“This is a play about race,” director Trip Cullman says. “This is a play about sexual harassment. And I can’t think of a more fraught time in our own culture. I just think that this play is eerily, eerily relevant today.”
Cullman, 43, is talking about Lobby Hero, the drama by Oscar winner Kenneth Lonergan that is the inaugural Broadway production of Second Stage Theatre at its new Main Stem home, the newly renovated Helen Hayes Theatre.
The critically praised play by Lonergan (This Is Our Youth, the film Manchester by the Sea) makes its Broadway debut after a long career at theatres across the country and following its successful Off-Broadway premiere in 2001. It begins previews March 1 and opens March 26, starring Chris Evans, Michael Cera, Bel Powley, and Brian Tyree Henry.
Cullman, like Lobby Hero, began his career away from Broadway (he was nominated for a Drama Desk award in 2011 for A Small Fire and won an Obie Award for directing in 2015 for Punk Rock). He made his Broadway directing debut last March with Significant Other and followed it a month later with Six Degrees of Separation. Lobby Hero is his third Broadway appearance. Set in and around the lobby of a large Manhattan apartment building, the play follows a night security guard, his supervisor, and two police officers, one male and one female. At the time of its Off-Broadway opening, The New York Times called it “a comedy, a romance and a play of ideas rolled into one” and a contender for “the best new American drama of the first decade of this century.”
Cullman, a native New Yorker, spoke about his career, his current Broadway play, and his future plans.
Why he became a director:
“The simplest and quickest answer is that in my senior year of high school [Trinity School, on the Upper West Side of Manhattan], our drama teacher afforded the seniors the opportunity, if we chose to do so, to direct a one-act play. (I’d been acting in plays and musicals throughout high school.) Everyone else chose these very nice, easy, simple little plays and I chose Cowboy Mouth, by Sam Shepard and Patti Smith, which is a play they wrote when they locked themselves in a hotel room and took a lot of drugs and passed the typewriter back and forth between them—a crazy, nonlinear, super in-your-face play. It was a total thrill. The drama teacher had to tell the audience, ‘I’m going to put Trip’s piece last, if you’re offended by extreme language, please leave.’ As a teenager I though, ‘Oh my god, this is amazing.’ So I got hooked into directing that way.
But most important, I was an actor for a while, and I started to get frustrated by the people who were directing. I started to think that I could do a better job than they could. Ultimately, I came to the realization that I was an extremely mediocre actor, but I thought I knew what I was doing when it came to directing. I went to Yale as an undergraduate and after undergrad, I had to make a decision: Am I going to be an actor or a director?
Going to [Yale School of Drama for grad school] kind of helped me figure that out. I was assisting Richard Foreman at Ontological-Hysteric Theater downtown, and I was working with Target Margin Theater in tiny spaces that are now fancy bars on the Lower East Side, and doing my own work in very experimental media, and at the same time assisting Joe Mantello and Michael Mayer at Manhattan Theatre Club and Roundabout uptown. I went to grad school to figure out: Was I going to be [experimental director] Liz LeCompte [of the Wooster Group] when I grow up or am I going to be Joe Mantello when I grow up? When I got out I got very lucky. My first job was directing a play called The Last Sunday in June by Jonathan Tolins, who people might know from his one-man show Buyer & Cellar. And Last Sunday was a big hit. That was super lucky, and it launched my career.
The other thing that was very important was that I had two very amazing mentors: Joe Mantello, who I worked with extensively, and the late, great Mike Nichols, who I worked with on Angels in America for HBO, and The Sea Gull in Central Park [with Meryl Streep and Kevin Kline]. Mike was the most charismatic person I think I’ve ever met. And so smart and so intuitive. I miss him so much. I miss our lunches and our conversations. I learned kind of everything I needed to know about directing from Joe Mantello and Mike Nichols. I didn’t need to learn anything else from anybody else.
His directing principles:
My most important tool is my intuition, so that’s not something I can hone or practice like a skill, because I think it’s just something that’s inherent. Beyond that, for me, what I see the art of directing to also be composed of is the skill of collaboration. I think there are amazing directors out there who are like tyrants, who have a totally formed vision in their heads, and they dictate that vision out to the people who are working on whatever the production is. I don’t really work that way. I love to create a space in which each of the artists who are going to be working on the show are empowered to bring their absolute A-game and to feel that they have an absolutely autonomous artistic voice, and then my job is to filter all of these many, many people’s impulses through me so that I can be in charge of coherence. I’m making sure that we’re all telling the same story. That, in a very abstract way, is for me the art of directing.
An actor in Cullman’s rehearsal room – an example of how he directs:
I’ll give you my most potent staging technique, a technique that Mike Leigh, the great English film director and playwright, made up. This was taught to me by Adam Rapp, with whom I collaborated on a play [The Hallway Trilogy: Nursing] several years ago:
After you’re around a table reading through the play, that first moment when you get up on your feet and begin to stage the play is a moment of great anxiety for both actors and directors. As an actor you are forced to start to live in three dimensions for the first time and really inhabit the role and the situation with your entire body, and yet you’re still tied to your script. As a director, that first moment is a trap, because a director’s impulse is to immediately start organizing bodies in space, making coherent sense of movement and the physical life of the play. So what I do is I tell the actors, ‘Put your scripts aside.’ I read every single line and every single stage direction, and they, almost like a silent movie, start to explore the physical life of the play, without the anxiety of holding their scripts. That curtails my impulse to start directing, start blocking, because my head is literally buried in the script and I can’t look up. We do this six, seven, eight, nine times, and once they have figured out a pathway for themselves through the scene, I might give it to the playwright to read and I start to organize and start to block. It’s amazing and it incidentally also helps actors to memorize their lines very, very quickly because they start to attach where their bodies are in physical space to where a specific line is. I think it doubles the speed of the memorization process.
A mistake he made that he learned from:
My biggest mistake early in my career was saying yes to everything. I was so hungry to work and to get my career launched that I said yes to plays that I really shouldn’t have. I look at the careers of some of my colleagues and I admire how self-aware at an early stage some of my colleagues were, to say, ‘I’m not right for this job.’ Now that I’m in a sort of mid-career and more established place, I know to only take the jobs that ignite my passion, that I can’t say no to. Critics when reviewing a show have such a hard time discerning what directors actually do, so if the play I was taking on was bad, I wasn’t getting any attention, and it wasn’t helping further my career. Because I was going down with the sinking ship of the show.
A decision he made that paid off:
The best decision I ever made was to be pro-active, to seek out the playwrights I connected deeply with on an artistic level, and to be relentless in pursuing them, for them to think of me for jobs. For instance, several years ago I saw a play called Wig Out!, at the Vineyard Theatre, four times, because I was so obsessed with it, to the point where the artistic director would catch me in the audience and say, why are you seeing this again? But the play was so extraordinary. It ignited such an enormous passion inside me that I was, like, whatever it takes, I have to work with this writer, Tarell Alvin McCraney. I stalked him for years, and I guess he relented because he ultimately let me direct his play Choir Boy.
About Lobby Hero, and why he wanted to direct it:
Two things: I just think that Kenny Lonergan is one of the truly greatest living American writers in the theatre. His work on film is so extraordinary. Whenever I see a movie he makes, I’m always struck by the fact that it feels like no one’s acting in it. The actors are so living inside the situation and inside the characters. When I read Lobby Hero, I thought, this is such a great opportunity to try to achieve that same quality onstage and see if that could work. These are four roles that are gifts for actors to sink their teeth into.
And I guess the second reason I was so deeply drawn to this play was that right now, in 2018, it feels even more relevant than it did when it first came out in 2001.
A third reason would be that it’s an absolutely daunting task directorially. The play is entirely set in a lobby, which is a transitory space. The play is made up—almost entirely—of long conversations. So think about that complication: You’re staging long, long conversations, with four characters who have verbal diarrhea and the space in which these conversations are occurring is inherently composed to dissuade people from hanging out for long periods of time. The arsenal of tools I have at my disposal as a director are severely limited by this, so really it’s just going to be about the performances, and getting the language to pop. That kind of a challenge, I embrace. When things really scare me, I know that I should do them.
Several things, but I can’t talk about them because they haven’t been announced. A very big original Broadway musical is in the works. There’s going to be a play on Broadway, as well. And several incredible new works Off-Broadway that are happening in the next year or so. Where I would love to start focusing primarily on in my career is musicals. I’ve done a handful of them and it’s like the best drug you’ll ever take. It’s so addictive doing them. They’re so hard to get right—but when you do, there’s nothing more satisfying in the world. It’s the most fun I’ve ever had as a director.