Hometown: Tenafly, NJ
Education: Undergrad NYU: Tisch Drama (Playwrights Horizons Theater School), MFA in Directing from the New School for Drama
Select Credits: In addition to the 2009 production of In Fields Where They Lay, my favorite recent projects include a sold-out FringeNYC run of a wonderful play called Whale Song or Learning To Live With Mobyphobia written by my friend and grad school classmate Claire Kiechel. I was also privileged to direct the premiere of her play Some Dark Places of the Earth at the New School. Last year in New York I directed Mark William Lindberg in an adaptation of "The Waste Land" for the United Solo Festival and assisted Davis McCallum on Sam Hunter's wonderful The Few at Rattlestick.
Why theater?: I've never wanted to be anything but a storyteller. And theater -- even at its slickest and most polished--has a kind of rough and tumble primeval purity as a way of telling stories. When it's done well, theater has this ability that no other narrative form has to give us this collective experience of the transcendent, to draw them forward in their seats and create the spine-tingling intimacy between story, tellers and listeners evoked by stories told around a campfire. I think that's the feeling we're all chasing as theater makers. I know that's what I'm always hoping for when I go to a play.
Tell us about In Fields Where They Lay: In Fields Where They Lay tells the story of the World War I Christmas Truce -- this small shining moment of hope when for just about 24 hours the frontline troops in two opposing armies found a way to lay down their arms and greet each other in solidarity. I co-developed the play, along with Ricardo Pérez González (the playwright) and an ensemble of actors back in 2009. It's very exciting to be bringing this play back to the stage.A lot of the play is adapted directly from letters, diaries and firsthand accounts of soldiers who witnessed and participated in the Truce -- those primary sources have been adapted and mixed in with other soldiers' accounts and with a healthy does of creative invention to create a wonderfully intimate character drama that still manages to tell this really epic story. At bottom, this is a story about a small group of men struggling to maintain their humanity and individuality in the face of the monstrous, implacable momentum of war. For all its rich characters and finely drawn details, the heart of the story is as simple as that -- how can these men do what needs to be done to survive and come home while still holding onto the men they were before they went to war? I believe that was the very simple impulse that led not just to the Christmas Truce but to lots of small moments of decency, humanity and mercy that our research turned up, shining out from within the larger darkness of the incredible destruction and barbarism of World War I.
What is it like being a part of In Fields Where They Lay?: This is without a doubt the most significant project I've ever been a part of, both in terms of what it's meant for me and how it has been embraced by audiences and collaborators. It started as this conversation that Ricardo and I had at the Gramercy Diner just before Christmas 2008. We had both just read a pair of books on the truce and were really inspired and were just figuring out how to begin to tell this story. We wrote up a little outline that day to give ourselves some kind of shape -- and actually the ending we sketched out in that diner is still the ending of the play. Then we just spent months workshopping with actors, doing a lot of improv, a lot of letter writing, a lot of taking these historical documents and asking "okay, so this is what these guys sound like in their diaries or when they're writing letters to mum, what would they be talking to each other about? What do they really sound like?" How do you stay sane when you're basically standing in an open grave, covered in mud, listening to guys all around you get smashed by mortar shells all day? So much of the challenge in developing the play was breathing the life into the history. I've said before that there's something Shakespearean about this play and now, coming back to it after a few years (and having spent a year working on Hamlet in grad school and learning firsthand what Shakespearean really means), I feel that more strongly than ever. Because it never becomes a pageant or a synopsis --"first this happened, then this happened, then voila: history!". Rather, it weaves a tapestry of all of these human moments -- at this point I can't even remember what came right from the research and what Ricardo dreamed up and what the original actors invented in the workshop in terms of the tiny personal details and behaviors -- and all those moments add up to the story of men living through and making history, rather than presenting history as something flat and settled. The play is also a roller coaster. Some of our funniest moments come right before a mortar shell goes off and totally changes the mood. The whole thing is built around this one beautiful hopeful moment, and yet we never want to ignore the darkness of the war before and after the truce. That's another way this play rings true, I hope -- our characters live the ups and downs in an extreme way. As a director it's a wonderful challenge to balance all the play's elements and flavors, the lyricism, the bluntness, the hope, the fear, the tragedy and comedy of it all. Fortunately, this cast is so well attuned to those shifts and so determined to honor the lives of the men whose stories we've adapted. It really promises to be an incredibly special event. And, of course, the fact of the 100th anniversary gives it all an added resonance.
What kind of theater speaks to you? What or who inspires you as an artist?: I will always make time to see anything directed by either Emma Rice (Artistic Director of Cornwall's Kneehigh Theatre) or John Tiffany. I feel like they are both doing some of the most vital, brilliantly, boldly theatrical work that's happening right now. I am especially inspired by Kneehigh's dedication to building work through an ensemble process while still maintaining a very strong central vision. Anything that helps connect audiences to a transcendent, mythic sense of what it is to be a live is inspiring to me. Those campfire stories -- plays and productions that have a real depth of imagery or mythology underpinning them.
Any plays you’re dying to direct?: In grad school I got to direct a new play by my friend and classmate Claire Kiechel called Some Dark Places of the Earth -- Claire's thesis play, actually. It's a really incredible piece of work and one that I'm sure is destined to have a long and illustrious future life. I would love another crack at directing that play on a larger scale. There's also an old play by Jerome Lawrence and Robert E Lee (the writers of Inherit the Wind) called The Night Thoreau Spent in Jail that I think is due for a revival. I'd love to direct that one of these days. And Hamlet -- which I directed for my grad school thesis. I feel like now that I've done it once I have such a stronger idea of how I want to do it next time around. Just waiting for the right opportunity.
What’s your favorite showtune?: Probably "Gold" from Once. Which I realize isn't really a showtune, per se. But it's a song from a show that's been on Broadway (even if it was in a film first) and it's just absurdly good.
If you could work with anyone you’ve yet to work with, who would it be?: In terms of writers, I'd love to work with Sarah Ruhl or Anne Washburn. I actually spent a semester in Grad School working on a staged reading and in-class workshop of Anne Washburn's play The Communist Dracula Pageant, which is insane in all the most wonderful ways. It would be such a privilege to work with her for real. In terms of companies, there are just so many. I love what Rattlestick and Rising Phoneix Rep do. Their dedication to new plays is very exciting to me both as a director and as an audience member. New York Theatre Workshop is something of a dream for me too, because so much of what I see there feels genuinely new and always surprising and theatrical.
Who would play you in a movie about yourself and what would it be called?: I had to ask my wife about this one. According to her it would be a joint bio-pic about me and my father -- who was a great teacher and raconteur -- called "The Storytellers" and I'd be played by -- and I remind you, this is verbatim from my wife -- "a young Colin Farrell with an American accent." So there.
What show have you recommended to your friends?: For a few years every time Black Watch toured through New York I would tell everyone I know who cares at all about theater that they absolutely had to see it (There I go on my John Tiffany kick again). I just saw Generations at SoHo Rep, which they're co-producing with the Play Company. It's pretty late in the run, so there isn't a lot of time left for people to see it, but I'm definitely recommending it to a ton of people.
What’s the most played song on your iTunes?: Most of the top 25 are sound effects and music samples sent to me by designers, including some of Mark Van Hare's great work for In Fields Where They Lay. Aside from that, though, there's the song "Breathe" by Alexi Murdoch. Somehow for me it's a song that works both as an energizer and a de-stresser, depending on my need at any given moment.
What’s your biggest guilty pleasure?: Popcorn -- way too much popcorn. That's a boring answer, right? But honestly, if I thought I could get away with it, I think I would make popcorn something like 40% of my diet. Sometimes I'll go to the movies just to have an excuse to buy the popcorn. I have this hand-cranked stovetop popcorn maker that is probably my favorite thing that I own. If I thought I could get away with it, I think I would make popcorn something like 40% of my diet. Sometimes I'll go to the movies just to have an excuse to buy the popcorn. One of the best jobs I ever had was assistant directing on a show in which the lead character made microwave popcorn onstage. It came in a fairly tech-heavy portion of the show and the timing of the popping was very important, so every day of tech we would make between 3 and 6 bags of microwave popcorn as we kept going over and fine-tuning that section. I got very strategic about making sure the excess popcorn ended up near my tech table. Working on that show was a wonderful experience for lots of reasons. But the popcorn was definitely a major bonus.
What’s up next?: I'm heading up to New Haven in January to direct Edwin Sanchez' play Icarus with an organization called the Yale Dramat -- it's this student/professional hybrid theater company run by Yale undergrads. I'm very excited for it -- it's a terrific play and I'm bringing half the In Fields Where They Lay design team along for the ride. And the Dramat has all this wonderful history as an organization. I'm told Cole Porter was a member.