Theater

Rising Director Lila Neugebauer’s Adventurous Theater: ‘I’m Listening for the Heartbeat of the Play’

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One of the most acclaimed plays of the past season, the world premiere of Sarah DeLappe’s The Wolves, was an ensemble piece about a high school women’s soccer team. One of the upcoming season’s most anticipated premieres, Branden Jacobs-Jenkins’s Everybody, features an ensemble of a different kind — medieval figures facing death. Both rely on nuanced text analysis and close-knit casts. And so both their writers turned to the same director, Lila Neugebauer.

The 31-year-old is fast emerging
as a lead figure in the arena of new play
directing. Her packed 2016-17 season
also included Miles for Mary, created
with her company, the Mad Ones, as well as the upcoming world premiere of The Antipodes, by Obie- and Pulitzer-winning playwright Annie Baker. Collaborators note her talent for forging community in the rehearsal room and her ability to locate the core of a playwright’s vision. “On some very fundamental level,” she says, “I’m listening for the heartbeat of the play.”

Neugebauer discovered her love for new work by living playwrights as a Yale undergraduate, when she participated
in the university’s Playwrights Festival, staging student-written pieces — the kinds of projects a director often encounters as evolving ideas, not finished texts. “Having the dramaturgical parts of my brain activated in conversation with the directorial parts of my brain was immediately galvanizing,” she says. “From that moment, I knew that I was interested in working with living writers.”

After graduation, she and a few fellow artists formed the Mad Ones to develop collectively devised work often inspired by the American pop-cultural past. Their methods are chaotic, allowing everyone’s voice into the conception process, but that also makes for adventurous theater in which every collaborator shares a stake. Neugebauer is an ideal director
for such plays, says one of the company’s co-artistic directors, Stephanie Wright Thompson: “The glory that is Lila is she is this wonderful synthesizer of ideas.”

That comes in handy when working with ensemble casts, which has become one of Neugebauer’s trademarks; in Miles for Mary, a recent Mad Ones production at the Bushwick Starr, the strength of
the ensemble acting was a highlight. Neugebauer achieves the balance with careful rehearsal methods tailored to
the demands of each group. The Wolves unfolds during the soccer team’s warm-up sessions and thus requires precise choreography — the players stretch and lunge while they parse the intimate details of their lives — and rapid-fire, overlapping dialogue. Neugebauer, who played soccer in high school, trained the cast like a soccer team, starting rehearsals with drills and scrimmages. “We were working with a lot of young
actors, and it was so moving to me to watch her make them a team,” says DeLappe, the writer. “There’s something about getting actors to sweat together that breaks down all sorts of barriers.”

DeLappe was inspired to work with Neugebauer partly because of the director’s 2014 revival of A.R. Gurney’s The Wayside Motor Inn. The 1977 drama features multiple stories united by the characters’ brief sojourn in a suburban motel — a perfect showcase for Neugebauer’s talent for highlighting both individual characters’ psychologies and their impact on a group cast. That same project also caught the eye of Jacobs-Jenkins. “There was a clarity to the staging that was profound,” he recalls. “The words that come to mind are austere, but oddly luminous.”

When he decided to adapt the medieval Christian morality play Everyman — which, he says, has similarly “austere
and luminous” qualities — Neugebauer came to mind. The world premiere of
that adaptation, Everybody, begins
performances at the Signature Theatre on January 31 and focuses on our relationship with death. When he was writing
the play, Jacobs-Jenkins says, “it felt like every month there was a news report of someone else being shot in the street.”
To emphasize that unpredictability, the
ensemble of actors draws roles by lottery each night. The piece is “really testing
the fabric of what constitutes ensemble work,” Neugebauer says.

Though new plays are making Neugebauer’s name at the moment, they’re not the only kind of work she’s drawn to; in the future, the director envisions exploring older works, especially classics like
A Doll’s House, and under-produced modern dramas like Carson McCullers’s The Member of the Wedding. Whether staging world premieres or canonical texts, her ability to create community onstage will likely continue to drive the work. “What else do we have in the theater, but these rooms that we assemble in together?” she says. “If you’re not in it for the community you’re forging, you could make a lot more money somewhere else.”

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