Monday, January 4, 2016

How I Became An Interim Artistic Director

How I Became An Interim Artistic Director

This post is the first of an ongoing series about my adventures and escapades as the Interim Artistic Director at the Hangar Theatre in Ithaca, New York.  

How did I become an interim artistic director?

Four hours before I boarded a plane to Istanbul, I received an email from Margaret B. Shackell, the president of the Hangar Theatre Board.  The artistic director was stepping down. I had been recommended. Was I interested in applying for the Interim Artistic Director position at the Hangar Theatre, in Ithaca, New York?

You bet your ass I was.

I thought about emailing Margaret back, but then decided against it – I would be in transit for a day, and I knew they wanted to act fast.  Besides, everybody knows that fortune favors the bold. So instead I googled her and discovered she was also an accounting professor at Cornell.  I found her office number online. When I called, it rolled to voicemail. Her cellphone number was on the outgoing message. I called her cell.  She picked up. I told her I really wanted this job, and I would write a letter before I got on the plane. (Thanks, Rafa, for packing for us both – I’d love to pretend this is because I had to write that letter, but we both know you’d have done it anyway because I hate packing so very very much)

The Hangar Theatre is a 350-seat thrust in Ithaca. The first summer I spent there was in 2001, as a Drama League Directing Fellow.  The second was two years later, when then-Artistic Director Kevin Moriarty invited me back to direct Julius Caesar with the Lab Company, which would later be re-mounted as a school tour.  Here are a list of people I met during those two summers with whom I’m still in touch, all this time later:

Dana Harrell
David Snider
Lindsey Gates
Kevin Moriarty
Lisa Bushlow
Bob Moss
Kali Quinn
Lyndsay Ruotolo
Tom Picasso
Josh Canfield
Courtney Bell
Noshir Dalal
Jennifer Joan Thompson
Amy Schluennes
Emily Fink
Ian Lowe
Jade Rothman
Rachel Fleit
Dan Knechtges
Wendy Dann 
Adam Zonder

That’s how many I can list off the top of my head, and the easiest way for me to show how influential those summers were to me.  The inimitable and magic nature of the Hangar didn’t stop for me with the people I met and the collaborations I formed. It had to do with what was expected of me as an artist.  

As a Hangar Drama League director, working in the Wedge (the experimental second stage) was the first time in my professional life that I was given the space to choose what I wanted to direct. It was a luxury to which I was so unused that it bewildered me at first: what kind of work did I want to make? What was important to me? What did I need to communicate to the world?

I did not direct this Wedge show but I found the picture online and I loved it so I'm using it because the internet didn't exist when I was in the Lab. Neither did electricity.
I directed four (4!) plays that summer: The Liddy Plays by Brooke Berman (world premiere), Orilla del Mundo by Hillary Bell (original musical), Peter Rabbit and Me (KIDDSTUFF) and The Pelican by Strindberg.  I think it’s safe to say that the Hangar is the only place where someone could have directed two world premieres, a children’s play, and one of Strindberg’s most nefarious drawing room plays all in the span of two months.

When I returned, two summers later, to work on Julius Caesar, I brought with me two designers whose work and friendship would have profound influences on me in the future: Oana Botez on costumes, and Mimi Lien on sets (MacArthur Genius Grant Recipient, 2015).  It was the first time I got to direct Shakespeare professionally. It was where I met and first cast Lab Company member Jennifer Joan Thompson, with whom I've worked at least ten times since, including my off-Broadway premiere. Jennifer is also a writer now, and I was honored when she asked me to direct her first piece, Booksmart at Studio Tisch.  Fellow Vassar alum Emily Robin Fink and Noshir, this awesome ninja I’d met in Rochester a few years earlier were in that production as well, as you will see when you check out the awesome lab video we’re making this year.

Downtown Ithaca.  I mean, come on.
I’ve had the privilege of directing at Syracuse Stage a few times over the last decade, during Tim Bond’s tenure (and whoever takes over – please remember me! I love it there!).  At least once during every rehearsal process, I’d drive down to Ithaca, poke my head into the Hangar, admire the renovation, and say hi to whoever was in the office downtown.  It’s that kind of place.  It stays with you. I’ve directed god-knows how many productions at this point in my life, professionally and at colleges, but the ones I did at the Hangar stay with me. I remember the people I met there.  It changes you.  It had a huge influence on me as a young artist, and continues to do so now that I’m no longer that young of an artist.

You bet your ass I wanted that job.

The 2016 season, which out-going Artistic Director Jen Waldman had already chosen, is glorious.

In Istanbul, I found out I would be granted an interview. Two days later, over Skype, from Bulgaria, said interview occurred by the Search Committee (comprised of Margaret, a few other board members and Managing Director Josh Friedman).    Luckily, I had been a finalist to be the Artistic Director of a LORT theater a few months before, so I could anticipate many of the questions that would be asked.  

Here are some of them:

  1. What kind of artists do you like to work with?
  2. What role do you think the Hangar should play in its community?
  3. Describe your leadership style.
  4. Which plays would you want to direct and how would you market the season?
  1. What kind of artists do you like to work with?
An Upstarts Event.
I answered this question with the criteria I use to determine whether or not I’m going to ask someone to join my NYC-theater company, The Upstart Creatures.  Every other month, the Upstarts present a reading of a socio-politically relevant play and prepare a four-course meal to accompany the piece.  And the whole thing is free. We don’t get paid to rehearse, we don’t get paid to cook. And we pride ourselves on presenting top-caliber readings and delicious food. 

The criteria I use is: brilliant, hard-working, and kind.  Brilliant is a must. We work in a saturated market.  As the e-mails flooding the Hangar casting e-mail account remind me daily, the competition in our field is crushing.  That means that brilliance is the price of admission.  Next,  given the relatively challenging material our company is drawn to (one of our criteria for the plays we pick: if you can see it on Broadway, we don’t need to do it), the only way to present a reading of the caliber that will make us proud is by using hard-working actors who are willing to work on the material outside of the 4-hour rehearsal we schedule, the way any director worth their salt needs 10 hours of prep to knock a reading out of the ballpark.  Finally, when you’re in a kitchen with 75 people waiting to be fed and not a dish is ready, you better believe you want the people around you to be kind.  Just like, when you’re in the last hour of a ten-out-of-twelve and a prop breaks and a costume tears and a scene that we never quite got in the rehearsal room feels even worse on stage, if the people you’re working with aren’t kind, you will never find your way to a solution. Also, why not be kind? You’ll live longer.

2.                What role do you think the Hangar should play in its community?

I’ve always loved the idea of a regional theater being not just a place to go to see plays, but where the people of the community spend real time. That’s how I answered the second question.  To use my husband’s business talk, what’s the added value that an audience member gets with their ticket value?

3.                Describe your leadership style.

Like most interesting things, leadership style is difficult to describe, but I tried nonetheless.  As a director, my favorite response to a question has become, “I don’t know.”  In my 20s, this was incredibly difficult for me to say – as a young director, and a young artist, and a young person, I wanted to know. I felt like I needed to know.  And the worst kind of collaborators make you feel bad for not knowing.  But as I matured into my 30s, I found the joy in not knowing.  That a director can do all the prep, all the research, know the script intimately, and still allow themselves to be surprised in rehearsals. It took me 15 years to begin to make sense of what JoAnne Akalaitis had been screaming at me for three years at Juilliard.

4.                Which plays would you want to direct and how would you market the season?

Finally, there was the season itself.  I felt anxiety from the board about this – would I be interested in producing a season I hadn’t chosen?  Maybe, with a different season, the answer would’ve been different.  But (and this will be one of the many places I will thank Outgoing Artistic Director Jen Waldman), I loved this season. I was wild about this season.   Running the Upstarts, I had learned that I needed to be as excited about a play I was producing as I needed to be about a play I was directing. That’s not a low bar.  The Hangar 2016 season, however, made this easy for me.

12 Portions of Pasta, made by the Upstart Creatures.
I Loved, I Lost, I Made Spaghetti is a one-woman show about a woman making Italian food that she serves to the audience while discussing the rollercoaster ride of her love life and her romantic escapades.  I assured the board that I was the only director they’d interviewed who had made pasta, from scratch, for 75 people (for the Upstarts reading of You Are (If You Think You Are) by Pirandello, directed by Suzanne Agins).  Food + theater is my jam, so to speak.  

In The Heights is possibly the second-best musical ever written, (after Hamilton), also written by Lin-Manuel Miranda.  This is a musical about New York City (where I’ve lived for 20 years), about immigrants (I am an immigrant to this country, having moved from Israel when I was 6), and about the American Dream (hello, my life).  When I think about what’s happening in this country right now, a musical with this kind of diversity feels important, the way art needs to be important.

Constellations is a stunning two-hander about love and possibility that was part of MTC’s Sloan Project.  Two years ago, I received a Sloan Grant to write a play about the Ancient Roman scientist/philosopher Lucretius and his stunning epic treatise on physics and love and the world, De Rerum Natura. This is a smart play. This is a play that would need a really smart director. I knew who I wanted to direct this play immediately, and that made me very excited about producing it.

And Third, the last play written by Wendy Wasserstein.  Well, let’s just say that since Wendy passed away ten years ago (actually, nine years and eleven months, but who’s counting?), I feel like she’s been up there, looking down, helping me out when she can. This was one of those times.

Eddie Boroevich and Kathryn Grody in our original production of Third at Theater J.
I worked as Wendy’s typist for the last five years of her life. I was having dinner with Wendy when she met the wrestler who inspired this story. I directed the premiere of this play in Washington, D.C. when it was just a 60-minute two-hander. I sat in the walk-in closet with Wendy, late at night with Lucy sleeping in the main room, as she read to me the pages she had just scribbled that introduced the third character.  After a successful run in D.C., I developed the piece with Wendy into a full-length play.  I can say, with some confidence, that I know that play better than anyone else alive right now.

So, yeah, I could produce this season.

I talked about how I would market each play (I thought I’d flubbed this one horribly, but later Margaret told me I hadn’t, which was nice).  There were other questions – about time commitments, about the Lab Company (I’m going to devote another post in its entirety about the lab company because I’m so psyched about it), about Ithaca.  I flubbed  a few. I made some jokes, which luckily the wi-fi connection was strong enough to convey with some kind of authenticity over Skype. A few days later, back in the states, I was invited to chat with Adam Zonder, the production manager at the Hangar.
The one and only Adam Zonder

Adam has been at the Hangar for twenty years.  He is the institution’s living memory.  He can recite the budget and schedule for the summer with the kind of confidence and knowledge that I find somewhere between impressive and intimidating. As one board member joked with me later, “Just do what Adam says and you’ll be fine.”

Adam was the Production Manager both summers I had spent at the Hangar in the early ‘00s. Luckily, he didn’t hold the way I behaved then (I was young, alright!) against me. In his perfectly frank, undecorated way, he told me what was possible this summer and what wasn’t.  He told me what had worked in the past and what hadn’t.

It is easy, when you’ve never run a theater before, to be seduced by the trust and the power and the responsibility of the job. Adam was sobering without dampening my enthusiasm. He made the job real.

The one and only Josh Friedman
The next day I had an even longer meeting with the Managing Director, Josh Friedman.   Josh and I talked effortlessly – it has already turned out to be both a blessing and a curse, how easily (and much) he and I like to talk. But that meeting wasn’t an interview. It was a conversation, and it harkened back to a piece of advice my Vassar College directing mentor (and now good friend) Chris Grabowksi gave me when I was chubby and closeted and interviewing with Michael Kahn, JoAnne Akalaitis and Garland Wright for Juilliard: make it into a dialogue. You’re going to be spending a lot of time with these people. See how easy that time can be, while still conveying what you need to get across.  

And most of all (and I know it’s become so clichéd it’s almost not worth repeating) but be yourself. The weirder you are, the more important this is. There would be no point in me putting on a three-piece suit and presenting myself to the Board as an experienced administrator. If that’s who they wanted for this job, they wouldn’t have given me an interview. And if I managed to fool them and get the job by presenting myself that way, what a bore to have to be that.

Know who you are and sell that. I am a man-child. I am weird and funny and make jokes about my weight (I’m passing on carbs these days so that I don’t return from Mexico Jabba-sized) and my hair (I don’t wear it - it wears me). At the same time, I started and am still running a successful New York theater company, but our operating budget is in the mid-four digits. I have supported myself as a freelance director, sans trust fund, sans day job, sans inheritance, sans any of those things.  I know what makes a play good, and a good play. Twenty years in New York has given me access to an incredible network of artists. I will have lots to learn about how to run a theater. I will make mistakes. I will give it everything. I will be as a brilliant, hard-working and kind as I possibly can. If that’s who you want, give me the job.

Apparently, that’s who they wanted. I got the job the next day.

Monday, October 12, 2015

An Open Letter To Meg Rosoff

Dear Meg Rosoff,

You have totally missed the point. 

I wish I didn't feel compelled to write you this. It has been a long day for me - I started by making a pot of turkey chocolate chili, then attended a preview for Perfect Arrangement, the off-Broadway show I'm directing, then hosted a meeting for my theater company, where I served aforementioned turkey chili. I would much rather be reading about my friends' outrage on Facebook  about the Oregon Shakespeare Festival's project to translate the Bard's 39 plays, or playing board games online, or watching Attack on Titan.  But when someone is so off the mark in a such a public and egregious manner, it demands correction. It is National Coming Out Day, for god's sake.

The heart of the matter is that everyone deserves to have the experience of reading about themselves.  Yes, of course, you don't have to be a woman in an unhappy marriage in turn-of-the-century Russia who commits suicide by jumping in front of a moving train to appreciate Anna Karenina.

But if you've never had the experience of seeing and reading yourself in a story, you start feeling like your story isn't worth telling. Which isn't that far from feeling like your life isn't as important as those other lives you keep reading about.

Yes, a great story transports you. A great story makes you empathize and sympathize with people and situations you've never imagined.  I would never follow the advice of three witches and kill the king of Scotland to assume his throne. But yes, in a great production of the unmentionable play, I totally get why Mackers has done it all.  

But still, am I wrong for wanting to see queer characters? Armenian protagonists? Non-Israeli Jews? About-to-be-forty-year-olds who have dedicated their lives to the not-for-profit arts and only sometimes regret it?

This is why diversity in story-tellers is so important: so that diverse stories are told authentically.

“Books do not have a job,” you write, then follow up with, “Books are to teach kids about the world.” But isn't that a job? Why do you feel like your definition of a book's job is more valid than someone else's? And since queer black boys exist in the world, wouldn't it behoove a non-queer, non-black boy to read about that character's perspective to learn about the world?

Any attempt to define what books can do is reductive, because books can do anything and everything.

This isn't an "or". This is an "and." Books can teach about the world AND expose us to infinite perspective and character, AND change the world, AND help me get through my rehearsal process, as all 1400 pages of N. K. Jemisin's beautiful Inheritance Trilogy just did. Let books be everything.

Thursday, July 23, 2015

What I've Learned About Auditions or, A Love Letter to NY Actors

 What I've Learned About Auditions or, A Love Letter to NY Actors

The first time I cast a show using a full, professional audition process was about ten years ago. As I sat in the room with the casting director, the reader, and the artistic director, I suddenly realized that I had no idea what the hell I was doing. I had sat in on auditions before, mostly for directors whom I was assisting, but that was just a spattering of understudies. I had no idea how much I was supposed to work the actors, if I could interrupt them before they were done with the side, or even how to choose a good side, for that matter.  I didn’t know anything.

I’ve been through this process a many times since then, for off-Broadway, regional and off-off Broadway theaters.  This is a post for directors (about what I’ve learned) and for actors (about what I’ve observed). 

(From L to R): Producers Mark Johannes and Amy Danis of MARS Theatricals, moi, playwright Topher Payne, Producer Dan Shaheen, Michelle Bossy, and Casting Director Stephanie Klapper. 


1.     Use ten-minute slots

Be civilized.  Five minutes just isn’t enough time, because an audition isn’t just about the actor  showing you what work s/he has done. It’s about you working with the actor, and the only way you’ll have enough time to do that is if you use ten-minute slots and if you…

2.     Choose short sides.

Seriously, you know in the first 30 seconds if the actor and the role are the right fit. Don’t waste their time preparing ten pages. If you need to see ten pages, you’re a horrible director.  Besides, short sides allow you time to work with the actors, which leads me to….


3.     Work with the actor

Any actor worth their salt, as was EVERY SINGLE ACTOR that I saw this week, comes to the audition prepared, focused, intelligent and rehearsed.  They worked on their sides, looked great, got up that morning, put their audition outfit together and traveled to studio in horrible humidity from all over the city, and sometimes further. One actor (to whom we made an offer) commuted down from the Berkshires  for both the audition and the callback a few days later.  Treat every actor as if they’re traveled that far. 

Even if you don’t think they’re going to get a call back, they might be right for something else you work on.  You might learn something about the part or the role.  They’ve traveled all that way.  See what they can do. And show them what you want. They’re not just auditioning for you – the actor you want might get a conflicting offer, and then they’ll have to choose which project they’re going to work on. How you treat them in the rehearsal room might be an important factor. You’re auditioning for them, too.

4.     Be present

I was exhausted after my week of auditions, they same way I would’ve been after a week of rehearsals. That’s actually a great way to think about auditions: as a series of short rehearsals.  Like rehearsals, they require you to be present so that you can respond to the choices the actor is making. The director is an audience of one. Be the kind of audience member you would like to attend one of your own shows: present, kind, and easily delight-able.

And if you think the actor isn’t reading for the right role, ask them if they mind taking a few minutes to look at a different side. This happens even with a great casting director, and don’t be scared about asking them to look at a different part (another one of our offers is out to an actress who was game enough to read for someone else with no notice). Be especially sensitive if you’re asking the actor to read for a part that’s smaller, or older. But ultimately, I think actors would rather read for a role that they actually had a shot of getting.


5.     Don’t call someone back you don’t think you’re going to cast

Don’t waste their time because they’re your friend, or you think they’re cute, or you saw them in a show a few years ago and they were amazing and even though they’re not right for this part, wouldn’t it be fun to spend a few more minutes with them?  You are taking hours out of this actor’s life. Don’t do it in vain.

6.     Tell them what you want to see

You’ve called them back for a reason, right? Tell them why – tell them what you and the people in the room responded to, and tell them what you’d still like to see. It shouldn’t be mysterious or enigmatic. You have an idea about the part, they’re bringing something that you’ve responded to.  Identify the space between those things and let them show you what they can do.


7.     Email your friends when you know you’re not going to cast them

I described auditioning to my husband like this, “Imagine interviewing twenty of your best friends for a job for which they’re over-qualified, then not being able to hire most of them because there are only three slots.”  He looked horrified. That’s what we have to go through.

Your relationship with your actor friends has to be strong enough to withstand that kind of pressure, and it’s your job to make it as easy as possible. Reach out to them. Tell them they were wonderful. Thank them for coming in.  As the director, you job is to see as many brilliant actors as you can, so that your show has as many options as possible.  As a friend your job is to thank your friends for making that possible.

Your friends will thank you, and write you back, and be so kind that you’ll be amazed.  And if one of them sends you a drunken email at 2AM berating you for not casting them, let it go and tell them you love them. Be a lover, not a fighter.

In many ways, I think, this post is a love letter to the pavement-pounding actors of New York.  Actors are New York’s best and brightest, one of this city’s most potent natural resource.  I could’ve cast my show three times over from the people we saw.  And actors, how do you get off-book so quickly?  I don’t just mean sort of off-book.  I mean like totally and 100% off-book.  And how do you take adjustments and change your performance just like that?  It’s really amazing. You’re really amazing. You are the greatest subsidizers of art in this country.

Bless you all.

p.s.  And please comment - there is so much mystery around the auditioning process, and one of my goals in this post was to blow that open, and get a dialogue going about what you like in auditions, what you don't.  Talk to me!