Interviews with NYC's Indie Theatre Directors
That’s right: DISCLAIMER – I’m one of the directors! So, I have to answer my own questions. Can’t wait to see how this turns out! — Cat Parker
Joan Kane: I love NYC. I love the diversity of the architecture, neighborhoods and people. This city is an inspiring Muse for my creativity. The original NYC Icon Plays were based on an idea I had been kicking around of presenting an evening of short scripts that were set in specific NYC locations. In 2010 we presented Aliens With Extraordinary Skills by Saviana Stanescu under the showcase code. The code, being what it is, meant that we had several dark nights in the theatre that we had paid for. The set of our play, designed by Starlet Jacobs, was a generic NYC look with an abstract skyline on the walls and a subway map on the floor. We decided to present a version of the NYC Icon Plays where the icon was all of NYC on those dark nights. Plays were set in a variety of locations including Central Park, Staten Island Ferry, and the Subway etc. In Feb 2011 we presented a site-specific play in Quinn’s Bar. I realized that a Times Square Irish Pub was a great icon of NYC. So we searched for scripts. They came to us from many different sources and there were several excellent submissions that we could not fit in. This version of NYC Icon Plays is much truer to my original vision, and I hope to produce other variations on this theme in a site specific location each year.
Luke Tudball: It’s not easy to put a finger on something specific – there are so many amazing things to be learned and experienced as a director. Every day you come to rehearsal, and something new and interesting happens. As a director you have a unique opportunity to bring life and vigor to stories that may otherwise have no voice, and that is a wonderful gift.
Katrin Hilbe: What I enjoy most is the reading of a script or listening to an opera, and feeling my mind start reeling with ideas and images. I embark on a journey, take notes, visualize, talk to the author (if she’s alive). I feel like I’m entering into a new relationship between myself and the play/opera. It’s the hermeneutic approach, a dynamic back and forth between myself and the material, and it feels like starting a new love. The ideas flooding my mind are not only textual, but aural, often visual, very physical/theatrical, right from the start. And I let everything happen. It’s now the new focus of my life. Out of the multitude of notions a framework asserts itself, and with that I begin choosing designers, embark on casting etc. From then on it becomes a collaboration. But the beginning, the starting point is the material and I. I love that.
Kacey Stamats: This is a tricky question, as I’m pulled in lots of directions, and often find I can best serve a project I care about as cinematographer, stage manager or even simple production assistant. I enjoy directing plays that surprise and entertain without sacrificing meaning. It helps if there are central roles for women, or if the play confronts gender expectations, but sometimes I agree to a project because it resonates with me, and only figure out how and why when I see it onstage. Assumptions by Annette Storckman made me laugh before I read it, the premise was enough to convince me. Annette and I have worked on several shows together, but this will be the first time I get to direct her work.
Brian Gillespie: A big part of what I enjoy about directing is discovering how things move. I love blocking scenes with actors and finding the best way for the staging to support the text and the actions of the characters. I get so jazzed exploring elements like shape, movement and pace and relating those to what’s written on the page to make it come alive in the most dynamic and specific way possible. My test for a scene is to look at the staging without listening to the dialogue. Can I still get the sense of exactly what’s going on (who’s winning/losing? Who’s advancing/retreating) from how the characters are moving in the space.
Joan: There are two things that I love about directing. 1) I love storytelling, and directing plays -old and new- is my way to tell stories. 2) I love to discover and learn new things. I love to immerse myself in a specific world through the research of place and people. It is my way of traveling, growing, learning, cracking open my world. Recently I directed a play that took place in West Texas and one of the characters was a serious Pentecostal woman with great conviction. I researched the Pentecostal faith and discovered so many wonderful traditions and beliefs associated with that culture that normally I would never have known existed. For NYC Icon Plays I’m directing the short play Poly Amorous by Ron Burch. It is about the “Open Love” culture. I enjoyed researching the current day “Open Love” movement through interviewing folks who practice this as an option to traditional relationships.
Janet Bentley: There is a glorious terror to making art. I cannot do it alone. I’ve tried acting, painting, playing piano, singing, and writing, but all of those things are mostly solitary disciplines. For me, nothing makes sense until it is onstage. No word resonates fully on the page. Text is just text without the actor’s psyche and physical resonation. Thinking through a problem or an action feels to me like navel gazing, but playing through the idea brings multi-dimensional, holistic meaning to the world. What I love about directing is that no matter how much I study in advance, the actors always surprise and excite me beyond expectation or they validate my insights while transforming them into their own thing. I can be both full and empty – a gateway for the flow of creativity from my collaborators.
Cat Parker: For me, directing is all about story-telling. And story-telling is both basic and epic. Anyone can tell a story – anywhere, anytime. From our earliest ancestors to a guy on a street corner, we all tell stories. And sometimes those stories resonate with others; they take root, and grow and get told again and again. I enjoy taking a story and spinning a web from it. A web that has strands from designers and actors and audience members. And each of those people takes their strand out a little further into the world – passing that story along so that it gains strength and never ever dies. It pleases me to know that I can add my strand into that epic web and become a part of the story’s life.
Luke: I am constantly learning and that is enormously exciting. Almost every rehearsal, staged reading and performance brings new ideas and energies to the fore and it’s always inspiring. If I have learned one thing that sticks with me though it, is to always be an active listener and observer, and not to disregard the little things – sometimes they end up being a hugely important element of a piece. Wonderful things can happen in the moments when you are distracted by your cell phone or find yourself thinking about the next coffee break.
Kacey: Always trust your cast and crew. When a stage manager or designer politely and reasonably argues something should be done a certain way somewhere deep inside they may also be screaming “You must do it this way or the set will collapse,” and they are usually correct. The same goes for creating an environment where the actors feel safe enough to take the incredible risks they take every night. I can’t say how often I’ve watched good directors resolve actor crisis just by talking through problems, listening to actors and continuing that trust.
Brian: In short, I think I’ve learned that everything has value. Every single thing that’s happening on stage or that an actor is doing has a value and a director ignores this at their peril. For example, I think there’s a big difference in value between a one second pause and a three second pause. Each conveys something slightly different. If you’re aware of that you can pick and chose what’s going to work best for that moment. Or say, proximity. The energy between two actors is much different when they’re three feet apart than three inches apart. There can be a big difference between an actor sitting at the beginning of a line or at the end. How are props handled, are they given their due. Always reminding myself that everything has value and checking to see if I’m honoring that helps me not take moments for granted.
Joan: To direct one has to listen – not just to the words but to the images that are presented through the words. I listen very carefully to my collaborators; actors, designers, stage managers. I set up a format where all involved can be a part of the process of developing the show. If I’m stuck I open up the discussion to my team to gain answers through inquiry. Throughout the years I have learned that through this open discussion I am able to obtain insights into the world of the play that I may not have considered by myself. So I guess Cat, to answer your question, I have learned, through the years of creating theatre, that the true value of listening to my creative team results in a better product and a fuller, richer experience for the audience.
Janet: Keep your mouth shut. Less is more. Let the actors play. Give the designers breathing room. Be really prepared, but don’t spit it all out at once. Be ready for the moment when this work is needed and be ready to accept the fact that new things will undoubtedly arise beyond all expectation.
Cat: One of my favourite lessons came at grad school, though not in a classroom. While walking behind two undergraduate actors who had just come out of a rehearsal, I overheard one of them say to the other, “You can always tell when a graduate student is directing, ’cause all they want to do is talk you to death.” It wasn’t my rehearsal but I sure got the point: research is great, but acting is about action. Be choosey about what you share and when.
Luke: I have always had a very visual mind and so I find myself creating mental pictures very early on, even during the first reading of the script. Rehearsal and other elements then help to shape and sculpt those ideas into something more tangible, but for me the design elements of a show tell just as much of a story as the words do and are just as much a member of the cast as any of the actors.
Katrin: Right from the start. But that’s a starting point for the conversation with a designer, not an end point. If it were, I wouldn’t need a designer, just a technical director to make my ideas work in the theatre. But the collaboration is so much more. The same goes for my work with the costume designer, lighting designer, sound designer. My notions are jumping off points, but designers are part of my team because I admire their particular talent, their creative minds, their flights of fancy.
Kacey: All of it – the first few times I read a script I imagine grand possibilities; what turns out to be possible within any given production is another thing entirely. Which is good, since honing in on both the ‘possible,’ and what best serves the story saves the audience from a very long surrealist spectacle.
Brian: Actually I start thinking about design quite early. There have been productions I’ve directed where some of the earliest ideas I had were for a specific set piece. I was directing a production of Wonder of the World by David Lindsay-Abaire a few years back and one of the earliest ideas I had was for a multi-functional set piece. It was a desk with a detachable hula hoop affixed to one side of the table top. In early scenes it was a hotel vanity with the hoop serving as the mirror, then turned around and placed on a platform the hoop became the wheel of a boat, and finally the hoop detached in one scene to become the wheel of a car. I sketched this idea out really early on and it wound up leading to a wonderful collaboration with the set designer on a theme for the show. The hula hoop led us to incorporate other toy elements into the design (a tiny toy boat, toy helicopters) which helped enhance the sense of wackiness and whimsy in the story. In another recent show, I knew I wanted a floor lamp that later, when the shade was taken off, would become an IV stand for a hospital scene. My lighting designer was able to rig a flat bulb inside the IV bag. It was pretty cool.
Joan: I’m a visual thinker. Words for me form images. The design process is with me from the start as soon as I read the play. The way I work, I consider myself the “lead designer.” With that said, I rely on my design team to collaborate with me to tell the story through the visual. The designers I work with are excellent dramaturges. We work together to agree on a conceptual approach to the world of the play. Then each designer comes to me with the practical application that takes into account the resources available to that specific production. I like having the designs 90% complete before I cast my show.
Janet: Set: usually, nothing arises until actors are on their feet and we develop an architecture for the play that is rooted in the text and our interaction with it. Occasionally, I have envisioned physical realms once I see the space and if the text seems to beg for it in advance – example: When I directed The Pillowman, I was given a wide apron that enabled me to have three separate locations like stations of a cross. Light: I see lights more than the set usually (possibly because I have worked in low-budget situations 🙂 Sound is my thing. Sound is my favorite – I am also a composer and have sound designed most of the plays I’ve directed. Costume and props are best left to the designers’ imaginations unless something in the script screams for attention.
Cat: Oh boy. This one’s difficult to explain. I don’t see images, I feel “essences.” Same with casting. I don’t see a 6-foot blonde – I feel “fragile hostility cloaked by sarcasm.” So with design, I don’t see a bar – I feel layers of “antique structures, antique emotions, hidden places, shadows.” That kind of thing. Then I get together with designers and they build upon those feelings -adding, subtracting and modifying them- and make them concrete.
Luke: Site-specific shows and venues offer unique challenges, oftentimes presenting unexpected obstacles to overcome and unique problems to solve. I am the sort of person who loves a challenge and so it is very rewarding to figure out how to deal with those sorts of things. I think my favourite thing though is the almost visceral response of the audience. It’s like the performance is growing organically out of the essence of everyone in the room and reacting to every element.
Katrin: I enjoy the subversiveness of using a space that has a pragmatic, real-life purpose for something completely “other.” Something playful, creative, not grounded in a literal usage. It allows the audience to re-imagine that same space, to rethink it. Which then opens the door to other kinds of re-imagining, of re-thinking.
Kacey: The very first theatre-thing I did in New York was a site specific play that I directed and co-produced. It was set in two different locations, a bar and a cafe, but the problem was we had the script, the cast, and the production schedule before we had the locations. The most challenging part of the whole project was convincing the venues to let us in- especially as someone utterly new to the city. I ended up walking door to door to establishments all over the West Village and Lower East Side until a woman who ran a hat shop told me she might have a lead, which led to another lead which led to Holiday Cocktail Lounge, which has since sadly closed, and The Crooked Tree, which still some of the best crepes that I know of in New York. My favorite thing about site-specific plays are the New York establishments like Quinn’s that consistently support performances by giving us the space and time we need to create. Places like these are part of what keeps New York possible for artists of all kinds.
Brian: In general, I like the sense that theatre can take place anywhere; that we don’t need to be in a specifically designed building with specific technology or a ‘stage’ per-se to make theatre. I know I’m butchering the Peter Brook quote but it’s something like “A person walks into a space and another person is watching. That’s all that’s needed for an act of theatre to be engaged.” That said, I also like when the site you’re doing theatre in is specific. You automatically have lots of atmospheric elements to help set the scene and engage the audience to co-create the story that’s taking place. For the Icon Plays, we’ll already have a bar, and stools, and a faint smell of beer, and noise from downstairs. Add stories and actors, shake well and serve.
Joan: Site–specific productions have a natural authenticity that is hard to match in the confines of a traditional theater. A site-specific production immerses the audience in a way that promotes belief rather than hoping to suspend disbelief.
Janet: Well, for one thing, I think that more of my friends will come see it because it’s in a bar! I suppose many have alluded to the exciting idea of creating performance spaces anywhere – that the configuration of a typical theatrical space can be limiting. I guess for me what’s exciting about a site-specific play (if a great site is acquired) is that real locations carry their own catalog of association – something beyond a constructed set. A real place carries history and meaning like real people so it is quite thrilling to see the text made flesh not only by humans with history, but also by an organic piece of the world.
Cat: I’m typically not overly fond of site-specific plays, as it can mean some loss of production values. But in the case of the NYC Icon Plays, being able to work directly at Quinn’s bar has added immeasurably to the ability to tell the story of this particular play. Knowing that the structure we are working within has it’s own history and “antique emotions” puts me and the actors in the perfect spot to build this production.
Luke: Mrs. Jansen Isn’t Here Now – By Steven Korbar. It is a story of discovery, imagination, expectation and union, and so, in answer to this question, I would like to post two quotes. Take from them what you will:
“Nothing is perfect. Life is messy. Relationships are complex. Outcomes are uncertain. People are irrational.” – Hugh Mackay “There is a time for risky love. There is a time for extravagant gestures. There is a time to pour out your affections on one you love. And when the time comes – seize it, don’t miss it.” – Max Lucado
Katrin: The Barmaid, Part 1 and 2, by Allan Knee. This will be the third time doing one version of The Barmaid, and it’s always with the same actress, Marguerite Forrest, but different men every time. I guess a girl has needs…
Kacey: Assumptions or as we’ve been calling it behind the scenes – “The Bear Suit Play” by Annette Storckman. This play requires a bear suit. The rest I’m not ready to give away.
Brian: I’m directing Overdue by Penny Jackson featuring Elizabeth Bell and Kevin Woods. I’ll just answer this in the form of a multiple choice quiz question. Penny Jackson’s Overdue will contain:
A. Singing B. Dancing C. Kissing D. All of the above
Joan: Polly Amorous, which is comedy by Ron Burch. I was a judge for the Unchained Love Playwriting Competition sponsored by Open Love New York. I read a number of scripts and was intrigued by Ron Burch’s telling of the story of how a single man looking for love finds it in an unconventional relationship. The script did not win the competition, but it impressed me enough to direct it.
Janet: Weird Around the Baby by Judith Leora. The bartender in Weird Around the Baby is both emotional and surly – at our first meeting, I discovered why Tommy Buck is beyond perfect for this role: he has just recently quit bar-tending after growing very jaded by the scene. I had all of these questions to ask about his character, but he was already on it. I told him, “Tommy, you don’t need me. This is the beauty of great casting. My job is done. I just have to find that damned baby carrier/car seat prop!” And I could say this about Lori Kee (Steff) and Adam Sullivan (Erik) as well. I am the luckiest director in the world!
Cat: The play I’m directing was written by Bruce A! Kraemer, who is also the producer of Ego Actus. Yearn presents itself as a typical “girl meets boy then loses him” type story, but with a twist. All I’m going to add is that you will probably start judging men by their footwear very soon!
Katrin: Artists -and I do include directors in that, though it’s sometimes debated- don’t have careers, they have bodies of work. Create something you can be proud of, with every production keep working on making it the best it can be, and you’ll keep growing. That’s what matters.
Kacey: The best advice anyone ever gave me about New York was this: “It’s not the city itself- the buildings and streets are just shells without the people you get to work with.” I think there is always something self-inventing about the best artists I’ve encountered in New York. Either they were willing to build new lives in new places for the glimmer of a chance to work with great talent, or they invent those opportunities themselves and become the talent everyone falls over themselves to be near.
Joan: Take advantage of all the different kinds of environments you can direct in. I am the artistic director of the independent company Ego Actus. I direct for my company, but I also direct for other theater companies. I enjoy both situations. When I’m directing for my company I have more control of the production as a co-producer. When I work for other companies I enjoy working with a wider range of cooperating artists.