“Don’t fall off the treadmill!” Sam Gold shouts to sprinting actor Bill Buell. The scene is a rehearsal at New York City’s Playwrights Horizons, where Gold is putting the cast of Bathsheba Doran’s Kin through their paces for a February opening. “Safety is my number-one concern, then volume,” Gold specifies. “But I don’t want fakey exhaustion—then we would lose some of the storytelling.” Buell nods with a heavy, heaving sigh. A perfectly timed eye roll causes the room to burst into laughter.
The affable rehearsal room atmosphere is something of a Sam Gold specialty—as is creating trust among artistic teams. “Sam does three things brilliantly,” confides playwright Doran. “He inspires actors, he has visual sensitivity and he is a superb dramaturg. If a director excels in one or two of these areas I’d feel in relatively safe hands. To work with someone who has all three is…honestly…relaxing. And delightful.”
Writer Nick Jones (whose play The Coward Gold directed last year at New York City’s LCT3) shares Doran’s affinity for the laid-back nature of Gold’s rehearsal process, and describes a constant flow of conversations in and outside the rehearsal room that have a conspiratorial feel. “Then you realize he’s been having these chats with every other member of the team,” says Jones. “And he’s not just working on your show, but he’s working on 10 other shows as well. Someday I will find the factory where they make all those other Sam Golds.”
Rather than teamwork, however, or his own prodigious energy level (he drinks a lot of coffee), Gold is more apt to discuss his quest to take “safety nets” and “emotional insurance policies” out of the equation, in order to ensure bold artistic choices. Playwright Annie Baker, who has worked with Gold on Circle Mirror Transformation (at Playwrights Horizons) and The Aliens (Rattlestick Playwrights Theater), gets at this side of him when she comments: “Sam and I share a mutual distaste for the easy laugh. He’s not a whore for audience laugher, which I think is pretty unusual these days.” All kidding aside, Baker points to Gold’s invaluable instinct to have Circle Mirror’s actors play theatre games as themselves before rehearsing the scripted version. “That was integral to the final production becoming what it was. It was so important to not comment on or judge the characters,” says Baker.
Whatever their individual takes on Gold, the fact is that playwrights flock to him like bees to honey. This season the Obie award–winning director will bring his Midas touch to a dizzying variety of New York City productions, including his first Broadway foray with Theresa Rebeck’s Seminar, which opens Nov. 20. He just finished work on Zoe Kazan’s We Live Here at Manhattan Theatre Club; next he will direct a revival of Look Back in Anger for the Roundabout Theatre Company (opening in January) and will direct new plays by Dan LeFranc (The Big Meal at Playwrights Horizons in March 2012), Will Eno (The Realistic Joneses, Yale Repertory Theatre in April) and Baker (an adaptation of Uncle Vanya, Soho Rep in June).
American Theatre caught up with the director-on-the-go at New York City’s Cupcake Café.
How did you come to directing?
Like everyone in theatre I started as an actor. In college, at Cornell, I had some mentors who saw a director brain in me: I was more interested in the bigger picture, thinking about things intellectually, and too bossy to be a good actor. I was lucky to have a lot of opportunities to direct as an undergrad.
After I college I still thought I was an actor. I came back to New York City and had an agent. But my demoralizing actor experiences were matched with really exciting director experiences. I did a lot of little things in basements with people I knew. It was always about ensembles and being friends with the people I was working with.
Later, my dramaturgical side got ignited. I got excited about working with living writers and developing the structure of plays.
Were you working mostly with young writers?
I did older plays, too. I did Genet’s The Maids and Ferdinand Bruckner’s Pains of Youth. I somehow talked my way into getting the rights to the U.S. premiere of a contemporary British play, The Three Birds by Joanna Laurens, which we did in a warehouse in DUMBO.
I also started assisting on new plays. I had internships at Playwrights Horizons and the Signature. I got into Juilliard as a directing student and simultaneously began working full-time at the Wooster Group as an assistant director/dramaturg.
It was a great uptown/downtown grad school, but it didn’t happen with a lot of consciousness. Everything I do now has to do with the fact that I spent three years working with [Wooster Group director] Liz LeCompte while also grappling with being a directing student and collaborating with students who were receiving formalized actor training.
It’s a very interesting combination.
I chose it, but when I look back it feels like it chose me. My work feels like it has those two influences.
What I love about the Wooster Group—and how it really affects me as a director—is the extremely casual relationship between performer and audience. The Wooster Group works every single day. They get to a point where the lines between rehearsing and not rehearsing, or being on stage with or without an audience, get really blurred. I think that’s really good for performers. I feel like the goal in the back of Liz’s mind is taking pretense away.
For both Liz and me, the goal of performance is to not see the muscles flexing. She achieves that by working with people over a long period of time. There is such a sense of trust. She’s spent years developing a process for making work that’s casual and almost\ unperformed—to the point where she’s started putting In-Ear receivers into the ears of actors so that they don’t memorize lines.
I’m much more interested in performers, story and text. Our tools are really different. But what I saw Liz do, which I’ve made a goal of my own, is to make the present tense experience of what you’re watching on stage be as unmediated a process as possible.
To make acting look less like acting.
When I teach acting I tell students, “You’re going to want to have an emotional insurance policy on this moment. You’ll want to make sure that the audience ‘gets’ what you’re going through. But that’s redundant. It’s actually a lot braver and scarier to be without a net on stage.”
To get up there and be naked and take risks is scary! I try to create situations where actors can take risks without putting things up to safeguard that experience.
I often joke with my collaborators, “This feels like a lot like acting, or like a play.” And people will say, “Well, it is a play.” And I say, “Yeah, so let’s save the audience the experience of having to be reminded of it all the time!” I spend a lot of energy on that.
But you do direct play-plays.
I love telling hearty stories. I like play-plays. The last one I did was A Doll’s House at the Williamstown Theatre Festival in Massachusetts, which is like the father of play-plays. I like story because it allows me to let the writer do that work. I often say to actors, “You don’t need to do that, the words are doing all of that for you.” Story helps me. My instinct is to find something that has its own internal logic that I can hang my hat on, that allows me to take risks because I’ve got something solid to trust.
So you don’t necessarily see yourself as an auteur?
That’s an interesting question. When I do older plays, like Marlowe or Brecht, I tend to be really aggressive directorially. I impose my vision. I do that because the circumstances of that play don’t exist anymore—I need to invent them. When I work with an old play I want it to feel like a new play and that you’re engaging with it for the first time and it’s of your culture and time. I want to close the distance down. You can bring an audience to the 19th century by putting the actors in 19th-century outfits, but the audience will never be 19th-century. They will always be watching with a 21st-century brain.
I want older plays to engage with the 21st-century brain; it’s a denial not to. Otherwise you wind up making pretend experiences.
Working with living playwrights is different. I don’t necessarily feel like my job is to be invisible and serve the writer, nor do I think my job is to be an auteur. I feel a project-to-project instinct about it.
For example, if you went to see the plays I did with Annie Baker and didn’t read the scripts beforehand, you’d have no idea whether I had been incredibly aggressive or hands-off. It turns out that Annie wrote extremely specific stage directions into Circle Mirror Transformation that feel almost improvisational.
Your upcoming season has an interesting mix of plays.
I like trying something that I feel like I might fail at. That’s really important to me. Recently, I have had the great fortune to say, “What have I wanted to do?” and take some big swings at stuff, like do a major revival of Look Back in Anger, which I’ve always loved. It’s a canonical play known more for what it did to the culture of theatre and the culture of Britain than for its actual playwriting. So to grapple with that
is a big challenge for me.
I’m also doing a couple of plays with collaborators I’ve been dying to work with, like Will Eno and Dan LeFranc. I’ve been fostering those relationships for the last five years and it’s taken until now to work together.
And doing plays at Manhattan Theatre Club, the Roundabout and Broadway for larger audiences will be new for me. It’s not new in the sense that I’m working with Zoe Kazan and Theresa Rebeck, with whom I have great relationships, but the context feels new, based on the audiences for those plays.
Do you have any trepidations about those audiences?
It’s a cheat answer to say I don’t really have to engage with the audience, I can engage in the material. Let me think…ugh. I’ve been haunted for a year by something I said in the New York Times. I used the term “theatre of awkwardness” and now I feel like “awkward” is attached to my work, which is unfortunate because I’m interested in a wide breadth of plays. When it comes down to it, people want to find a “thing” that you’re about.
People love gimmicks.
Probably everyone says this, but my “gimmick” is actors and telling stories. I’m open to letting that come in many forms. I think the breadth of my work—a comedy on Broadway, Chekhov in a 73-seat Tribeca theatre—is testament to the fact that I don’t have an agenda.
To answer your question, I’m excited about doing plays on a larger scale because a lot of directors spend years and years in basements. You can get really good at creating an experience that makes use of the limitations of working in small spaces with no money. I made my career on succeeding at making an event work with those rules.
The rules of scarcity.
Yes. Less is more. Give one idea a beginning, middle and end. Make the intimacy between the audience and the performers be a success—not an apology for the fact that the play’s not being done on a bigger scale. You figure out how to make great work in empty spaces on no money. Then all of a sudden when you get to do a play on Broadway all the muscles you’ve developed don’t help you, because what’s going
to make that thing succeed is not necessarily how it’s incredibly intimate.
I have an exciting question to answer: How do I create the intimacy that I love so much in the work I admire—on any scale—for plays for larger audiences? The answer to that question is not better or worse than the answer to how you do it in a 79-seat theatre—but it is very different. I haven’t had a lot of opportunities yet to answer that particular question.
Maybe I won’t be able to retain the intimacy in a 900-seat theatre and I’ll fail that project. But I think fear of failure is the best way to make safe work that’s boring. Giving it a try and failing big is a really great way to make interesting work 80 percent of the time and disasters 20 percent of the time—and I’ve made some disasters! But I’m really proud of the disasters!
Any you care to discuss?
I feel like talking about failures makes people sound defensive or something.
I’ll say this: I’m not afraid to put something in front of an audience where I am asking a question instead of making an answer, because of my time at the Wooster Group. I think if you’re willing to put something up in front of an audience, without knowing how they will experience it, then you’re more likely to do something that isn’t safe. It comes back to not having an insurance policy.
When we did Circle Mirror Transformation I remember asking, “Will the audience be able to listen to this play with these pauses? Will they experience story in these pauses or get bored?” The actors were freaked! They were standing on stage in silence for a really long time and then taking a sip of water. I loved the play and I trusted Annie—but I didn’t know. The feeling of not knowing could have led me to do a lot of things to be sure that the audience would “get” something. But the better approach is to say, “I have no idea! It’s worth a try.” Then when you learn that something doesn’t work—which happens—you keep working. If you have to stop working on a play because the producer tells you to, then you say, “Oh well! I’ll have to come back to this in five years.”
I did a production of Threepenny Opera at Juilliard. I was wrestling with the fact that Brecht was making work after World War I obliterated his country. He had political and social stakes that were really high and he made a piece that was rebellious, both formally and from a content point-of-view. I asked myself: How do my cast and I work on this play with those stakes, but without pretending that we’re living in Weimar Germany?
I worked on Threepenny in the midst of the financial collapse, and the climax of that play is a diatribe against banks. So it’s not dusty; it’s very vital now. But you have to engage in the fact that Brecht was making content and structure choices based on his own culture, which doesn’t exist now.
I made huge, aggressive choices. I worked with an ensemble of Juilliard actors. There were no costumes, no set; the actors were themselves. I tried to do the play with that as a rule, in a way that was like Brechtian alienation. It added a layer to an already challenging play. And it’s also an opera. It was a noble experiment, but I don’t think I answered the questions that I was raising. At times it was exciting and at times people were confused. As was I. But now I can’t wait to do that play in 10 years with the knowledge I now have.
Had I wanted to achieve a really successful Threepenny Opera, I could have given myself a lot of safety nets. I could have relied on the history of how that play is performed and rode on a lot of preconceptions about how to do Brecht. But by asking huge questions I set myself up for potential failure. And that really interests me.
It’s certainly never the role of the playwright—or the director—to answer all the questions. But I suppose it can get dicey when you don’t answer enough.
I think that asking the audience to be an active part of that conversation is necessary for the growth of the American theatre.
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