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

Yionoulis: New York is a dangerous place to premiere work because a stamp gets put on it from that opening, from the press, from the critical response. There's a kind of freeze put on the play in the minds of other producers—and history. So I think New York is a great place to read a play. You can get wonderful actors to commit four hours of their lives. And you will never see them again.

Kulick: You might not even see them in that reading. They might have to go out and do a voice-over!

Yionoulis: Some plays get read to death and become better and better staged readings, better and better plays to be read around a table. And they don't get to figure out what they are in production. Sometimes I've found it very useful to start plays outside New York, where you can actually see if the production is fully realized. Three Days of Rain we did at South Coast Rep, and it was very successful, but it was a four-actor play. And we brought it to New York, it became a three-actor play, as it needed to become, but there's no way you can know that without a full production.

McNulty: I think about the days when Sam Shepard was working in the Off-Off-Broadway scene, revising his work as it was going up. Is New York becoming a place where the most talented playwrights only want to present finished products?

Yionoulis: I don't think it's only a place where finished products can be shown. Look at the Public, the Vineyard, Playwrights Horizons.

Kulick: Theater companies shift and grow. The Public is now something of an elder statesman, and new companies emerge with the energy you're talking about. So the landscape continually shifts. And that's healthy.

Weems: That Sam Shepard energy is still alive in the Downtown avant-garde world. But the focus has shifted from the playwright to the director. When you look at the Wooster Group or Richard Foreman—those pieces are not text-based. They're sound and video and movement and staging—creating all those levels of production as part of the rehearsal process. There's a whole generation of people basing themselves on that auteur concept, where the director comes in and creates all aspects of the piece. A lot of those pieces are based on found text for a reason. It's not about privileging the playwright.

McNulty: This season we saw a few notable auteur directors working Off-Broadway get slaughtered by the critics. I'm thinking of Andrei Serban's production of Hamlet and Ivo van Hove's A Streetcar Named Desire. Both were uneven, but do you get the feeling that auteur directing has become something of a dirty word to the mainstream press?

Kulick: I loved both of those productions, and felt there was a radical disconnect between my experience and what many of the reviewers' experiences were. Particularly for Streetcar. There was a lot of excitement when I was talking to peers about the level of acting, Elizabeth Marvel's work, and the excitement when Ivo did More Stately Mansions. And Andrei—who I think is a genius—he's going to push the envelope. There were moments in Hamlet that were absolutely revelatory because Andrei was pushing, pushing, pushing—and there were some things I may not agree with—but I don't know if Andrei could get to those moments of illumination between Hamlet and Ophelia without the apparatus he put into place.

McNulty: Is there a lack of interest in trying to figure out these more adventurous directorial choices? Many critics don't seem to give directors the credibility of serious artists. Or that the choices going wildly astray have an intention behind them.

Kulick: Not to be critical of the critical community, but I'm a little worried people don't want to work anymore. The theater that excites me is a theater in which I have to do some of the work as an audience member. Andrei's and Ivo's work seems a lot like those extraordinary Chinese paintings where they never show you the whole mountain—they always obscure part of the mountain with clouds so you have to fill in the rest. That's always been the theater that I've gotten jazzed by.

Weems: Not to name names, but the Times, Ben Brantley, has finally sort of gotten on board with the Wooster Group and canonized them and articulated that process-based work to a mainstream audience in a way that's extremely intelligent. With Ivo's piece, that's a very interesting point—because it was unrealized, it was posed somewhat awkwardly between text and real vision. There was this murky area the critics went for, as you say, quite savagely. I think in general the idea of process-based, director-driven work is sort of coming into its own. It seems like it's more accessible to mainstream audiences than it has been.

McNulty: Do you read your reviews?

Daniele: I don't read them.

Weems: Oh, I'm so glad to hear you say that.

Daniele: I mean I respect the reviewers. But I have my own reviewers, the people I truly trust, people interested in making me better, not in dismissing me, not in insulting me.

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