Director Larry Eisenberg Talks Theatre Background and SHERLOCK'S LAST CASE at Group Rep
Interview by Steve Peterson
In Steve Peterson's interview below, director Larry Eisenberg talks about his theatre background and what led him to choose SHERLOCK'S LAST CASE for Group Rep.
How did you first get interested and start working in theatre?
I was 18 years old, a freshman in at a small liberal arts college in Maryland and hadn't yet decided what my major would be. The school's theatre department was run by a wonderful lady named Esther Smith. Esther was a force of nature.
I was on the track team and had sprained my ankle so one day instead of track practice, I went to a little diner off-campus for a beer and a burger. I met an older student named Tom Bloom. He who was in the theatre department and was currently in rehearsal for a production of Max Frisch's "The Chinese Wall," which takes place in the palace of Shin Shih Hwang Ti, the Chinese Emperor who built the Chinese Wall. In the play, there is a huge celebration of the Wall with guests from all periods of history and literature, including Julius Caesar, Napoleon Bonaparte and many, many others. Tom told me to meet him in the theatre building.
I had never been in the building. When I arrived, the huge building was completely empty. I found a back stairwell that led into the belly of the building, and eventually, I found my way down to the scene shop and costume room. A door was open. I peeked in, and across the room, was Esther Smith with her back to me. She was lost in thought holding a brightly colored red jacket. I whispered, "Excuse me, is Tom Bloom around?"
Esther turned to me, let out a soft gasp, then clutched her heart dramatically, It took her a moment to recover, then held out her hand and ever so softly said, "Napoleon, honey. Come over here." I was instantly hypnotized. I walked across the room. She held out the jacket, carefully buttoned me up and said, "Rehearsal is tonight at seven o'clock."
That's how I got my first role as Napoleon Bonaparte in Max Frisch's "The Chinese Wall." I only had 6 lines but I was hooked. I immediately became a theatre major and never looked back.
You have been an active member of the Group Rep for a long time. How did that relationship start and develop to your involvement today as Co-Artistic Director?
I first joined the company in 1990 and probably stayed for about five years. Lonny Chapman was in his prime then, and we developed a close and creative relationship. He mentored me through the process of writing an original play called "Nautilus" which was produced by the GRT and eventually became a feature film called "Fish Don't Blink" starring Lea Thompson and Dee Wallace Stone.
Lonny also directed me several times and I had the opportunity to play Kit Carson opposite him in the GRT's production of William Saroyan's "The Time of Your Life."
I left in 1994 or 95 but did come back occasionally to visit. In 2003, I rejoined the company and by then Lonny was declining. I acted in his last play, "The Time Is Out of Joint," and served as President of the Board for a couple years. The last production Lonny saw at the theatre was "Chaim's Love Song" which I directed. By then he was pretty weak but did come to see the show 8 times. We closed in October and he went into the hospital that November and never came out.
After Lonny passed, it was pretty difficult paying the rent and keeping our doors open. Ernest Figueroa became Artistic Director, and I think, inspired all of us to focus on quality and make bold choices. Chris Winfield and I worked closer and closer with Ernest in his efforts to turn GRT into a professional company. When it became clear that Ernest's responsibilities at the Broad Theatre were going to take him away from us, Chris and I just fell into our roles as co-artistic directors. We've been doing this now for two years and we've had some good productions, built up a very strong company of players and strengthened our bond with our audiences.
What appealed to you about Sherlock's Last Case to make it part of the Group Rep's second subscription season?
Well, first of all, I love Sherlock Holmes. When I first graduated from college I acted at a small theatre in Baltimore. They had William Gillette's "Sherlock Holmes" listed as part of their season and asked me if I would direct it. I was glad to get the assignment but at that time knew very little about Sherlock Holmes. We put this show together, got to opening night expecting an ordinary six-week run like every other show done at the theatre and were absolutely flabbergasted by the huge success of this production. People came out of the woodwork. The show ended running for about four months and was a huge hit. Since then, I've read the entire canon at least twice.
So to answer your question, I picked Sherlock Holmes because I love the guy and I'm convinced he will bring us luck and success. The Marowitz script is a little bit of a fluke. The original Gillette script was out of the question because it has a cast of 20, and we just can't afford the AEA stipends for that many actors. We looked at Steven Dietz's version of Sherlock Holmes that ran on Broadway in 2006 but couldn't get the rights. I started reading every Sherlock Holmes play I could find. Marowitz wrote his in the 1980's. The story is completely original, yet he completely re-creates the Holmesian world so that everything feels like the real thing. In fact, it's quite a send-up of the Sherlock Holmes tradition. But I believe when it ends, the Holmes world is left intact and the audience will have experienced a slightly bent but thoroughly valid view of that world.
In light of the recent and very popular BBC update of Sherlock and the new CBS series "Elementary," what do you see as your biggest challenge as director mounting this play?
Well each of those series reconstructs the Sherlock Holmes world. Because Marowitz's is kind of a satire and send up, our challenge is making this feel like the real Sherlock Holmes world; only just a little bit bigger.
Do you have a preference between acting and directing – which appeals to you most, and why?
Generally, I get more satisfaction from directing nowadays. I like watching my actors grow and sharing in their excitement as the piece comes together. I've acted in probably 300 productions in my life and some of the roles have been particularly wonderful. The Kit Carson I mentioned, Edgar in a production of King Lear, opposite the great George Coulouris was another and Sandy Sonnenberg in Jon Robin Baitz's "The Paris Letter" was a particularly satisfying and challenging role. But I think those are the exceptions, rather than the rule. Unless the role is particularly wonderful and something I truly feel I have a calling for, I prefer to direct and believe I have more to offer as a director.
What creative project is coming up for you in the near future?
We're now starting to think about titles for our next season. I'd like to see the Group Rep take on the classics. We pride ourselves in doing a wide variety of styles and genres, and I think are now developing enough depth to take on the classics. I've been carrying around a concept for a Greek tragedy and think there's a chance we may produce a new translation of "Antigone" in this next season. There are still a number question marks but I'm hoping that will be my next directorial effort.