Interview: Director/Psychiatrist David W. Callander Full-Circling With A PERECT GANESH

Campus Cabaret’s first production post-pandemic Terrence McNally’s A PERFECT GANESH opens October 29th at The Pico

By: Oct. 19, 2021
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Interview: Director/Psychiatrist David W. Callander Full-Circling With A PERECT GANESH

Campus Cabaret's artistic director and co-founder David W. Callander thought long and hard in considering Terrence McNally's A PERFECT GANESH as their first production post-pandemic (opening October 29th at The Pico). David had the opportunity to see the very first production of A PERFECT GANESH back in 1993 at the Manhattan Theatre Club. "It's a play that stayed with me for many, many years. I think that's because I was a young gay man in New York, trying to find my way in the middle of the last pandemic. Really what I remember about the play was it felt to me as if it was McNally's way of trying to deal with the collective grief and loss that we were all going through at the time with regards to AIDS. And you know how we are all right now dealing with grief and loss on so many levels, not just the people that we've lost, but the way in which our lives have changed."

A long-time fan of Terrence McNally's work, David explains why he values A PERFECT GANESH, as well as other Terrence McNally's work so much. In GANESH, "There's so many references to New York City - St. Vincent's Hospital where later I did my internship in internal medicine, Abingdon Square where I lived. They had all of these personal ties in the play. Also one of the things that really drew me in, it's in so much of McNally's work, he's addressing the relationship between mothers and their gay sons. That was something, that spoke to me, continues to speak to me, even at this point in my life when I'm 56 years old."

The last show David acted in before lockdown was Terrence McNally's IT'S ONLY A PLAY at the Morgan-Wixson. "I think this was the thing that brought me full circle around to his work and what it had meant to me personally over the course of my life, having been in New York in the 1990s. You know I saw all of his works that happened then - LOVE! VALOR! COMPASSION!, MASTER CLASS, LISBON TRAVIATA, LIPS TOGETHER, TEETH APART. I was there for all of that. So McNally really held a special place in my heart. And this is what got me thinking about getting back into directing finally after many, many years, and then doing a McNally play."

The Terrence McNally play that resonates most with David: "I saw LOVE! VALOR! COMPASSION! three times, when it was on Broadway. That one most specifically deals with the relationships between gay men. I think it's the one that perhaps touches me more than the others. So much of what McNally writes about is the search for human connection. I was especially cognizant of that when I saw the last revival of FRANKIE AND JOHNNY with Audra McDonald and Michael Shannon on Broadway. These two people who wake up in bed one morning or in the middle of the night, and then, searching for a way to understand one another.

"There's a similar kind of relationship in A PERFECT GANESH. GANESH involves middle-aged women who have been friends for many years, but they don't really know one another. They are bound together by grief and loss, even though they are really unaware of that. The play is really about their struggle to have more authentic relationships with themselves and with each other. And it's a fight to get through to that.

Interview: Director/Psychiatrist David W. Callander Full-Circling With A PERECT GANESH "And then when I look back, I think about LOVE! VALOR! COMPASSION! There's a scene that that just stays with me. It gives me the chills even talking about it now. It's the scene where two men are sitting on the gazebo, and one of them reveals his KS lesions. The other character goes and he kisses it. It's such a moment of deep intimacy. The same thing happens in A PERFECT GANESH. One of the ladies discovers, shortly before the trip that she has a lump in her breast, and she touches it. By the end of the play, she allows this other woman that she's with also to lay her hand upon it. One of the characters in the play says that's the one thing that she wanted more than anything in her life when she was a young girl, was to kiss a leper on the mouth, oozing ulcers fall out, and not feel revulsion. This is a story about crossing over all of the things that separate us. To try to find a deeper, a deeper sense of connection."

Friends and associates would ask about David choosing to produce A PERFECT GANESH, "Are you sure that this is the time to do that? How are people going to react to this?" David's reflective in his thinking, "That is something that I thought about very carefully. We have to move through this right if we are to heal both individually and collectively. We have to come together. There's no place for racism or sexism. Several times, we refer to one another in ways that we're just unaware. We're not being mindful of the power of our language, that can bring us together, or move us apart."

David has 'updated' A PERFECT GANESH: "You should know that I've taken a different approach to the play. When it was initially done, it was done with four Caucasian actors - Frances Sternhagen, Zoe Caldwell, Fisher Stevens and Dominic Cuskern. When I picked up this play again and I looked at it, so many of the characters are Indians. There's no way that in the current climate, you can do this, as it was originally cast. So I am doing the play with four Caucasian actors, and four South Asian actors. I'm also incorporating classical Hindustani music and Indian dance."

David, a self-professed theatre kid, earned his undergraduate degree in theater from Pomona College, forming Campus Cabaret as an alternative outlet for his musical interests Ponoma College was not addressing. "I get that we were all there to learn and we had so much to learn, but I wanted to do a musical. I got together with a few friends. We put this company together. We found a space underneath the Student Center, which was called the Smudge Pot. Now smudge pots are what are used to keep orange trees alive in the winter. That's where the name of this space came from. We cleared it out. We built a stage. We built a lighting grid. We put in cabaret tables, and the first production that we did was SIDE BY SIDE by Sondheim. I spent my whole undergraduate education at this terrific liberal arts college doing theater. The last thing that I did was Sondheim's COMPANY. The whole thing came around full circle.

"After I graduated from Pomona, I went to New York. I became a stage manager on Broadway. One of the first things that I worked on was the very first incarnation of KISS OF THE SPIDERWOMAN, which was written by Terrence McNally. I had the opportunity to work with him then, which was a terrific experience for a young person just getting out of school. To work with some pretty big figures in musical theater - Kander and Ebb, Hal Prince. I was 23 years old, and that's where I was going to work every day."

Life took a pivot for David when stage managing THE Buddy Holly STORY. "I did that for a year and a half on the road, and in New York. As a young man I really had no idea how to manage the work/life balance, especially from working in the professional theatre. I was about 40 pounds overweight. I was smoking packs of cigarettes a day. I went to work one day at the Shubert Theater. I started to do my same pre-show routine that I'd done 400 times before, and I just started to cry. I went to the back of the Shubert and, I'm not making this up, I lay down on a stack of Playbills and wept. I was exhausted. I was burned out. I went to the production stage manager and said, 'Listen, I think I need a little time off.' They said, 'Take care of yourself, do what you need to do.' I went to a health spa, a place called the Canyon Ranch in Tucson, Arizona. It completely turned my life around. I came back. I continued to work on the show and a couple of other projects over at Playwrights Horizons. That's when I really started to focus on my own health and fitness. My interest in that just kept growing. I was a young man living through the last pandemic. I felt like I had to get involved and then that's what eventually prompted me to go to medical school."

Halfway through med school in 1998, David realized he hadn't kicked his theatrical bug when the opportunity to participate in sketches put on for faculty arose. David wrote a musical called OKLA-H.M.O. "But I had to get through medical school. Then I was 40 and hadn't yet established myself as a physician. That took a number of years before I eventually could circle back to the theater."

Today, David has his own private practice and is currently on-staff at Cedars-Sinai while scratching his theatrical bug. "You'd be surprised, but the skill set is remarkably similar. When you go to the theater, you watch a story unfold and you look at the relationships. Hopefully at the theater, you're emphasizing, you're putting yourself in other people's shoes. When I'm working with patients. I'm also listening. I'm trying to understand what their narrative is over the course of their life. I'm trying to understand the relationships as well. So the two things actually go together pretty well."

As to what gives actor/director/psychiatrist David greater gratification - onstage receiving applause for his curtain call, offstage watching his cast getting their props, or helping a patient finally have that lightbulb moment: "A lightbulb moment in clinical work is really few and far between. The experience of really helping someone to work through a very difficult time in their lives, to help them get to know themselves better; that is deeply gratifying to me. The intimacy of that work is everything. With regards to what happens on stage, being in rehearsal, that's the best part. It's working with the actors and discovering and going deeper and deeper into the play. There's so much in A PERFECT GANESH for us to find. It's endless. By the time you get the applause... the gratification, it's already been mapped. You know I hope this is the start of my third act."

Fond memories of working with Terrence McNally still reverberate in David's head. Referring to Roger Rees' 2002 performance in the musical A MAN OF NO IMPORTANCE (with book by Terrence McNally): "I hear the voice of Roger in my head on a regular basis. It's his last speech from A MAN OF NO IMPORTANCE. I used to think that the most thrilling words in the English language were 'at rise' as we opened our books to the first page of the playwright's text. But I was wrong. The most thrilling words in the English language are these: 'Good morning, my dear friends.'"

For tickets for the live performances of A PERFECT GANESH through November 21, 2012; log onto A PERFECT GANESH features Mueen Jahan, Kathleen Gray, Mary Allwright, Cameron Gregg, Judd Yort, Sean Delaney, Pavia Sidhu, Svetlana Tulasi and Delio Eswar.


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