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A talk with director Bartlett Sher turns into a conversation about conversations. He likes to have them. He likes chatting with, for instance, actor Byron Jennings, whom he’s directing in Theatre for a New Audience’s upcoming Don Juan, and whom he directed to an Obie three years ago in Waste. “Byron and I have worked with a lot of the same people,” Sher says. “He has an amazing, amazing sense of text. He’s a premier classical actor, and they’re impossibly hard to find. We can enter into a really great conversation right off the bat.”
Sher, celery-lean and wearing black right down to his stockinged feet, sits at a table after the Don Juan cast has quit a spacious 42nd Street rehearsal hall. Sound designer Peter John Still, earphones on, is across the airy room fiddling with soundboard controls. He’s listening to the music of 12th-century composer Perotin, whose chants will be heard during the Molière production, spliced with, among others, Howlin’ Wolf. Sher met Still 20 years ago at the University of California-San Diego. “We’ve been following each other around ever since,” the director says. “He’s also a great dramaturge. We have an intense conversation.”
In addition to his conversation motif, Sher (pronounced “shear”) tends to finish remarks by tacking on the phrase “if that makes any sense.” What he says makes complete sense, because he takes time to ponder before speaking. “It’s a good time to be doing Molière,” he says, giving Don Juan some thought. “He was incapable of not writing about the religious right. I’m a little shocked at it as a piece of writing. We’re doing it in period, largely, yes. I think it needs a certain context in terms of a Catholic story, but I’m taking a more psychological approach.” Sher interrupts himself to pull over a maquette near him on the table. It’s the three-dimensional rendering of Christopher Akerlind’s set design for Don Juan, and has walls of black and burnished gold. Hung just below the top of the model’s proscenium is a row of what look like jagged black teeth. “They’re old clothes,” Sher explains. Asked what the old clothes represent, he confesses, “I don’t know yet. It may not be my job to worry about knowing.”
With the script, Sher is more exacting. “When I’m doing a play I want to know everything about it I can,” he insists. “As a director you have to have chops and history and research what you’re doing. I tend to respect the mastery of a work and ask all the questions I can be asking. I’m very influenced by other productions. It would be stupid not to be. The Georgian Film Actors Theater production [of Don Juan in 1987] had a huge impact on me. I read Meyerhold and Louis Jouvet.” French stage and film actor Jouvet is credited with simplifying and revitalizing Molière during the middle of the last century.
Just as he takes time with a production, Sher has been methodical about his career. “I’ve grown quite slowly and what I think of as intelligently,” he states. “It helps you to have more confidence when you’re ready to go.” Born and raised in San Francisco, the now 41-year-old director attended Holy Cross and received an M.A. in international theater from the University of Leeds. He’s studied Tadeusz Kantor and assisted directors from whom he gained invaluable guidance, like Garland Wright. Or, a half-dozen years ago in Los Angeles, Peter Hall. That’s how he decided to do Harley Granville Barker’s Waste as his first TFANA production. “I asked Hall’s designer John Gunter, ‘What’s the best play you’ve ever worked on?’ ” Sher’s production, mounted not long after Hall helmed the work at the Old Vic, was so successful that now, the director says, TFANA head Jeffrey Horowitz has gotten into the habit of saying, ” ‘Let’s look at something else.’ We always go into a little conversation about it.” Their second collaboration was last year’s rumbustious Cymbeline, which Sher also took to England’s Royal Shakespeare Company. “Never,” he boasts, “had an American company done Shakespeare at the RSC.”
Sher enjoys working with TFANA in part because the Lucille Lortel Theatre, the company’s current home, is like Seattle’s Intiman Theatre, where he’s artistic director; the Seattle house, in turn, is like Stockholm’s Intiman Theater, where August Strindberg worked and from which the Seattle company took its name. (Company founder Margaret Booker chose the handle.) Intiman is Swedish for “intimate,” and intimacy achieved over time means everything to Sher. “I like to stay in a relationship with a single community,” he reports. “It’s an accumulating experience. I enjoy it because you can do serious playwrights. You have the resources to experiment, build a body of work. You’re explaining to a community why theater is necessary.” And, by implication, he’s explaining the collaborative nature of theater, which is why he gets such satisfaction from laboring regularly with colleagues like Still and Akerlind. “It’s a long conversation,” he says. “You can’t pull it together with one or two shows. The big fallacy is that the director has to be the final voice. As a director, I only have to be the coordinator.” He pauses, then flashes an ironic grin. “But I’m liable to get all the credit.”