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.

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.

Yionoulis: I'm getting better about not reading my reviews. I try to read fewer and fewer of other people's reviews. I read my reviews to find out whether the actors are going to be OK tomorrow, because they always tend to read them.

Weems: I read the reviews abroad, when we go to Europe. It's a kind of cultural anthropology. It's interesting to see how the work reads elsewhere and how it's received. In New York I try not read our reviews, and as far as general criticism goes I'm in the same boat: I like to speak with the people I respect before I read a review of someone else's work. It's great that there's a new generation of critics coming up and that there are people who can champion new work in a way that's a little bit more integrated, a little bit more articulate. There's been a problem with some very established reviewers hammering new work without taking the time to understand the process by which the work is made. This all reminds me of a great Robert Morris quote: "Critics are to artists as ornithologists are to birds."

McNulty: How hospitable do you think the current Off-Broadway scene is to theatrical experiment?

Weems: There are a lot of people hungry to see new work. If you can position yourself correctly and invite people into the process, there's a good chance that you'll get an interested crossover. The Builders Association and Richard Foreman and the Wooster Group are talking about trying to establish a new home together, a midsize 400-seat theater but for a Downtown sensibility. It would be on the European model of a large-scale black-box theater with a café and restaurant. Where you could have longer runs and really control the means of production. But it's just at the very baby phase. We haven't even started raising money—it's a long-term project.

McNulty: Some of the most memorable works of the last few years—Mabou Mines's Peter and Wendy, the Wooster Group's House/Lights, Richard Foreman's ongoing psycho-ramas—have been director-driven. The Builders Association's Jet Lag is another example. Marianne, can you tell us about the genesis of that project?

Weems: Jet Lag, like a lot of our pieces, is a marriage between architecture and theater. Its conception came from concerns with time and space. Specifically it's a collaboration between Diller + Scofidio, the media artists and architects who recently won the first MacArthur Award for architecture; playwright Jessica Chalmers, who wrote the text; and our company. We share an interest in live performance and technology and the interface between those two.

McNulty: Brian's now working on The Winter's Tale for Central Park this summer. What's next for the rest of you?

Daniele: A dance project which is all Latino—it's flamenco, and all Latino-American, Afro-Cuban—nothing but dance. I have choreographers coming from Argentina and from Spain to brainstorm. And I'm working on a kind of modern Scheherazade based on different women stories I love, like some Isabel Allende, Angela Carter. That would be what I love doing, text and dance and maybe a couple of songs. And we're also trying to get something with Michael John LaChiusa.

Yionoulis: I'm going to do Richard Greenberg's Everett Beekinat South Coast in August and September and Warren Leight's Glimmer, Glimmer and Shine at the Taper in December. And George Walker's Heaven at Yale Rep in between. My passion is a piece called Flights of Angels that I've been working on with my brother Mike. It's a musical adaptation of Hamlet.

Weems: My passion project, which we've just begun the production phase of, is a history of multimedia—it's not something that just started in the '60s or with the advent of TV. It'll look at the turn of the century, these big events at the Hippodrome that had film and dance and tableaux and texts, all mixed together in these real multimedia events. So I'm digging back and trying to recuperate some of those acts, those big numbers in a kind of rave-culture environment. The piece hopefully will be kind of like a rave, but buried inside of it will be these older forms of entertainment. It's called . . . Extravaganza.


Complete Coverage of the 45th Annual Village Voice OBIE Awards

View the List of Winners

The Wild Party 3 by Michael Musto

Waves of Faves compiled by Alexis Soloski
Thirty-Three New York Theater Types Offer Up Their Favorite Productions From the 1999–2000 Season


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