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BWW Interview: A Women's History Month Special with FAMILIAR Director Rebecca Taichman

Fourth in a series.

This spring Rebecca Taichman is helping to usher one playwriting talent into the NYC limelight and welcome another one back. She is the director of Familiar, Danai Gurira's comic drama at Playwrights Horizons about the generational and cultural clashes within a Zimbabwean-American family. Now extended until April 10, Familiar is half of Gurira's one-two punch of a New York playwriting debut this season (with Eclipsed).

By the time Familiar wraps up its run, Taichman will be in rehearsal for Indecent, a new play with music that she co-created with Paula Vogel. Indecent, scheduled to begin performances April 27 at the Vineyard Theatre, will mark the first time that Pulitzer winner Vogel has been represented on a New York stage since NYTW presented A Civil War Christmas in 2012.

Familiar and Indecent both had their world premieres last year at Yale Rep, and Taichman directed them there as well. But Taichman goes back much further with Indecent--it originated as a docudrama she alone wrote in the late '90s while a grad student at the Yale School of Drama, inspired by the scandal surrounding the 1920s Yiddish play God of Vengeance, whose plotline involves prostitution and lesbianism. The Vineyard is presenting Indecent in association with Yale Rep and southern California's La Jolla Playhouse, where it also ran last year.

Familiar, meanwhile, has brought Taichman back to Playwrights Horizons, where she previously directed Sarah Ruhl's Stage Kiss and Kirsten Greenidge's Milk Like Sugar. She went on to direct each of those playwrights' subsequent New York productions, which were both at Lincoln Center Theater: Greenidge's Luck of the Irish, which played LCT3's Claire Tow Theater in 2013, and Ruhl's The Oldest Boy, seen at the Mitzi E. Newhouse in late 2014.

Tamara Tunie, Harold Surratt and Ito Aghayere in Familiar

Taichman has also helmed Ruhl's plays at Classic Stage off-Broadway (Orlando) and the Woolly Mammoth in Washington, D.C. (The Clean House and Dead Man's Cell Phone), and she's directed multiple works by Theresa Rebeck (The Scene at New York's Second Stage and the Humana Festival, Mauritius at Huntington Theatre in Boston) and David Adjmi (Marie Antoinette at Soho Rep, Evildoers at Yale Rep). Taichman has done a fair share of classics too, most notably four plays at the Shakespeare Theatre in D.C., where she is an affiliated artist: Taming of the Shrew, Twelfth Night, The Winter's Tale and Cymbeline (the latter two were also produced at the McCarter Theatre in Princeton, N.J.).

Her portfolio additionally encompasses opera and musicals. In 2003, just three years out of Yale, she received a Barrymore Award--Philadelphia's top theater prize--for Outstanding Direction of a Musical, for the Prince Music Theater's world premiere (starring Raúl Esparza) of Green Violin, a klezmer-scored period piece about the Moscow State Jewish Theater for which Taichman co-wrote the book. In 2011 she directed another musical world premiere, coproduced by McCarter and La Jolla: Sleeping Beauty Wakes, penned by Rachel Sheinkin and GrooveLily. Taichman has directed She Loves Me at the Oregon Shakespeare Festival and for Gotham Chamber Opera staged Rappaccini's Daughter in the Brooklyn Botanic Garden and Dark Sisters, a new opera with a libretto by Stephen Karam and music by Nico Muhly (who would also score her Winter's Tale).

In the fourth of our five Women's History Month interviews with female directors, Taichman talks about bonding with Danai Gurira and Sarah Ruhl, how Shakespeare has enriched her life personally as well as professionally, and the unfair fine line that women in charge have had to walk. (She also tipped us off to some forthcoming projects of hers that haven't been officially announced, including working with playwright Lynn Nottage and rapper Lupe Fiasco to develop a play.)

Joby Earle, Roslyn Ruff, Myra Lucretia Taylor
and Melanie Nicholls-King in Familiar

How did you get involved with Familiar?
Danai and I have the same agent, Mark Subias at UTA, and he sent me the script and said, "Let me know if you connect with this material; if so, I'd love to set up a conversation between the two of you." I just couldn't put the play down, and when Danai and I spoke, it was a pretty immediate connection. That was, I think, a very first draft that I read. Through Yale there was a series of developmental workshops and readings, and then this past year, building up to this production, at Playwrights we had a couple of readings. So there was a big process around both productions to develop the script.

And your becoming, uh, familiar with Zimbabwean culture was part of that process?
There was an enormous amount to learn. To really understand another culture is a lifelong process. In many ways it's a new world, but in other ways it's very familiar. In my heritage there's this lost language of Yiddish, and [I had] many, many relatives who came over from Poland...that immigrant experience and the struggle to keep a culture alive--in Familiar it's the language Shona that is at risk of being lost--is very familiar to me. The play reflects so many family tensions in any culture and all cultures. A family is a family. It's kind of shocking how the play holds a mirror up to so many of us.

Adina Verson and Katrina Lenk in the Yale Rep
2015 production of Indecent

How did you get into directing?
I was a pretty bad actor, truth to tell. I went to McGill University in Montreal, and pretty quickly out of undergrad I got a role and I had to die every night and fall in love, and I just couldn't do it. I couldn't sustain the repetition, I didn't have a really good skin between me and the experience--I fell in love with my leading man--and I also just found that what really sparked me was the thinking behind putting the production together, rather than the enacting of it every night. But it took a while to figure that out. For about five years I knew theater was my language, I just didn't know in what part of the theater I would work. So I worked in literary offices, I worked in casting, dramaturgy, and then eventually started to assistant-direct. When I started directing my own stuff, I realized, Oh, this just make so much sense. It brought everything together, and also felt like where I could be most myself. And then I went to graduate school for it.

And that's where the play we now know as Indecent got its start?
While I was there, I developed this piece called The People Vs. The God of Vengeance, based on a play called The God of Vengeance that was done in New York on Broadway in 1923 and tried for obscenity. I found the transcript of the obscenity trial and interwove that transcript with the text of the play. I worked on that for my whole three years [at Yale]; it was like a mini-company within my experience at school that was developing this one project.
I wrote my own version [of the play], but I'm just not a playwright, so it never quite clicked. But it never went away, I kept wanting to pursue it, and eventually I found Paula Vogel, who was equally interested in it, and we have since cocreated the piece.

Was this the first play by Paula that you directed?
I directed her play A Civil War Christmas at Baltimore's Center Stage [in 2013]. That was a great experience for us. It got us into a rehearsal room together, she ended up doing a lot of work on that play in the process, and really laid a foundation for our collaboration on Indecent. Hopefully this is the second of many.

Sarah Ruhl (left) with Taichman in 2014

You've had a prolific relationship with Sarah Ruhl. How did it blossom?
I think we share a dream language. I understand her in such a profound way, and her sense of theatricality is very in line with mine. The first time she saw a play of hers that I had directed was The Clean House at Woolly Mammoth Theatre. We really didn't know each other yet, she wasn't involved in the production, but when she came to see it she said to me afterward, "How did you know that was exactly what I wanted?" There's some shared very profound, very personal kind of dream space. I feel so lucky, honestly, to have found her in the world. I think we're on our seventh piece that we're starting to work on now...a new play of hers that's going to Lincoln Center next winter.
When I directed The Oldest Boy, we found this little room in the basement of Lincoln Center where there were two chaises, two couches, and on our big breaks we would go in there, turn the light off and lie down, and often have the most incredible conversations in the dark. There was something about that that felt like we're getting more and more intimately connected in how we're working together. Something about that little room in the basement of Lincoln Center felt like the dreamiest of collaborations for me. The other thing is, we share a sense of humor. Sometimes I'll be watching a play with her and we're the only two people laughing. We have a shared funnybone.
All my collaborations with writers are very intimate. I love working on new plays because that relationship can be so rich, and if the playwright wants to be involved in every step of the process, I like to have that person by my side...deeply engaged in the design process, casting, everything. They know more about the play than anybody, and there's just so much to learn from that person. Often the beginning of the relationship is just me asking endless series of questions to really understand and metabolize what they want the play to be.

The Taichman-directed Cymbeline, 2013

And what happens when you can't question the playwright, like Shakespeare?
I usually create a deep relationship with the dramaturge. We go line by line through the plays and parse everything, and I usually don't feel I really know the play till I know it on a cellular level. I make no assumptions, I go really hard at Shakespeare. It's a big process. I would never direct more than one Shakespeare play a year, because the amount of work it takes is so extreme in my case--I can't speak for other directors. To find my own doorway in usually takes months and months of research. I'll read the play over and over and over again. I read all the critical writing about the play that I can get my hands on. I like to learn as much as I can about past productions. Eventually it starts to seep; it's like learning a melody, and then you can riff off the melody.
Once I feel I really know the play, usually the ideas start to come. For example, when I directed Winter's Tale, I had the impulse to use a small cast: Everybody in Sicilia played everybody in Bohemia. That idea emerged over time: It's, like, marinating in the play and then trusting that the idea will come not from an effort on my part to be clever or show off how well I can direct Shakespeare but from the story itself, the language.
Because I'm a woman in the world, I think my entry point in many of those plays is through the women. He wrote women beautifully. There aren't that many of them in each play, but the significance of the role is very particular. I directed Taming of the Shrew...the discomfort it made me feel, trying to understand Kate's perspective--always challenging, fascinating, theatrically rich.

The Shakespeare Theatre/McCarter Winter's Tale, directed by
Taichman, with lighting by Christopher Akerlind

You've also collaborated regularly with certain designers.
I consider my partner in crime Christopher Akerlind, the lighting designer. My very first meeting with Chris, he blew my mind. I think it was Twelfth Night. He talked about the play in a way that meant so much to me and he opened up the play for me, and consistently ever since then I kind of chased him down to get in the design meetings because he always shifts my understanding. I learn so much from Chris. Sometimes I'll be in tech and something isn't working, and I'll sidle up next to Chris and say, "What am I doing wrong?" And he always says something extremely provocative, really interesting, and unlocks the problem for me. There's something about the way that guy sees the world and theater-making that I really connect with. And there's no ego in it--he'll say to me, "Oh my god, that's bad, it's not working at all," and that's when I perk up. I don't feel attacked. I feel like, Oh, we're gonna find something great... He has a really brilliant dramaturgical mind so his lighting is--I perceive it as painting. He paints with light, and he is revealing stories with light, so he thinks like a storyteller in an amazing, rich way. It's also great to work with other lighting designers, but there is a unique kinship with him.

How would you describe your directing style and vision?
I would like to believe--probably other people can judge this with clearer eyes--that my style is ever growing and evolving, and dependent on the piece that I'm working on. So for example, Familiar is a very realistic play, so any large director concepts would have been a violence to it, whereas The Oldest Boy needed a heavy director's hand and a very visually driven set of choices to lead the process. I see myself as a kind of vessel for the story, and I'm just hunting for the most theatrically powerful, authentic, moving way to release that story. So I hope it's true that my style shifts according to what the play I'm working on needs. I do think my first instincts tend to be visual. When a visual perspective's not a really useful way in, like on Familiar, I let that go.

Myra Lucretia Taylor, Harold Surratt, Roslyn Ruff
and Tamara Tunie in Familiar

What's your favorite part of the directing process?
On each project it's different. In Familiar, I would say my favorite part was the preview process because there was such an extraordinary amount of learning that happened once the audience came into the room and we had time to take what we had learned and grow the show. The experiences vary, but always my favorite part includes deep collaboration. One thing I tend to really love is tech. When it feels right, there's nothing more thrilling to me than putting all the pieces together, and in the tech process I like to collaborate deeply with the designers, who have such extraordinary ways of thinking. I hate to miss that opportunity to learn from how they read a play, or what they see in a play, or what moves them.

Has one play been more challenging than others for you?
I feel like that's true of every project! [Laughs] I mean, each project has its own individual, singular challenges, and they all feel, when you're in the midst of them, like it's hard to know how you'll ever overcome the challenges. One of the great delights of the job is you have to get in there and wrestle the issues down to the ground, and run past that finish line. I guess any project I could name a unique set of challenges. I think I do my best when I'm scared, so I guess I find something in each play that scares me.
With Familiar, as odd as it may be, I hadn't directed realism before--maybe once in graduate school. I tend to do work that's more stylized. So just understanding, like, the concept of the fourth wall. I certainly intellectually understand it, but working in that vernacular has been a fascinating challenge for me, and I'm sure it will inform my other work.

Adina Verson (in white), Mimi Lieber and Tom Nelis
in Yale Rep's Indecent

Is there one play, or certain plays, that felt especially meaningful to you?
My first instinct would be to say all the Shakespeare I've directed. I think working on Shakespeare helped me articulate my own spiritual life principles, which is no small thing. By that I mean, I perceive Shakespeare's genius to be contained in the fact that he's always releasing opposites, so every character kind of contains their opposite. He's consistently pointing out that one must strive for balance, and you should accept in life that it's a constant experience of opposites: Tears and laughter, they go together; there is no life without great sadness and great joy, and they don't need to cancel each other out. So that really is an organizing spiritual belief for my life.
Also working on this play that became Indecent has been a huge defining project for me. I've been working on it now for almost 20 years. It's a profound experience that I just happened upon this lost memory of this play in New York in the '20s that really revealed a great deal about Jewish history--my people's history, honestly. I felt like I needed to become a caretaker for that memory. When we had our first preview at Yale, I thought, Whatever the response is to this play, the people in this room on this night now know this story that they otherwise wouldn't have known, and that means so much to me. So the passion and obsession with that story over two decades has been really interesting and evolving relationship to the project.

What do you emphasize in the classes you teach?
One of my favorite things to teach is a class I call Found Texts, where the students are charged with finding some nonfiction text--that's the one requirement, it has to be nonfiction--and then creating a piece of theater out of that text. I'm teaching it right now, in the NYU musical theater program. It really empowers the students to find material where they don't think it exists and figure out how to make theatrical material that is not inherently theatrical. I learn a lot from them. I'm working on a couple of found-text projects myself, so it's a very reciprocal experience.

Is there anything you try to discourage among your directing students?
For me--this is very personal--but I see it as a danger for young artists the desire to show off how clever you are. To me it's the kiss of death in an artistic process. It feels like we're off the deeper meaning and it's kind of being driven by ego. Redirect yourself to: How are we trying to move people? What is it about the story that's profoundly important and larger than any one individual? That's a more interesting driver than ego or desire to show your clever idea. The goal is not to show me how good you are, the goal is how deeply you can move me with this story.

Sarah Marshall in The Clean House by Sarah Ruhl,
directed by Taichman at Woolly Mammoth in 2005

Do you have any advice specifically for female students?
I think as a woman director [you're subject to a] dichotomy between perceived as a bitch and being perceived as wishy-washy. It doesn't take much to create a reputation in either direction, and I do perceive that it's a gendered experience. That's the crux of the issue once you're in the door: kind of finding that very strange little sweet spot between "bitch" and "indecisive." It's kind of an unforgiving culture. It's a culture that's expanding its notion of what leadership is and how gender influences leadership, but I did find--in my early days, especially--that it was just way too easy to get a funky rep, and it always felt to me like a gender trap. I feel that less and less. That may be because I've mellowed and matured and I've had all this experience, but I also think it's people more used to women in leadership roles and having a larger breadth of understanding of what a woman is like as a leader. Really, the challenge is to forget it and not worry about it at all. Just be yourself. But that is probably where I struggled the most, to be honest.

How far has the theater community come in being more welcoming to women artists, particularly as the creators of work?
I feel like there's a tidal change. It's shifting, like tectonic plates, and I've been feeling that especially over the past six or seven years. There's a growing and ever-expanding awareness of empowering women as theater artists and choosing more plays by women, theaters being more conscious of hiring women. Now when I walk into theaters they're more used to a woman in a leadership position that they were, generally, when I started out 16 years ago. You can just feel it on a cultural level, it's a different relationship to a female leader, and it's wonderful. I see it still evolving--we're in the midst of a big process. The community is raising its awareness more and more and more. It would be a very different time to start out as a woman director than it was when I started.

Where can we go from here?
I really hope that as a community we'll continue to hire more women. I also think it's really important to continue to diversify in every possible direction, so we're more reflecting the world around us. And I think it's important to give opportunities. For example, when I'm looking for an assistant, I'm keenly aware of trying to have a female assistant whenever I can. Helping women through the door and looking at younger female writers, supporting them. Holding each other accountable. I also feel, honestly, more female critics could be a good thing. In all aspects, it's how do we include more voices and make space for more voices. We'll reach broader and different kinds of audiences the more we do that.

This Women's History Month series concludes next week with an interview with the director of Danai Gurira's other play currently running in New York. You won't want to miss what Liesl Tommy, director of Eclipsed, has to say! To read earlier installments in the series, click on the asterisk before the director's name:
* Susan Stroman
* Anne Kauffman
* Kate Whoriskey

[Photo credits] Familiar: Joan Marcus (3); Taichman and Ruhl: Walter McBride; The Winter's Tale: T Charles Erickson; Cymbeline: Scott Suchman; Indecent: Carol Rosegg (2); The Clean House: Jay Carrier

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