Interviews with NYC's Indie Theatre Directors
JK: How’d you first hear about Mr. Toole?
CP: LOL – as if you didn’t know! I heard about it from you, Joan Kane, as your plate had become quite full with all your various projects (see upcoming interview with Joan for details) and you asked me if I’d be interested in taking on this play. I demurred, said, “Let me read it first” and then fell in love with the script! Vivian Neuwirth, the playwright, really tells a wonderful story.
JK: Why were you attracted to Mr. Toole?
CP: In short, because of the story. Although the play is based on a real person and a real situation, the playwright, Vivian Neuwirth, has moved that reality into a universe of poetic memory. Time ebbs and flows, characters move seamlessly from scene to scene. I love this kind of poetic magic on the stage. At it’s heart, Mr. Toole is a love story – between people, between students and mentors, between parents and children, and between artists and their audience. The novel, A Confederacy of Dunces is the child of John Kennedy Toole’s brain, but it’s birth was fostered by so many other people, and this play touches on that, as well.
JK: What does the story and characters say to the world?
CP: Oh my – it says so much. “Don’t give up hope.” “Don’t despair if your art doesn’t fit into someone else’s box.” “People need room to breathe and grow.” I read once that every play is about loneliness, and I think that’s very true here. We all experience loneliness, and despair – especially if your way of thinking or being isn’t typical, and especially if you pay any attention to the news. And yet, most of us cannot give into that despair. We fall, but we rise back up, to start anew. T.S. Eliot’s poem asks “Do I dare disturb the universe?” And we do! This play is about making sense out of something that seems senseless to so many, to give reason to something that seems so unreasonable to those it happened to. In the end, it’s about a triumph….of sorts.
JK: What message, lesson, questions do you want your audience to walk away with after seeing your production?
CP: Humm… I’d like for them to walk away thinking about the fragile strength of art and life. I’m sure that sounds pretentious but it’s true. John Kennedy Toole had his demons, but he wrote a book (2, in fact) that has impacted people around the world. His mother, Thelma, laden with her own loss, drew strength from his work and basically forced it into the world. Our playwright, Vivian Neuwirth, has gone through her own life with this story growing inside her head, and having written it, has pushed it out into the world as well. Mr. Toole is another ripple in the legend of John Kennedy Toole, and it has come to fruition because of the strength of the people who love it.
What I’d like for them to walk away saying is “This show needs a longer run. Where can I invest?” And the answer to that is firstname.lastname@example.org. lol
JK: A great deal of the job of the director is to solve problems. How do you solve the problem of having to present the different locations
CP: Hah! This has certainly been an issue for us! The Midtown International Theatre Festival bills itself as a “no-frills” festival (a fact I found out well into the production process) using minimal and simple production values to accommodate the volume of productions and performance schedules. Our critical challenge in a script with so many locations and time frames, was having the audience understand where and ‘when’ we are at any given moment. We chose to tell the story via a series of video monitors – some horizontal, some vertical – which will give clues as to the setting and time frame of each of the scenes, sometimes realistically, and sometimes metaphorically. Our incredibly talented set designer George Allison designed the monitors all on wheels for maximum flexibility and portability, and the Festival has been very kind about helping us store them in a way that will make them accessible to the stage.
JK: How did you prepare – what did you do to prepare to direct Mr. Toole?
CP: Because this story is based on real people and a real situation, I had to factor in more research time than is typical. I had to do a lot of learning about these people, and then set it all aside. The cast and I spent time talking about the fact that although it is very helpful to have a lot of background about these individuals, the Toole’s family dynamics, and the culture and sensibility of New Orleans herself, we also need to “live” within the confines of Vivian’s play. This play is not a biography, it’s Vivian’s take – her homage – to these people and this story.
JK: I hear you have some pretty experienced and talented people in your cast – how are they dealing with the festival environment?
CP: These actors!! These people!! I’m so in love. Let me say their names: Laura Butler, Brenda Currin, Todd d’Amour, John Ingle, Lou Liberatore and Richard Vernon. Such a great group of souls, with talent, drive, brains and heart. I can’t say enough good things about them. And they have been so generous handling the challenges of working in a festival. They are a very experienced bunch – several of them fresh from Broadway, and Off-Broadway productions – and yet the lack of ego is just incredible to me. Because of the festival’s time restrictions, Vivian has had to make some cuts to the script, which is always painful for a playwright. The actors have accepted those cuts with such good grace, and I’ve been so grateful for that. They have also been terrific collaborators, sharing ideas, trying out different ways of doing things, giving so much of themselves. I wish we had more than five performances, because they have worked so hard and deserve to be seen by many more people.
And can I sing the praises of the design and support teams, too? Anyone who knows my work at all will not be surprised to learn that George Allison has created an awesome set for this show – the aforementioned monitors being chief among that. He, with some help from Eric Siegel, created all the video images and the soundscape for the show, all while teaching himself Q-lab, and working both the Republican and Democratic conventions! Kia Rogers, who’s lighting design work with Flux Ensemble I have long admired, has been pulling out the stops to do a great deal with a very basic light plot. Aileen Abercrombie is used to doing costumes for big budget films but has made magic with our tiny budget and “no time or space to change” environment. Charley Layton has brought the proper amount of New Orleans drawl into our production, and Becky Abramowitz & Earline Stephen make sure all this magic happens when it should. So wonderful to have this much support!
JK: It was such a pleasure to have this conversation with you. Directors often do not get the opportunity to share their process with other directors. I loved hearing how you tackled the problems of directing a complicated script under the bare-bones conditions provided by the MITF. Your answers remind me of a discussion I was having with my pal Jim Marlowe while working on my upcoming show Debriefing in the NYFringe. He asked “How can we make a weakness into a strength?” It sounds like you have risen to the challenge and created a production that is telling a unified story. Looking forward to see Mr. Toole!
CP: Indeed, that’s exactly how DirectorSpeak got started – as a way of learning about my directing colleagues and sharing that info with the world! Thank YOU for the convo, and for being a sport about posting it. I look forward to seeing Debriefing, too! (More on that later!)