“It’s a very delicate, tender play that just moved me deeply when I first read it,” Tony-winning director Rebecca Taichman says of her latest project. “It got me in the heart. I felt it was an important piece of writing for this moment in our world, in our time. I just felt I had to do it.”
Taichman is talking about the new and timely play she is directing, Lindsey Ferrentino’s This Flat Earth, which tells of two students’ reactions to a shooting at their school and begins performances March 16 at Off-Broadway’s Playwrights Horizons. Taichman won the 2017 Tony Award for Best Direction of a Play for Paula Vogel’s Indecent, a play she co-created with Vogel. Earlier this season, she followed that up with the Broadway revival of J.B. Priestley’s Time and the Conways. A 2000 graduate of Yale School of Drama, Taichman, 47, has directed on and Off-Broadway and at regional theatres across the United States. Here, Taichman speaks about her career, her new play, the way she directs, her Tony Award, and her future plans.
Why she became a director:
“I started in theatre as an actress. I was a terrible actress. And I realized pretty quickly that for some reason the vocabulary of theatre was my language. I wasn’t sure for a long time what I was going to do. I just knew it was going to be in theatre. So I was a bad actress for a while, I did some casting, I was a literary intern, I did dramaturgy, I was an archivist on a project. I was trying out all different roles. Eventually I started assisting directors and watching their process, and then started directing my own little pieces, short pieces, and eventually directing larger pieces.
“And I found it was clearly what I was best at, first of all, and it was where I felt most alive. I wanted to be in control of the room. When I found my way to [directing] it felt really clear. It combined all the interests I had developed over time. And then I spent about 15 years every day asking myself what else could I possibly do other than direct? Because it’s a really hard life. I would think that literally every day. Could I be a therapist? But nothing—there was never anything that felt like it would sate me in the same way. It was a clear decision. I went to grad school after that. And then finding along the way [how to] really have a career as a director. It certainly wasn’t easy for me.”
Her principles of directing:
“The most important [principle] to me is to trust the story and to follow the story. By that I mean, truly every choice I make is led by: what is the story I’m telling? And the hope in there is, of course, that I’m telling a story that I believe will move people or open them, will spark meaningful dialogue, will create empathy in unique ways. When you’re really a vessel for telling a story, the story is in the driver’s seat. For example, if I’m in a design meeting and a designer says, ‘Oh this will be cool, nobody’s ever done this before,’ that’s not an interesting goal. But if it’s, ‘Here’s how we can release this moment in the story in a deeply moving, provocative way,’ that charges me up.
“It’s part of why I find staging bows utterly baffling, because there’s no story anymore. I’ve learned how to do it over the years, but I lose my trail of bread crumbs, which is really what I’m following. Also, I often really long to—and it’s not always easy to—trust an emotional logic over an intellectual one.”
An actor in her rehearsal room—an example of how she directs:
“It depends what the play is like, but usually there’s a good, deep table work that we do, a full week usually, really mining the text and getting everybody on the same page: what the moment-to-moment story is, what the point of view is, cracking it open. Then what I like to do, always, is set up the space. I call it the first pass, which is where I ask the actors to completely trust their instincts. I don’t tell them what to do at all. Usually they teach me something I didn’t know before. There’s something about what their instincts are and from there we start shaping. It’s quite an iterative process. By that I mean a lot of repetition with slight adjustment.”
A mistake she made that she learned from:
“I used to tech a show in gruesome detail, excruciating detail. Let’s say you’re at a theatre and you have a week of tech. I would spend the entire tech process meticulously teching the show once through. Partly because I do think very visually, and I was extremely rigid about that. But then what would happen was on the dress rehearsal night, it would be all put together for the first time and it was always a total disaster. First of all, it had been five days since anybody had touched the beginning of the play and also I didn’t realize all the mistakes I was making in slow motion, in minutiae. It was Michael Kahn who finally sat me down—I worked at [his] Shakespeare Theatre [in Washington, D.C.] many times—and he said to me, ‘You’re driving the theatre insane, because you’re waiting so long to run the show.’ He just said to me, ’You have to run it sooner.’ Now I do that. Sort of like a rough sketch and then see it, see that your big choices are the right ones even before you kind of go in and detail everything.”
A decision she made that paid off:
“The story of making Indecent for me is very profound and very meaningful and has taught me a lot. I started thinking about the story that was at the heart of Indecent 20 years ago. As a student, I happened on all the materials about the play The God of Vengeance and its obscenity trial and I tried to make a piece then. It was called The People vs. The God of Vengeance. It was clearly a meaningful story but not well enough told. As a writer, I was trying to figure out how to do it myself and I couldn’t figure out how to contain the complexity of it. I pursued, I never let go of, the longing to tell that story.”
The God of Vengeance from 1907, by the Polish-Jewish writer Sholem Asch, told of a Jewish brothel owner and his family and featured a lesbian relationship between his 17-year-old daughter and a prostitute. When it was presented on Broadway in 1923, it was closed and its producer and 12 cast members were indicted and convicted of giving an immoral performance.
“When finally I found Paula Vogel, who had an equal passion for The God of Vengeance, it felt like a miracle. It was like finding another Trekkie in the world. It was an extraordinary experience watching that story that I had lived with for so long and cared so much about it not being forgotten, watching that come to life and then be shared. This is what playwrights must experience a lot. But as a director, it’s more rare. You’re usually interpreting somebody else’s material. And, of course, I was with Indecent as well, but it was a story that I cared about on the cellular level, my DNA. It was a series of decisions over a super-long span of time, and it has taught me that following my deepest passions is probably the most meaningful thing I can do. Finding stories that I think are truly, truly important ones to tell, and figuring out ways to tell them.”
The Tony Award:
“You could probably see if you watched it that I was quite shocked. I didn’t expect that to happen and when it did it felt like this enormous gift, an acknowledgment of an incredible amount of work among a huge family of people for a very long time. It felt extraordinary—a community of my peers as theatre makers supporting what I was doing meant more than I could have imagined it would. It was very moving and very shocking, and disorienting for a while too.”
This Flat Earth:
“It’s about two kids who have been through a school shooting. It’s on the eve of their return to school. We happen to be talking on the day that Parkland [Florida] students are returning to school. At its heart it’s really about this young girl who’s struggling to understand why this happened at her school. She’s a very, very smart 13-year-old and she just can’t settle with any answer or evasion that’s given to her and she keeps trying, struggling to understand why the adults don’t fix it. It felt like it could potentially spark a very meaningful dialogue. Who knew that it would intersect in such a synchronistic way with the moment that we’re having right now?”
“What I said about Indecent holds very true. I’m more and more trying to focus on these larger projects that I care a tremendous amount about and that I’m part of the inception of. It’s not the only thing, it’s just that I’m doing more of that. Conceiving pieces, finding the right partners, bringing [the work] to life is very thrilling, and meaningful in a profound way. I am excited to do more musicals—I love doing pieces with music. It feels like they fire on all cylinders in an exciting way. It could be that one day I’d want to run a theatre. I don’t know. Right now I’m more thinking about what are the stories that I deeply, deeply want to tell.”