Hamlet, Vegas, and a Big Black Box

On the occasion of the 45th Obie Awards, the Voice's Charles McNulty sat down with four theater directors--Graciela Daniele, Brian Kulick, Marianne Weems, and Evan Yionoulis--to hash out the state of their art here at the start of the 21st century

Charles McNulty: There's been an unprecedented amount of theater happening Off- and Off-Off Broadway. Should we be celebrating?

Graciela Daniele: Quantity doesn't necessarily mean quality. I'm very happy there's so much work for so many directors, designers, and actors. But having been here since 1963—when the challenges were enormous and there was no concern about being a hit, but doing your work—it feels there's not that much difference now from the mentality of Broadway. We didn't have as much work then, but there was a kind of innocence, which somehow we've lost. Maybe it's me, maybe I lost it. What do you think, Brian?

Brian Kulick: I like to think this season is a new millennium, and we're all a little taken aback by the enormity of what that means. Somehow I feel like, Oh my God, we should be making all these grand end-of-the-epoch statements. And yet everything feels a little timid.

Evan Yionoulis: Like we're at the beginning again.

Kulick: Yes, exactly. And I wonder if we're not all catching our breath, taking a moment, thinking, turning back a little bit. It does feel—and this is an imposed calendar thing—that certain movements have found potential endpoints. In some ways what's exciting and terrifying is that it feels like Ground Zero, with different realities now. Suddenly the economic imperative is much harsher.

Daniele: We used to be able to make theater with nothing. I don't know where the money came from. [Laughing] It was sort of magical. But now there's this economic problem—it's everywhere.

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Kulick: And expectations, too. I always find—and my situation is somewhat Public Theater-specific—but I find that even the Public Theater, there's a precedent for the Public to be the Public that it was when it started. A musical should be like A Chorus Line or Noise/Funk. People have a collective body of references.

Yionoulis: There's always that buildup of expectations, but then there's always something to come and smash them. There's a continual churning. It's different for a director just starting out than for someone in the middle, in terms of access to material and venues. As people who were doing things on a shoestring begin to be hired by institutions to do more polished work, each of us has to reexamine what we're doing and find out how to keep our own innocence and wonder, even though now we may have a budget and maybe a contract and maybe aren't buying the props ourselves.

McNulty: Graciela, you've worked everywhere, Uptown, Downtown, you've worked in film—

Daniele: [Laughing] I have to live—so I have to work uptown.

McNulty: Do you find that your thinking changes depending on the venue?

Daniele: No, I am not thinking differently, but the producers are. The expectations are different. If I want to have a particular thing, I have to also deliver what I call "the formula." I'm not against formula—it's our tradition. But I don't think I have the freedom I'm allowed Off-Broadway or even in the regional theaters. Broadway expectations are very different. Especially with musicals. Expectations that are very hard to break down—from the producers, from the audience, from the critics.

Kulick: And from the space too. The size of the theaters, the size of the audience.

Daniele: Absolutely. On Broadway we have to use our craft more than our creativity.

McNulty: Do you feel as constrained working Downtown?

Daniele: My experience with the Public has always been extraordinary. I was the baby of Wilfred Leach and Joe Papp. Basically they made me, they understood what their theater was all about. And later when I worked with George Wolfe, too. Recently I went to see Nilo Cruz's play, and I go, "Oh my God, this is what theater is." Because there is a freedom there and this wonderful mix of people and cultures.

Weems: There's a kind of cross-pollination going on between Uptown and Downtown. Those lines are being blurred. This generation that's coming up is the beneficiary of both those traditions. I don't think marginalization is as permanent or as defined as it once was. Blue Man Group started at P.S. 122 and is now in Las Vegas. That's sort of the most lowbrow example, but even a person like Elizabeth Streb is working on a very big show right now, a kind of Broadway, Vegas-scale show.

McNulty: All of you have worked on premieres of new plays. Do you think contemporary playwriting is able to thrive in the current Off-Broadway climate?

Kulick: I worry a little bit. Off-Broadway is a place for certain kinds of plays to happen, but I'm worried about another kind of play—the kind that actually brought me to the theater. Nilo Cruz's play Two Sisters and a Piano, I think, is a gorgeous play and I thought it was a gorgeous production—

Daniele: Beautiful.

Kulick: But I was a little taken aback by some of the response. I worry about a certain kind of attentiveness. Sometimes when I'm seeing work around town, it has to be pitched at a certain energy level to cut through a certain apathy, a kind of ennui. So something that's a bit more nuanced, about things that happen between words, where the action is maybe slightly offstage—I worry about that kind of play.

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