InterviewStage Directions: Leigh Silverman Takes Us Inside Directing Lifespan of a Fact, Violet, Off-Broadway’s Hurricane Diane and MoreThe Tony-nominated director shares her directing style, insider details from the rehearsal rooms with Sutton Foster and Daniel Radcliffe, and more.
February 07, 2019
“I choose projects where the writers are rigorous and inspiring and 100 percent smarter than me and challenge me,” Tony-nominated director Leigh Silverman says. “And the form of this play, in a way a retelling of the ancient Greek play The Bacchae, with a hilarious, comedic center, felt like a really amazing directorial challenge.” She is talking about Hurricane Diane, which she directs at New York Theatre Workshop in a co-production with WP Theater.
The play by Madeleine George, a Pulitzer Prize finalist for The (curious case of the) Watson Intelligence (also originally directed by Silverman) delves into such varied but connected subjects as sustainable gardening, the Greek god Dionysus, housewives in suburban New Jersey, and climate change. It begins performances February 7 and runs through March 10.
Silverman was nominated for a Tony Award for Best Direction of a Musical in 2014 for the Broadway revival of Jeanine Tesori and Brian Crawley’s Violet. She won a directing Obie Award in 2011 for the plays In the Wake and Go Back to Where You Are. This season on Broadway she directed The Lifespan of a Fact, starring Daniel Radcliffe, Bobby Cannavale, and Cherry Jones. Her other Broadway credits include Lisa Kron’s Well (2006) and David Henry Hwang’s Chinglish (2008). Among the many Off Broadway works she has directed in her busy and productive career are this season’s Wild Goose Dreams at the Public, the world-premiere musical Soft Power at Center Theatre Group, last season’s Billy Crudup solo smash Harry Clarke, as well as From Up Here, Blue Door, Bright Half Life, The Call, The Way We Get By, Andrew Lippa’s The Wild Party at Encores! Off Center, All the Ways to Say I Love You, On the Exhale, and the 2016 Off-Broadway revival of Sweet Charity.
Silverman speaks about her career, her directorial approach, creating specific moments in productions like Hurricane Diane, Violet, The Lifespan of a Fact, and what’s up next.
Why she became a director: “I was a total theatre nerd. I loved theatre. When I was a kid, my life and everything about my existence only made sense when I was putting on plays. I was lucky enough to meet someone when I was 15 years old who said to me, you’re a terrible actor, but you seem really smart and you should be a director. It was obviously somebody I had an enormous amount of faith in, because I really staked my whole life on that comment.
“I immediately read everything I could. I feel it’s true both that I was a terrible actor and that directing is the best expression of who I am as a leader and a collaborator, a person who can use my imagination in collaboration with other people in ways that suit me as a director and suit the profession. Mostly what I do is new work, and so much of why I’m a director has to do with that relationship with playwrights, and what I love about the tussle and being in the trenches with people who are trying to write something brand new. There’s something about the challenge and the difficulty and the harrowing-ness and the vulnerability of that process that just really appeals to my personality.
“From the moment I started directing—I directed in high school and I went to Carnegie Mellon—the experience of directing truly, truly only made sense to me when there was a writer sitting next to me. I was so much less interested in walking into a room with a giant commandment and thinking of myself as the auteur. I was much more interested in what my ideas, plus a writer’s ideas, plus a room full of actors could collaborate and come up with. Sort of steering a ship that had that many components was enormously exciting to me even before I knew what it was. That’s how I guess I got here.”
Her directing principles: “The thing that is the most important to me is that we’re all in the room, and the most important thing that’s happening in the room is that we’re working on the work. Everything has to be in support of the work on the play. The way that I try to captain the ship is make sure that people stay open—particularly on new plays, because there’s so much change. With any play, you’re sort of groping around in the dark, but on a new play, you have literally no idea where the floor is. In a room that is vulnerable and scared, and facing impending embarrassment in front of an audience, you try to keep people open and flexible.
“In Lifespan of a Fact, we did a tremendous amount of work on the play while we were rehearsing. One of the great joys of working on that play was that even though Daniel Radcliffe had never done a new play before, and Cherry Jones had never really been in a comedy before, they would come in with ideas, we would talk about it. It was never about, ‘Oh, my character would want to do this or not want to do this,’ it was always about what makes the play itself better, what makes it more satisfying. Nobody was worried if their part was getting bigger or smaller, nobody’s focus was on their own part.
“That was one of the most incredible things about working on Lifespan, that Daniel and Cherry and Bobby Cannavale,—those three incredible superstars in the theatre—all they cared about was that the play, the experience of watching the play, was as good as can be, and as theatrical and exciting and surprising as it could be. That everybody was in it for the greater good. And that’s when the best work happens.”
In the rehearsal room with an actor: “On Violet, it was an interesting process, because when we were first working on it we did it as a one-night-only concert [at Encores! summer season]. So there was very little deep character work that Sutton Foster [who played Violet] and I did. We talked a lot about what story we wanted to tell, who Violet was, but the opportunity to really dig in started when we began rehearsal for the [Roundabout Theatre Company] production.
“Throughout the process Sutton and Colin Donnell and Joshua Henry and I would be constantly using Jeanine Tesori’s incredible music and the plot [about a young woman with a severe facial scar who takes a bus trip to see a healing evangelist] that she and Brian Crawley had set out, to ask: What does this mean to us today? What is the story we want to tell? How do we use the interaction between Violet and the two soldiers she meets to deepen our understanding about people’s fantasy life—a fantasy life that is both going to save them and is also the thing that is holding them down? And what is the difference between those two fantasies?
“As you start to talk about the given circumstances of a play, the story you’re trying to tell, the microbeats between the characters, the macrobeats, as you’re starting to dig in to that kind of work, you make a certain set of agreements with the actors, you make a bunch of decisions about what you want and where you want to go. Then you change the given circumstances. But you keep all the time talking and changing and talking and changing.
“When you get into the practice of doing that on an intimate level on scene work, it can translate into bigger choices once you put it inside a theatre. Because everyone knows the story they’re trying to tell, you’re able to keep coalescing an idea.
“One of the things I love about directing is that, at first, the director generally spends a long time looking inside a play, and then, when you bring it to a design team, for that collaboration, the designers start to act as thought-partners for you, and we do quite a bit of back and forth conversation, about the envelope you’re going to put the play in, the kind of clothes the actors are going to wear, the kind of mood and lighting you want, the sounds that you hear—they change everything about the temperature in a room, the feeling in a scene. Then you bring it to the actors, and then you start rehearsal, and all the time you’re in rehearsal you’re learning things and bringing things back to the designers.
“In a way, so much of the early part of directing is being able to keep being a conduit between the writer and what you’re bringing to visual storytelling, and communicating that to actors, taking their ideas back to the designers, this actor thought this thing would be amazing, so there’s hopefully a steady flow of creativity. And not all those ideas are going to work. So you have to be an amazing editor.”
A mistake she made that she learned from: “One thing I think is really hard for young directors, and specifically young female directors, is learning how to feel authority in a room. It’s hard for any young director, and the only way to learn is to do it, and the only way to get the confidence is to have the experience, but the only way to have the experience is to get hired, and the only way to get hired is to have the confidence. So there’s this weird chicken and egg about being a young director.
“The mistakes I made that stick out the most to me are when I wanted to be liked too much, and it got in the way of doing my job. The desire to be liked obviously affects everybody, but particularly young female directors. Sometimes in my desire and my anxiety about not being hired and not working, I took jobs I shouldn’t have taken, because I was afraid I wouldn’t have work and I wouldn’t be able to pay my rent. I think that’s also something many directors face.
“I have had a few collaborations with playwrights that I have not felt ended well. Not because the result wasn’t good but because my desire for work to get done in the room, and their desires, sometimes didn’t match. And I felt like I should have known that and not been the person to direct the play and taken myself out of the equation.
“Like any marriage, or creative marriage, there has to be trust from the beginning and good communication and an openness and directness. It’s only happened a few times but I have gotten into a creative marriage where that was not the case and I knew it from the beginning and I did it anyway.
“And early, early, early on in my career I had a really difficult experience because I knew I had been hired because the playwright felt he could control me and steamroll me, and I was badly hurt by that production. And I’m so glad it happened so early in my career because it was so difficult to recover from. It put me in a situation where I could say I will never do that again. I know exactly what that looks like, what that feels like, and it will never happen again. Many of the hard, hard experiences that you regret, you feel like you made a mistake, you learn so much from them. Ultimately I feel it made me a much stronger and more understanding and knowing director because I knew what situations I had to avoid.”
A good decision that paid off: “When I first met Lisa Kron, I was assistant directing a Five Lesbian Brothers play, Brides of the Moon, at New York Theatre Workshop. Lisa was working on a play, and she said to me that she burned through directors and never worked with the same person for more than a year or so, and it takes her a long time to develop a play, but if I was willing to have her use me for my ideas and then move past me, she would love for me to work on her new play she was writing about her mother. That sounded incredible to me, and that play ended up being Well. We worked on it for five years, and we did it at the Public Theatre, and then it moved to Broadway. And we’ve gone on to work on many more plays together, and we’re in the middle of a project right now.
“I’ve been lucky enough to figure out how to get in the room with the right people. In the theatre you find your people, those who speak your language, who want to work the way you want to work. When you’re together in that process, you feel like you’ve saved each other’s lives a little bit. If you’re lucky enough, you get to work together again like that, and the relationship only deepens.”
About Hurricane Diane: “Madeleine George and I have a long history of collaborating. This play was a commission from Two River Theatre in New Jersey [where it premiered in 2017], in response to Hurricane Sandy and the community out there, which had been so deeply affected by the hurricane. Madeleine, in her usual wildly unique imagination, set out to do a somewhat modern retelling of Euripides’ Bacchae, using the idea of climate change and the catastrophic weather that we are now facing as a way to tell the story. Because she is outrageously funny, she set it on a cul-de-sac in Red Bank, New Jersey.
“I directed her play [Watson Intelligence] at Playwrights Horizons, and I think her brain is incredible. It’s been a real joy collaborating with her. We’ve now been working on this play for about five years.
“The play is about the god Dionysus, who comes back to Earth in the form of this permaculture gardener named Diane. She is hoping to convince three women on the cul-de-sac to turn their very nice lawns into a permaculture forest. Shenanigans ensue, including a bacchanal. Ultimately, as in the original Greek Bacchae (here through humor and comedy and entertainment) the play is trying to reveal parts of our own existence back to us, mirror ourselves back to us, in the choices that we’re making—in this case in relationship to climate and weather.”
The future: “I’m working on a musical with [singer-composer-lyricist] Shaina Taub about the suffrage movement. We’re deep in development. Jeanine Tesori and David Henry Hwang and I are back at work on Soft Power. I am working on a couple of new plays that I’m really excited about. I think it’s going to be a pretty exciting spring of development of material that hopefully is going to be on the stage next season.
“Because David and Jeanine and I have been working so closely on Soft Power for the last few years—we had the production last year at the Ahmanson in Los Angeles and the Curran in San Francisco—to get back into it again feels really good. Because the play is very political, and it feels like a super good time to be working on a play about American democracy.”
First Look at David Henry Hwang and Jeanine Tesori’s Soft Power