is online now, and social media is incredibly helpful. As far as my career goes, I feel that social media is an extension of word of mouth, and absolutely generates more exposure to a larger audience.
CP: Does it bother you when technology comes into the theatre space, such as texting in the audience?
RK: Yes, absolutely. I mean, c’mon, have some respect for what you’re doing, for where you are!
CP: There’s something about the fact that we work so hard to create a separate world for the audience – a world outside of the world you are usually in. So why would you bring that world in with you?
RK: And it’s not just technology, it’s about a general change in how people view the theatre. Theatre used to be an event, and now people dress down for it. But they still wear tuxedos to the opera! And technology in the theatre is just an extension of that. Just turn it off. You’re watching live actors – Patty Lapone is right!
CP: We’ve all had those times as a director that end up being a “lesson learned.” Tell us about an incident that taught you a big lesson, in either a positive or negative fashion.
RK: I did an ensemble based show with a huge cast a while ago, where we had a developmental process and everyone contributed ideas to create the show. I had worked this way once before with a smaller group of my core ensemble, and it turned out to be a beautiful production. When I attempted to work this way a group of over 20 performers, I set myself up for a situation where it was often difficult to hold the room. The show ended up looking great and was well received, but the process was so incredibly trying for me that I am wary of working that way again. Moving forward, I have been working more traditionally in terms of protocol, and frankly it saves me a great deal of headaches.
CP: One of the things I like to ask about is if and how “assistant directing” has impacted your career. Have you been an assistant director?
RK: Yes, I have. I learned a lot. l gained the most from the post-rehearsal meetings where I was able to have a conversation with the master director about what’s going on in rehearsal, and bounce ideas off of each other. I love that part of the process. Can’t say I’m as in love with the getting lunch or coffee part though! I think it’s a good way for people to learn about directing – especially if you can assist someone that you really want to work with: Julie Taymor if you’re listening, I’m available!
CP: What would you say is the most important trait a director should have?
RK: Definitely the ability to appear calm on the outside even when on the inside you are so stressed out that you feel like exploding. You are in charge of a room full of actors and other artists who depend on you to be in control and to never be visibly coming apart at the seams. You have to be able to hold your own, when you are getting a barrage of questions. Even if you don’t know an an answer, you have to come up with something on the fly that makes sense. You can change your mind later, actors will accept that, but you can’t be like, “I don’t know, what do you think?” unless you want to then have an hour and half discussion when you really need rehearsal time. So, the ability to think on your feet, and the ability to know the work -even if it is devised- to know what the aesthetic of the production is going to be, inside and out, to the point where you can think on the fly, and be able to answer questions left and right. That’s very important to me.
CP: What is the best and worse thing about directing in NYC?
RK: The best thing is point blank, this is the heart of the theater industry as a whole. It is literally ALL happening here. Every sort of theater from downtown modern dance, to Butoh, to clown theater, to commercial musicals, to Shakespeare. The worst part, of course, is that this is the heart of the theater industry as a whole! It is ALL here, so you as an individual artist are constantly in a struggle to have your voice heard and to have your work seen. There’s a million other people here, and even if they’re doing something totally different than you, it’s still… I don’t think of my contemporaries as ‘competition,’ especially because we’re all doing something different, but then we ARE because there’s just so many of us.
CP: There’s a finite audience. Marketing people talk about “impressions” – there’s a finite number of “impressions” that a potential audience member can receive or react to, so in that respect we are competing for the audience’s attention.
RK: Exactly. You almost have to have a gimmick – like actors used to have to have during the Studio system in Hollywood. And that can be good and bad, like my “image” is the “mistress of the macabre” (thank you, Patricia Contino, for giving me that quote so many years ago!) And it’s fantastic in some ways – during Halloween season my company gets booked for all kinds of gigs, but at the same time people take a look at my work, and even if there’s something that I’m totally right for, and I can direct the hell out of, they look at my portfolio and kinda draw back. They’re like, “We need someone a little more mainstream.” Or “less edgy.” I get that one as well.
CP: Yeah, that’s the catch. You create a hook which helps people remember you, but it also helps them put you into a category, into a box – which then becomes difficult to get out of.
RK: Whenever I’m up for something and it’s really close between me and someone else, and the other person gets it, I always go see it – and sometimes I’m like, “Okay, you’re right. You guys did the right thing.” But then there’s always those other times where I’m like, “No. No no no no no. This person is ‘me’ light, and you needed ‘me’ heavy. But I terrify people sometimes, so yes, I stand out, but it’s a double edged sword.
CP: In a general sense, what are the traits that you most admire in actors?
RK: To be an actor is to be absolutely courageous. If you are auditioning every day, under the constant grind and facing near-constant rejection, it must wear down on a person both physically and emotionally. The way actors hit the pavement running and put themselves out there to be seen is amazing to me. It’s really hard for us as directors, but we still have the opportunity to make our own opportunities. Whereas actors, unless they want to do a one-person show, it’s really, really hard for them. They have to be so vulnerable, and then they have to turn around and keep their self esteem going so that they don’t completely implode. It’s hard to watch, and I applaud, applaud, applaud, the people that just keep on trucking.
CP: Do you have a “dream” production that you want to do?
RK: There is one project that only exists in my mind right now. I’ve been talking to a good friend of mine who is a Shakespeare dramaturg and we want to do this together. It’s a twisted interpretation of the witches in MacBeth, kinda like what Rosencrantz and Guildenstern are Dead is to Hamlet. It would be strictly from the witches’ perspective. And then all the main characters of MacBeth become minor characters and we get to see the witches overseeing the human’s evil. I’ll share more if there’s someone out there who’s interested in getting involved! And I have a few other top secret dream productions up my sleeve…. stay tuned!
CP: Do you tend to work with the same team, or do you like to bring in new colleagues?
RK: I enjoy working with both. I have an ensemble of actors that I have been working with for years, which is amazing because we have a shorthand. Recently I have been working on projects with new actors which is both challenging in that I am learning their personalities and processes, and rewarding because expanding my network of artists and collaborators is always exciting. I do tend to work with the same team of designers. I’m heart-broken at the moment because my lighting designer is leaving after this show. He’s moving to LA, and that’s great for him, but a bummer for me! But, yes, I use the same sound designer, and composer that I’ve been working with for years. I have a short hand with them, so they know what I need, and I know how they work, so there’s a great level of trust.
CP: What do you do to keep your artistic batteries charged?
RK: Keep on going! I thrive best when I am busy, and I like to keep myself as booked as possible. I understand that jumping from one project to the next doesn’t exactly sound rejuvenating, but it keeps my artistic sensibilities sharp, and my mind constantly in a state where I am generating ideas.
CP: What’s your favorite theatre superstition/ritual?
RK: Every piece of the mythos surrounding the Scottish Play. It is of course one of my favorite pieces of theater, but I am also fascinated by the legitimate fear it generates and would like to think of it as a truly beautiful, haunted, piece of theater.
CP: What’s the oddest prop you’ve ever had onstage?
RK: Oh, that’s a tough one. I have had a giant foam magnet on stage used to entrap a chain-clad ghost, a giant medieval mace used in a killer-in-the-aerobics-studio scenario, and have had a performer wear a tutu that transforms into a pit of flames. More costume/scenic design there, but I suppose it still counts.
RK: I know, it was crazy! It came about because they were looking for a director, and I had just done a reading of Bride of Frankenstein at the same theatre, before it was renovated – it was a total ramshackle place – which I can say because now its so beautiful! So, I was doing this reading, and the people at the theatre got to know me, and when the producer, Cedric, started looking for a director, he specifically said he wanted someone with a big visual style. I had been recommended to him from a couple of sources, and one colleague of mine said, “This isn’t a project for you. This isn’t gothic!” And I was like, “Shut up! This is Victorian –I can make it super sexy– it’s totally a project for me!” So, then they recommended me as well. That’s how I came on board. And it’s been a terrific ride – I’ve been so spoiled by this experience, because Cedric’s been so supportive – creatively and financially. My designers would come up with wonderful concepts, and then scale it back for the budget we’re used to working on. But Cedric chimed in with, “I really want it to look amazing!” So, he supported everyone’s artistic vision to make the theatre look spectacular.
CP: I’ve heard lots of wonderful things about Around the World and I’m looking forward to seeing it. I just love the sound of what you’re trying to do in your work – making things big and theatrical. I get so tired of small, mundane productions. And I thank you so much for taking the time out of your VERY busy schedule to chat with me.
RK: It’s been fun. Thank you very much for inviting me! I hope to see you at Dead Dream Machine.
CP: Absolutely. When are you running til?
RK: Til October 13th!
CP: I will be there with bells on. Looking forward to seeing it, and supporting art in Brooklyn.