Wednesday, October 26, 2016

Spotlight On...Noam Shapiro

Name: Noam Shapiro

Hometown: New York City

Education: I attended the Bronx High School of Science and then double majored in History and Theater Studies at Yale. Coming out of Bronx Science, I thought I would major in chemistry and potentially pursue a career in academia. I always loved theater but my high school offered very few curricular and extracurricular theater opportunities. During my first semester at Yale I took theater classes alongside some of my other courses and realized I enjoyed reading and talking about plays as much as I enjoyed lab work and writing essays. I’m still fascinated by science and am actually developing a play based on the race to develop a vaccine against a major virus.

Favorite Credits: A couple of years ago I directed the U.S. premiere of Caroline Bird’s adaptation of The Trojan Women. Caroline Bird is primarily a poet (she was one of the five official poets for the London Olympics 2012) and her adaptation is modern yet lyrical. The play is set in the mother-baby ward of a prison following the fall of Troy and the chorus is re-imagined as a pregnant woman. The play created an important space for the performers and audience to grapple with the persistent crisis of sexual violence against women, particularly in war zones across the world. Another favorite directing credit was a minimalist production of Arthur Miller’s The Crucible that I directed in the round without any modern technical elements. Lighting and sound were created by the cast using found objects and instruments. The production also featured fourteen Puritan hymns that were arranged in four-part harmony and sung a cappella by the actors throughout the show. The production sought to explore what it might have felt like to live in a world of darkness, fear, and superstition. I really enjoyed the ensemble work that emerged out of that production and hope to revisit The Crucible again sometime in the future.

Why theater?: I make theater because of its capacity to build communities and bring people together. I believe that theater has the power to break down barriers and initiate conversations in a way that distinguishes it from other art forms. I also believe that theater is one of humanity’s greatest ways to teaching empathy, inspiring action, changing perspectives, and transforming lives. As a theater maker, I love how live performance binds audiences and practitioners together as partners in the creative process. Lyra Theater was created with this actor-audience relationship in mind. Lyra aims to empower early-career theater artists to find their own voices and share their work with the public. As we strive to launch the next generation of artists onto the New York stage, Lyra also committed to lowering barriers to entry by paying our artists for their valuable work and offering affordable tickets to the public. I hope that Lyra will become an environment where artists and audiences can come together to grapple with the pressing ethical, cultural, political, and social questions that keep us up at night. Lyra was named after a constellation because we aspire to cultivate a constellation of artists who serve as advocates for the theater as a fundamental force for good—a force that has the capacity to shape the way we think about the world.

Tell us about this translation of The Resistible Rise of Arturo Ui: Jennifer Wise’s translation of The Resistible Rise of Arturo Ui modernizes much of the archaic language in some of the earlier translations of the play without sacrificing the the script’s speed, political satire, and dramatic action. Although Wise’s translation is textually accurate, it is also highly actable and speakable for actors in 2016. Unlike earlier translations, Wise’s translation is primarily in prose, with occasional passages of regular verse. The translation also captures the Depression-era Hollywood gangster-talk of the 1930s by incorporating period-specific slang and idioms into the dialogue. Like other translations, Wise maintains Brecht’s references to Shakespeare, Goethe, and Al Capone, however, she also draws from contemporary sources of inspiration, such as the Great Recession and Iraq War. Throughout the play, Wise encourages productions to resist the temptation to overplay the allegorical relationship between Arturo Ui and Hitler’s rise. Whereas other translations retain the original Brechtian signs between each scene, which comment on the events that led to Hitler’s rise, Wise recommends that directors create signs that relate to the production’s current political moment. As a result, Wise’s translation becomes more than an allegory about Hitler. Rather, the translation serves as cautionary tale about the conditions under which fascism and populism can triumph anywhere, even in democracies with legal institutions. To quote Wise, “The resistible progress of fear-mongering gangsterism is the true story of Ui, and this story can be kept quite clear of swastikas and Hitler mustaches.” For Lyra’s production of The Resistible Rise of Arturo Ui, we have drawn from Donald Trump’s “Trump Cards,” his business maxims from "Trump: The Art of the Deal", to create the Brechtian signs that comment on the action of the show. We’ve also incorporated references to Trump, classic Hollywood gangster films, and the Nazi regime throughout the production.

What inspired you to direct The Resistible Rise of Arturo Ui?: In February 2016 I spoke with several theater artists about this year’s election season. We were all concerned about the rhetoric on the Republican side, particularly the statements coming from Donald Trump. A bunch of us brainstormed how we could respond to the election and speak out against hate in our politics. People suggested canvassing, making phone calls, and volunteering. I asked how we could respond to the election as theater artists. I had read The Resistible Rise of Arturo Ui several years ago and started looking up more contemporary translations of the text. That’s when I came across Jennifer Wise’s modernized translation and brought the play to my collaborators, Hope Chavez and Kyle Michael Yoder, at Lyra Theater. Lyra had been looking for a production to kick off our inaugural season and decided that Arturo Ui would be the perfect play for this current political moment. The play usually features a cast of 40 actors but we cut the play down to 8 actors to create a tightknit ensemble. We hope the play’s central warning—that demagoguery can arise in any society if people stand by—will resonate with our audiences as they head to the polls this November. Beyond its relevance to the 2016 election, I hope that the play will remind us that we must always remain vigilant against bigotry, violence, and intimidation in our society.

What kind of theater speaks to you? What or who inspires you as an artist?: I’m drawn to political and activist theater that makes audiences think and feel. I love comedy and drama, but am most excited by theater that has a sense of urgency and immediacy. I’m especially moved by theater that initiates debates and leaves audiences with more questions than answers. As a theater maker, I feel strongly about bringing new voices and perspectives onto the stage and am particularly excited about developing and directing new plays and musicals. Part of what drew me to Arturo Ui was the opportunity to create a space for early-career artists to engage with and comment on this election through their art. I really admire Lin-Manuel Miranda and Oskar Eustis’ genuinely optimistic and idealistic approach to making theater. For both Miranda and Eustis, making art is an act of goodness, generosity, and compassion that should be shared with as many people as possible. Both Miranda and Eustis’ champion and create work that is driven by a sense of morality, love, and curiosity. I also admire Sarah Benson and Branden Jacobs-Jenkins’ work, which address the uncomfortable, pressing, and complicated questions that most people try to ignore. With every production I direct, I try to experiment with new and different forms of theatrical storytelling. For Arturo Ui, I was especially inspired by John Collins and ERS, as well as Declan Declan Donnellan and Cheek by Jowl’s innovative and joyful reinterpretations of classic works.

If you could work with anyone you’ve yet to work with, who would it be?: I would love to work with David Cromer, John Doyle, Yael Farber, John Tiffany. All four directors create extraordinarily humane, compelling, and intimate theatrical experiences. They also push theatrical boundaries by re-imagining how we tell stories—whether it’s through re-contextualizing familiar works, minimalist staging, innovative ensemble work, or conceptual design.

What show have you recommended to your friends?: Last season I loved Mike Bartlett’s future history play King Charles III. The play ingeniously adopted Shakespearean theatrical techniques, including iambic pentameter and classical tropes, to imagine what might happen following Queen Elizabeth II’s death. I also enjoyed Jordan Harrison’s beautiful Marjorie Prime at Playwrights Horizons. The play explored memory and loss through a sci-fi conceit that was emotionally devestating. This past summer, I had a great time at Jaclyn Backhaus’ hilarious and thought-provoking Men on Boats, which was brilliantly directed by Will Davis, and made the case for less-is-more on stage. This season, I’m looking forward to experiencing The Encounter because I’m curious to experience how Simon McBurney and Complicite transport an audience through sound onstage.

Who would play you in a movie about yourself and what would it be called?: A young Jason Schwartzman. Since I spend a lot of time in theaters, the movie would be called “Take Ten.”

If you could go back in time and see any play or musical you missed, what would it be?: I wish I could see the original production of Kander & Ebb’s Cabaret. Cabaret really set the bar when it comes to meta-theatrical storytelling and I would love to experience Harold Prince’s original staging. I’m also a fan of memory plays and would be interested to see the original production of Tennessee Williams’ The Glass Menagerie. Nowadays we’re so accustomed to writers and directors playing with time, memory, and the actor-audience relationship. I think it would be really moving to experience those theatrical techniques for the first time.

What’s your biggest guilty pleasure?: Napping during the day!

If you weren’t working in theater, you would be _____?: If I wasn’t working in theater, I would be a teacher. I love learning and part of what excites me about theater is the ability to keep on learning about the world through every project I work on. The same is true of teaching. Whenever I’ve worked with students, I always learn as much from them as from the research I conduct to prepare for each class.

What’s up next?: I am developing a play about followers of the Grateful Dead called Deadheads with my collaborator and friend, Ali Viterbi. Lyra is looking ahead towards our next production, which will be announced soon. We’re aiming to partner with diverse early career writers to bring original, relevant, and urgent theater to the stage. We’re also excited to launch a new theatrical development and reading series later this winter. In November, I will be one of the assistant directors on the 24 Hour Plays on Broadway. This year I’m a 2016-2017 Manhattan Theatre Club Directing Fellow and a member of the 2016-2017 Stage Directors and Choreographers Foundation Observership Class, so I’m also looking forward to working more closely with both MTC and the SDCF this season.