Interviews with NYC's Indie Theatre Directors
CP: Hi Tom, thanks for agreeing to this interview, and congratulations on your latest work getting extended at the NYMF Festival!
TW: Excited to be included, thank you!
CP: Let’s start with a couple of questions about your career. How’d you decide directing was what you wanted to do – was there any one incident or point in your life that convinced you that directing was “it” for you?
TW: I moved to NYC to study acting at Marymount Manhattan College. During my sophomore year it became clear that I really wasn’t cut out to be an actor, though at first I had a hard time admitting it to myself. That summer I assisted on an Off-Broadway musical and found myself day dreaming about what I would do differently (and better, LOL) than the director. I think that was honestly the moment I realized what I should be doing.
CP: Assisting another director is always an interesting experience. Did you gain new insights into directing from assisting? Was it helpful career wise?
TW: Yes! I wish I had done more assisting, but acting as Artistic Director of the Astoria Performing Arts Center for so long really made it hard to find time for it. I’d love to assist more now if the right opportunity comes up, as I am leaving APAC at the end of this month. To me the most valuable thing about watching other directors work is seeing the different communication styles–at the end of the day, that’s the main thing we do and everyone has their own “voice”. One of my favorite things about my job at APAC was watching the directors I hired for the mainstages during my tenure (Jessi Hill, Jose Zayas, May Adrales, Erik Pearson and Adam Dannheisser). They are all terrific and so different. It’s not an exaggeration to say that a little bit of them is now in my own approach to rehearsals right now.
CP: Another way into the directing path is the various directing programs out there, several of which you have participated in. How was that experience for you? Would you encourage other directors to do them?
TW: Absolutely. Directing is a hard (maybe impossible) skill to teach, but there are lots of opportunities to surround yourself with information and tools that can really help hone that skill.
CP: Do you still keep in touch with people from those directing programs?
TW: Yes–lots of writers and directors I met through those programs are still friends, and I hired many of them during my time at APAC.
CP: Tell us about an incident while directing that taught you a big lesson, in either a positive or negative fashion.
TW: I learn lessons all the time while directing. I’m always learning how to be a better collaborator from the people I work with, and I’ve found I can never be too prepared–you can save so much stress during crunch times by actually spending the time to have detailed conversations about every prop, costume piece, and scene change way ahead of time.
CP: What do you do to keep your artistic batteries charged?
TW: Time off! And I’ve never been one for taking on too many projects that overlap or come one on top of each other. I’d rather give all my energy to one project at a time, rather than spread myself thin. I’m envious of directors who are able to do that.
CP: What do you look for in a play that you’d like to direct?
TW: An instant connection the first time I read the script. It can be an emotional connection, an idea about staging it that gets me excited, or it can just really make me laugh. Cloned! (my current project) really made me laugh.
CP: Let’s talk a little bit about how you work with your collaborators. Let’s start with actors – in a general sense, what are the traits that you most admire in actors?
TW: Preparation, reliability, and a sense of playfulness about the work, coupled with a discipline and desire to DO the work.
CP: And on to designers… You’ve been quoted in nytheatre’s blog as saying about your Ragtime design team, “… the way to prepare for a show this big is to surround yourself with the most talented, hard-working and creative people you can find. … I’ve assembled my “dream team” of designers—I’ve worked with all of them before and trust them immensely.” Do you prefer working with the same design team again and again, or do you prefer to mix it up?
TW: I like both. There is a trust that comes from working with people you’ve already worked with, as well as a shared vocabulary. The lines start to get more blurry (in a good way) between departments, as everyone starts to let everyone else’s work influence their own more and more. I love it when that happens. On the other hand, it’s always nice to be invigorated by someone new.
CP: Digging a little more about design… Michael Roderick had this to say about you in his blog (One Producer in the City), “Tom is one of those rare directors who takes vision and collaboration and turns it into a truly unified production. From the sound to the set, to the lights, to the performance, the work he does is always in harmony.” For me, this is high praise indeed, as I feel many directors forget to make the best use of the ‘tools’ of production values. How do you feel design fits into your vision for a production?
TW: Design is obviously really important. I love the initial meetings with a set designer. I usually come to those with big thoughts: a final image I want to create, what I want the world to “feel” like, etc. I’ll also come with a list of functional requirements for the set (number of doors, set pieces, “effects”). The most exciting time is when the set designer takes all that information and comes back for the next meeting with ideas of how to solve the problems I’ve pinpointed in ways that I had never imagined. I really feel that when I’m handed the “right” set design, the play stages itself in my head the instant I see it on paper–it’s weird and exciting.
CP: You and I are on opposite places at the moment – you stepped down as APAC’s artistic director to do more free-lance work, and I just created a company of which I’m the artistic director. What are some takeaways you could share with me about the position of AD? What is the advice you wish someone had given you in 2008?
TW: Pace yourself–it’s easy to make the company your whole life. Surround yourself with a good management team and then trust them to do their jobs–but meet with them regularly to check in.
CP: Let’s talk about the future – your next production is “Cloned!” a musical being showcased at NYMF in early July. What drew you to this work?
TW: It’s freaking hysterical. I laughed out loud so many times the first time I read it. It’s really a door-slamming farce musical (which is rare, and hard to do) and I think the writers really succeed.
CP: Give us a little hint about “Cloned!” Some cool fact we won’t read in the official blurbs…
TW: A fun debate in rehearsals has been whether or not one would want to have a threesome with a clone of oneself. I won’t tell you where I land in that debate (yes).
CP: LOL! Okay, mum’s the word on that one! I could go on and on, but I know you’re busy so I’ll just stop the questions now, unless you have any for me?
TW: I don’t have a question, but I LOVED Sister Cities!
CP: Really? I didn’t realize you had seen it. I’m so happy you liked it! It was a wonderful production, and I still work with those actresses whenever I can. In fact, two of them are members of our company, Articulate Theatre. I think you’ve just made me a friend for life for mentioning Sister Cities. Thank you! And thank you again for chatting with me, and break many a leg with Cloned!