BWW Interview: Mike Donahue on His Long-Term Relationship with GEORGIA McBRIDE
Mike took some time out of rehearsals to chat with BroadwayWorld and myself.
Thank you, Mike, for taking the time for this interview.
This will be the west coast premiere of the show you directed first at the Denver Center for the Performing Arts in January 2014, and then Off-Broadway in 2015 for the MCC Theater at the Lucille Lortel Theatre. What specific elements have evolved from the Denver Center production to the MCC Theater's to now, the Geffen's?
From Denver to MCC, our thinking evolved significantly. That first time out, we were all approaching the piece as something closer to a fairytale musical about drag queens - there was more extensive spectacle, a whole sequence where we went to the Miss Gay Florida Pageant and met a slew of other drag queens. From Denver to MCC, we switched gears and approached the piece as a play about class and finding a family (where drag is the critical catalyst for our characters to grow up and find success/connection). The play is still a fairytale of sorts, but we worked to ground the story and production design in a grittier world, where at the top of the play, our six characters are all struggling through difficult economic circumstances. We cut a handful of characters and 30 minutes off the show, made sure we were earning the Technicolor and release of the drag each time, and made the characters have to work much harder to make it. This time around, at The Geffen Playhouse, we're continuing to deepen and clarify the stakes, tighten the storytelling, and push the drag even further.
How did you first learn of THE LEGEND OF GEORGIA McBRIDE? Did you cross paths with LEGEND playwright Matthew Lopez before you collaborated on his play?
When I moved to New York City seven and a half years ago and signed with my first agent, I was handed a stack of new plays to read - one of them was a play called REVERBERATION by Matthew Lopez. I fell in love with that play, and with Matthew's writing, at first read. Unfortunately, the timing was off - I was just getting to New York, and Matthew had just opened a very successful production at MTC and was getting a bunch of big screenplay deals - so the agency decided not to introduce us. Flash forward a few years and I'm at the Denver Center directing the world premiere of Lauren Feldman's GRACE, OR THE ART OF CLIMBING. While we were in rehearsals, Denver announced the line up for that year's New Play Summit and GEORGIA was one of the plays (with no director announced with it). I immediately called my agent and a few weeks later, the offer came in to do the workshop with Matthew and Matt McGrath, who has done both previous productions with us, and is out here at The Geffen playing Tracy again. We had an incredible week at Denver. Now Matthew is one of my closest friends and collaborators.
Was being able to walk comfortably in heels an essential required skill in your LEGEND auditions?
Well, there is one woman in the show and she actually never wears heels! But for the three guys who have to do drag, yes, it's pretty critical. Moving and dancing in heels has been an important part of the auditioning process every time, and we've also done a "drag boot camp" with the actors and our choreographer Paul McGill in advance of rehearsals to get them accustomed to the heels (and the pads, wigs and make-up) and to start developing the physicality and choreography with them.
Can you share the easiest, most effortless moment you had in directing LEGEND?
I think one of the things that makes this play so special is its incredibly open heart. It's a piece that is infectiously and disarmingly joyous, and I think that can be a great gift to be in the room with. It is something that we always talk about at first rehearsal and have to come back to throughout the process - if we're not working from a place of joy, and having fun doing so, then that energy won't be in the piece, and then we've robbed the piece of the great magic it can have for audiences.
And the most challenging?
The quick changes in this play, both on and offstage, are no small feat for these actors and crew - it's non-stop, timed within an inch of its life, and requires a real multi-tasking for the cast between dealing with all of the real business and just staying present and listening to one another. The real challenge is the moment you have to go from actually learning all of the mechanics and the tricks to do it all correctly, to then giving yourself permission to not do it all perfectly because it's all so fast and complicated, and then to celebrate the spontaneity of it and play the connection between the people over honoring the mechanics of the show. That's the moment when it starts to soar.
Any "Ah-Ha!" moments?
In previews in New York, we were struggling to land the opening scene of the play for the first week. The play is raucously funny, but we were working to ground the play in ever grittier real stakes. A week in, Matthew had the thought to go through that opening scene and cut nearly every joke - we recalibrated the tone of the scene, playing it much more simply and intimately. Suddenly the heart of that scene started landing and it actually became funnier and it shifted the entire launch through the first four scenes of the play. Because we were starting in a more desperate and real place, everything that followed in this fairytale became more urgent, earned and even funnier.
I don't think I've ever met anyone who graduated from both Yale and Harvard. Were you just a teen when you seriously considered a career in theatre?
I used to make my cousins put on productions when we were all eight, nine years old. We'd do adaptations of THE LION KING or CHRISTMAS CAROL, moving all around my grandparents' house - scene by scene. We built up a costume collection and I'd use my humidifier as a fog machine. Aside from a quick detour in high school where I thought I wanted to be a large animal vet, I've always wanted to make theater.
Your extensive resume (since getting your MFA in directing at Yale in 2008) already includes five world premieres and quite a number of workshop readings. Would you consider yourself a go-to guy to direct new works?
I love collaborating with writers and find the development process to be immensely fulfilling. I think new play work requires a great generosity of spirit and sense of collaboration, and because everyone in the room is working on a text that is still growing and changing, it requires everyone to be their most articulate, specific and sensitive selves.
What does it take to attract your interest, passion, energies to direct a specific production?
I grew up in two pretty different theatrical worlds, big musical theater with great spectacle and a strong sense of the history/dramaturgy of the form at The St. Louis MUNY, and more of a European director-driven model at the A.R.T. under Robert Woodruff. I feel equally passionate about and at home in both places. So, I tend to get excited about projects that look as different from the last thing I've been working on as possible. I'm drawn to writers who feel like they are deploying language specifically and sharply, where the use of language and the tone of the play feels distinct, and I get excited about work that demands challenging physical and theatrical vocabulary. More and more, I'm also working on plays that grapple with questions of class, gender, sexuality and power.
Do you find it more challenging to direct a classic (like your ANTONY & CLEOPATRA at the St. Louis Shakespeare Festival in 2015), or a well-known contemporary piece (like your Yale Dramatic Association's fall 2010 mainstage production of RENT), as opposed to a new piece with less familiarity or fewer expectations (like your Jen Silverman's COLLECTIVE RAGE at Woolly Mammoth Theatre Company in Washington, DC last September)?
I think they're all hard and present their own challenges. ANTONY & CLEOPATRA has some of the most striking language in the cannon, but wrangling that text and telling a clear focused story can be tough - and we were doing that piece outside, sometimes for audiences of four thousand people. RENT is one of the pieces I grew up with, but that original production is so burned into people's minds, that taking that on, tapping into the heart of that material in a way that feels alive and present without just fighting against expectation for the sake of doing so is a tricky balance. And with COLLECTIVE RAGE, we were exploring a very specific tone, structure and approach to character that we all had to interrogate and develop throughout the rehearsal process.
At what point of a play's run do you stop giving notes?
Once the play opens. At that point, I'm usually off to another city, but it's also time for the actors and stage managers to have full ownership over it. Even if we have three weeks of previews, I'm typically still calling everyone in even on the day of opening to keep working and refining.
What play are you still just dying to tackle?
Next up, I'm headed into rehearsals for Jen Silverman's THE ROOMMATE with S. Epatha Merkerson and Jane Kaczmarek up at Williamstown. Jen is one of my closest collaborators, it's a play I love, and Williamstown is a place that's already close to my heart (it's the first theatre I went to when I moved back to the States after living in Berlin). And we're getting to do this with two extraordinary actors. I can't wait.
Any particular audience responses you've received from your last two productions of THE LEGEND OF GEORGIA McBRIDE that took you by surprise?
In one scene, we learn that Tracy's ordered a bubble machine to add to the drag shows. Many scenes later, we have a big number that in one moment features a small handheld fogger. In New York City, a few people were actually a bit up in arms about the fact that we teased a bubble machine and then later gave them a fogger. One person actually offered to buy us a bubble machine for the rest of the run and I think may have even done so and dropped it off at the MCC offices.
When we went into rehearsals in New York, it was a particularly celebratory moment. We were only a few weeks after marriage equality, we were doing this play on Christopher Street, just a few blocks down the road from Stonewall, and you could feel a real sense of celebration and hope in the air. This time around, we're in a pretty divisive moment in our country and a lot of people are angry and scared. Tracy has a line in the play, "We are in the same boat now, Baby. Grab an oar!" For all of its joyousness and humor, this is a story about people coming together, about people learning to see and respect other people who aren't coming from the same place. It's a story about opening your heart, expanding your sense of self, and forging new families.
What reactions to LEGEND would you like from The Geffen audience?
I hope audiences can find in our theater a space for hope, connection, respect and honesty. And I hope audiences are exhausted from laughing.
Thank you again, Mike! I look forward to meeting your GEORGIA McBRIDE!
For a date with THE LEGEND OF GEORGIA McBRIDE and ticket info through May 14, 2017; log onto www.geffenplayhouse.org