Interviews with NYC's Indie Theatre Directors
Today we are joined by some of the directors from the Midtown International Theatre Festival, who will tell us a little bit about their shows, their challenges and the joys of directing in a festival setting.
1. How did you become connected with this project?
Lirman: The writer and composer created this play for a 24-hour play festival at Columbia University this past spring. I was involved in a different show at the same festival and loved the musical they somehow came up with in less than 6 hours. Fernanda Douglas, the composer, told me at a party one evening that the show had been accepted into MITF and I jumped at the opportunity to be a part of this great show!
Hershman: The playwright, Sean Pollock, and I went to college together and have worked together in the past. We were hanging out one day when he said he had a play that he thought I might be interested in. He sent it to me, I read it, and then we met up and decided that we had to hear it read. We pulled together a small reading and it took off from there. We knew we had a really cool piece that we had to share and found an amazing cast and crew.
Bruck: I am both the director of “Life in the Big City” as well as the playwright and I created this project after having written two heavy dramas. I decided it was time to write and direct a comedy, something I had not done in quite a long time. I feel people want to laugh and enjoy themselves at the theater more than ever at this time when we are deluged with so much shockingly sad news.
Kosik: I have been connected with this project since the start. My relationship with the playwright goes back to the moment he was conceived.
Chikazunga: This project came to me out of an idea. Pretty much the theme of “race and grief” as it has been my experience most people all look at them both separately and differently. I was struggling with it… Always felt there was something missing from it and didn’t quite know what to do with it and after seeing a friend’s piece in the festival over the spring I felt this might be a great way to develop and learn about what else might be underneath these characters. Directing two shows in this festival has taught me so much about these two plays that I may not have learned otherwise (unless in a workshop environment).
Warren: I’m directing my own script at the festival, so I’ve been connected from the beginning! I wrote Why Are You Nowhere? in the winter of 2014, as we worked on post-production on my feature film West of Her. I wanted to experiment with writing something purely to my own taste, rather than worrying about pleasing an audience, so I indulged some of my weirder urges, choosing a theatre of the absurd lens through which to view an idea I’d had kicking around for a family drama. I always imagined it would just be an experiment, but I ended up loving this strange little script so much that I felt compelled to see if there might be an audience for it, and after being accepted to MITF, the script won the Inkslinger award and will have its world-premiere full staging in February of 2017 in Louisiana. So it looks like writing something specific that I loved might have been a good angle after all!
Moss: My background is both as a writer and director, so I very much enjoy creating and directing my own projects. I wrote The Crusade of Connor Stephens several years ago, and directed a successful AEA staged reading of the project before making developmental rewrites. Though the story of a gay couple dealing with the school shooting of their adopted daughter isn’t a personal account, elements of the play are quite personal in terms of having grown up in Texas as a gay male and experiencing the issues one faces in such a religious atmosphere. However with the show not being autobiographical, it allows me to separate myself from the writing, and approach the project much as I would any other project as director.
Miranda: I created this project as a way to cast a light on chronic pain. I perform and directed it because I felt I could sympathize with the patients I portray in my show. Seeing numerous people suffering from chronic pain I felt compelled to be performer and director.
Waugh: Beth Newbery reached out to me about directing Ellen and Troy and Eloise by Warren Paul Glover back at the end of March. I read the script and wanted to be a part of this wonderful play. Beth informed Warren that I was on board. I have been part of the project from the beginning.
Aladren: I came in contact with Mona Curtis, the playwright of The Post Modernist, through Sheila McDevitt, whom I met while directing for Id Theatre in NYC. I love that group and their commitment to playwrights, so I was up for any plays and playwrights they sent my way.
Van Houten: As the writer, I’ve been involved with the project since the beginning but the idea was never for me to direct it until our director fell through and when things like that happen we just do what has to be done and it has been significantly more rewarding since taking on this additional role.
Lally: This project was originally produced in 2009 for the Metropolitan Playhouse’s Annual Author Festival. In 2009 the festival was called “Melvillapalooza” and was dedicated to adaptations and/or new works inspired by Melville. I directed the original production and I am happy to be back at the helm again with half the cast rejoining us and half the cast new actors to the project.
Shin: I was a member of a Korean traditional culture club in my college years. I became interested in Korean myths and tales since that time. I found this tale of Anggwaengyi, the shoe burglar. And then, I waited until I got a chance to stage the tale. When I got the chance I created the synopsis and called Ye-seong Hong, the playwright, to have her write the script. And then, since it is my first musical show, I hired an experienced musical actor and had him train my other actors, as the musical director. I worked on the initial script with the musical team. When we get good ideas for scenes and lyrics I have Ye-seong rewrite the script. We repeated this creation sequence. And I called Kyoung sook Choi, a composer, to have her compose songs for our show. I did similar sequence with songs. That is how my creative process went. From this process as a base, I directed the show.
O’Shay: My girlfriend, Samantha Kahn (Cast as “Floor”), saw the “Furniture” listing on Backstage and sent it my way! The production team was looking for a director, as well as cast, and I applied for the director position. After some discussion regarding my style and goals as a director, they hired me to help them bring their passion and work to life on stage.
Raider-Ginsburg: Jacques Lamarre is dreamy, especially for a director. He’s funny, inclusive, supportive, genius, oh yea AND a playwright who likes to work with me. Four years ago, I asked Jacques to accompany me to an all-you-can-eat buffet lunch so that I could get caught up with him and hear about his new projects. As we were (or I was) filling up my plate for the third time Jacques told me that he had just finished a new play, Born Fat, a really important play about the obesity epidemic in America. I stopped eating and started listening. At the time I was putting together a series of new plays that dealt with health issues and this one I wanted to direct. I worked with Jacques on a staged reading and it was terrific. Then two years later our opportunity came to stage a fully realized version and again – it was a blast! Audiences loved it and were moved to their feet every time they heard this story. Jacques been able to drop some lbs with the Born Fat Challenge, I’m still working on it.
Parker: A colleague, Joan Kane, was swamped and asked me if I’d be interested in directing this piece. I said, “Send me the script” fully believing that I’d turn it down (there are a lot of bad scripts out there!). But one read of Vivian Neuwirth’s script and I was hooked! New Orleans, Pulitzer Prizes, a love-struck student, a genius teacher, a mother who’s love is both inspirational and soul-killing – and all based on a true story! There was no way I could resist directing Mr. Toole.
2. What’s the most valuable piece of advice that you’ve received, or would like to share with others, about directing in a festival environment?
Lirman: Revel in the chaos.
Hershman: The most valuable piece of advice I’ve been given about directing is that a director has to be a leader among equals and it’s okay to not know every answer, in fact it’s often preferred. You brought on all of these wonderful people to collaborate with, make sure you’re not the only one talking.
Bruck: Don’t be so rigid. As a director, I find that I sometimes must sometimes adapt to the actor’s limitations and utilize his or her strengths. Not every actor is Robert DeNiro or Meryl Streep. So in order to make a piece work, that sometimes involves some rewriting. I am not advising any director to rewrite another playwright’s dialogue, only if it’s your own work, but as a director you can make suggestions to your playwright. As for directing in a festival environment, I have encountered the hardest working actors who will give it there all and what could be better than that?
Kosik: Be generous to other participants and the theater staff whenever the opportunity arises, whether it’s praise for teamwork, thanks for being welcomed, or offers to assist with props.
Chikazunga: The most valuable piece of advice I have received and can proudly share is “less is always more.” I say that in regards to what you need and what you don’t need to put up a show. Don’t get me wrong – the more help you have in the collaborative process the better but knowledge is always power. And most importantly communication is key. For example, I am not technically savvy yet use some of it in my work. In fact I mainly just use lights and have yet to use music. The same goes for voice overs. There was a spot where I had voiceovers in both my plays and I found two separate ways to effectively get the message across without technology. In 3 The Hard Way— I discovered this actually in the audition room. So eager to get these two actors together at callbacks-hearing a similar sound was somewhat familiar and I knew I would go home and implement the adjustment in the script later on that evening. In The Eye of the Wake it was a moment thing. As I was reading it with a friend (whom has helped me in the past with hearing my work) something came to me to just “let the actor do it and say “F it” to technology.
Warren: This is my first theater festival, so I’ll have a much better answer in a few months, but so far, I’ve certainly observed that launching an unknown quantity like this play under the banner of the festival has garnered me a lot more respect and interest than if I were to have tried mounting a staged reading on my own. So having your production under the umbrella of an established quantity as you get started is certainly a plus, not to mention the support I’ve received from the festival already.
Moss: Be economical and concentrate on telling a good story! I think festival audiences are unique – the majority of the time they like the idea of seeing a performance “in the raw” and feel like they are seeing something that’s just beginning to get off the ground. With limited time to set up/breakdown, I think the most successful shows are ones that suggest necessary script requirements in terms of sets and other features, but don’t go overboard. “The play’s the thing,” as they say. A festival audience can walk out fully satisfied and excited by a production if the story is well-told, even if there’s nothing on stage but the actors.
Miranda: I was told “on paper it is good but now you have to give the performance of a lifetime.” also “it’s never gonna feel perfect but give it your most perfect shot.”
Waugh: This is my first time in a festival environment so I would say make sure that the play you’re going to direct is not prop, set or costume heavy. Simple is always better.
Aladren: Actually, this was many years ago, talking to people who were participating in El Grec – the Spanish Festival that has been going on in Barcelona for a long time. They told the hot-headed selfish younger me that a festival relied on the ability to collaborate and support ALL events, that it wasn’t a competition but a communal event. And, in those events, community came first.
Van Houten: Understand exactly what is needed and communicate that to everyone you recruit for the project from day one. The festival environment is unique and comes with its own set of challenges but has just as many benefits if you familiarize yourself with what is required of you and what isn’t required.
Lally: Cooperation is the most valuable piece of advice that I can give to folks. As a veteran of several theatre festivals, it is the only way you will get anything done. You need to respect the other projects and realize that, just as you need time and help to work on your project, so do they and I’ve found that that spirit of cooperation can take you far and keep the peace and make for a better festival experience.
Shin: Communication! Since I’m an ESL speaker I’m having trouble communicating with MITF. It’s very hard for me to response all the requests from MITF in time. I strongly recommend having a communication staff to a foreign director.
O’Shay: The most valuable piece of advice I’ve been given, regarding directing, is to believe in and fight for my vision, and to never settle. If I were giving advice, I would pass the aforementioned advice along, as well as adding “Put your heart into whatever you do. Never just do something to get it done.”
Raider-Ginsburg: I’ve directed at NYFringe and what I have to say is – Go in with a crack team and know your s#%#. You have 20 minutes to get ready and the audiences will come in. Things will go wrong and the strength of the creative team will make it seem right.
Parker: Be daring. Don’t settle. Treat your team well. Protect the story at all costs.
3. Tell us about a particular directing challenge you faced with this project, or another festival project, and what resulted from it.
Lirman: We did not have a set designer, a big enough budget, or long enough load in time for a real set; so my stage manager and I decided to take on the role ourselves and were able to create the world of our show as we began working on it.
Hershman: One major challenge we’ve run into is creating the Y2K trash mountain set with a minuscule budget and also following the festival “quick strike” rules. It’s caused us to be very creative with lights, cloth, and everyday objects to create a beautiful set while still following all of our guidelines. With a play that focuses on destruction, we want to make sure that audience doesn’t miss out on any visuals due to our small budget.
It’s an amazing festival for directors at any point in their career and really gives them a shot in a city where opportunities like these are few and far between.
Bruck: Truthfully, I see no particular challenges as a director for this festival because I write simply and direct simply and that is something I keep in mind when I submit a play to a festival such as MITF. It pays to keep your cast small and your ideas grounded. After all, it’s black box theater, not Broadway. There’s a lot to be said sometimes for simplicity.
Kosik: Casting is always a challenge given I am in the Albany NY area and have to choose actors from 130 miles away.
Chikazunga: One of my biggest challenges I have ever faced with this festival project was directing two plays at once. In fact, that is the only reason I wanted to enter. However for another festival, the answer would be the ending of the play I directed last summer. The way that play was written, we followed the directions to the T and I couldn’t see the actual problem until we got into tech (in which for festivals is only about an hour or so). Anyhow, the character was to disappear and I had a light shift and then had the actor ducked away off stage. However when I looked at it, it didn’t feel right. I took a moment and asked my lighting person to just hold the lights and have the actor exit and asked how that looked. All agreed it was a lot better – and in the end more effective in the long run. It helped the character was a spirit and was leaving, and what better to way to show someone leaving then to show them actually leaving.
Warren: I live in Boston, so finding a cast in New York has been a slight challenge in that I can’t meet them in person. I accepted headshots and videos through Backstage, then chose some actors to put scenes from the play on tape and post them online for me. It’s not ideal, but it also allows you to develop a connection with the actors over time, rather than just briefly in a room–and it makes you pretty thankful to be a director in the 21st century, when this would have been difficult, if not impossible, even fifteen years ago. By the time I do meet my cast in person when I travel to New York in a few weeks, we will have developed a rapport online, which lends a sort of pleasant anticipation–sort of like getting your roommate assignment before freshman year of college, making that awkward introductory phone call, then showing up on the first day and thinking, “Gosh, I hope they’re as nice as they seem.” (My freshman roommate and I ended up being each other’s groomsmen, so I’m optimistic!)
Moss: The Crusade of Connor Stephens is what would be considered these days to be a “large” play. It has 8 cast members, a multi-level interior/exterior set, and a larger-than-life feel to some of the circumstances. The challenge is how to take all of those elements, reduce them down to a minimal intimate environment, and still make the play be as effective as it needs to be. The true test of the success of this production is for me to ask myself if what I see on stage in terms of actor’s performances and script intentions could be lifted “as is” and placed in a large-scale production. If the answer is yes, then I’ve done my job.
Miranda: Directing challenge has been the use of the space. The previous performances I had about 1/4 the space I will have at MITF (that was one reason it was a SOlo show) so now it is going to be a challenge on how to make a solo space use ‘all this space’ when in the past there weren’t many options.
Waugh: This play revolves around a sofa. Working in a festival environment, it would be hard to move one in and out in a very short time frame. So we bought an inflatable sofa bed to use and it has to be able to inflate and deflate in a very short time if it doesn’t fit in our time frame then we have to go to a plan B.
Aladren: Last year, my students and I took a piece to a NYC festival. The piece had been developed for a 50 foot proscenium, involved large scaffolding, a twelve person cast and a three person band. When we were accepted into the festival, we faced the task of fitting all of that into a 15 x 11 thrust space. In three weeks. It felt impossible, daunting, and absolutely exhilarating. We ended up with eight nominations and two awards and a bunch of young artists learning to take risks and face seemingly terrible odds with a lot of gusto.
Van Houten: One challenge in particular we faced with Matt & Maddie is that we’re performing in the beautiful Jewel Box theater that doesn’t really have wings and our show spans multiple days. To solve this multiple costumes problem without having changing onstage I assigned each character a base costume of pants and a shirt and then assigned over shirts, jackets and pajamas to be worn over them that could be quickly pulled on and off between scenes. This adds to the individuality of each character and feeling of being in a home – which most of the show is.
Lally: The directing challenge of Mr. Melville’s Playhouse was making sure that anyone could “get” the show, not just people who are familiar with Herman Melville’s works. Sure, everyone has heard of Moby Dick but not everyone knows who Billy Budd or Bartleby, the Scriviner are, aside from their titles. The trick was to make these characters real the moment they walk through the door of the playhouse. Interesting side note. We assumed everybody knew Pee Wee Herman. We actually had one audience member who knew all the Melville characters but had no idea who Pee Wee Herman is!
Shin: The cast size of my show is six. You can imagine how crowded the stage will be. I’m still working on the challenge. My show had lots of imagery; flats, visual effects and so on. I have to get rid of those imageries and have our audience use their own imagination. We will see if it makes my show look better or not.
O’Shay: The biggest challenge for me regarding this project has been the collaboration aspect. Everything I’ve directed and done thus far has been written or co-written by myself. With Furniture, I came into a musical project that had already been written, composed, and performed before, so there was a lot of catching up to be done and compromises to be made. With all of this being said, I am very excited to see this quirky and heartfelt musical comedy come to life on stage and blow audiences away.
Raider-Ginsburg: NYC Fringe had a rule that nothing could be stored at the theater. The show I directed needed 4 8×8 platforms on different size leggings and we could never haul them in and out of theater in the 20 minutes we had to load-in. So I reached out to every theater company who was using the theater space at HERE Arts Center and they all said they could use them…. So they could stay! Saving the show and our backs.
Parker: Mr. Toole takes place in a very fluid environment and flows in between many different locations. Because the festival grid couldn’t have a projector, we ended up using video monitors. This makes changing locations fast and smooth, and allows us to have details not otherwise possible.
BONUS: What makes MITF a great festival for directors to work in?
Hershman: It’s an amazing festival for directors at any point in their career and really gives them a shot in a city where opportunities like these are few and far between.
Bruck: MITF offers a great opportunity for directors to sharpen their skills while working towards a bigger goal. There is also a nice support system with MITF that starts with John Chatterton and Deborah Grimberg all the way down to the ushers who work the door. This will be my third experience with MITF.
Chikazunga: I feel this particular festival is great for directors to work because of the communication. This “isn’t their first rodeo” and the emails I get about questions are fairly spot on and in terms we can all understand and relate to.
Warren: This is my first theater festival, but my indie film, West of Her, has been making the rounds on the film festival circuit, so I’ve experienced a range of festival styles. What’s made this process so special is how involved and in-touch Deborah Grimberg and Jay Michaels have been. Some festivals definitely take a “we’ll press play on a disc, everything else is up to you” approach, while Deborah and Jay have been so motivated and motivational in helping us find ways to get our projects out there (like this interview opportunity, for example!), and that sense of investment from the festival creates a lot of good feelings in me as a creator. The relationship between venue and work is very symbiotic (the success of one certainly depends on the other) and while it’s easy to pay lip service to that, the clear care and pride that MITF takes in all our work is both meaningful and rewarding.
Moss: MITF puts the emphasis on the work itself. In fact, it’s part of their mission statement as a “no-frills” festival. How often does a director really get to strip down a lot of excess responsibilities and concentrate solely on the actors and the written word? MITF offers directors a tremendous opportunity for artistic creativity, integrity, and an audience that truly appreciates those aspects of theater.
Miranda: MITF is very supportive and they are accessible. It is easy to communicate with MITF.
Aladren: This is my first time in this rodeo. But I love festival environments. We always meet great people and develop lasting friendships. The concentration of art and artists always results in a reviving of the community at large and in the spark of new ideas.
Van Houten: MITF is a great environment for directors to work in because it allows you to focus on the story and character development without worrying about elaborate sets or excessive complications in the way of staging the piece.
Lally: I like MITF because it’s a varied festival – it’s not centered around one theme – so there are many different types of shows on a lot of different subjects. I’m excited to be part of the mix this year!
Shin: Organizing tech: making all participants a part of marketing system, making all share their means of communication with their audience, Profit sharing polish. As a festival planner, I’m learning lots of things from MITF.
Raider-Ginsburg: This is my first year – let’s talk about it over drinks, after the show!
Parker: The reputation that MITF has garnered over the years makes it a stand-out place for new works to be seen.