“It’s about the glamour and the underbelly of the last days of Studio 54,” director Darko Tresnjak says. “Instantly, the words that came to my mind were ‘the glitz’ and ‘the grime.’ I found the combination very seductive.” Tresnjak is talking about This Ain’t No Disco, the new rock opera with music and lyrics by Stephen Trask (Hedwig and the Angry Inch) and Peter Yanowitz (drummer for the Wallflowers, Natalie Merchant, and Hedwig), and a book by Rick Elice (Jersey Boys, The Addams Family, Peter and the Starcatcher). Set in New York City in 1979 and 1980, the musical deals with the world of celebrities, counterculture, and drugs at the famed Studio 54 and Mudd Club. It’s onstage through August 12 at the Atlantic Theatre Company’s Linda Gross Theater.
Tresnjak, 52, won Tony, Drama Desk, and Outer Critics Circle Awards as best director of a musical in 2014 for A Gentleman’s Guide to Love and Murder. He won a directing Off-Broadway Obie Award In 2015 for The Killers. Currently, his production of Anastasia runs on Broadway; like Gentleman’s Guide, the show about the lost Romanov princess began at Hartford Stage in Connecticut, where he has been artistic director since 2011 (and will depart in 2019). This September, he will direct the Metropolitan Opera’s opening night production of Saint-Saëns’ Samson et Dalila. Here he speaks about his career, his director’s craft, This Ain’t No Disco, and his future plans.
Why he became a director:
“I realize that I’ve been doing it all my life, long before I knew the term. I think it was a calling. I was always creating worlds. I did a little bit of acting, I had some great performing experiences, I toured with dance companies, I toured as a puppeteer for five years, which was truly an eye-opening experience. But I always knew in my heart that I belonged on this side. I think what I love the most about directing is you wake up and you look for the best in everybody and everything, and you never stop being a student, because you have to reinvent things and learn new things for every single production. And then within the boundaries of each individual piece you look for the best in writers, designers, actors. It’s a wonderful way to live.”
His directing principles:
“I was so lucky to have so many great mentors along the way—when I was an undergraduate at Swarthmore College, a great Polish director, Kazimierz Braun, he was my first great mentor. I really miss Nicky [Nicholas] Martin. Jack O’Brien—I was at the Old Globe [in San Diego] for seven years because of him. But the biggest mentor, honestly, the person who has left the biggest impression, and who has helped me the most, is Marge Champion. She discovered me right out of grad school. She followed all of my work. She would travel up and down the East Coast and see everything. Go to the West Coast. She’s 98 now. She kept telling me I should direct musicals, and I was reluctant. She was like, ‘Darko, if you’re waiting for the perfect one, it never happens.’ She calls it the ultimate director’s medium. She has been a huge part of my life.
“From observing them, what I’ve learned is that if you create, if you take the time and responsibility to create really positive energy in the rehearsal room it brings out the best in everybody. And then you know how the large Crayola box has 64 shades? Not every production needs that. So you take the time the first few days to go like, ‘OK, it’s a box of 24, here it is, here’s the playpen.’ And then, within those boundaries, you try to look for the best in everything and everyone.”
In the rehearsal room with an actor:
“It really depends where they are in various stages of their artistry. When you work with Jefferson Mays, it’s wonderful just to watch him create. Or F. Murray Abraham. And sometimes you work with someone and it’s their first time creating a role in a new musical, let’s say, like the young people in [This Ain’t No Disco], and that’s very, very different. I don’t have kids of my own, but I do end up, especially as I’m getting older, feeling like a parent because I’m so protective of them.
“But I would say one thing. I think schools don’t do a good enough job of letting their directing students know that being a confident director doesn’t mean that you have to lead all the time. The more experienced you get, you can open up to what’s going on in front of you. I tell my directing students, because I’ve taught a lot, at times have the confidence not to interrupt. Let them go for five minutes longer. Because the minutes one, two, three may be a mess. But in the minute four there’ll be something incredible. It’s very tough for young directors to learn that, because they want to feel active all the time.”
A mistake he made that he learned from:
“My mind actually doesn’t work that way. So if I don’t seem to be answering your question it’s not out of arrogance. It’s simply that it’s been such a blessed life to come to rehearsal and work with theatre artists. In general, I keep my mistakes very private, because I think that they’re for me to learn from.”
A good decision that he made that he learned from:
“I’m not always as ambitious as people think. If you direct three productions of [Shakespeare’s] The Two Noble Kinsmen, and Molière’s Amphitryon, and all of the neglected classics you fall in love with, you don’t necessarily think you’re going to end up with a Broadway career. So I think I’m really grateful that I married Josh [Pearson, a costume designer], my husband, because without him I would not have probably done The Merchant of Venice at the Royal Shakespeare Company, and Anastasia, and Gentleman’s Guide certainly would not have happened. He’s ambitious for me when sometimes I’m not, so I think everybody should be so lucky to have a truly supportive and astute partner.”
About This Ain’t No Disco:
“I got a phone call in late December from Stephen Trask saying that he and Peter Yanowitz had written this musical, and I didn’t know about it until after Christmas. Just months ago. And they asked me if I would step in, and it seemed impossible, given the fact that I’m in my last year at Hartford Stage and I’m about to direct at the Metropolitan Opera. But out of courtesy, I started listening to the music. And three songs into it, I knew that I would have to do this, because I found the music so beautiful. And the Atlantic Theatre Company was kind enough to accommodate my schedule, so that we could do it. They moved the production a month later.
“One thing I found appealing was the aesthetic challenge of trying to bring this to life. I asked myself how could you do it given the fact that we have a cast of 17 and you think about Studio 54 and the crush of bodies? That was an interesting conundrum. So I decided to work with a whole new design team. They all have one foot in theatre and another foot in rock and roll, which I don’t. And then we came up with, in the way that a [disco] mirror ball is pieces of broken glass, the idea to do something completely expressionistic and broken up and in no way realistic. Because you can’t compete with nostalgia in people’s memories of Studio 54.
“I think that another part of the appeal, honestly, is that I’m at the stage in my life where there’s a real danger when you get to a comfortable place in a career, when you’ve had a certain amount of successes and you can sort of rest on your laurels, do what’s familiar, and I was like let’s not do that. So we didn’t know that we could do this until February, and the deadlines were March. That was great. Why shouldn’t I do that? Fast turnaround.
“Act 1 takes place in 1979 and Act 2 in 1980. It’s a shift from Studio 54 and the characters surrounding it, some based on real people, some fictional characters, to the second act, where the action moves downtown, to the Mudd Club, and we hear a different sound, the sound of the early 1980s. So the score changes. And at the center of the show—and this was a huge source of the appeal—are two broken young people. The city has broken them; life has broken them. And during the course of the show we see the attempts for them to get their lives back on track. It’s about how they connect to each other.”
“So far, I’ve directed 30 Shakespeare productions. There are still a few titles I’d like to tackle. I have opera projects lined up for the next 12 years. A great thing about the world of opera is that sometimes you get productions where you get to think about things for a long time.
“I’m working on a number of musical theatre premieres, new works. I find the intricacy of it so rewarding. Nothing is harder than premiering a musical. It’s harder than plays, operas, musical revivals. It’s really hard. But it’s wonderful to bring it to life.”