Theater archives

The Outer Limits


It is 5:50 p.m. in the rehearsal hall for Tina Landau’s alien-abduction fantasia Space, and leads Amy Morton and Tom Irwin have just read through a new scene. Landau, with her hair pulled back and looking seriously casual in a baggy T-shirt, seems to really need the 10-minute break she announces to the cast. “But we’re ending at six!” comes a chorus of protests. Dumbfounded, the director lets out a cry of disbelief and collapses onto the wooden floor on her back, laughing, waving her arms and legs like an upended beetle.

No sleep, that’s the problem. Until 5 a.m. the night before she’d been rewriting a song, she explains later at a coffee shop down the street. The Downtown director has been heralded as the next Julie Taymor since Disney Theatrical tapped her to direct Pinocchio, but as a writer she’s been taking her lumps.

Space, which won raves nationally for the sweep, inventiveness, and spectacular effects of its 1997 Steppenwolf production in Chicago, suffered a lukewarm reception at the Taper in L.A. last month. Now Landau is revamping it once again for its New York debut at the Public, opening December 5.

“Criticism of my writing is hard,” she acknowledges. “I’ve only been doing it for six years, and I’ve been directing for 20. But I wanna be a writer—I love writing.” Space feels almost like the first thing she’s written, she adds, because the others—Rebecca, A Christmas Carol, Stonewall, Floyd Collins—were either adaptations or based on history. “This is going it alone.”

Landau is about as relaxed and unpretentious as directors come. Displaying a wide, ready smile, an easy manner, and lot of warmth, she’s the opposite of a control freak. If the actors suggest cutting a line that doesn’t work—as Irwin did a few minutes before—Landau just pencils it out. “I’m just not attached to my work,” she explains.

Her play tells the story of a neuropsychiatrist and academic star, Allan Saunders, whose treatment of three “alien abductee” patients prompts him to reexamine his scientific and spiritual anchors. The staging’s ethereal light and sound evoke vast questions of the cosmos, cultural myths resonate, and there’s even a love interest: Saunders falls for an astronomer dying of lupus.

Landau’s inspiration was the real-life story of John E. Mack, a Harvard psychiatrist, who became a laughingstock when he began to take alien abduction seriously. About five years ago she saw him on TV and later spoke with him. “I had no interest in alien abduction,” Landau says. “I was moved by his description of giving up the worldview he’d always lived with.”

She read up on astronomy, cosmology, even Einstein. “I found myself stargazing. It wasaffecting me”—she offers with a hint of embarrassment—”quasi-spiritually.”

No, she doesn’t believe little green men have literally sucked folks up into flying saucers. Her hero’s journey is a metaphor for transformation: “To be crude,” she says, “from control to surrender, from power to humility, from closed to open. Allan is transported to a scary place; that’s what it means to be abducted. . . . It’s a story told in all cultures.” The piece bristles with allusions to magical metamorphoses, from Alice in Wonderland to The Divine Comedy.

Landau conceives of light and sound in the play almost as characters. “Both are like extensions of Allan,” she explains. “Light is used not to illuminate but represent what Allan is perceiving.” And the production’s much praised projections—of travel into deep space, for example—are flights of his imagination. She’s revising these effects as she rewrites the play. “In L.A. the tech overwhelmed the human element. In the Public, we’re on a human scale again.”

As a director, Landau thinks of herself as straddling two different traditions, the avant-garde of Andrei Serban, Richard Foreman, and Robert Wilson, the big musicals of Hal Prince and Michael Bennett. She’s been directing nonstop in both directions and there’s no letup in sight. After Space, she’ll be creating two plays from scratch for the Dodgers. Then, of course, there’s the Disney project.

So is she the new Julie Taymor?

Landau smiles. “The piece I’m working on doesn’t have animals.”