In just a week, Arts in the Armed Forces will announce the winner of the second annual Bridge Award! While we wait for that announcement, we sat down with some of the members of our judging panel to talk about their approach to thinking about and working on new plays -- with a special perspective: they're directors. Here are some questions we had for them, and here are their answers:
Q: What calls out to you from a new play?
Portia Krieger: The play sings to me. I can hear it and see it in my mind. It has an unusual worldview and moments of true surprise. It creates a feeling of liberation. To me, that’s the most exciting thing theater can do: make us more free by articulating something in a new way. We leave the theater with a fresh understanding of the world, which is a kind of power.
Pirronne Yousefzadeh: I am most drawn to plays whose worlds are singular, worlds that require that I truly investigate and excavate the language to understand its particular set of rules. Often, that innovation in form includes a kind of rigorous virtuosity on the part of the actor. I love plays with music, plays that require that an actor play at the top of their abilities, break a sweat, and maximize the physical, aural, and kinesthetic potential and immediacy of live performance. Right now, we have a lot of fantastic options on our screens to keep us at home and on our couches, so when I go to the theatre, I want to be refreshed and reawakened by what theatre does best.
Tom Story: Probably the first thing I respond to when reading a play is how characters use language. I don't love it when writers prescribe too much how a play should be staged or how to light certain moments etc. Don't get me wrong! I actually love stage directions and I especially love stage directions that seem impossible. But I want them to have a certain amount of poetry and possibility for interpretation.
Q: When you do want to direct a play -- or respond to it strongly -- how do you approach the writer?
PK: I send an email that says “I love your play and want to direct it!” And then depending upon their response, we have a conversation about the play and try to figure out where and how to try to make it happen.
PY: I'm always very curious to hear what inspired the play and where the playwright is in the journey of its development. In hearing the playwright's thoughts on these fronts, I can truly gauge whether we're on the same page, and if the way I'm reading and envisioning the play is in line with what the playwright dreams it to be.
Q: Do you approach work differently when the writer is living, as opposed to when they're not?
PY: Yes and no. Of course, when working with a living playwright, there's the opportunity to ask questions, to have them in the rehearsal room, and to include their essential voice in the design and rehearsal process. That being said, when a writer isn't living, I still try to discover the words anew on the page. It's easy to fall back on the inherited assumptions of however many previous productions of the play I've seen or read about. As much as that context can be informative, it can also be a trap, limiting my own imagination with what it has been, preventing me from considering what it could be. Just as I do with a new play by a living playwright, I want to meet a classic on my own, and trust in my own imagination and the brilliance of my collaborators to discover our unique collective vision.
PK: I haven’t directed very many older plays, but it does feel different to me. I spend more time trying to understand the writer’s intention if they are living, particularly if it’s a world premiere. The written play becomes a template for ideas that I want to explore.
Q: Can you tell us a little about the collaboration between director and playwright? How does that work?
TS: I have never written a play and I don't think I could; one thing that amazes me about writers is their ability to invent plot. But I like to help a playwright keep a sort of tension in the work. I think plays are like tight ropes and an audience senses when that rope starts to sag--sometimes just taking out a few lines or adding a few words snaps it back into place. I am also very interested in how actors navigate a character's path through a play. When I don't see something coming I get giddy.
PY: I walk into a collaboration with a playwright assuming the play is perfect. It might not be (and really, what work of art is?), but I start from the assumption that they know their play a lot better than I do, and that before I offer a note, I need to catch up. I use rehearsal to show the play to the playwright, and to exhaust every possible tool in my toolkit before turning to the words on the page as the place for the potential revision.
Reciprocally, I'm most gratified by processes where a playwright gives me the time and space to try and fail and try better, but then can also offer a staging idea that can unlock an entire scene. The best experiences are not the ones where I've had all of the best ideas. It's where I can create a room with my collaborators where artists feel trusted and empowered to share their creativity, and then, it's on me to identify the best idea in the room. A true sense of respect and mutual trust with a playwright is an essential ingredient in creating that kind of process.
Q: What has it been like to read for the Bridge Award?
PK: It’s been a pleasure--so much soulful, generous storytelling. I was really moved by these writers' honesty and love for their characters. And I learned a lot about certain aspects of military life from these plays.
PY: The theatre is only made better by having a richness of perspectives and experiences that expand our empathic imagination; so often, it can be very homogeneous, and lead to homogeneous narratives. The Bridge Award is essential in giving a voice to an essential community, and creating the opportunity for a greater understanding of the varied and diverse nature of human experiences. For these reasons, I have felt especially rewarded by this process and humbled to make a contribution in this way.
TS: I have loved being a reader for the Bridge Award and I found it super challenging; there was such a wide range of topics and styles, and also different levels of experience. I was so moved by how many of these plays were about the deep bonds and the community that is built from serving in the Armed Forces. I was also moved by reading about the challenges of adapting to civilian life after serving or being in combat, a theme that came up so much and in so many different ways; it was powerful and fascinating to read about. I was also reminded so much of my own father through this process. He spent decades in the Army and when he retired it was a major life event for him and it took him a long time to readjust.
Q: What's your own personal experience with the armed forces and/or the military community? Do you feel like that informed your experience as part of this judging panel?
TS: My father was a helicopter and airplane pilot in the Army and a decorated combat veteran. I spent most of elementary school living in another country and that informed so much of how I see the world today. The Army provided so much for us--housing, healthcare, and an orthodontist. When I was in seventh grade we moved to the DC area so my father could go to The Pentagon. It just so happened that DC was also a major city for theatre so that changed my life as well.
Growing up an "Army Brat" definitely informed my experience on this panel; I was familiar with the world of many of these plays, and I also have such a deep respect for those who have served. Sadly, in the theatre world I have encountered those who have openly shown disdain for service members--especially combat veterans. That has been upsetting. I certainly have complicated feelings about all of these topics and the concept of old men sending young men off to die really messes with me. But even though I did not choose the military for my own life, I have unyielding gratitude and respect for the men and women who have served and bled for this country and so much compassion for the struggles they have encountered because of it.
PK: I don’t have much military experience at all. I am close with one cousin and her husband who served in the Navy, but other than that I don’t encounter many soldiers and vets in my daily life -- at least that I know of. I was a bit disappointed that I didn’t get to read any Navy plays...I am ready for a submarine drama!
Q: What is the thing you wish aspiring playwrights knew about developing their work?
TS: When you are developing a play you have to hear it. I learn so much about a play when I hear actors read the text, even if they aren't exactly right for a part. Get some people together in your living room and read the play. Then work on it and repeat.
PK: Not all notes are good notes. But almost all notes are given in the spirit of trying to make your work the best it can be. Don’t be afraid to make changes. Save your drafts and the thing you had before will always be there.
Q: How can aspiring playwrights find directors?
PK: Go to the theater! Figure out whose work you admire and reach out. We want to hear from you.
TS: I just want to say to every playwright who submitted to the Bridge Award: keep going. Read as many plays as you can. Go to the theater. Every time I see a play I learn something--every single time, even if the play was a disaster. There are plays in this year's batch that might not have made it to the finals, but I'm still thinking about them. So I hope everyone knows that their work matters, and they should keep writing.
Pirronne Yousefzadeh is the Associate Artistic Director and Director of Engagement at Geva Theatre Center, and a co-founder of Maia Directors, a consultancy group for artists and organizations engaging with stories from the Middle East and beyond. She has directed and developed new work in New York, regionally, and at numerous colleges and universities. www.pirronne.com; www.maiadirectors.com
Tom Story is an actor and director based in Washington DC. His directing credits include productions at The Studio Theatre, Roundhouse Theatre, Berkshire Theatre Group, Solas Nua, Imagination Stage and others. Tom is an Affiliated Artist at The Shakespeare Theatre, a member of The Cabinet at Studio Theatre, an eight time Helen Hayes nominee and a recipient of a Fox Foundation Grant. He is a graduate of Duke University and The Juilliard School.
Portia Krieger is a New York-based theater director who mostly works on new plays and musicals. She has worked with the O’Neill/National Playwrights Conference, Playwrights Horizons, 2ST, Roundabout Underground, New York Stage & Film, Rattlestick, Page 73, Ars Nova, the Lark, the Juilliard School, NYMF, and many others. She has been a member of the Civilians R&D Group, the Lincoln Center Directors Lab, and was the Associate Director of Fun Home on Broadway.