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BWW Interview: A Women's History Month Special with ECLIPSED Director Liesl Tommy

Last in a series.

New York audiences may be just getting to know Liesl Tommy well, even though she's directed theater in the city for more than a decade. And they'll be getting to know the Eclipsed director even better over the next year, as she follows her Broadway debut with at least two highly anticipated off-Broadway premieres.

But first, she's putting together a Frozen stage show for Disneyland. Soon after Eclipsed's March 6 Broadway opening, Tommy headed to southern California to work on the Frozen show, which will debut May 27 at the Disney California Adventure park in Anaheim.

Back in New York, two musicals that Tommy directed in their world premieres at regional theaters are slated to bow off-Broadway, and she's still attached to them. Kid Victory, a coming-of-age musical by John Kander and his new writing partner Greg Pierce, will open Vineyard Theatre's 2016-17 season this fall. It had its first production, at Signature Theatre in Arlington, Va., last year. Party People, which was produced at Berkeley Rep in 2014 and the Oregon Shakespeare Festival in 2012, has not yet been officially announced for New York, but Tommy says the musical about the Black Panthers will open next year at an off-Broadway theater--"I'm sure you can imagine which one."

Akosua Busia, Lupita Nyong'o, Saycon Sengbloh and
Pascale Armand in Eclipsed

The Public is where Tommy directed her first major NYC production, Tracey Scott Wilson's The Good Negro in 2009, and where Eclipsed debuted last fall--and was still running when its Broadway transfer was announced. Written by Danai Gurira and starring Oscar winner Lupita Nyong'o (12 Years a Slave), Eclipsed depicts five women-- sexual captives, soldiers, peacemakers--during the Liberian civil war in 2003. Tommy has been with the play since its earliest workshops and directed its original production in 2009 at McCarter Theatre's annual new-works festival and later that year at Yale Rep and Woolly Mammoth Theatre.

It helped establish her as a favorite, and versatile, director at regional houses. Her 2010 Oregon Shakespeare Festival staging of Ruined was so well received it went on tour, playing at La Jolla, Boston's Huntington Theatre and Berkeley Rep. Tommy returned to the Huntington for Ma Rainey's Black Bottom and A Raisin in the Sun and to Yale Rep for The Piano Lesson and became the associate director of Berkeley Rep for a few years (she's now associate artist there). Her work has also been seen at Trinity Rep (A Christmas Carol, Sarah Ruhl and Todd Almond's Melancholy Play: A Chamber Musical), Berkshire Theatre Festival (Misterioso-119), the Contemporary American Theatre Festival at West Virginia's Shepherd University (A History of Light) and Baltimore Center Stage (American Buffalo). Tommy says she will be directing Macbeth next year at the Shakespeare Theatre in Washington, D.C.

But her work extends far beyond U.S. borders. The South African-born director--who lived in a colored township under apartheid before her family relocated to Massachusetts when she was a teen--has been an artistic advisor for the Sundance Institute East Africa, working in such places as Kenya, Ethiopia and Zanzibar. In Copenhagen she directed a play by a Korean writer in Danish, and she's participated in a Romania theater festival, among other international projects.

Eclipsed stars Saycon Sengbloh and Lupita Nyong'o

After several years working primarily outside New York, Tommy directed Appropriate, by Branden Jacobs-Jenkins, at the Signature off-Broadway in 2014--and won an Obie for it. That was followed by Informed Consent last summer at Primary Stages. Her earlier NYC credits include Angela's Mixtape by Eisa Davis, Quiara Alegría Hudes' The Adventures of Barrio Grrrl! at the Summer Play Festival and Split Ends at La Mama. In 2013 she received the inaugural Susan Stroman Directing Award, a residency, from the Vineyard Theatre.

Interviewed by phone from California for this Women's History Month series, Tommy spoke about Eclipsed's journey to Broadway and her reinvention of classics, and she offered some advice on putting your ideals into action as a theater artist and breaking the white male dominance of the business.

From Eclipsed to Frozen is quite a shift. How'd it happen?
Dana Harrel was working at La Jolla Playhouse at the time I did a tour of Ruined [there], and then she moved to Disney, and when they internally were pitching the project, she called me and said, "Do you mind if we attach you to this project as we pitch it to our higher-ups?" I was in tech for another show, I didn't really know what it was, and I said okay. A month later she said, "Everything's been greenlit, including you, so let's do this." I didn't have to interview. They called me and offered me the job a year and a half ago, and I was like, "Really? You want me to do that?" That was the beginning of a year of amazing, intense, huge-scale theater making. It's been unreal. It is a massive show. I have a $28 million budget...a 2,000-seat theater.

Are you a different director for this kind of project than on, say, Eclipsed?
I don't distinguish in terms of my process between a new play or Shakespeare or a musical. It's just one of the things I believe strongly in: The approach to storytelling has to be the same, so I spend a lot of time doing table work, I spend a lot of time doing text analysis. Yesterday I did a session with the Elsas, working on their character arc. There are four actresses playing Elsa right now. We worked on the "Let It Go" song as if it was a monologue...we approached it like it was a soliloquy of Juliet's. I can tell from the people who are strictly musical theater that they have not been given that process, and it's so much joy and excitement that you're actually asking them questions about motivation and it's not just about "Stand here...Do a pirouette...Sing." There's much more collaboration and process. And it seems to be paying off: The work is really grounded and has depth, and there's real relationships happening, and the Disney people seem to be very happy with how things are going.

Zainab Jah, Saycon Sengbloh and Pascale Armand in Eclipsed

Did you believe years ago that Eclipsed was destined for Broadway?
No way! We had no idea. I mean, we couldn't even get it to New York after we did it at Yale. Having worked all across this country, I have found that in some ways New York theaters are less adventurous than regional theaters. I don't know if it's because they fear critics or they fear their audiences, but...anyway, no one was interested in Eclipsed. It would win awards everywhere we did it, it would get really good reviews, and I will fight for a show that I believe in till the bitter end, I will pound on doors... And Danai--she's an amazing combination of pragmatism and spirituality--said to me, "I feel in my soul that we are not done with this show, and we just have to have faith that it will get its New York moment." She said, "We need to just step away for a moment and let it breathe, and then we'll come back to it." And so we did. And by that time Lupita, who'd understudied it at Yale, was a star, and that's the only thing she wanted to work on when people asked her what play she wanted to do.

So what was it like to finally reach Broadway?
That opening night, Danai and I went out for the bow together--I'm getting emotional just thinking about it--we went out for the bow with the ladies, and they were all in tears, because they just knew what the journey had been. And they knew that we were on a stage, we were in a place, that wasn't necessarily welcoming to us and didn't necessarily think that we belonged there. And looking out into the audience when we took that bow, seeing people we knew and loved and seeing strangers so emotional and crying as they were applauding, it was really intense and really beautiful and why I love the theater: that community--that community you make with people you don't even know.

When you were premiering Eclipsed at the regional theaters, Ruined was running in New York. Did that have anything to do with Eclipsed not coming here sooner?
I'm not going to lie: I definitely felt super-irritated that part of the reason people were resistant to bringing Eclipsed to New York is "Well, we just had Ruined here!" The response I said ad nauseam, in print and in private, is "We are forced to watch so many productions of plays about white people crying over their real estate and their pregnancies. We can't have two plays about a conflict zone in Africa which are completely different plays and completely different stories?" That was always something that was a little bit hard for me to swallow. And that's part of the dominant culture's point of view. They lump us together as the same thing, but don't see that the stuff they're churning out year after year after year can also be considered the same thing, because it's their stories. It's why there's endless number of films about guys punching each other. All men in the cast, all men directors, all-men creative team--and they don't know they're basically making the same film over and over again, and it's like a revelation when there's one film that could be considered a woman's story.

Pascale Armand, Lupita Nyong'o and Saycon Sengbloh

You've really flipped the script on that, as Eclipsed is precedent-setting in terms of women telling the story...
There have been shows with all-female casts and female writers before, like For Colored Girls... or 'night, Mother. But what there hasn't been is a female director. It's the first time, no matter what race, that we've had all women [as] writer, ensemble and director. I think it's interesting that even shows with all women still had, in the past, a male director.

And now with Waitress, a musical with a female creative team, in previews, how optimistic should we be that the tide is turning?
I'm always advocating for diversity. Early on, when I was a nobody, I would say to an artistic director [when I was hired to direct a show], "You're not going to surround me with all white men, are you?" [Laughs] It's just unconscious--there are people who don't even realize what the composition looks like, it's just habit. A few years back I did a production at the McCarter of the Beth Henley play Crimes of the Heart, and I used an all-female design team. The thing is, we are in charge of that. The more women get into positions of leadership, the more you can control that. My design team for Frozen...the set designer is Filipino, the costume designer is Filipino, the music director is African-American, the choreographer is African-American. That's because that's what I care about. If you just make that a priority--and it shouldn't be only women and people of color who are making that a priority.

Jake Winn and Christiane Noll in Kid Victory

Have you ever felt pigeonholed as an artist?
I'm from South Africa originally. I came to the States when I was in high school. My parents actually moved back after Mandela was elected, because my dad went to work for the new government. So I was raised in an extremely political environment. International politics is something that has been part of my life since I was a child, so that's going to speak to the kind of work I'm interested in. And I definitely found early on when I was starting out and I was working on plays that had a more international scope, there were white male artistic directors who just looked at me with confusion, like, "Why are you interested in that?" They'd talk about, "Have you worked with Lynn Nottage? Have you worked with Kia Corthron?" They didn't understand that you could be a black woman and you could have a worldview beyond black American race politics. I love those writers, I've worked with those writers, but I just don't understand why it was so hard to comprehend that I might have more to offer as an international artist.

How did, or do, you combat that?
Rather than whine about it, I just started working overseas. Again, this is a Danai quote: "Go where the love is." Don't waste your time on people who don't get you. I worked in Copenhagen on a really amazing play about xenophobia in Europe, and I worked in Toronto at this international theater festival called Luminato with a German playwright. I just don't accept no, I don't accept no from people who don't get it. It just doesn't help me. I can't let them stop me because they don't understand that my worldview is bigger.

Were you an actor before you became a director?
I was an actor and a dancer since I was in high school. I studied acting at Trinity Rep Conservatory in Rhode Island, and while I was there I had these incredible teachers who saw something that I directed in my first year and they said to me, "We really believe in you as a director, we're going to make sure you direct something every year as well as doing your acting work, because we feel one day like you're going to want that." I was like, "Whatever. Awesome." I didn't really think about it. But when I got to New York, I realized after a couple of years that in acting you don't have any control over the content of the work you're doing. My need to be contributing socially and politically to my art was going to really take a hit as an actor, so I decided to shift into directing. I approached playwrights that I respected, and that's how my new-play development work started.

Tommy with designer Clint Ramos in 2014

Who's really special to you among the regular collaborators you've had?
Clint Ramos--who's a set designer that I work with all the time--is like a brother to me at this point. We've gone through so much together. We started out as young artistic fellows at New York Theatre Workshop, like 10 years ago. We've grown together personally, and we've grown together artistically. We're both immigrants, we both have a certain kind of drive that is specific to immigrants. We both have similar obsessions in terms of design, in terms of fashion. And we both care about the same kinds of things in terms of how we want to tell the story about what it is to be human in the world. We have a similar kind of sensitivity and a similar kind of rage--which is also really important to the work that I do. A similar sense of outrage, if you will.

Is there somebody you consider a mentor?
I would say that the person who's been there for me from the beginning of my career has been Oskar Eustis, at the Public. I was his student at Trinity Rep.

Have you mentored others?
Oh, god, yes. I was mentoring people even before I knew enough to be mentoring anybody. But because I was so desperate for mentors as I was coming up, I realized the importance of creating community. When I have assistants, it's not just about how they assist, it's about making sure they're empowered. I kind of look at that process as "ER, the teaching hospital," so there's a lot of checking in. I tend to work with women and people of color as assistants, so I'm really invested in their growth and their futures. Again, it's about creating an army of people whose presence and their right to be there is undeniable. So giving them as many skills as possible along the way is just so important. I also think it's really healthy, because this is a super-competitive business and it's important to not allow paranoia and insecurity and comparison to be the ruling factor in your work.

Do you consider one genre--such as new work or classics or musicals--your specialty?
When I was working downtown doing off-off-Broadway, I was doing everything. I did Shakespeare in the Parking Lot, I did musicals for the Fringe, and they were all self-generated stuff, as things are off-off-Broadway. So I never had a sense that I do just one thing. It wasn't until I started working professionally that people were like, "Oh, you do new plays, so that's what you're going to do for a while." But then I built relationships with certain artistic directors. For example, Jon Moscone at Cal Shakes asked me to do a Hamlet, and Kevin Moriarty asked me to do Les Miz.

Tommy's Les Misèrables at Dallas Theater Center

Those productions weren't your run-of-the-mill revivals. Tell us about your "reinvention" of Les Misèrables at Dallas Theater Center in 2014.
Because I was about to go into working on three brand-new musicals that season, I felt like I should do a classic musical. Sort of like when I have a whole bunch of new plays, it's really important to do a Chekhov or Shakespeare, just so that you can remind yourself what solid dramaturgy is. Les Miz is such a beautifully constructed musical, and I don't have to worry about if it works--which I would have to worry about with these three upcoming new musicals. The first thing that I do is make sure the casting is utterly multicultural. So for example, in Les Miz, Jean Valjean was an Indian actor. And then I just started doing what I do, which is ask the questions of how am I going to get the Dallas audience to care about this story and to identify with these student revolutionaries--not in a kind of distant, fairy-tale way but in a really visceral, immediate, This could be me or These could be my children way. That's what I want from audiences: I want them to lean forward, to feel like they're seeing something that they've never seen before, that they're thinking about things in a way that they never thought about them before. It was from that question that the whole contemporary reimagining of Les Miz came, and then I just pulled out the things in the show that I felt had resonance today. My question always is--for the designers, for the actors, for myself, for the writers I work with--"Have we stopped at the safe point? Are we going far enough? Is there more risky, dangerous choices to make?" That's how I pushed myself beyond the easy concepts for the show into something a little bit more crackling. In that first prison scene, all the prisoners were in orange jumpsuits and all of the prison guards were in riot gear. Anytime we saw police [in the show], they were in really intense, scary riot gear. There's a couple of moments in the play where I had these cops beating protesters, and they're in the full-on riot gear. What's interesting is, the show ran until August--which is when Ferguson happened. The show started running a month before Ferguson, but I just felt like that was what was in the air. So it was incredibly eerie to be watching this play with these images while we were also seeing it on the news.

You'd directed A Raisin in the Sun at Boston's Huntington Theatre the year before. What were your innovations there?
They'd asked me to do it a few times, and I kept saying no because I felt like everybody's seen it so many times, what do I have to bring to it? I even recommended that they look at Robert O'Hara, who I had heard had done a beautiful production in another city. Then Peter DuBois said, "I just urge you to think about it. I know it's been done a lot, but you haven't done it. Just think about what you might want to do with it." I thought long and hard, and I spoke to Clint Ramos, and we thought, "Okay, yeah, let's do this!" But we're going to do our version of what it is; we're going to push the envelope and have a different conversation. I really connected to Lorraine Hansberry--her life and her art. She was such a cutting-edge artist that I felt like her play could handle a cutting-edge approach. We had this incredible rotating set--all the tiny rooms in the apartment. The walls were made out of these beautiful wooden flats that you could filter light through. And there was a massive light wall in the back. And we--the sound designers and the composers that I work with a lot, Broken Chord--composed all of this cool experimental jazz. We looked at what the characters might have been listening to at the time. So it was definitely pushing the envelope design-wise in terms of what people think Raisin in the Sun should look like, or sound like. Again, [it was an example of] the importance of these relationships with these wonderful artistic directors--they really trusted me, they let me do what I wanted to do. I put the father on stage as a ghost, so he was sort of haunting the house. In the play his presence is so palpable, so I thought, "Let me just physicalize this." He was there in various scenes: Sometimes he'd sit next to his son on the couch, his wife on the couch, sometimes he'd sit by his grandchild. This is a particular thing I'm intrigued with: What is grief? What is being haunted by the past, whether it's memory or people who have left us? It felt like a great meditation for me on some of these things that I think about a lot in the work that I do.

Julie Eccles as Gertrude and LeRoy McClain as Hamlet

That also influenced your 2012 staging of Hamlet at California Shakespeare Theater, right?
Something that I've been fascinated with a very long time in my work is grief and death and being haunted. And that play is just so perfect to approach that way. And there are actors that I absolutely love: LeRoy McClain is one, and I brought him in as Hamlet; Zainab Jah--who's in Eclipsed--is an actor I love, and I brought her in as Ophelia. One of the great things about working on classics is you have more freedom [in casting], and it can just be purely about "This is a wonderful actor, and I want to be in their world for the run of this."
I'm never going to do just a traditional production of a classic. It's always about making it contemporary, especially if people have seen it many times. You know, if I were living in Europe, this would be, like, absolutely a nonstarter conversation. It would be like, "Of course that's what you do." No one there does traditional productions of anything, because everybody's seen everything a million times. I definitely envy the male directors who are given the opportunity [in New York] to deconstruct classics, or to take Shakespeare and personalize the storytelling, because that's what I've been doing regionally for years, and I'm so grateful to those artistic directors who have given me that opportunity.

The male directors? What about the female directors?
That's my question. There is an unconscious bias...I think a male director is allowed to be an auteur in this country; a female director is supposed to deliver the show, preferably without "interfering" with the show.

You've now directed big musicals and you've directed on Broadway, but as I discussed a couple of weeks ago with Susan Stroman, there's still an enormous gender disparity among directors of Broadway musicals--despite heightened awareness of gender disparity in the industry and the steps off-Broadway and regional houses have taken to address it.
It is enormous. When you're coming up and you're looking desperately for mentors or people who've walked the path...we've got to thank god for people like Susan Stroman, Kathleen Marshall, Diane Paulus, these women who've walked through the fire before me. Whether or not the work is pushing form or pushing boundaries, these women are innovators. The fact that through their excellence they made themselves a place where you know people didn't necessarily want to give them a place--it's just so important that that be acknowledged. I have about 500 stories of things people said to me or ways in which I was made to feel I didn't belong and I shouldn't be there, and it takes so much inner strength to push through that. Trust yourself, trust your art, trust the work that you're doing. I think about Contact, the show that Susan Stroman did, and how incredibly inspiring it was, because that was one of those shows where you know she poured herself onto the stage. When you're allowed to do that, it's undeniable. That's how you claim your space.

What you've said in this interview could be very inspiring. So what if someone reads it and wants to know, "What can I do?"
If there's anybody who still thinks of season programming in terms of a "black" slot or a "diversity" slot--even as I'm saying this, it's hard to believe there are still people who think like that, but there absolutely are--I would say, you just have to break that model. If you had a season of all women or all people of color, would that end the world? Would that be so shocking? What it does require is more outside-of-the-box thinking, more stepping away from your comfort zone. It seems that we're in a place across industries in this country where we cannot take our time on this front anymore. We are in quite a dangerous time politically, I feel, and those of us who are artists have to stay the course--we cannot get sucked into fear-based or xenophobic programming. We have to step up to the plate and say: Make our programming and make our hiring representative of the so-called liberal, progressive artistic point of view that people claim to have. There can't be a disconnect between what you say your politics are and what you are doing with your theater and with your hiring practices.

This is the fifth and final weekly conversation with a female stage director for Women's History Month. Last week featured Rebecca Taichman, director of Playwrights Horizons' Familiar (also by Danai Gurira) and the Vineyard's upcoming Indecent. To read earlier interviews in the series, click on the asterisk before the director's name:
* Susan Stroman
* Anne Kauffman
* Kate Whoriskey

Eclipsed photos by Joan Marcus (4); Kid Victory: Margot Schulman; Tommy and Ramos: Annie Watt/Sundance; Les Misèrables: Karen Almond; Hamlet: Kevin Berne

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