Liz Diamond by Marc Robinson

BOMB 51 Spring 1995
051 Spring 1995
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Thomas McCarthy, Sanaa Lathan and Adam LeFevre in Moliere’s School for Wives, directed by Liz Diamond at the Yale Repertory Theatre. All Photos by T. Charles Erickson. All images courtesy of Yale Repertory Theatre.

Shortly after Liz Diamond and I met for this conversation, the Yale Repertory Theater asked her to direct a new production of Charles Ludlam’s The Bourgeois Avant-Garde. It’s hard to imagine anyone outside the Ridiculous Theatrical Company doing Ludlam’s plays, but in this case the pairing seems inevitable. Ludlam’s brand of disciplined chaos should be well-served by Diamond’s ability to fine-tune the engines of unruly characters. (The characters in her productions—at Yale and various Off Broadway theaters—often threaten to run amok: the pinstriped cannibals in Brecht’s St. Joan of the Stockyards; aristocrats buckling under their affectations in Moliere’s School for Wives; one man’s ego and id colliding over and over like two Keystone Kops in Beckett’s Fizzles.) When working on a play, she seems to think in terms of scale before story, shape before sentiment. Her actors mark the space rather than merely occupy it. Their characters’ emotions are built, not merely felt. Diamond hopes spectators will be as interested in how an actor holds himself as in what he says, and will notice how the pose may be commenting on the speech (or telling us more).

Yet Diamond’s sensitivity to how plays are constructed doesn’t lead to lecture-demonstration theater. Many directors fancy themselves Brechtians or High Formalists; few, however, have a sense of humor. Unlike most analytic directors, Diamond likes a production to move briskly, and she retains a love for old-fashioned theatrical surprise. Her collaborations with Suzan-Lori Parks, for which she is best known, prove that her curiosity about structure hasn’t blinded her to the antic aspects of behavior. She balances Parks’s moral seriousness and linguistic playfulness, knowing that the two qualities enhance one another.

Diamond’s best productions are lucid without being schematic, and her performers are self-aware without sacrificing emotional depth or squelching the pleasure they’re having onstage. She sustains her commitment to big ideas about theater with her passion for the small, concrete elements of performance—the way the light falls, the placement of a prop, whether or not an actor’s entrance will be startling enough to make us sit up and look closer.

Marc Robinson The first production of yours that I saw was the adaptation of Beckett’s Fizzlesat PS 122. I think it may even have been your first professional New York production. When was that, 10 years ago?

Liz Diamond Yes, 1984.

MR Are you still exploring any of the ideas you discovered while working on that production? Ideas about theater?

LD Definitely. I loved Fizzles. Of all Beckett’s novellas, it’s the most sly, the most wickedly Irish. It’s so childishly scatological, starting with the title: it farts, you know? I was also drawn to the images of flickering consciousness, this life that’s shuffling and crotchety and bitchy about the decrepitude of the body. For some reason I really identified with it. (laughter) Bizarre, but true. Fizzles was also important to me because I was beginning to realize just how much I respond to poetry in the theater. I don’t know how to define poetry on stage, or explain my interest in it, but that’s really at the heart of my work and always has been. When I work on plays that don’t offer that kind of satisfaction and joy, I go crazy.

MR What kind of satisfaction is it?

LD A lot of it is aural. A lot of it has to do with an obsession I have for pattern, a visual and aural formality to the work. The form offers a cohesion: it also comments on the content. I’m a formalist in a lot of ways, although not entirely.

MR That formalism comes through strongly in your designs. In each of your productions that I most remember—the Beckett, Brecht’s St. Joan of the Stockyards, Suzan-Lori Parks’s The America Play —it seems as if you start by trying to find the right structure, the right space for the action to happen in. And once that space is discovered, everything else can be put into place. What I remember most about the Beckett, for instance, is that you set it in the corner of a room—and something about that corner clarified the action. Your St. Joan takes place on big scaffolding. And then there’s the white box for The America Play. Am I at all in the ballpark?

LD I’m happy to hear that, because for me it does all begin with the space. If I can see it, I can do it. If I can’t see it, I can’t direct it, and it’s a disaster. From an audience and critical-response point of view, the most recent thing I’ve done, Antigone in New York, was reasonably successful. But I’m least satisfied with it, because I feel as though I never saw it fully. Now I know what it needed to be: it lacked a kind of classical integrity, a certain kind of formal integrity.

There’s a battle for a man’s soul in Antigone in New York, and the soul that’s at issue is Sasha’s. Will he get off his park bench and get his life together, or will he stay and rot in Tompkin’s Square Park for the rest of his life? Anita’s going to pull him out and Flea is going to keep him there. It’s a love triangle, because both of them are madly in love with Sasha. Both want to somehow possess him and to own him. And as tiny and puny as this idea sounds, we needed one bench. Not two (as I had), but one. And it needed to be dead-center. Like a hood ornament. Just, boom, in the center of the space. I needed to keep Sasha on that bench, and an enormous amount of that play needed to happen on that bench. In the same static sense that Greek plays transpire, in an almost ritualized milieu, like an altar. I almost saw it and didn’t see it. The designer and I kept playing with the model, but I don’t think we ever quite found it.

MR What about St. Joan of the Stockyards? That production had the visual, symmetrical clarity you’re talking about.

LD Finally, yes. I think so. In St. Joan, you’ve got this power struggle going on among Mauler and Cridle and Graham. It troubled me, because I couldn’t really discern exactly where it was meant to take place. I thought and thought and thought. I kept seeing pyramids; the verticality of Chicago; Mauler as the man on top all the time. All the other characters are trying to get up to him. There needed to be a powerful way to get to the top, which ended up being an elevator, and a weak way to get to the top, which was a staircase. I also need a sense of collapse.

Just before we started design meetings, I was on a plane coming back from Seattle, where I’d been working on Julius Caesar, and I was thinking about the set, and I drew a triangle. Finally I knew what I needed. It was really this triangular shape that became the core image for the entire piece. It had the possibility of someone trying to get up and then tumbling down, and then another person trying to get up and tumbling down.

MR You’re reminding me of that famous line by Robert Wilson (another person who loves triangles) about how a piece has to be about one big thing first, and then it can be about many little things.

LD Exactly! He’s right. That’s why poetry fascinates me and why I respond so much to strong, resilient poetic language—the stuff that’s dense, layered, and complicated, where the metaphors unfold like onion skins. They just keep unfolding in complicated ways.

With St. Joan, at first I thought, “Okay, big deal. Pyramid. Triangle.” After that, I realized the space also had to have an inside and an outside. You had to have the sense that there were those who were in, who had warmth and heat and light and power, and there were those who were out. I kept thinking about a maw, a mouth opening and Joan being swallowed. There’s all this baroque Christianity in the play—the young saint battling the enemy, Jesus destroying the temple—which is just what Joan does. (I grew up a Catholic, which is always part of the problem. It’s why I’m in this crazy business.)

I had huge debates with my husband about these images of inside and outside, and up and down: he was certain that I was over-metaphorizing the space. But I absolutely think that the density was necessary to the play, that if it had been only one thing—up/down—it would have been incredibly lame and simpleminded. Let’s face it: either one of those ideas alone was pretty bald and pretty apparent. It was not subtle. When those huge warehouse doors opened onstage, and you see this golden world and a marble slab like a butcher’s block come out with these stockbrokers on it, you sit there and say, “Stop! I get it! I get it!” But by conflating them and having more than one dynamic occurring at once, we got some of that allegorical layering that’s in the play.

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Left to Right: Brendan Corbalis, David Chandler, and Ben Halley, Jr. appear in Saint Joan of the Stockyards, directed by Liz Diamond at the Yale Repertory Theatre.

MR I would imagine that this approach allows you to express emotion and psychology without sentimentality. The geometrical architectural approach makes abstractions more concrete.

LD Yes, absolutely. When [the actor] Ryan Cutrona and I were working on Fizzles, we went up into the loft at PS 122 one night to look around. The fluorescent lights from the streets were pouring in, and they were creating those unbelievable shadows on the floor. Oddly enough, there were stage curtains hanging in the room—blacks, I suppose. I said, “Ryan, Ryan,” and I just took a curtain and pulled it and my shadow was part of what was happening on the floor. This light and shadow, this body being erased, and these rectangles being obliterated as you cross … I don’t know. It was poetic somehow. It had a formal elegance and a simplicity that we really liked. So, again, we went backwards. That play of light and shadow, we realized, was going to be the last image of the piece.

MR To play devil’s advocate: what do you say to those people who warn directors who have a formal imagination that they risk creating cold theater—a theater that becomes all about shapes and distances, and doesn’t provide a “transporting” experience?

LD I don’t think that the one obviates the other. You can have cold, sterile, nasty theater, just as you can have grotesquely sentimental, oily, emotionally thick, too-much frosting kind of theater. You can err in either direction. We’ve seen both kinds of work. In this country we tend to see more of the latter, because we love the kind of chew-the-scenery naturalism that dominates the screens. Some of that taste for emotion I actually understand and sympathize with. But the most fascinating work that I’ve seen, and that I appreciate the most, is where there’s an uncanny meshing of two, where you have a shaman-like connection between the performer and the material that causes something really extraordinary to happen, like the chorus loader in Mnouchkine’s production of Iphigenia at Aulis. She’s the shaman, just the way she lifted her chin …

MR The entire play came through in the dance, the choreography.

LD It was all done in her body. There was something incredibly emotionally connected about her work. She was the thing itself. When she made her bracelets make noise, and she let out—remember those little cries? She’d go, “Ow! Ow!” She would get everybody going and she was fabulous. Utterly sensual, utterly potent and present, and yet the work she was doing was meticulously worked out choreographically. Rigorous, formal …

MR … and presentational.

LD Very presentational. One felt that this actress, because she was an actress, had made a connection to the tale and needed to be there every night, needed to bear witness, needed to hear it, was completely connected to the event.

One of the reasons I’m so fond of Robert Wilson’s production of The Black Rider was that the actors were physically idiosyncratic and utterly earth-bound. The somewhat heavyset, very sensuous young maiden who falls in love with the man who wants to be a hunter but can’t hit the broad side of a barn. The completely brilliant, Chaplinesque physical comedian who played her lover, who did that unbelievable tour de force with the gun. That had to be the actor’s brainchild. It was chaotically funny, and yet there was also an exquisite formal rigor to the piece. That tension between the cool and the hot is always what makes theater most powerful.

MR You see that tension in Wilson’s work with Jessye Norman. Her emotional, warm, intense presence offers a nice balance to what Wilson’s doing formally. Wilson did a great version of Gluck’s Alcesti in Chicago a few years ago in which Norman played Alcestis. She was very powerful, but the most moving aspect of the whole opera was a big cube Wilson designed which floated in space, did airborne somersaults during a lot of the production. You could read all sorts of things into it: It could be an image for Alcestis’s uncertainty, torment, emotional suspension, whatever. All that was conveyed with a piece of decor.

LD Right. It’s the invisible made visible, the abstract made tangible.

MR Going back to Mnouchkine, I think that what made Les Atrides so successful was the two-tiered wooden stage, that walled-in deck, like a corral. Again: the space is the key. It does seem like a service you provide the writers, giving them the ground on which their language, their idea of action, can be seen. Literally creating the ground—the floor and walls.

LD I think so. After I first read The Death of the Last Black Man, I felt there was something embedded in the poetry that needed to be broken open. I’m always intimidated when I read Suzan-Lori’s work. My first reaction is, “Oh my God, which way do I hold the page?” That’s part of why I love her work, because I have to get used to it. It’s why I’m dying to do Genet, because he has that kind of opacity for me. When I started working on Black Man at Yale, Suzan-Lori gave me this giant, two ton hint. I don’t know if she intended it to be sly, but she said to me at one point, “Well, everybody except one person is dead, but some are deader than others.” I suddenly realized that the dogshit level of reality in this play was a woman and a bunch of spirits. Once I’d made the decision that Black Woman With Fried Drumstick was the only living figure on the stage, that Black Man With Watermelon was the most recent, warmest dead body in that space, certain things started to happen. Suddenly it became clear to me that this was a funeral celebration. Suzan-Lori said, “Yeah, I guess maybe that’s true.”

I started marching around to churches in New York: the Abyssinian Baptist, Riverside, St. John the Divine. Finally, in St. Patrick’s, I saw something that helped a lot. (Suzan-Lori is also Catholic, so this probably stands to reason.) To the right of the altar in St Patrick’s is a side altar–a surreal little space. A lot of the side altars have statues of Jesus Christ holding his heart in his hands, really grotesque imagery like that. But this one has a round, heavy stone pedestal, with a heavy pilaster. And guess what’s on the pedestal? A book. Open.

MR The index!

LD (laughter) Probably! Anyway, coming from way up in the vaulting arch is this light that hits the book. On that day, a lot of the people who were praying at this altar were African American, Caribbean. This bizarre thing went off in my head about history, and the line in the play, “You must write it down and hide it under a rock,” and Suzan-Lori herself writing the play at her desk. So when I started working with Ricardo Hernandez, the designer, I talked about how it had to take place in a churchlike space, but this holy, ecclesiastical space had to be an exterior—the whole entire world. Because the characters are outside the walls. They don’t own the interior spaces. Once we knew that, this incredible complex, layered, rich, wild, and crazy poem had a ground.

MR That’s what I was trying to get at earlier. I think finding that ground must have been just as difficult when you did School for Wives last year. Moliere’s rhyming couplets can float off into the clouds unless you keep pulling them down, or they can carry you down the river if you don’t anchor yourself in some way. It seems you give plays weight so that the language can fly about freely, but the play will remain present.

LD I hope so. That’s always my goal: I think that words deserve a home. They have to have a space to resonate in. The space has to entice you and make you curious. It has to put you in dual state of alertness and relaxation—otherwise you can’t hear the play. This is a word that I can’t define, but I think there has to be a sense of beauty—and grace and sensuality—to the space, to make you feel good, to give you pleasure.

MR How does this structural idea of staging translate into acting? How do you work with the actors in these spaces?

LD I have a bias toward actors who have a highly developed physical imagination, who enjoy their bodies, who enjoy movement and playing at character, and who are emotionally alive—but who themselves have a formal imagination. David Chandler, for example who played Mauler in St. Joan, is wicked. I mean he’s very sly, and strange, and his ideas about the relationship between the extended physical gesture and what’s going on narratively is uncanny. Camryn Manheim—who’s this large, tall woman with a big Irish face. She’s extremely funny and physically free.

MR Whenever I think of Brace Up! what I’ll remember most is the way Ron Vawter stood. He found a pose for himself as Vershinin.

LD The foot on the ramp, remember?

MR Yeah. First he shifted his weight in a particular way, and only then did he speak. Once he had found where to place various sections of his body, the emotions and the truth of what he was saying came out fully.

LD Bill Raymond, in Antigone in New York, taught me a lot about that. I suppose that what these people do is an actorly equivalent to the way I work. Just as geometry—volumes and shapes—are crucial to my getting the play, these actors who get the character when they get the gestures, when they get the balance, the stance. Ron was a master of that. There are also intangible things like charisma that are so highly subjective they’re probably impossible to discuss. But with all the actors I like, there’s something almost a bit much about them. Their mouths are too big. Their eyes are too big. There’s a muchness to their physical life. There has to be something really odd. It’s like that fabulous actress in Bergman’s Hamlet who played Ophelia. She had this peasanty, earthy shape. Her wrists were a little thick and she still had her baby fat. She had a very beautiful face with a very big mouth. You could draw a crayon picture of her and get it. And you could see her from many rows back.

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Bill Raymond (left) and John Seitz (Right) in Janusz Glowacki’s Antigone in New York.

MR I hate most Brechtian terms for all the confusion they’ve caused over the years, but it seems that what we’re talking about, at least as it concerns Ron Vawter’s stance, connects to gestus. Everybody bandies about the term as though its meaning is obvious, yet you seem to intuitively understand how a successful gestus can center a dramatic moment in a performance, can draw attention to something that would otherwise be insignificant. I saw a great one in your St. Joan: the scene where a poor woman sips soup at a cafeteria table. Here’s this massive industrial set and all kinds of busy activity going on—and in one corner there’s this lone woman drinking soup. Something in the way she times the lifting of the spoon and the angle at which she held it and the way she brought it to her mouth and then looked up at the room—that sequence of movements explained her relationship to that world and clarified everything that was going on.

LD That’s Camryn. Yes, that’s exactly what I’m talking about. At the beginning of Fizzles, Ryan is lying on his back with his hands on his chest. He has these unusually long bony fingers. He’s very Giacometti-like. The fingers were twitching before his character woke up—it’s the first gesture in the piece. It was fun to watch just that. It was like another character, another little persona, an animate thing happening. That stuff is so important.

If I’m lucky, I start with a group of actors who have slightly nutty and very free, playful imaginations, and a willingness to mess around physically. There are great actors who don’t work that way, and sometimes I’ve had them in my companies. Let me put it this way: it’s legitimate in almost any play for an actor to imagine whatever back-story he or she needs to walk out and be in the moment. I absolutely don’t mind if I spend a certain amount of time during breaks, or even in rehearsal, just sort of messing around, hypothesizing. But when we’re up on our feet working we bury that stuff, it’s just back there, or in our pockets, or somehow underneath and I spend almost all my time talking about rhythm.

I do a lot of performing myself in rehearsals to show actors what I want, for better or worse. When I tell my students this, sometimes their eyes drop out, because one doesn’t do such things. But actually, I find it’s the shortest distance between two points. If you can get up there and say, “Okay, here’s how I see it,” then you go far. Most of the actors get a kick out of it. They think I’m a completely lousy actor, they laugh, and then they make it art.

When I was rehearsing The America Play, Michael Potts and I messed around with the false teeth his character finds in The Great Hole of History. I knew that I wanted those nibblers to become this other thing that came at him and took over, so I showed Michael this totally lamebrained little routine. He was very sweet, because he was sort of vexed that it had occurred to me before it had occurred to him. But then he took the teeth home one night. For several days he didn’t want to rehearse it. He wasn’t interested in showing me anything. He finally came in one day and had worked out this marvelous thing, this bit, with this biter. Then we edited and we shaped and we reworked. Pam Tyson did a lot of brilliant choreographic work in Black Man. I would say, “Pam we have to make our way around the coffin in some ritualized, almost Catholicized, African moments of homage.” And she’d say, “Cool!” and she’d get out of there and start messing around.

MR That’s what’s so fun about some of the Wooster Group stuff. Here’s this very architecturally complex stage design, and equally complex narrative design, within which are those fantastic dances. Everything in an otherwise controlled play lets loose, with the dances. I can imagine the Group in rehearsal, exhausted by all the crosscutting and fragmentation, saying, “We really need to dance here.”

LD I worked as JoAnne Akalaitis’s assistant in 1987 when I had a fellowship from the NEA. The single richest notion that I came away with in watching her work was the notion of mudra, an Indian word meaning “the gesture that means more.” It is hieratic gesture, the body as calligraphy, the body as writing in space. She played a lot with simultaneity, she always does in her productions. That was when I started thinking a bit more about complexity in events. Perhaps I had a minimalist aesthetic up to that point. It’s hard not to when you’re working Off-Off Broadway and you have one actor and no money. (laughter)

MR What about humor in your work? You’ve often said you love schtick and gags.

LD Well, the idea in The America Play of somebody shooting a black guy in a blonde beard impersonating Abraham Lincoln is completely sick and full of horribly, heartbreaking notions. It’s also very, very funny. I love clowning and physical silliness because there’s something really generous about wanting to make other people laugh. All of the actors I love are great comics. Brecht said that the great actors are all comic actors.

MR And the unpredictability of comic actors seems especially essential in your work. Otherwise, spectators might feel too secure—almost complacent—watching formally precise staging with a strong structure. It’s good for us to think that chaos could break out and this big structure could fall apart at any moment.

LD Right. One of the great love duets of all time was in Black Rider when Wilson had those kids flying at low altitude, and the more turned on they got, the higher they went, and then they missed each other! (laughter) And went sailing on. It was hysterical. I keep finding comedy in the Greek tragedies. I just read Philoctetes, which I actually think might have some humor in it.

MR That whiner!

LD Exactly! What a jerk!

MR He should take an aspirin and shut up.

LD Yeah, please, get on the boat, go home. What do you want us to do, kiss your ass? I suppose those plays that constantly break through the membrane between tragedy and comedy, that are constantly going back and forth are the ones that I think are the richest. Whether it’s Lear or Galileo or …

MR Or Genet’s plays. I think this is why I started by asking you about Fizzles. My first impression of you, 10 years ago, was as a Beckett director. Now when I think of you, it’s as a Brechtian—even when you aren’t doing Brecht. For all his humor, we tend to think that Beckett’s shadowy and inward. Brecht is outward and sharp-edged. It’s stupid to pigeonhole any director, I know, but how did the director who first did Beckett become the director who does Brecht? In the same way, how is it that a director who’s drawn to Genet have this interest in Feydeau? (I know you’re thinking about his work these days.) Those kind of sensibilities seem, at least on the surface, to be antithetical.

LD Maybe one thing they have in common is an opportunity for tragic farce. Brecht’s Joan, this middle-class do-gooder, goes in to the stockyard and tries to fix it. There’s something absurd about that entire enterprise that kills me. As does Beckett’s Winnie, who valiantly resumes brushing her teeth. All of these writers also have a highly theatricalized idea of character—of the characters themselves playing roles. But maybe what overrides everything else is that all of these writers are poets. Moliere, Feydeau, Parks, Brecht, Beckett, Genet—they all understand language. In all their work, there is a sense of language as an object, as something with density and weight and shape that is to be deployed and manipulated and played with. The puns, the wordplay, the multiplicity of potential meanings they wickedly play with. Parodies occur in the writing, whether it’s Moliere parodying Corneille, or Brecht parodying Schiller, or Parks parodying Beckett. I mean, Beckett is easily a parody of himself; let’s face it, there’s always that danger with him. But fortunately I think Beckett’s own wit is so tormentedly self-deprecating and so funny that he saves himself. The comic, emotionally manipulative, and deviant spirit is common to all of these writers. There is a subversion of dominant ideologies and they do it through the words. They do it with the very way they structure a sentence.

MR Which saves whatever is politically pointed about their work from being didactic. Or, worse, obvious.

LD Exactly. There are a number of Brecht plays that don’t interest me at all for that reason. The work where he’s the most baroque is fantastic. It’s hilarious. I’m best with work that has something slightly whacked about it. (laughter)

MR We once talked about how frustrated one can get by the insularity of the theater world, by the fact that those people in theater don’t really care about, or draw from, the other arts. Can you elaborate on that?

LD Theater has this strange hybrid quality in this country. It’s what makes it rich. It comes front a resolutely populist tradition of vaudeville, minstrel shows, and carnies. There’s a real P. T. Barnum aspect to the work we do and love. But there’s also a more intellectually challenging tradition that has its roots in the great revolutions in art, music, and literature of the 20th century. But we don’t have a sense of our relationship to that cultural history. The theater in this country shares the tragic flaw of our culture as a whole, which is a resolute anti-intellectualism. That depresses the hell out of me.

We underestimate the willingness and ability of audiences to go with us. We are in some ways afraid of our audience. I’m talking about the mainstream, so-called regional theater movement. There is a terrible fear in the regional theater of losing the audience, because then we will not be able to support these hulking behemoths of real estate. But I don’t think theaters are meant to last a thousand years. When it’s important and meaningful, theater is protean and is reborn every 20 years.

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Sanaa Lathan and Adam LeFevre in Moliere’s School for Wives.

MR But if that’s the ideal, what happens to our sense of history? Don’t you ever envy painters who can go to museums and reacquaint themselves with their inheritance? Theater artists can’t do that.

LD By protean, I don’t mean there should be an immolation of memory in the process. I mean that somehow the institution has to have built into it the possibility for internal transformation. That can only happen when the state—in other words, the people—believe that art should be supported. Therefore, you can have a hoary old institution like the Comédie Française reinventing itself—okay, not as often as it should, maybe only every 50 years, but struggling to come to terms with a far more heterogeneous population.

MR I think they finally did a Genet play seven or eight years ago.

LD Whoah.

MR Fasten your seatbelts.

LD Yeah.

MR I always get kind of wistful when I think of Mabou Mines’s teaching studio, Re.Cher.Chez—now defunct. It was set up as a place where the techniques of one avant-garde could be passed down to a younger avant-garde. It was helping to create an oral tradition.

LD Well, if we had any sense and money, we would make it possible for repertory to exist in this country. I cannot tell you how much it kills me that there were only 12 public performances of Imperceptible Mutabilities in the Third Kingdom. Twelve public performances. Look, I don’t wish to see all these giant buildings with all their fabulous bathrooms and backstage areas and tech departments burned to the ground. But I do wish to see them rethought as cultural centers that have an obligation both to history and to the next generation.

MR They should publish plays.

LD Publish plays and make them available to the spectators who go to the shows. Every place that makes theater should have a place where people can just hang out and talk about what they’ve just seen, and hobnob with the artists. It should be possible for a director on a break at a theater to have coffee with the director rehearsing in the next room. These things only happen when you have a sense of ownership, a sense of home, a sense of place.

MR I wish the Public Theater would take one of its five theaters, and sign up eight different playwrights or directors, and let each one of them have it for six weeks at a time to do whatever the hell they want. The other four theaters would still be there for the big-ticket items, like the latest Shakespeare production and the new Broadway-bound musical. These big, relatively established theaters should be the quickest to support the untested.

LD Absolutely. Look, what made BACA Downtown a great place to be, for one brief, shining moment, was that a bunch of people felt like they could pitch an idea and Greta [Gunderson, the artistic director] would say, “Cool! Here are the keys, don’t leave a mess, you have to repaint the wall black when you’re done.” The end. Now, some people might argue, “Yeah, yeah. It served an effete little crowd of mutual well-wishers, blah, blah, blah.” Well, you know, goddamnit, all theater is local. I don’t think there should be some universal spectator out there to whom, if we can only find the magic key, we will appeal, and that universal spectator will multiply, metastasize, and appear in droves at the door. It’s not interesting. Theater is special because it’s local. A great theater is both a repository, a memory bank for the works that it’s proud of, and a living, breathing, cosmopolitan crossroads of all kinds of new work. A great theater also allows for work to fail.

MR Like the ideal classroom. Have you noticed if your teaching at Yale has influenced your directing at all?

LD Teaching has made me more patient. It has affected my sense of time and my willingness to let something bake, to let something percolate. In watching my students absorb and discover ideas, I’ve discovered that learning doesn’t happen on a curve. It happens in these bizarre and quite arrhythmic, spasmodic leaps. If I had any self-awareness, I would have noticed that this happens to me in my own work. I’m not sure there’s such a thing as a learning curve as much as a jagged, decrepit learning staircase. And that is something that I’ve taken into the rehearsal hall and begun to observe with greater sensitivity in working with my actors. I’ve grown more watchful of their process, and I’ve allowed myself to be silent, perhaps, with greater self-confidence than I had before I started teaching.

It’s also made me more articulate. We all use that incredibly tired phrase “it works” as a kind of shorthand, and of course it’s lost its meaning, because in perpetually using it we forgot what we were talking about. Once you get into a seminar situation or in a rehearsal where you’re watching some poor student kill herself trying to stage a transition, you really have to get at what that phrase means in concrete, practical, stagecraft terms.

Finally, the fact that I spend so much time as a teacher thinking about, reading about, and looking at work, whether a landmark production or just a great play, gets me thinking more deeply about structure and metaphor and shape and all of those things that we’ve been talking about. It’s been very nourishing. It’s also exhausting.

Marc Robinson is the author of The Other American Drama (Cambridge) and the editor of Altogether Elsewhere: Writers on Exile (Faber and Faber).

Charles Ludlam and Christopher Scott by Ted Castle
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Dmitry Krymov by John Freedman
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“I asked my students for the image of the essence of tenderness. One girl brought in a small, silver plate with a bunch of grapes neatly laid out on it. When I noticed she had stripped the skin off the grapes, I got goose bumps.”

Olivier Assayas by Alex Zafiris
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Time, sharing pain, and theater versus cinema.

John Turturro by June Stein
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“The older I get, the more I realize that it’s a team effort. I don’t want to be right or wrong. I don’t care who’s right and who’s wrong. Whatever works best.”

Originally published in

BOMB 51, Spring 1995

Featuring interviews with Felix Gonzalez-Torres, Juliana Hatfield, Li Young Lee, Antonia Bird & Danny Boyle, Liz Diamond, Bradford Morrow, Dave Hickey, David Seidner, Shirley Kaneda, Cachao, and William Gass.

Read the issue
051 Spring 1995