BWW Interview: In-Depth with Michael Michetti, Man of the Hour
Director Michael Michetti is the man of the hour. He has directed some of LA's most compelling productions and, for the past fifteen years, helped The Theatre @ Boston Court become one of the premier theatres for new and innovative work. He currently has a trio of shows on his directing calendar that all explore important and relevant issues to today's audience, regardless of when they were written.
The first, MRS. WARREN'S PROFESSION by George Bernard Shaw, is now playing at A Noise Within through November 18th. He's in rehearsals for the second, Mike Bartlett's epic royal drama KING CHARLES III, which opens at Pasadena Playhouse on November 8th. And he is already doing preliminary work for his third play, a radical reinvention of Tennessee Williams' A STREETCAR NAMED DESIRE set to open in February of 2018 at Boston Court Performing Arts Center. Michael joined us recently for a discussion about his upcoming work and the importance of theatre.
You're doing three plays in a row, all dealing with topics that ask the audience to do more than just come to the theatre and be entertained. Is that intentional?
It is. All of these plays have important social messages that make us think but they don't answer everything. They encourage us, once we leave the theatre, to continue grappling with them. I think that's one of the exciting things the theatre can do. It has an incredibly powerful ability to be a profound instrument for change because of the way we hear arguments in a play. Whether they are thoughtful or political, we hear them through human relationships, which enable us to receive them by opening the heart.
This idea of theatre not answering all the questions for you is a really important one, isn't it?
It's very much what I'm attracted to as a director. One of the things that is relatively unique to theatre is that the audience is a participant in it. Theatre is about ideas and what I love as a theatregoer is when it is not all tied up neat and easy. If there are questions left unanswered, it forces you to think about how you feel about them, or how you relate to an idea or character or event. You can't easily put it away. It stays with you. The audience member then completes the event through their experience of it.
There are a number of big ideas in Mrs. Warren's Profession. Which do you feel are the most important?
I think there are three major things the play is dealing with. At the time in which it was written, women were not empowered. They didn't have the same advantages men did and they were often forced to make decisions that were less than ideal because of the kind of limitations society gave them. Unfortunately, that's still too often the case today, that women are not empowered in our society.
There are also some very interesting arguments about the consequences of capitalism, that there have to be people who lose in a capitalist world. We hear this through the character of Crofts who makes arguments in favor of capitalism but his arguments also point out very clearly that some people suffer for the benefits of capitalism.
The third part of it really is about the parent-child relationship and the difficulties when a child grows up and becomes independent. Suddenly they have their own autonomy and can speak for themselves, and they even begin to see their parent as a flawed person who they can challenge and question. Similarly, it's about the difficulty for the parent when the child is no longer dependent and they begin to lose control over them. It's a very personal play, particularly in the final act, which is all about that struggle. Everyone has been the child of a parent and many people are parents of children so, from both sides I think you can look at this relationship and have empathy for them and really hope they can resolve their differences.
Judith Scott and Erika Soto play the mother and daughter in this production. Had you worked with either of them before?
I had not. I've seen Erika in many productions and I was already a fan of her work. She's a resident artist at A Noise Within and we always begin the process by looking at resident artists who are appropriate for roles. I had seen her play a lot of young and very ingénue-ish roles and while Vivie is chronologically young, at the age of 22, she is an old soul and very much a forward modern woman. Erika came in and read for it and I quickly realized she had all of the strength, the modernity, and the intelligence that role requires.
And how did Judith come to her role?
Judith came through our casting director, Amy Lieberman. I had seen her in one play many years ago but, aside from that, I had not been familiar with her work. She came in to audition and had a really amazing strength, an amazing ability to make the text sing. I think of Mrs. Warren as a woman who has a lot of power and I love the fact that Judith owned that power. She also had a tremendous amount of vulnerability which the character needs as well.
As they were exploring their characters in rehearsal, did the relationship they eventually ended up with surprise you?
Absolutely. There are understandings about this relationship that these women have, particularly when it comes to that final act, about the fluctuating power dynamic and the underlying wounds. What both of them understood in an instinctive, visceral way was that, beneath everything, there is a tremendous desire for them to make a connection yet they don't have the tools to do that. When I come in to a process I have lots of ideas about what the script is doing and where it's going and what we want to say but it's always exciting to work with collaborators, particularly actors, who have an even richer, more nuanced or different perspective than I would have going into it.
Is your process different for each production or do you have a check list of sorts that you go through when you consider taking on a project?
Every project is different in terms of what it needs. And frankly, there are things about the process, about who is producing it, how much time you have, what sort of resources you have, that help dictate decisions. I try to be inspired by the play itself and what the play is asking for.
This is a play I have known and admired for years and had actually been on my bucket list. I've done many productions with A Noise Within and I've often pitched them shows but this is not a play I had pitched to them. They came to me and asked if I wanted to do it, and my first knee-jerk reaction was, yes, I do. Then I backed up for a moment because I'm also in a process in my life as a social justice warrior and artist of being very conscious of the kinds of choices we make. My next thought was, wait a minute, a woman should be directing this.
I was torn between my love of the play, my desire to tell the story, my interest as an artist in telling it, and my feeling that we needed to make sure there was an appropriate balance in terms of the creative. I'm not sure I would have made that decision a decade ago even though I've long considered myself a feminist and been aware of those things.
Based on that observation, did you make any specific decisions about your creative vision for the play?
One of the things I had to consider is that it's a play by a male playwright and I am a male director but the two protagonists are women. It was very important to me that we have the women's perspective in it, and both Judith and Erika understood that in a way I never could. I also made the choice that my entire production team would be women. This is such a proto-feminist play that I wanted to make sure there were lots of women's voices to help keep the balance and to make sure that the women's point of view was prominent.
You also have to consider the playwright's original intent in your work. When you direct, do you feel a stronger responsibility to the playwright, to the audience, or to what you want to do with the play?
I always want to try to embrace all of them. I will say that what I love about this play is the writing. I'm dazzled that it is 124 years old and still feels so modern and relevant. So I am passionate about doing justice to what Shaw has written because that is what inspires me. On the other hand, I am very aware of how it is received by an audience and a lot of the production choices we've made, including casting and design choices, are about allowing the audience to receive the play through a lens that feels modern and relevant to them. Audiences are different today than they were in Shaw's time so I try to honor both.
All three of these plays have a common thread. In Mrs. Warren's Profession, neither Vivie nor her mother accept the role society expects them to play. King Charles III is another play where the protagonist is not willing to do what has always been done. What went into your decision to direct this play at the Playhouse for Danny Feldman?
I've known Danny for many years and we've always enjoyed working together. I did a lot of shows with him when he was The Managing Director of Reprise Theatre Company and when he moved to New York to become Executive Director for LAByrinth Theatre Company, we would always catch up when I traveled to New York to see theatre. When the Playhouse position became a possibility for him, he shared some of his ideas with me and I was very excited about the direction he had in mind for the organization. This was a project he had decided on for his first season and he asked me if I wanted to direct it. I'd seen the play on Broadway and my first reaction to it was that I thought it was smart. I thought it was clever. When I went back and reread it, I realized that it is also much more relevant for America now than when I saw it on Broadway just two years ago.
In what way?
It's dealing with themes that were not so much on our radar at that time, including the potential of limiting freedom of the press, difficulty in times of political transition, fights between branches of government, the possibility of constitutional crisis, all of which are in our headlines today. I think we will see this play very differently now because the context has changed dramatically.
Part of the hook of the play is that it is told in the style of a Shakespeare history play and Charles really is a tragic hero character. He is standing up for something he believes in, and he is making a choice that is contradictory to what we would presume his choice would be. The royals generally are considered to be more conservative, and they have been badly beaten up by the press, so they are the ones you think would be most likely to want to limit freedom of the press. Charles is standing up for something that is not for his own personal benefit but for a greater good. When he loses that battle, it is the stuff of tragic drama.
Who is playing Charles?
This is the second show in a row where my title character is someone I had not met until the audition process. His name is Jim Abele and he was brought in by Nicole Arbusto, who cast the show for us. He's a wonderful actor who I felt really embraced the tragic hero aspect of the character.
What are you most excited about in this rehearsal process?
I'm excited about so many things. First of all, it's big. It's a cast of sixteen and it is a big, epic play in terms of its scope and scale. Telling a new play through the style of a Shakespeare history, and finding the way all of those parallels to Shakespearean structure and conventions are utilized, is very exciting. We're embracing that even in the context of the staging. We'll be doing the play on a unit set and, while it doesn't explicitly evoke the Globe, we are using the space in a similar way that a traditional Shakespeare production would have. For instance, there are not going to be a lot of scene changes or signifiers for the different locations. The action flows from one moment to the next fluidly in much the same way a traditional production of a Shakespeare play would.
The scenic design also brings the apron of the stage down eighteen inches below the stage level and we're taking out the first two rows of seating and building a ramp out the front. There are some seats on the side that are even a little bit evocative of the groundlings, and the action happens among the audience as well as on the stage. So we're trying to find new modern ways to do the play but are also embracing traditional techniques.
Why do you think this is a necessary story to tell right now, this idea of what if?
The whole notion of a future history play is a cautionary tale. It has not happened yet so we can stop it from happening if we understand what the pitfalls are and I think that's really valuable. We are in such a partisan place in our nation now and there's something interesting about the fact that the character defies the common logic. It is the liberal party of Parliament that wants to limit freedom of the press. It is the conservative monarchy that wants to keep the freedom of the press. People don't behave as you expect them to behave and I think there is merit in looking at people's actions and judging them on those things rather than on their labels, or on the expectations we have of them. I think that's a very important thing for us to do in order to get beyond the divides we have in this country.
Another thing that excites me about the play is that it is grappling, both in form and in content, with things that are traditional and things that are forward thinking. It is about the contrast between tradition and progress, things that are old and deeply rooted, and modernity. That contrast, between past, present, and future is deeply embedded in the play and I'm really excited about finding what that means thematically and stylistically.
I think you're going to surprise people.
Good. (laughing) I hope so.
And following King Charles III, you're directing what sounds like a fascinating revival of A Streetcar Named Desire. This play is also about a character who doesn't want to accept reality. How are you reinventing it for today?
I love this play so much and I've seen many productions of it. Even traditional productions are quite moving. It's such a gorgeously crafted play but, when it was first produced, the play was a rather startling piece of social realism. Audiences were seeing people and cultures portrayed that they were unaccustomed to seeing in the theatre, including immigrants and people of different races. There were lots of issues about the way our nation was changing post World War II that were very much a part of the fabric of this play.
That's not the way we see the play today. We see it as a piece of Southern Gothic literature under the gauze of Southern dialects and it feels distant. It doesn't feel forward thinking but, at the time, it was. As I was rereading it, I was struck by a stage direction early in the play. Blanche comes in and Williams describes her appearance and her behavior and then he says, "Her appearance is incongruous to the setting." I began to think about what would happen if we amped up that incongruity to the extreme.
And what kind of picture emerged?
The idea is that we are playing an absolutely traditional Blanche in 1940's costume with Southern dialect, a white woman with all of the behavior we associate with that character, and we are plopping her into a world that is absolutely a contemporary 2018 urban multi-cultural environment. It will be nominally set in New Orleans but I think it will look very much like urban Los Angeles looks to us. There is no literal logic to the fact that one person can be in the 1940s and everyone else is in 2018 so we're embracing a metaphoric theatrical logic with this approach. It's very probable that her sister Stella will be a woman of color and, again, there's no biological logic to that but there is a psychological theatrical logic to it.
By doing that, my hope is that we amplify what is already in Williams' play, which is that Blanche is a white woman of privilege who comes from a kind of lifestyle that was a thing of the past even in that period. The Southern gentility, the plantation lifestyle, those things were already gone but she is still trying to hold onto them. She's unwilling to accept a world that has moved on.
That certainly resonates with what is happening in the world today.
I think Blanche represents much of the 'make America great again' ideal that we saw reflected during the Trump candidacy. I think it reflects a lot of what we saw in Charleston in terms of a desire to hold onto a Southern tradition and an idealized idea of that, and an inability to see how insensitive that is to the world as it really is now, to the tenuous grasp many white people have based on their fear of losing their white privilege. All of those are things I think this play can reveal and resonate in this kind of new approach.
How does this play fit into the theme of your season at Boston Court?
All of the plays in our season are dealing with characters who are in some way an 'other' in the world, who feel that they are in some way disenfranchised. Arguably, all of the characters in Streetcar feel disenfranchised, from their own perspective. We're also doing a beautiful play called Her Portmanteau about a Nigerian family that emigrates to the United States and the sense of 'otherness' they have with family members who are back in the home nation. The third play is a riff on The Merchant of Venice that centers around the Shylock/Jessica story and is very much about the otherness they feel as members of the Jewish ghetto in Venice at the time.
The kind of theatre you choose to do seems important to you.
I want to be doing work that in some way contributes to our world and helps make it better. I see the divisions, the challenges, the injustices. I see people who are not given opportunity and I want to do what I can as an artist to help fill that. I think we all contribute to our nation and our world in some way and I want to do it in a way that feels the most positive and beneficial as I can.
Is there anything still on your bucket list you'd like to take on?
There are so many things. One of the great advantages of having relationships with a number of theatres and also being the Artistic Director of a theatre, is that there have been a number of projects I have been able to check off the list. At this moment, I feel very full. And I mean that both in a literal way, in terms of my schedule, and also artistically, in terms of what these plays are asking of me as an artist. So in this moment, I'm not really craving something new. I am enjoying the meal in front of me rather than looking in the distance for the next one I want to have.
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For more about the productions, including ticket information and performance dates, visit the following websites.
MRS. WARREN'S PROFESSION
October 8 - November 18, 2017
A Noise Within
A STREETCAR NAMED DESIRE
February 15 - March 25, 2018
The Theatre @ Boston Court