Tina Landau is showing me a collection of her hand-decorated Adidas shoes—not IRL, but in a Photoshop collage on her laptop. We’re sitting in her dressing room on the sixth floor of the Palace Theatre on Broadway, where the giddy juicebox musical SpongeBob SquarePants is running to enthusiastic if not-quite-capacity audiences. The show will take several Drama Desk awards in the coming weekend, including one for Landau’s inspired direction, which will in turn lead to fevered Tony speculation: Might this criminally underrated undersea tuner cobbled together from a Nickelodeon franchise and a grab bag of pop tunes manage to nab some of Broadway’s top awards?
For now, sitting in this narrow cubicle—after all, what does a director need with a dressing room?—Landau, her black hair half-pulled back from an inquisitive, quietly bemused face, looks less like a Broadway macher than the kind of inveterate theatre nerd who’s most alive and at home in a rehearsal room or a design shop or tech. In our interview she visibly lights up when I ask her about her visual inspirations; does she use Pinterest, I wonder? “No,” she replies, but she happily shows me a computer desktop cluttered with files, including the aforementioned collage of sneakers, many given as hand-decorated gifts to commemorate specific shows. “That’s from The Brother/Sister Plays in Chicago,” she says of one with graffiti-like swoops of color and the word “Marcus” visible on it. Many of them are commemorative, worn just once (or never). I will not be surprised if she appears at the Tony Awards in a special pair.
Landau has cut a singular path in those signature shoes since bursting on the scene in the 1990s with works along two very different if interrelated lines: avant-garde work with En Garde Arts and the musical Floyd Collins, co-written with Adam Guettel. The latter led to an overture to direct at Chicago’s Steppenwolf Theatre Company, then an invitation to become a member of the storied company, which she joined in 1997. She’s since made a name for herself directing the work of fellow Steppenwolfer Tarell Alvin McCraney (she’ll direct the playwright himself there in a production of Wig Out! next spring), as well as the form-breaking collagist Chuck Mee, often at New York’s Signature Theatre. Though it’s hard to pin her down to any single style or aesthetic, the Mee plays in particular—as well as a revisionist take in 2002 on William Saroyan’s The Time of Your Life at Steppenwolf, which she has called her favorite work yet—have given her a rep for wildly physical stagings, often abetted by startling design choices.
Which is one reason why SpongeBob seemed like such a good fit for Landau on paper—and, in a production defined by David Zinn‘s Day-Glo, 99-cent-shop design and a game, ebullient cast, it turns out to be a great fit onstage too. Our conversation began with this unlikely but fortuitous pairing, and ranged from her aesthetic of experimentation to her next project, a musical adaptation of the 1993 film Dave at Arena Stage, July 13-Aug. 19.
ROB WEINERT-KENDT: I know this is not your Broadway debut, Tina, but it feels in some ways like your Broadway arrival, right?
TINA LANDAU: Thank you, I guess.
I mean, because it feels like there’s a Tina Landau kind of show—though you’ve directed all kinds, there’s a kind of wild aesthetic you’re associated with, particularly the Chuck Mee plays. This feels like a perfect marriage, in a way.
I would say that’s true. I’d done two previous Broadway shows. The first one, Bells Are Ringing—I was just young enough and in awe of working with Betty Comden and Adolph Green that I kind of, in retrospect, feel like that was the show on which I learned how important it is to stick to your vision. Because I felt ultimately that production got watered down over time. A couple years after that, I said to myself, “If and when I get to do something on Broadway again, I have to be so clear about my vision and my purpose, and just stick to it no matter what, otherwise I’d rather not do it.” Then with Superior Donuts, that was a play where I was in service of Tracy Letts’ work and the story we were telling. But Spongebob definitely felt like, “Ooh, I’m being given support and time and toys to make a mess in my own playground.”
From what I’ve read, you had a lot of time to build it, and while you had to argue for some things, basically Nickelodeon hired you and knew what they were getting.
They did, and you know, they were the ones that kept saying to me, “Well, that first step you took is great, now take the next one, but stick to your vision.” They were the ones reminding me that, which was unexpected.
I want to talk specifically about the show, but I also want to ask you about your process and your aesthetic. You’ve been described, and described yourself, as “visual” a lot, but I think there’s a specific way your work is visual—it’s not just pictorial. Can you talk a little about where that comes from?
You know, I do think I have a visual sense, and I feel passionate about a visual world being created, but I consider that part of the storytelling—I don’t think of it as a separate entity that functions on its own. What’s really important to me is that somehow all the elements of sound, music, light, space, story, language, character, have an interesting and somewhat equal and fluid hierarchy. It’s true that often when I start on any show, even as I look at the source material, the play or the idea or whatever, I like to work both from my brain and my heart and my imagination. So I’ll study, and at the same time I will just fill up with images, or music very often also. You mentioned Chuck’s plays—a lot of times on Chuck’s work, I spend hours and hours and hours just listening to music.
That seems appropriate.
And this past year, when I did Head of Passes, Tarell’s play, which I did it four times—at Steppenwolf, at Berkeley Rep, the Public, and the Taper—that’s an example of a play where I found myself in rehearsal often talking about it as a piece of music. My background is musical—I play the piano. You know, one of my first jobs when I had to make some money outside of directing was playing cocktail piano at parties.
Wow, I did not know that.
Yeah, see, that’s not in any other interviews. That’s a scoop, baby. When I was young—now, I hadn’t thought about this, here’s another scoop, I’ve never talked about this in an interview—in kindergarten or pre-kindergarten, the first time my parents sent me into school, I refused to talk to anyone. I sat in a corner and I drew, and the school called my parents and said, “We think there might be something wrong with your daughter, and you should really take her to a psychiatrist.” My parents were concerned; they took me out, they consulted with our GP, Dr. Gribitz, and he said, “There’s nothing wrong with your daughter. Take her out, let her draw as much as she wants to, and one day soon, she might say to you, ‘Can I go back to school now?'”, which apparently I did, when I was ready. The point being that growing up, I was a draw-er and I was a piano player, and I feel like those two interests or passions for me bear fruit in something like SpongeBob.
Right, the two ways you expressed yourself pre-verbally.
The other thing I wanted to ask you about is your process of experimentation in rehearsal, which I’ve read a bit about, and which it sounds like you got to do on SpongeBob, though it’s hard to imagine you doing it on every play. I’m talking about exercises, Viewpoints—is there a Tina Landau way to rehearse, or does it vary with each project?
It varies within the basic approach. Maybe the degree or how long we end up doing something changes according to what the piece requires, and how much rehearsal time we have. But I have only not done Viewpoints once, and I did it as an experiment to see what would happen if I rehearsed a different way. It was on a production of Mary Rose by J.M. Barrie at the Vineyard Theater, and during tech one of the actors who I’d worked with previously raised his hand and said, “You know, we should have done Viewpoints.” It was because something was happening onstage where they couldn’t figure out spatially where to be or something, and he was like, “If we had done Viewpoints, this all just would have solved itself.”
I did a SITI workshop years ago in L.A., and so I have some familiarity with Viewpoints, but I’ve never worked on them in a rehearsal room. Just for the layperson or the uninitiated, how would you define Viewpoints?
Well, first of all, the thing is, Viewpoints really are different for everyone who works with them, so I obviously can only answer for myself. I know I work with viewpoints very differently than Anne Bogart does, very differently than Robert Woodruff or Kim Wield or whoever. Viewpoints for me are points of view that one can have while working or creating. There are 10 separate individual Viewpoints I work with now, so we spend time in rehearsal putting one or the other foremost as our point of view, as the thing we are paying attention to.
It’s also a physical methodology and training technique I use for creating ensemble, so that actors get to know each other in a way that breaks through barriers quickly and deeply. And it’s exercises I do that help create the play world, like, what is the definition of this very particular, specific universe we want to make onstage? Viewpoints are a shortcut for language, for direction. If I’m doing a large-scale piece, instead of me saying, like on SpongeBob, “Okay, now you move a little further stage right, and you come down one step.” I can literally just say out loud “spatial relationship,” which is one of the Viewpoints, and the cast will adjust, and I’m like, “Okay, and moving on…”
Very often in acting, in the way people are trained and where they go instinctively, we do onstage what we do in life—we stare at things with a hard focus, so that we cut out much that we might hear or be aware of. And Viewpoints is a way of training that opens us up to listen with our entire bodies and beings to everything that is happening, so that we have the opportunity to work off of and use more stuff.
And to just be conscious of the things you’re not paying attention to—this rings a bell.
Totally, and I feel that Viewpoints—really the end goal is the same values held dear in all types of theatrical training and methodology, which are openness, spontaneity, boldness, listening, playing off your partner. Those are the things we’re going for. So there’s both a training aspect, which helps create an openness and fearlessness in the performer in general, and then there’s a very concrete use of the Viewpoints for actually making the staging and the movement of a given piece. For me, it’s equally applicable to something like SpongeBob or Dave as it is to Superior Donuts.
Since you mentioned your childhood before, I wanted to ask a bit about that. You’re from a showbiz family, right?
I am. My parents were film producers, Edie and Ely Landau. They did films going back to Long Day’s Journey Into Night with Katherine Hepburn—a bunch of films with her, actually—and The Pawnbroker, and then they did the American Film Theatre, and much more. I’m from New York, but we moved to L.A. when I was just going into high school. My brother is in film too.
So in a way you’re in the family business, but a different branch?
I was actually kind of the black sheep of the family. Growing up, the refrain always in my household was, “When are you doing a movie, when are you doing a movie?” I don’t know if it was really that I wasn’t interested, or more that I was just being the black sheep, and it was my own little personal form of rebellion. I know that I have always been drawn toward the live experience, and grew up going to the theatre. Some of my earliest memories are of the original Jesus Christ Superstar and Hair, things that took over my whole being. I just really never thought about doing anything else.
So I get why theatre, but why directing?
I don’t know, but I swear to you, when I was six years old, if you had asked me, I would have said, “I want to be a director.”
Somehow, maybe from film sets or from going to theatre, I thought, “Oh, a director is the person in charge.” You know, as a kid, you make stuff up, you make believe, and I was one of those that liked acting out and putting on shows.
And you were always the mastermind, the boss?
Yeah. I never, ever, ever wanted to be the performer. That was horrifying to me, the thought of people staring at me—no.
And directing is what you’ve pursued pretty single-mindedly ever since?
I really did. I mean, there was a little period, which I’ve talked about just recently, where I also thought I might want to be an oceanographer.
There’s an obvious SpongeBob tie-in there.
It was a short time, but I do think the two were actually borne of the same impulse. I loved being underwater, I loved swimming. So I could either be underwater, which was a world that was separate from our everyday waking reality, or I could be in a theatre, also a world separate from our everyday waking reality. At times I wanted to write, or thought of myself as a writer, but it was always in the service of, “I have to write the thing I want to direct.” And you know what? I’m so grateful for knowing what I wanted to do, because I know one of the hardest things in life for so many people is figuring out what they want to do.
Being single-minded has worked for you. But what do you to refuel when you’re not doing theatre, so it’s not just job after job after job?
Oh my gosh, that sounds like a nightmare to me. There are many directors who are able to do that—direct five shows a year or six shows a year. I couldn’t possibly do that. Which I think is why I’ve remained kind of poor always, and why I’ve not had as much of a career as I could have if I worked more. I’ve never been able to go show to show; I have always planned a month, two months, in between for that very reason. I daydream, I read, I drive around, I like to go places, I like to talk to people. That period, exactly what you called it, of refueling, to me feels as important as the time in the room.
But there’s no specific thing you like to do, like scuba diving or something?
Well, I paint. I drive.
Really, driving is one of my favorite things to do. I like to drive places.
You get out of the city though, right?
Absolutely, get out of New York City, that’s the first thing I do. Now I actually have a place in Connecticut, as of two and a half years ago, and that really has been regenerating in a big way. I paint; I wish I had a piano right now, because I’m not playing the piano. I pick out pictures for my collages. I spend a lot of time online, I will admit—a lot. I follow the rabbit’s hole, I learn about things. And I have a ridiculous amount of books, a very big library, and I finally feel a little better about it, because I read an article that talked about how an unread library is as much a signifier of wisdom as a read library, and it made me feel much better. It basically said, if you surround yourselves with unread books, it is a reminder to yourself of the constant possibility of future knowledge, and it reminds you to be in a place that is one of humility about what you know and don’t know.
That’s good to think.
You know, I buy books, I touch books, I look at books—sometimes I read books.
I wanted to ask you about Steppenwolf, because I think of you as associated with a certain kind of aesthetic, and it’s not the same aesthetic I think of when I think of Steppenwolf. How did that come about, and how has it worked out?
From the first year I directed at Steppenwolf, which was 1997, up until 2013, I pretty much directed every year at Steppenwolf. I directed two shows before I got asked to join the company. Over two decades, that has definitely been my artistic home, and a place where I could go to do almost anything I wanted—well, not really, because there were lots of things I pitched that I didn’t get to do.
Sure, and there are things that other members ask you to do; it’s a give and take there, right?
It seems like such a huge company, and I don’t know how they program their seasons.
It’s amazing, and it’s changing now, because it was a standard five- or six-play season, and Anna Shapiro has now made it a much more fluid structure where there’ll be some shorter runs and some longer runs, programmed a little more like the Public Theater.
So how did the connection happen?
I did Floyd Collins at Playwrights Horizons, and Frank Galati, who was a Steppenwolf member, came to see it, and called Martha Lavey, who was in her first year of being artistic director there, and said, “We have to do this show.” Martha came to see it, and we started talking, and ultimately it became clear that they had no idea how to do a musical, and it didn’t make sense to her. She said, “But would you like to direct something else?” I suggested Chuck Mee, and she said, “Who?” I ended up doing a play of his called Time to Burn, an adaptation of Gorky’s Lower Depths, as my first Steppenwolf show. And then the next year, she asked me what I wanted to do, and I said, “Well, I have this play I’m kind-of-sort-of writing that I want to do,” and that was called Space, and I did that the second year, and then I got invited to join the ensemble.
So was there an aesthetic clash between your approach and Steppenwolf’s, or am I stereotyping the company too much?
There were stories I had heard, and I was nervous about it. I thought, “Here’s a company that is hardcore kitchen-sink naturalism, and I’m going to come in and say, ‘Let’s work on shape or gesture,'” and I really thought, this is a disaster waiting to happen. However, what happened was, I said right at the beginning, “Y’all don’t have to like this or understand it, you can roll your eyes internally all you want. Give me half a day of rehearsal, and try to work with an open heart and see what happens.” The Steppenwolf actors took to it like fish to water, the ones I first worked with that year. Because what they were after and what I was after was the same thing, which is what I said before, spontaneity, boldness, a kind of presence—the ultimate goals we were after were the same, we just had completely different ways of getting there. I think when they understood that, and that I also wasn’t shoving down their throats a single way to do something, because Viewpoints for me is just another possible and available way in addition to others—it’s like, Why wouldn’t we try that tool and that tool and that tool and that tool and that tool? They really ended up loving it.
It ended up being a good combination. You know, the other thing you think of with Steppenwolf—I remember one year I went in and saw the advertising for the season on a sign, and it said, “Cutting-edge, bold,” and I remember saying to Martha, “You know, that’s not what this theatre is anymore, it’s become safe and traditional. But that old Steppenwolf—that interests me, so what can we do?” I was able in my first shows there to do stuff that was not typical Steppenwolf fare, but somehow belonged there because of its energy.
Yeah, because in addition to the kitchen-sink naturalism the company is known for, people also talk about their work as a sort of rock ’n’ roll theatre—that there’s a certain visceral attack to it, and I associate your work with that too.
I would hope.
Visual and visceral would be two “v” words I’d associate with you.
Well, I like those both, so I’ll accept them.
So tell me about the Dave musical. How did that come about?
I started working on Dave probably four years ago, intermittently. My first love was always musicals, the American musical, and so Dave feels like part of my being and my heritage and who I am; it’s on some level a very well-made, traditional book musical. What’s great and fresh about it is the content and the timing, the moment we are in. Dave was a little different piece for me four years ago; what I was attracted to then was the notion that the little person, the forgotten figure in our society, contains the potential for great things and real efficacy in the world.
Of course since then, my greater interest has become, what would it mean if we could replace a very destructive, dishonest, selfish president with another model? How would that work, what would it be like, what would we dream? I’m very excited about the way Dave speaks to the moment we find ourselves in, without being burdened with topicality. There are no names mentioned—it’s still a fable. Also I was working with composer Tom Kitt already on SpongeBob, and I love Tom, so I was interested to work with him, and I felt that it was a really smart, funny piece with a lot of heart.
Yeah, the movie is sort of Capra-esque. Would you say this is going to be a slightly more traditional work than SpongeBob?
Well, on my spectrum. People will sing songs and then talk in scenes. But just in the past six months, working on the design and how the thing is going to move, I’ve gotten really excited about what it’s going to be theatrically. We just did a reading of the script yesterday, and I turned to Sam Pinkleton, the choreographer, and I said, “You know, there aren’t musical dance numbers in this, Sam—there are montages.” If you think of “The West Wing,” and those tracking shots where everyone’s walking and talking. That’s a little what it feels like, so I’m really excited about the movement and visual vocabulary we’re developing. I’ll just say I’ve never quite seen anything like it…I hope it works.
So we haven’t really talked that much about SpongeBob. Had you worked with David Zinn before?
No. The very first workshop we did, there was no story, there was nothing. All Nickelodeon wanted to see was if what I was basically pitching, a hybrid theatrical form with no prosthetics, could work. What would SpongeBob look like? We had a two-week workshop in a room, where there were multiple designers, not just David. There were puppeteers, there were clowns, there were actors, there were choreographers. I was very candid, and I said to everyone, “I don’t know if this is ever going to turn into anything, but if you all want to come in and put all your ideas into the big pile in the center of the room, and know that you will own none of them, and we’re all just going to play and invent for two weeks—then welcome!”
Was this like a reality show, with people competing to get the job?
I didn’t feel that. The idea was like a think tank. They might have felt competitive, but I don’t think that was the vibe in the room. I said to them all, “I know this is weird, but you’re not vying for jobs. If you’re interested in dreaming together, come into the room and play with other artists for two weeks.” That’s what everyone did. But David—I have a picture of him that I love from that workshop, where he is making a sculpture out of plastic cups. Downstairs at this very theatre onstage, I can point to you where there is a sculpture of plastic cups. I ended up asking him to do the next workshop, and then the next one.
It does seem like in this show particularly, but maybe for a lot of your shows, that the key relationship is with the designers. Not to slight Kyle Jarrow, your book writer, or the composers, but on this one especially.
Yeah, and it’s why, when Nickelodeon had people come in to pitch, they didn’t start with writers, they started with directors, because what they needed to know was: Could this two-dimensional thing be translated for the stage in a way that would make it feel necessary, or like it was bringing something new to the brand? It’s interesting, because when Kyle and I eventually did go to L.A. and visit the SpongeBob studio, we learned that the way they write the episodes is by drawing them. There was a room we walked into with post-its all along the wall that was the story. They write it visually, then add the dialog. In a way, we ended up following that same model of, Let’s make bits of action first, and then ask, okay, now we have all this stuff—what is our story?
Did the Julie Taymor model hang over the whole enterprise—as in, let’s hire a visionary director to realize this cartoon onstage?
You know, people sometimes bring that up, and people sometimes to this day confuse me for her.
Oh yeah. It makes no sense. There have been some comparisons along the way, and I guess I had Lion King in my mind only insofar as that was a really successful version of bringing an animated property to the stage. But I always asked, what’s our version? What makes sense for SpongeBob? Again, I credit Nickelodeon in that, because they walked the walk and talked the talk, and let us explore enough to start to answer that question in an organic way. It was not what I expected. I was scared to get in bed with a big corporation, and they proved me wrong.
How do you feel about the show, how the show’s doing now, the response?
It’s amazing and surprising, honestly. When we were in Chicago doing it two years ago, I was talking to the producer, Susan Vargo, and we were saying, “Well, the show won’t get nominated for any Tonys—we know it’s not that kind of show.”
I remember that conversation specifically. And we didn’t care. We were like, “Let’s just do our thing.” I will say, the critical response and this award season have all been stunning and thrilling, and a gift. But the thing that makes me really happy is what it’s like in that theatre during some shows—it’s like magic happens in there with audiences of all ages, and I love that. We have had to battle the stigma, I guess, of being SpongeBob. It’s like the title is our greatest liability and our greatest asset.
You had to know that going in, right?
Yeah, I didn’t. I really just thought it would be an asset. In Chicago, we started discovering: Oh, most people would rather kill themselves than come see this show. It was a little like, wow, what do we do about that? We’re still fighting it. The reviews helped, and the fact that everyone who sees it loves it so much helps, and honestly, all these freaking nominations, not just the Tonys but the Outer Critics and the Drama Desks helped so much. There are people who now say to me, “Oh, I’m finally coming—I really have to see the show now.” I feel like saying, “You mean you needed all these…”
Validation from critics and awards.
That’s what you’re up against.
Yeah. But how I feel about the show is great. When I look back on my initial little tome that I wrote that I marched into Nickelodeon with, in terms of our goals and what I wanted to do, I go back and I can look at it now and say, “We did that,” and I’m really proud of that. We’re reaching a lot of people, and I’m very happy.
What’s your favorite moment in the show?
It’s honestly the curtain call. It’s not the bows. Lilli Cooper, who plays Sandy, asked if she could, when they’re singing the theme song at the end, run up the aisle and high five people, and I was like, “Yeah, try it.” She did that, and now we have people in all the aisles. When those actors come to the back of the house, and there’s a four- or a five- or a six-year-old who’s screaming and jumping up and down but can’t see a thing because everyone’s standing up, and Sandy Cheeks the squirrel comes right up to that little kid and high-fives her…I live for that. I stand in the back of the house—I’ll sometimes sneak in just to watch the actors running up the aisles at the end and reaching those little kids in the back of the house.