from Slamming Doors to The Artistic Eye
FS – For your next show, Fool for Love by Sam Shepard, how did you get involved in that?
MW – Val Landrum and Chris Harder [see Oregonian article] approached me about putting my name as director when they submitted the proposal and they were very excited about working with me. I wasn’t very familiar with the script but as soon as I read it I was like, “This is fantastic” and they’ve cast themselves really well. We actually start rehearsals September 8th and I’m heading to a design meeting right after this - with Tim Stapleton, who’s lovely. He’s also playing the old man. I’m ready to kick his butt and he’s given me permission. My one direction to him now is, “Tim, can you be more invisible?” It’s a fun group. We’ve added Spencer Conway. And I’m just so excited to be in the room with them. They’re awesome people to collaborate with.
FS - What about the play interests you?
MW – The richness of the characters. The story – we’ve all been in that place where you’re in this heartbreakingly twisted love myth. It’s a very human experience and that was very attracting.
FS – What do you think the play’s about?
MW – It’s about abandonment, loneliness, and this trapped and cyclical behavior, insane passion, family. Lots of good things there, things that people are interested in.
FS – Is there a definite spin you’re going to put on it?
MW – I am taking the old man off the porch and putting him in the space.
FS – Is he usually, literally, on a porch?
MW – Yeah, literally outside the room. Outside the hotel room. I am also removing the walls. Sam Shepard writes in the stage directions very specifically about them banging into walls, slamming doors, and the sound that comes with that. And I’ve taken away all the walls and doors because I wanted to feel like there’s this little snow globe in this desert and they’re in this little box that’s totally exposed, and trapped. There’s a science experiment about the fleas. You put these fleas in a jar and they jump and they hit the top and they learn after awhile that’s as high as they can go, and you take off the jar and they don’t go any higher. There are no walls, [the characters] could leave the situation, they could remedy this, but they don’t. They create their own mess and walls. So we’re playing with different variations on that theme.
FS – What’s with the old man being brought into the room?
MW – I wanted him to be more connected to the characters. He is a part of it so I wanted to make sure he was a part of it and not that narrator on the side.
FS – That sounds beautiful the idea of removing those walls. It sounds even scarier.
MW – I have this picture in my mind and I think Tim has it too and I just know that whatever he does is going to be beautiful. And we have Don [Crossley] on lights so its going to be lovely. Annalise Albright is doing the sound and she did the sound for Mimesophobia [Sand and Glass Productions, 2008]. She will be making up the walls with sound. She’s got quite the task. “We took away the doors and the walls, and that’s now you.”
FS – What interests you as a director and what makes a good director?
MW – I find people fascinating and enjoy working with them. And the way that you can tell stories in the genre of theatre, as opposed to TV or movies, the fact that the audience is there as a community, our experience is together, live. And then you have to be willing to listen and be a good collaborator to be a good director. I don’t pretend to know all the answers but I have a good starting off point and then we can go from there.
I bring to the table my vision and then I like to do a lot of table work, too, so we talk that all through so everyone’s on the same page about the timeline and the way the script works and the way a character works within it, kind of taking a dramaturgical background first. Everyone has a voice at the table and I’m really like the eyes and ears from an audience standpoint, but I also need to know from an actor, “Does that work for you? Or does that not work for you?” Because to me it looks great, but if that’s not coming from a genuine place from within you, then we have a problem. It’s this collaboration; it’s everybody works together. It’s not like I’m the big boss and I can say yes or no, whatever. I can, but it’s more interesting to have many voices as opposed to one. Somehow that creates a more unified story when everyone’s working communally on the way they come at it. Somehow, it doesn’t look collage-ish or mishmashy; it all comes together because we’re all on the same page but bringing our own expertise to it.
FS – Why do you do this?
MW – Why I do theatre? ‘Cause I’m crazy. I don’t know why I do theatre. I’ve just never not done theatre. And I can’t stop.
FS – Do you as an artist have something to offer that maybe no one else does?
MW – I’m still figuring that out. And I’d like to figure that out here [in Portland].
FS – Are you interested in doing non script-based theatre?
MW – Yes. I shied away from it in college in England, devised – we call it devised. There were two classes of devised in my year and one of staging dramatic text, and I took the staging dramatic text. I think [devised’s] really hard and so I shied away from it. You as an audience member can tell when they’re bullshitting earlier. It’s difficult, but I would totally love to work on a project like that, I’m just not sure what yet.
FS - Why would you want to do it?
MW – To challenge myself because I think that’s another important way of telling a story. And I see good and bad parts of that but I don’t know how to solve it, you know, it’d be interesting to try it as well for myself.
FS – Would you want to work for a company like Portland Center Stage again?
MW – Meaning a regional theatre?
FS – Yeah.
MW – I don’t know how I feel about the regional theatre at the moment. I don’t know that it’s necessarily serving a specific community anymore. And I’m not talking specifically about PCS. [Regionals] often do the New York hits or the latest Pulitzer Prize winner and I’m not sure that the subscribers are that interested. Or maybe they are. But I think ultimately the buffet style of theatre can present a muddled mission. I think you can do a play that is interesting to the community, like Storm Large for example. [Crazy Enough was] interesting to the community, sold out like crazy. I’m just not sure about the regional theatre model. I feel it might change a bit. I also wonder about a subscriber model too and the benefits and non-benefits of having subscribers. You can’t please everyone and I’m not sure you should try. So maybe you should just say, “Hey I’m doing this type of theatre and if you are interested join us.” Which I guess would make it more like a membership based theatre like Oregon Shakespeare Festival, which may or may not give you more freedom in deciding your season.
Right now in David Mamet’s history I’m trying to figure out whether to go 501(c)(3) or LLC. LLC is a for-profit and you don’t have to have a board, but you’re also ineligible for a lot of grants. It’s interesting to me because I never thought of an LLC but somebody suggested [I] should check that out as well. I don’t know. I think that regional theatres need to explore their city and do stuff that’s important to [their city]. And maybe leave the touring companies to bring in the Broadway hit.
FS – To make it more personal.
MW – Make it an event for the audience. And whether or not it is the latest Pulitzer Prize winner or the newest play by a local writer, [the plays] should have similar weight. I just think the [play] that’s going to matter more to the community is going to be the playwright that they know or the issue that interests them.
FS – Do you think regional theatre’s in danger of estranging its audiences because of its trend right now of grabbing the latest Broadway hit?
MW – I don’t know about actual numbers but I feel that regional theatres that have a strong mission statement tend to do better than ones that have a hodge-podge season. I’m more interested in Steppenwolf or Woolly Mammoth. Ones that have a specific focus on ensemble or new work. They tend to bring something unique as opposed to the collective smorgasbord that’s meant to go out to the masses - I’m not sure who that’s serving, because it’s not specific enough. It has a place but when push comes to shove are you going to be more interested in the buffet or the specific place in a restaurant? I look across the board and more and more theatres are doing the same work. It was published in American Theatre Magazine that the year Doubt came out, Doubt and A Christmas Carol were the most produced play amongst the regional theatres. I wonder what else could have happened. Not that Doubt isn’t a good play. It is. But what else could we have produced? Or did the stars align and everyone had to do this play? I personally think it would have had more of an impact if it had been produced during the height of the Iraqi conflict, because that’s what John Patrick Shanley was writing about.
FS – From what you’re saying, we should give our audiences more credit, that within the masses there actually is some intelligence and … more interest in theatre, and it also sounds like you think that theatre does serve a purpose.
MW – Absolutely. There are those people who’re like, “Theatre’s dead!” I’m just like, “Excuse you.” This is the art form of storytelling that’s been around a lot longer than most performance based art forms. Yeah, there is a way to tell specific stories through movies or T.V. but I think that theatre has the biggest impact on a smaller scale. I mean, it’s not going to ever reach as many people but there’s something about bringing a bunch of people in and you’re all sitting in the same theatre together and having this common experience, which is different than all coming into a movie theater and watching it. It’s more disconnected that way, whereas in theatre you’re all laughing together.
FS – You’re interacting with the energy on the stage.
MW – You can feel it. You can watch the actors be affected by that.
FS – To get specific to Portland, who excites you and what theatre company excites you?
MW – I just think that the volume of work that Portland puts out for the size is exciting. There’s a lot of good work and I don’t want to leave anyone out.
FS – Is there a possibility of too much theatre? Because there’s always the question of but what about the quality of all that theatre?
MW – I think that works itself out. As much as we hold New York up on a pedestal that doesn’t necessarily mean that the work is much better there, it just means that there’s more of it, and we have a lot of work here but, per capita, is our percentage higher than New York? Probably. I don’t know.
FS – Should New York be held on that pedestal?
MW – It’s hard because New York is a cool city and it does offer a lot more funding than Portland. A lot of companies, a lot of people will donate and go to the theatre. I remember reading somewhere in a waiting room – Vanity Fair or something – and they were criticizing the Prince’s new girlfriend – Prince William - (I had a lot of time) - and one of the critiques they had was about how ill-suited she is for the Prince because she doesn’t attend the theatre and therefore lacked culture. Here’s the city of London that thinks you are not classy if you don’t go to the theatre. So New York may have some of that as well. And I love that idea - I want that to be universal – that you’re not classy, you’re not cool if you don’t attend the theatre.
Portland is great because a lot of people value [theatre], however, there’s not a lot of corporations in Portland, let alone ones that give to the arts. So it’s difficult to find support in the same way that New York does. Oftentimes the playwrights move there because there’s more work for them, but if we could get all the playwrights in the world to move to Portland, we would be as cool as New York. There’s a lot more support for it over there. That’s why there is so much more.
I understand why a lot of actors, etcetera, move out of Portland but, at the same time, if we could support them and pay Equity wages then we would keep them, because of course they all want to live here. I mean, it’s plain awesome. Heelloooo. Even though they go to the big cities Chicago, New York they all want to come back to Portland, but we’re not making it financially viable for them.
FS – Is there anything you’d like more of, something we could improve?
MW – I’d really like to work on making everything more collaborative. We have the luxury of being such a tight-knit theatre community. I feel like a lot of people know each other, work together, and go see all the same shows. I never feel alone when I go to the theatre because I undoubtedly run into somebody I know and that’s lovely being part of that community, but if we could somehow work together more on space and props and costumes and actors. There are all these writer groups and I’ve often thought there should be an actor group. That’s the other thing about our actors. We have some really good actors in this town but we work differently than a lot of cities [because] we don’t audition our actors as much. They often get cast because I know your work because I’ve seen you in three shows. And if that actor were to move to L.A. or New York for awhile they’d become a better auditioner because they have to do it so many more times a day, weeks, months, whatever. If there’s a way to give more support to the actors in auditioning workshops…or you wanna work on the scene, sort of in that way playwrights groups are founded, where I have a scene that I need to read, will you help me read it? Open source in a way, continuing education, exchanging ideas.
Auditioning is hard. It’s scary. You may be the most prepared person in the world and you get into the room and phht!, all gone. So I like, in my auditions, to make them more lax, more like we’re playing. Often, in the PATA [Portland Area Theatre Alliance] auditions or at PCS auditions where there’s a time limit, you have three minutes, four minutes, and that’s really nerve wracking. I know there are pluses and minuses in the audition process. I think being more familiar with the auditioning process will give them more confidence when they go into the room and will be able to handle the three minutes better. And if they audition regionally, it will help.
FS – Would you like that on a director level?
MW – It’s harder on the director level. I don’t know. People’s processes are different and it’s hard to as a director sit there and say “That’s wrong, because I do it this way.” You do what works for you. Sometimes I do talk to different directors if I’m having a problem. It might work. It might be good.
FS – Who are your influences? We talked about Mead, we talked about Rose.
MW – When I was [in London], Katie Mitchell was the new crazy-cool director to watch, although I don’t think my style is anything like hers, I think she is important to focus on, and she’s actually written a book, and I went out and bought it because I really like the work that she does. Also Nancy Keystone. Again, her work is probably nothing like my work but she has such an artistic eye in all things, and it’s really wonderful how that encompasses everything she works on.
FS – Do you feel very conscious of yourself as a female director? I hate that qualifiier because you are both female and a director.
MW - I’m a woman and I’m a director and I don’t know how to be anything else. But I also realize the complications of being a woman and a director. But I’ve never felt like I’ve not been taken seriously because I am a woman. If anything, I’ve put added pressure on myself to achieve my goals sooner so that I can also have a family. I realize the biology of a woman sometimes alters one’s career goals, both positively and negatively, but I just want to make sure I’ve achieved my personal career goals before having children. Because not having children is not an option for me. I’ve always seen myself as both a career woman and a mother. I’m very stubborn about that. I want to have my cake and eat it too, now I just have to figure out how.
FS – What else would you like to share with the world about your world, about your art, about your dog Joey?
MW – Joey is the best dog in the world. He’s adorable. Just that.
FS – Closing random question: Do you prefer crunchy or smooth peanut butter?
MW – Both.
FS – Ooohh. No definite answer to that one.
MW – I do like them both. I buy smooth organic PB for Joey – he gets his own peanut butter.
Keep track of Megan Kate Ward at megankateward.blogspot.com