Interview with Directors: Noah Brody and Ben Steinfeld
Ted Sod: Let's start with some biographical information: where you were born, where you were educated, and when you decided to become actor/directors?
Noah Brody: I was born in Bound Brook, New Jersey. I went to undergrad at Colgate University, and I have degrees in chemistry and English literature from Colgate. I performed as a kid and did forensics and school plays in high school, but I got really into performing Shakespeare from my work as an English major. I moved to New York and started studying in New York, before going to grad school in the Brown/Trinity MFA program, where I got my master's degree as an actor. It was there that we all met. In grad school we all studied acting, directing and writing and discovered how much we love all those disciplines.
Ben Steinfeld: I was born outside of New York City, in Westchester, and I moved to Boston when I was five, and then I moved to LA when I was thirteen, so I don't really know where I'm from, but I always feel like I'm from New England. I went to Brown University for undergrad and also attended the Brown/Trinity MFA program, which is where I met Noah and the rest of the Fiasco gang. I actually came into theatre through the music door. I always sang, I've played guitar since I was a kid, and my family was musical, so music-making was always in my life. By the time I got to college, I knew that I liked acting and performing as much as I liked music. I dabbled in directing and ensemble play-making in college, but it wasn't really until grad school when my interest in things beyond acting started to kick in. Noah and I connected because we were both interested in the same sorts of things. I directed a short play in grad school that Noah wrote, Noah directed me in a play at one point, so we had gotten to try on different identities with each other.
TS: And was Fiasco Theater born in New York? Or while you were still at school?
BS: It was born in New York, but the conversations that led to Fiasco began when we were in school.
TS: What is the mission of Fiasco?
NB: It's an interesting question because we're in the process of reevaluating that mission. Currently, the mission statement that we have is to create joyful, actor-driven theatre and to put the actor at the center of the art and to offer training at low or no cost to the Fiasco community.
TS: Why such a provocative title for the company?
NB: We took it on for a couple of reasons. The word "fiasco" because it has theatrical roots. It has to do with a moment that might fail, in which an actor might have to fare fiasco, or "make the bottle" that night at the bar. It's also a reminder that you have to risk a total failure, if you want to have the hope of creating something wonderful. And it's a signal to ourselves and to the world that, while we take our work very seriously, we don't take ourselves too seriously.
TS: And can you tell me a bit about choosing Into the Woods? Because, up to this point, it's been primarily Shakespeare, correct?
BS: That's right. Musicals are usually written, directed and staged with a certain kind of hierarchy in terms of the rehearsal process, and so we thought it would be interesting to see what it would be like to bring our process of making a show to a musical. We very quickly came up with Into the Woods as the show that would be the perfect fit for us because it met so many of the criteria that we have when picking a show. It had to have lots of great parts (because we are a company of actors), and it had to be about something that we care about. It is such a compelling story, and there's all kinds of amazing theatrical challenges in it: how are you going to do the wolf? How are you going to do the giant? How are you going to tell this story with this number of people in the cast? How are you going to make all these musical events happen? To pick a line from the show that we've often quoted, it made us "excited and scared," and that's something that we look for.
TS: I read in a few interviews that you think the piece is about inheritance. Is that what you would still say it's about?
NB: Well, I think it's about multiple things. But, the idea of inheritances runs so strongly throughout the show, and it was very useful as one of our organizing principles. There are objects that we inherit from our parents and our grandparents, and they can take on great value. Mundane objects can take on a totemic power when they have a story or a past to them. But those inheritances can also be things like curses. They can be ideas. Family stories. Expectations.
TS: And when you say "inheritance," I'm sure DNA is part of that, too.
BS: That's exactly right. I think that one of the reasons that we've all connected to this story on a personal level, is that we are at the age where we have both parents and children. In all previous points in our lives, we would always see ourselves on the young side. Now, we find ourselves identifying just as much with the parental issues that are in the play as we do with the kids' point of view.
TS: How do you go about casting yourselves since you are also the co-directors?
NB: In the case of Into the Woods, we thought that Ben and Jessie would be a great pairing as Baker and Baker's Wife because of their temperaments, their voice ranges and the acting challenges. Sometimes the casting creates interesting doubling or tripling opportunities that the actors will appreciate but will also resonate with the message of the production. In the case of Into the Woods, Andy and I play the Princes, but we also double as the stepsisters and each play an animal. What we ended up finding was an interesting duo act that is throughout the production. It's a bit of complicated math, but we're thinking artistically and creatively as well as like a traditional casting director.
TS: Did you watch other productions as research? Did you reread the original Grimm stories?
BS: As an actor and director, I prefer not to see other people's interpretations. I had seen the PBS video as a kid, but once we found out we were doing this production, I never went back to that as a reference.
NB: Like Ben, I prefer not to view other productions so I can have an authentic response to the material as opposed to anyone else's interpretation. I purchased the Brothers Grimm stories and went back and reread all of the tales that pertained to Into the Woods.
TS: Did any changes have to be made in the score or in the libretto for the ten-person version?
BS: Here's what I'll say: we made a very, very small number of changes. We never intended to do anything except Into the Woods as written. Almost nothing about the score has changed, and we altered very little about the book. The goal is to make it feel like we're just doing the show, but those who know the story intimately will recognize that we have tweaked a couple of events in the show.
TS: Will you please talk about collaborating with the design team and how the show will manifest itself visually?
NB: When we started talking with Derek McLane, our set designer, we knew we weren't interested in having trees represent the woods. And we were interested in a space where all the physical objects that represent inheritances could coexist with a piano, since we knew one would be at the center of the production. Derek took that and came up with this idea of expanding and exploding the piano so that the entire production, in some sense, was happening inside the piano. Upstage he has these layers of string that are evocative of the woods. On the sides of the stage are piano harps that are the guts of the piano and are incredibly tactile and evocative, as well. He took our soup of ideas and worked that into a magnificent design.
TS: And how about working with Whitney and Darron?
BS: With Whitney, it was different because she has designed costumes for every Fiasco production. We have easy shorthand with her, and she's very good at providing Fiasco a base idea for costumes as part of the ensemble look, and then adds pieces to each person to distinguish when they're playing their different roles. At the McCarter Theatre, where we first did the show, we had been proceeding with a design where the base look for each character had been rooted in an era that is basically a hundred years ago. We got into dress rehearsal, and we all came to realize the costuming didn't match the rest of the production. To her great credit, Whitney agreed with us, and threw out the majority of the costume design. With McCarter's support, in twenty-four hours, Whitney and her team turned out a new base look for the costumes. The women, for example, ended up wearing essentially what they were originally wearing under their costumes as their costume.
Sketch by Costume Designer Whitney Locher.
We loved our meeting with Darron from the first second that we sat down with him. We knew that he understood what it meant to be flexible in the room. What actually excited us both about Darron is that he insisted on being in rehearsals. He sees himself as an active and ongoing collaborator in the room. He wanted to learn the Fiasco vocabulary; not just our production, but of our company. So he observed -- sometimes he would share a thought, but sometimes he would just be there, walking around the room, listening, watching, and then creating. He allowed every sound that comes from the show to come from the stage. Every aspect of our collaboration with Darron has really taught us something.
TS: What is on the horizon for Fiasco beyond Into the Woods?
BS: We are actively pursuing musicals, Shakespeare, American classics and work that is company devised.
NB: Right after Into the Woods we will be bringing our production of Two Gentleman of Verona to the Theatre for A New Audience in Brooklyn.