Interviews with NYC's Indie Theatre Directors
CP: Hi Craig. I know you are in the midst of production, so I appreciate you taking some time to answer a few questions about your journey as a director. I see that you started in theatre as an actor, and then moved to directing. Can you tell us about a specific moment that made you finally decide that directing was what you really wanted to do?
Craig: This is a question I get asked a lot and I completely understand why – but it does strike me as funny sometimes. We think of everyone’s jobs in the theater being so distinct and mutually exclusive, but there is no reason for a theater artist to restrict themselves to one realm. There are numerous examples throughout the theater world of people who act, direct, write, design, produce, and more. I’m thinking of people like David Kromer, Lisa Kron, Mike Nichols, Taylor Mac, Regina Taylor, – the list could go on and on. It is hard for me to imagine being a director without being an actor, also. My understanding of acting is such a huge part of my work as a director. It informs everything I do and say in the rehearsal room. It is inconceivable to me to think about being able to direct without first thinking about being able to act.
But I will answer your question more directly. I am definitely directing more these days than acting (though I still act) and I think it is mostly because of the incredibly taxing lifestyle of a theater actor. Our actors are superheroes, really. The day to day necessity of completely putting yourself on the line in auditions and rehearsals and performances is extraordinarily difficult. It takes so much energy, selflessness and courage to be a theater actor. I suppose I became less willing to do that each day on projects I had no artistic control over. It became clear to me that if I was going to put myself on the line like that day after day, I wanted to be making the broader artistic decisions about the pieces I was working on. I wanted control. I guess the control freak in me won out…
CP: Tell us about an incident while directing that taught you a big lesson, in either a positive or negative fashion.
Craig: Actually it was an incident while working as an actor that taught me a big lesson. I was working on a production of Twelfth Night with the director, Daniel Fish. Daniel is an extraordinary director – a visionary, really – and completely uncompromising in that vision. It was at the end of many years of acting training and I went into the process thinking I knew everything about acting Shakespeare. Daniel challenged me at every turn. Everything I did was examined and questioned, every entrance and exit, the way I spoke, the way I moved, everything! It got to the point where I felt extremely confronted and artistically cornered. I’m not particularly proud of how that made me behave in rehearsal, but in hindsight I am thrilled I went through that moment. Daniel was simply asking me to imagine that I didn’t know how to do the play and start from there. And that was a brilliant piece of advice for any theater artist. Imagine you know nothing and start from there. It seems counter-intuitive, given how hard we work to learn our craft and examine these plays, and study the prevailing wisdom on them… but to start fresh, every time, to re-invent the wheel with every show, to acknowledge that at first the play is just the pages and the words? That is the only way to make theater. You have to imagine you know nothing. Of course all the experience and knowledge and wisdom you have will come to bear on the decisions you make as you create, but if you create with all these assumptions already in place – all this baggage in the way – you will never break through to something truly fresh, alive and new. There are no rules in theater. Even though there are. So once you’ve learned the rules, forget them entirely.
CP: What do you do to keep your artistic batteries charged?
Craig: I am a big people-watcher. There is nothing more fascinating to me than human behavior. It’s one of the great joys of living in New York City – there are constantly people to watch. I’ve never understood how people can bury their faces in a game of candy crush while riding the subway. There is such a wealth of intrigue in every subway car. That gets me very excited to go into the rehearsal room – just observing the minute behaviors and interactions that take place when you shove a group of humans into a small metal box together! I think observation, in general, is a highly under-rated tool for a theater artist. We must all become better observers. It is our unique way of looking that gives us our individual voices as artists. What do we see when we look at the world?
CP: In a general sense, what are the traits that you most admire in actors?
Craig: Bravery. It is everything for an artist, I think. And actors have it in abundance. I also highly value actors with intelligence. It is not a word we use very often when discussing acting, but it is paramount. Actors have to understand such a broad range of people, cultures, linguistic forms, ways of being… They have to be sharp of mind. And sharp of body, too. Actors who inhabit their bodies are actors with presence. So just a brilliant mind and a formidable physical presence. And maybe also a transparent emotional life. Basically, actors have to be superhuman individuals…!
CP: Do you prefer working with the same design team again and again, or do you prefer to mix it up?
Craig: This is probably a boring answer, but there are some designers I’ll go back to again and again because we have a great short-hand in our process now and because I know they will bring something new and exciting to bear on the play, that I haven’t thought of. But I’m also conscious to keep seeking out new people who might bring a new lens through which to view the work. I would never want the work to get stale. So a little of both.
CP: You’ve assisted at various levels – how did you find that experience? What new insights did you gain from it?
Craig: Assisting is always enormously frustrating for me, but also super insightful. I was lucky enough to be in the room as an actor with a huge variety of very successful directors before I even began my directing career. So I had already stolen some techniques from observing the best in the field. And that is really what assisting is about – theft. By stealing from accomplished directors, you expand your vocabulary for communicating with other artists, you stock up your toolbox with new rehearsal techniques, and you discover new ways of structuring a rehearsal process. It is totally invaluable. And yet it can be excruciating at times. It is not your place as an assistant to put your hands into the process. You are there to aid the process to varying degrees (depending on the show and the director), but you are not there to make the major decisions or run any of the rehearsal. And if you want to direct, it can be extremely hard to sit on your hands inside a rehearsal room.
CP: In Zack Calhoun’s blog, Visible Soul, you are quoted as saying, “I like writing that reaches for something big. I’m tired of the living room/relationship box.” This is a sentiment that I share, and one of the underpinnings of my company’s mission. What do you find intriguing and substantial about stories that are bigger/deeper than the all-too-typical living room plays of today?
Craig: Theater started as a thing of great importance within the culture. It was the religious event, or the way a tribe told its history through the generations, or the moment all classes of people came together in one place to share experience. It was a communal event of great meaning and importance. Sometimes I feel like we have become scared of that importance. We don’t want to take on the responsibility of engaging a community in discussion. We just want to provide distraction. But that will ultimately leave the theater empty – metaphorically and literally. People gain so much from sitting in a room with other people and confronting their communal fears, dreams, and ideals. Even if they don’t consciously realize it, I think that is still why people go to live events together.
CP: You are the Associate Artistic Producer of Red Bull Theater, one of few theatre’s who’s line-up I consistently envy. What does an “Artistic Producer” do? How has having this role impacted your relationship to the NYC theatre community?
Craig: I was previously Associate Artistic Director and the new title reflected an expansion of my role in the company. I currently produce Red Bull Theater’s Obie-award winning “Revelations Readings” series, which is an annual series of 12 – 15 readings of rarely produced classical and classically themed plays. I also produce the education programming for the company and the yearly “Running of the Red Bulls” gala, as well as providing general production support. The reading series has particularly impacted my relationship with the NYC theater community because I work with some many different artists. 15 different large casts (as many as 15 actors in each) and 15 different directors. I get to play with all those artists and it is truly magical what can happen when you put some of the talented folk of NYC Theater into a room together, even for just a 5 hour rehearsal before a reading. That’s where that bravery comes into play. The bravery to dive in and get to work.
CP: Let’s talk about the future – your next production is Magic Kingdom which is running now at the NY Fringe. What drew you to this work?
Craig: The reckless ambition of the play is what draws me to it. On one level it is just a very funny and quirky story of a brother and sister managing their own demons in the surreal setting of a corporate theme park in Florida. But the brilliant way that story is presented and contextualized gives it an extraordinary depth of expression. In the last month or so we have had to describe what the play is about frequently, for press releases, blogs, articles, podcasts and also just to our friends who are interested. Every time I go to explain it, I say something new about it. So now I just say – it’s about everything. Everything. That’s what drew me to it.
CP: You and Magic Kingdom’s playwright, Cory Conley, have worked together before – to great success, I should add, since your production of his play, “The More Loving One” was awarded the Overall Excellence for Best Play in the 2011 Fringe. How does an on-going relationship with a playwright affect your direction of a play?
Craig: My working relationship with Cory is really one of the most precious things to me. There is an implicit trust that we are both working toward the same goal. We have worked together so closely on so much material now that we know each other’s process intimately and can dispense with any niceties or personal baggage and purely engage with the work. The respect for each others talent is deep and mutual and never needs to be tested. Of course we have many moments of conflict in the process but those are often what provides the greatest creative breakthroughs – and we can always immediately drop it and go for a beer after. I recommend every director find themselves a Cory to work with!
CP: Give us a little hint about “Magic Kingdom!” Some cool fact we won’t read in the official blurbs…
Craig: Okay. Here’s several:
– There is a character called Mickey, who tells one of the best jokes you will ever hear.
– There is a character called Luis, who bartends at the Mexican Pavillion of “World World”, although he is not Mexican.
– There is character called Emma, who is a nine-year old girl who loves cake and is a minor genius.
– There is a character called Jack, whose Irish Band just broke up during a recording session in New Hampshire.
– There is a character called Mike, who is a monorail driver and was once up for promotion to the yellow line.
CP: Now’s your chance to turn the tables and ask me a question, if you like!
Craig: What made you decide to feature directors on a blog?
CP: Isolation. During a low career point, I was wondering how other directors handled some of the issues I was dealing with. But I didn’t know any other directors well enough to ask. As I started talking about the questions with other theatre artists, they shared their interest in hearing the answers as well. So, I decided to just … ASK! And in order to share it with other people (and to save the info for future publication) I decided to do a blog. Other folks caught wind of it, and have now introduced me to lots of other directors, so my knowledge base just keeps growing and growing, which is tremendous.
CP: Thanks, Craig, very much for taking the time to answer a few questions about your path as a director. Here’s wishing you and your entire team the best of broken legs with Magic Kingdom!