The Outsiders Director Danya Taymor on What the Musical Taught Her About Leadership | Playbill

How Did I Get Here The Outsiders Director Danya Taymor on What the Musical Taught Her About Leadership

The new Broadway musical based on the classic S.E. Hinton novel recently opened at the Jacobs Theatre.

Graphic by Vi Dang

Danya Taymor is the director of the new musical The Outsiders, which is based on the famed S.E. Hinton novel and is one of the most exciting offerings of the bountiful 2023–2024 Broadway season.

With a moving score by Jamestown Revival (Jonathan Clay and Zach Chance) and Justin Levine, dazzling new talent, and thrilling choreography by Rick Kuperman and Jeff Kuperman, the vibrant production at the Bernard B. Jacobs Theatre marks the first musical Taymor has directed on Broadway.

The Obie-winning, New York-based director, writer, and translator made her Broadway directorial debut in 2021 with Antoinette Chinonye Nwandu's Pass Over (a previous Chicago run that Taymor directed was filmed in collaboration with Spike Lee and is available for streaming on Amazon Prime).

Taymor has dedicated her career to new plays, directing Off-Broadway with Rachel Bonds' Jonah, Will Arbery's Heroes of the Fourth Turning and Evanston Salt Costs Climbing, Samuel Beckett's Endgame, Jeremy O. Harris' "Daddy," Korde Arrington Tuttle's Graveyard Shift, Danai Gurira's Familiar, Martyna Majok's Queens, Justin Kuritzkes’ The Sensuality Partner, Susan Soon-He Stanton’s Cygnus, Brian WatkinsWyoming and My Daughter Keeps Our Hammer, and Sarah Gancher’s The Place We Built, while her translation credits include Alejandro Ricaño's We Are Getting Better at Saying Goodbye, Luis Enrique Guitierrez Ortiz Monasterio's I Hate Fucking Mexicans, and Ettore Scola's Working on a Special Day.

In the interview below for the Playbill series How Did I Get Here—spotlighting not only actors, but directors, designers, musicians, and others who work on and off the stage to create the magic that is live theatre—Taymor recalls the first preview of Pass Over, which was the first show to reopen Broadway after the COVID-19 shutdown, and how to maintain friendships after a professional break-up. 

Cast of The Outsiders Matthew Murphy

Where did you train/study?
Danya Taymor: I went to Duke University, where I studied theatre and global health. I loved being at Duke, which is not known as a theatre school. Working with a diverse group of people, some of whom had no background in the theatre, was some of the best training I could have received.

Was there a teacher who was particularly impactful/helpful? What made this instructor standout?
My most impactful teacher was my high school theatre teacher, Kristen Lo. Kristen created a one-act festival for us that was generated by us students in every way: She encouraged us to write, direct, act, stage manage, board op, you name it. This was my first experience directing, and I loved it so much and discovered how much more natural it felt for me than being on stage. Kristen taught me that every single role in the theatre is as important as another and that…only through the unification of a group towards a shared vision can there be true artistic success. Kristen just came to see The Outsiders and brought a group of was such an incredible experience doing a talkback with them.

What was one of the biggest challenges of directing a musical version of The Outsiders? What are you particularly proud of in this production?
The biggest challenge was also my favorite part: Being the captain of a massive ship and uniting all of us towards a shared vision. This project has helped me grow so much as a leader, and I've come out of the past two-and-a-half years of working on this piece with a different understanding of what leadership can look like. I am so proud of how much personal investment every person working on this piece feels. It is so important that everyone has a sense that they have made an essential contribution to what we have created, and they truly have. There is so much heart in this piece from every single collaborator.

Namir Smallwood and Gabriel Ebert in Pass Over Jeremy Daniel

Can you share a favorite memory of working on Pass Over, which marked your Broadway directorial debut?
One of my favorite memories of bringing Pass Over to Broadway was walking into the sold-out house of the August Wilson Theatre on our first preview with the playwright, Antoinette Chinonye Nwandu. It was the very first night back on Broadway after the Covid shutdown, and the energy of the audience was unlike anything I had ever experienced before—1,200 people sharing space together after so long in isolation. Cody Renard Richards, our brilliant production stage manager, came on the PA and gave a live announcement. The roar of the crowd went on and on. The performance by Jon Michael Hill, Namir Smallwood, and Gabriel Ebert was so alive, deeply connected, not only with one another, but to the audience—who came with such open hearts and a hunger to connect after so long being denied the catharsis and power of live theatre.

How, if at all, do you think your famed aunt, Julie Taymor, has influenced your work?
I had the privilege of assisting Julie on two productions early in my directing career: Shakespeare's A Midsummer Night's Dream and George Brant's Grounded. Two very different productions, both visually stunning in totally distinct ways. I learned so much about the storytelling power of aesthetics from working with my aunt. Her eye for detail is unparalleled, and she has such a deep understanding of how to work with designers to create a united theatrical vision.

What do you consider your big break?
I definitely consider my big break to be directing Pass Over in its first iteration at Steppenwolf Theatre in 2017. A different director was attached to direct the play, and when they dropped out, [playwright] Antoinette really advocated for me to be her collaborator on the piece. It was my first time directing in a space bigger than 70 seats, and I grew so much as a director and a leader through working with every artist and administrator involved in that protection. I think Pass Over is one of the greatest plays ever written, and it was a singular experience to collaborate with Antoinette over five years on the piece.

What is the most memorable day job you ever had?
I worked as the assistant to the artistic director of Theatre for a New Audience, Jeffrey Horowitz, for my first few years in New York City. Learning about every single job in the office of a non-profit theatre gave me a deep appreciation for those who work out of the spotlight but whose work is essential to bringing the plays to the stage: the director of development, the general manager, company manager, etc., etc.

Vivienne Jolie-Pitt, Justine Levine, Angelina Jolie, Danya Taymor, Adam Rapp, Jeff Kuperman, and Rick Kuperman Michaelah Reynolds

Is there a person or people you most respect in your field and why?
I wanna shout out one of my Outsiders collaborators, Justin Levine. Justin is a theatrical polyglot, someone who is so insanely talented in so many different facets of the form. I don't use the word lightly, but he is a straight-up genius and a collaborator with a heart of gold. He is endlessly curious about every single aspect of the form: music yes, but also choreography, direction, acting, writing, design. He inspires me to stay an open vessel. Justin has a gift with people of all different backgrounds and disciplines and can get the very best out of people in such a joyful way. He is an amazing listener, deeply rigorous and incredibly soulful.

Tell me about a job/opportunity you really wanted but didn’t get. How did you get over that disappointment?
I came up at the Flea Theater with a brilliant actor-turned-playwright named Liliana Padilla. They wrote an incredible play called How to Defend Yourself and asked me to workshop it with them at the Ojai Playwrights Conference. I fell deeply in love with the play, and when Liliana told me that they wanted to work with someone else on it, I remember feeling heartbroken. It was an important moment in Liliana's journey as an artist, and mine, too—they wanted to direct the piece themselves, but I remember at the time I took their choice so personally. We were such good friends, and for a period we didn't know how to stay close. 

However, time is such a healing thing. Liliana and I both continued to feel drawn back to one another, and most importantly, we both chose to stay open and be vulnerable enough to reconnect with one another and talk about how we both felt. When the play finally came to New York, I was able to go see it, and we were able to reconnect so deeply. The play remains one of my favorite pieces of writing, and seeing Liliana's success with it filled me with so much joy. These relationships are so much more important than any single opportunity.

Photos: The Outsiders Take Their Opening Night Bow

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