Invigorating fun best describes an early Sunday afternoon conversation with theater director Sean Daniels in the empty 59E59 theater, where Friday night I’d just seen the first preview of Lauren Gunderson’s stunning two hander I and You, a tour de force for the immensely talented young actors Kayla Ferguson and Reggie D. White. Mr. Daniels, who directed I and You and is the Artistic Director of Merrimack Repertory Theatre in Lowell Massachusetts, where this production originated, is the kind of theater artist we pin our hopes on; he understands the unique powerful nature of the theater and is dedicated to nurturing it. Eloquent, gracious and always charming, Mr. Daniels spoke candidly about the challenges and joys of new work, the director/playwright relationship and even touched upon the hot topic of gender parity in the American theater.
How did you find this play, I and You?
I’ve known Lauren for an incredibly long time and -- this shows my age, so this is terrible -- but when she was a high school student in Atlanta I was running Dad’s Garage and she would sneak out late at night to come see shows at Dad’s Garage and everybody was like, “Oh there’s this high school student that’s brilliant, we all need to go see her work as a playwright.” And so I saw this monologue that Lauren wrote and performed where she recorded half of a conversation into a tape recorder and then played it and did the other half with the recording. It was brilliant. That’s how I met Lauren Gunderson. And since we’re both from Atlanta we’ve stayed in contact. I’ve been a big fan of her work ever since then and as she’s taken off and grown and grown.
I think Lauren is amazingly prolific and she has this very specific niche which no one else is doing. She finds these women in history that don’t get the attention that they deserve and she writes fantastic plays about them. All of her other plays, like The Revolutionists and Emily, are all about “who are these forgotten women?” They really did these accomplishments but because they weren’t men didn’t get the accolades. So not only is she a fantastic playwright, not only is she a young women, but I don’t know anyone else who is doing what she does and who is dedicated to doing that.
There’s no famous people in I and You, but what’s amazing about it is - who writes such a great role for a young teenage girl and then who writes such a great role for a young actor of color, that has nothing to do with being an actor of color, which I feel is just brilliant writing. She writes that the two characters can be of any race, they just can’t be the same race. Which I think is so smart, in terms of how you set up a world….she says “I don’t know where you imagine it takes place, but I imagine it takes place outside of Atlanta.” You have two young people who feel they have next to nothing in common, would never have come in contact with each other except for this class assignment. And then of course they have to figure out, like everybody, that we have a world more in common with other people than we ever believe we do.
This is why it is a great play for right now. I feel like right now everything in our lives and politics is all about defining what’s different between us and other people. Like what of the seven core beliefs put you into one camp or another. You think people who feel different on any of those beliefs are not you and clearly not your people. They will vote differently than you and are terrible. But this is a play about looking for similarities, not differences. So maybe you have some differences, but 90% of who you are is very in tune with who this other person is. I feel like that, in 2016, is a lesson that we are all desperate to hear. All we do all day long is talk about differences.
Which is just a step away from xenophobia.
Well yeah…(laughs) I mean we don’t have to go into politics but it feels like it’s already happening! Like in my family I have several Republicans and we just differ on three issues, which are very important to all of us, but because of where we are in 2016 that’s enough to say, “You are not my people. You don’t understand. We probably disagree on everything.” When actually that is not the case.
What was the process of bringing I and You to fullness? What did Lauren’s play need from you as a director?
The play had been done before and very successfully. When I took over Merrimack Rep I knew I wanted to do her play. I wanted to give her the dream production. She had written this part [Anthony] for Reggie and yet the two times he’d auditioned for it, he’d not been cast. Which is also a strange lesson in how playwrights are acknowledged in the casting process. I was like, let’s do the production that you’ve always wanted. At the same time our producer [Richard Winkler] had contacted Lauren and said he wanted to figure out a way to bring I and You to New York. We were going to do it at MRT regardless and Richard was going to bring it here regardless. And it just seemed that if we could all line up at the same time, we could give her her dream production. We could put Reggie in it. So it was a little like perfect timing in terms of what happened.
I and You incorporates beautiful excerpts from Leaves of Grass. Were there any difficulties working with Walt Whitman’s poetry?
In terms of working on this show, there is actually more Whitman in this production than there has been in other productions. We went through and added more in. Lauren came out and spent some time with us in rehearsal to figure it out: how do we make it never feel like it’s sentimental or just poetry? For them [the characters Caroline and Anthony] it is the most sexy, activated thing that they’ve ever come across, they’re really energized by the poetry. I feel like we have to treat it as such. That was the joy in diving into it. Anytime you work with heightened language, it’s like, how does that language allow you to say things you wouldn’t normally be able to say. The great thing about Lauren’s dialogue is that these teenagers talk like teenagers, which is often the opposite of heightened language! You know they have these great lines like, “Life is so dumb.” That really would sound terrible coming from anyone else but a teenager. But from a teenager, you’re like…. “You are really feeling that right now." And so for them to be able to go back and forth and discover this language of Walt Whitman…. I think for all of us we’ve found that band or Shakespeare or some type of language that is slightly different from ours that we felt allowed us to unlock feelings that we couldn’t have put words to before.
I feel like I’m lucky in that I’ve known Lauren for so long and we’ve worked together on so many things that I don’t have to be prescriptive in anyway. I just say, “I’m confused by this moment” or “I’m not sure what is happening in this moment," and she kind of says, “Well then you should work harder!” (Laughs) or “Maybe I can help.” We’re both very honest with each other. Sometimes when there is something in the staging, she may say, “I don’t understand what it is you’re doing right there?” Which ultimately is the best note there is! Because it’s not someone offering you a solution, you’re just saying, “I’m confused here,” and then the other person can say, “Great, I will clarify what is happening and we’ll figure out if that is the right thing.” I felt as we went through the process of this play she did some rewrites for this production that she hadn’t done for the other productions, so it was definitely a very collaborative process. Her son had just been born a little bit before she came out to MRT to work on I and You. She said, “I’m going to arrive and write at night and put new pages in during the day,” and then she arrived and just went to bed! (Laughs) She got up the next morning and we just did all our rewrites in the room with her, so she could work during the day and go back to bed afterwards. It was an artistic retreat also from being a mother.
Did the baby come with her?
No, the baby didn’t come with her.
So it really was an artistic retreat!
Yes. And I will say as a side note, for some reason all I’m working with now are mothers with new children! It’s really the only way to work! There is no set of people that are more time efficient than new mothers. They arrive, they’re like, “we have two hours, we’re doing this, here are the rewrites, I’ll do them in the room,” and they go. There’s no fretting and then we’re on to the next thing. It was fantastic to be around her.
You’ll have to put that in your contract! I only work with new mothers!
You are a champion of new work, Merrimack Rep is dedicated to new work, and you are also a champion of female theater artists. Do you have any possible solutions to achieving gender parity in the American theater?
I think you just have to do it. If you are really dedicated to something you just have to do it. I think when people are putting together seasons there are so many factors you have to hold in your mind. What is our audience like? What can we afford? What goes together? What have been the themes of past seasons? If you are an artistic director and say, "I cannot think about gender parity too," then you’re just being lazy. You already have to hold seventeen things in your mind in terms of putting the puzzle together so the idea of holding one more puts you over the edge? It really just means you’re not committing.
And it’s terrible economics. The average theater goer in the country is a 57-year-old married woman. And we all know the true power of seeing yourself on stage and what it means to walk in and feel less alone when you see something on stage, so the idea your theater can’t give that gift that theater provides to their average theater patron doesn’t make any sense. And then of course less people come to see the shows and they can’t figure out why, so they program more male playwrights and then it fades again!
Wendy McLeod wrote this play Women in Jeopardy that MRT is doing next year. She really wanted to write a show that had fun roles for actresses in their late forties and early fifties. And it, of course, is a huge hit where ever it happens because how delighted are theater audiences to finally be able to see themselves on stage having a great time. So I think if you are dedicated to theater in the future, if you’re interested in the economics of theater, then I think gender parity is your friend and should be one of the main things you think about when putting together a season
Well said, Sean Daniels, well said!
It should be easy!
What 3 things are needed for the healthy development of a new work?
You need an inspired team, you need a common vision and not enough time! Those are the 3 things that really lead you towards being able to put it together. We’re lucky on I and You we have people that have worked together before in various capacities and we are able to dive in and just do it. Any new work, there is never enough time, so you have to be on it. Our designers have all worked together before and so we are able to say, “How collectively do we work on this story?” at each step. It takes a lot of people to pull off a new play. The team and the vibe is incredibly important.
It’s a collaborative art form. So if you are a control freak, you’ve really made some odd choices by going into theater with that! Whenever I’ve seen new plays fall apart, either the playwright and the director aren’t on the same page of where the play needs to go or the producer really wishes they were the director or the playwright and the design team isn’t really clear of what the vision is. That’s what always seems to be what undoes it.
They’re not playing well together!
Yeah, I think that’s kind of what it is. For I and You it’s been great. Lauren created the world, she’s very clear what it’s about. Her writing has been so strong the whole time, and you know this play won the Steinberg/ATCA Award for Best New Play in the country, so we are starting with a play that is in solid shape which allows everyone to add to it in terms of doing it as opposed to “How can I help solve this?” Everyone one wants to play along with something so strong.
A director ultimately needs to direct, but how does a director hone their craft when they’re not actually directing? Or I guess another way to say it is, what do you do Sean in your life when you’re not directing?
(Laughs) That’s a great question. My wife would like to know the answer to that question!
Jon Jory, who has been a real mentor of mine, has this saying that all directors have to make a thousand mistakes before they can get really good, so you should start right away. It’s true, it’s such a practical, hands-on profession and a lot of it is about the tone in the room, managing people, moving things forward. I don’t know if you can do that just on paper. I feel like the best I’ve ever gotten better directing is by making mistakes, by screwing things up and then thinking “All right, next time I will make different mistakes.”
The real thing I’ve learned as a director is that it is not my job to have the best idea in the room, it’s my job to hear the best idea in the room. So I feel like, how do you get a room of smart people together and be able to listen to what everyone’s saying and say, “That idea is the one we go with." That’s not something you can do in a vacuum, you have to be able to do it in the room.
Is there anything that you do to foster your own creativity that then helps you be a better director?
I never understood this until recently. Tony Taccone gave me a bit of advice. He said you can’t be a director until you have a worldview. And I remember thinking “I don’t think that makes any sense." And then as I got older I was like…oh, no really until you have an opinion on the world and feel like you’re a real citizen of it, the art that you are putting on stage doesn’t come from a point of view, so it doesn’t come from a specific place. So then to be able to say, "I’m interested in these types of stories that are underrepresented and I am going to make it my goal to put them on in a certain way," suddenly you’re a world better director.
Whenever I talk to young directors I always say the weakest answer you could ever give when somebody says “Where do you want to work?” is “Whatever theater will hire me." It’s got to be from a more specific place, like "here’s the type of stuff I want to do, here’s the thing I can actually do better than anyone else…I just have to figure out where that can happen. What is it that speaks to me as an artist, or as a human being or as a citizen of the world?"
So this is for your imagination! If you could reach back in time, resurrect a playwright and pull them into 2016 to create a new work that you’d direct, who would that playwright be and what would be the subject matter?
It would have to be Charles Ludlam! He was doing bold, sexy, Brechtian but joyful work long before anyone else. Such a loss that that didn’t continue. In 2016 he would have been a super star. As things like Avenue Q and Hedwig are accepted now, raunchier work is now thought of as equally as brilliant, because it is and there’s nothing wrong with laughter and nothing wrong with populism and he would be on top of all of that! Plus he’s super smart and referential. Referential humor is such a part of what we do now, like Family Guy, but that’s what Ludlam was doing decades ago, he was just doing it to Rebecca. If he was alive today, he’d be the king of it!
The brilliant thing about The Mysteries of Irma Vep is that he [Charles Ludlam] loved theater, the conventions of theater! There’s always a question as to why this is a play and not a movie or TV show and so often you see plays that you kind of wish were TV shows. You’re like “Why did I have to pay $70 plus parking for this? I could have watched this at home.”
What I loved about Charles Ludlam is that his work could only be done in the theater. That’s what it is all about, audience reaction, quick changes, it’s all about watching two actors sweat. That’s part of the athleticism of watching two actors on stage that you don’t get in a movie. So I think I’d want to do something with him that is incredibly theatrical and really loves the art form, that’s what I’d love to do with Charles Ludlam! I think he was a genius!
Performances of I and You continue at 59E59 Theaters through February 28.