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BWW Interview: Giovanna Sardelli of PERFECT 36 at TheatreWorks Silicon Valley Loves to Tell a Good Story

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Sardelli hosts a special online presentation of excerpts from the new musical on August 26th to celebrate the centennial of the 19th Amendment and Women's Equality Day

BWW Interview: Giovanna Sardelli of PERFECT 36 at TheatreWorks Silicon Valley Loves to Tell a Good Story
Giovanna Sardelli, Artistic Associate and Director of New Works at TheatreWorks Silicon Valley
(Photo by Deborah Lopez)

In celebration of Women's Equality Day and the Centennial of the 19th Amendment, TheatreWorks Silicon Valley and The Woman's Club of Palo Alto will present a virtual performance of excerpts and songs from the dynamic musical Perfect 36, with lyrics and book by Laura Harrington, music by Mel Marvin, and direction by Mac Pirkle. Set in 1920, Perfect 36 honors the indomitable spirit of the suffragettes as they battle to secure a 36-state majority to ratify the 19th Amendment. This timely digital presentation of Perfect 36 also reminds audiences to honor these women by exercising the hard-fought right to vote as the 2020 election approaches. The online event will take place at 5:30pm PDT on Wednesday, August 26th. Giovanna Sardelli, TheatreWorks' Artistic Associate and Director of New Works, will host the event and engage in conversation with Laura Harrington, the show's book writer and lyricist. A link to stream the show will be available at TheatreWorks.org for no charge, although donations are encouraged to support TheatreWorks and The Woman's Club of Palo Alto. Additional info can be found by visiting TheatreWorks.org or calling (650) 463-1960.

Last week, I spoke with Giovanna Sardelli from her hometown of Las Vegas where she's been sheltering in place with family until she can safely return to her actual home base in New York City. In addition to her role at TheatreWorks, Sardelli is enjoying quite a remarkable career as a director at theaters across the U.S., and has built a track record of developing close working relationships with notable playwrights such as Pulitzer Prize finalist Rajiv Joseph and Olivier Award winner Matthew Lopez. It's the kind of career that is unfortunately still much less common that it should be for women. Talking to Sardelli, it's clear why she is so constantly in demand. She is naturally engaging, inherently upbeat without being saccharine, and passionate about expanding the possibilities of theater. Her excitement about the chance to work closely with TheatreWorks' new Artistic Director Tim Bond to tackle new challenges is palpable. And she's also just plain funny. Her account of how she got her an early job working with Rajiv Joseph is priceless. The following conversation has been edited for length and clarity.

How did you land on the idea of using Perfect 36 as a vehicle to commemorate the passage of the 19th Amendment?

It fell into my lap in the best way possible. Mel Marvin, who is the composer of the musical and someone I've known for years sent an email saying "Hey! We have this musical that was going to be a huge deal in Tennessee, but because of Covid we're now offering selections from it online." He partnered us with The Woman's Club of Palo Alto, and introduced me to this remarkable woman, Jenn Hinton, who is a go-getter. They had wanted to do a presentation of selections from the musical and talk about the history of the suffragette movement. So with Mel's introduction we decided to partner on this. It makes sense for us to showcase a musical addressing the journey, and also to be connected to such a wonderful club in our own community.

What can folks expect from the piece itself?

Well, we're so lucky that Laura Harrington, who did the book and lyrics, is going to join me on the 26th. There's a bit of history about how the piece came to be and what the piece entails, and then we have musical selections. The audience will get to hear four songs from the musical that are just beautiful, and along the way we're going to learn things about some suffragettes.

I hate to admit it, but I actually don't know much about that history.

Well, I didn't either and in fact in putting this event together, I received a crash course on some of the most fascinating women in history who I had not heard of. Some of that came from our Art Director, Den Legaspi. Den Legaspi gave me a master class through the images that Den found. I'm hoping to be able to excite anybody who tunes in for the viewing in the way that I was about this unknown history.

Who will be performing it?

What's amazing is the artistic team and director Mac Pirkle filmed beautiful, professional videos so it transcends what we're using to seeing in Zoom. The conversation will be in Zoom, but we get to tap into these videos that are just such beautiful representations of the music. And we've hired some actors to jump in and join us with some historical text, just to make it fun. At TheatreWorks events, we usually have actors and we like to explore how stories came to be, why they're important, and hopes for the future. This one in particular is designed to remind us how powerful the vote is, how important it is to vote, and that's why we wanted to make sure that we did it for Women's Equality Day.

Now, I want to turn the focus to your own career as a woman working in theater. Thinking back to when you decided to pursue theater professionally, what kind of career did you imagine for yourself?

I began as an actress. My degree is from NYU's grad acting program, and I came out of school at a time when the stories that women could tell were so narrow and uninteresting. I didn't fit into anything and they kind of didn't know where to place me. So I did that for a decade, but really moved on to become a director because I was so dissatisfied with the tiny piece of the pie that was allotted to me for storytelling.

There are more women directors than there used to be, but it's still certainly not like there's parity with men. When you started directing a number of years ago, did you think it was a long shot for a woman?

I definitely did. I started directing when the numbers for women working in the field were abysmal. And yet - I had more success when I transitioned into becoming a director. I felt the world opened up in so many ways. But I will say one of the things that it took me a while to notice was - you start with a group of people and you watch everyone's career change and grow. For the women, most of us really progressed at the same rate, you know successes and setbacks, but we were all working in the same way. It was interesting to note that some of the men we started with seemed to skyrocket, their careers certainly had a different trajectory. And I don't think we knew how to correctly frame it honestly until the Me Too movement happened. I think a lot of us had a moment of "Oh. That's interesting." I mean, it makes you feel better when Taylor Swift comes out with a song "If I Were a Man" - you go, OK, if it's happening to Taylor Swift, it's happening! [laughs]

Right. And it's gotta be hard to know for sure what's going on because at least some of the men who succeeded were worthy of that success -

Of course!

And in theater there are never enough jobs to go around. So if you're equally skilled and talented as the men, and you're just not getting hired in the director role, that can disguise itself as "Well, there just aren't that many opportunities out there."

Exactly! And these [men] are skilled, talented people. If they hadn't been skilled, it'd be easier to see. These were highly qualified, creative people - which is also then why you can start to wonder, "Oh, is it me?" And it's always a complicated puzzle. Now I'm so thrilled about the conversation we're having about opportunity because I think about who gets to tell stories, and how we support those people who haven't been included in conversations. I feel so lucky at TheatreWorks to have a position as the New Works Director to be able to, especially going forward, put a level of consciousness on the stories we tell.

And maybe because it's become such a part of the national discussion, it'll take less teaching and convincing on your part?

Yes, the reality is that there is an excitement about the possibilities. One of the reasons I love this industry is you can feel an excitement brewing about change and possibility and conversation. We are used to going into rooms having hard conversations. No one wants them [laughs] but to tell the most fascinating stories, the most intricate stories, we've been navigating minefields [for a long time]. In some ways, artists have been leaders in a conversation America has been failing at for hundreds of years, and I find that artists have always pushed the conversation forward, so I'm finding it just a fascinating time.

You have directed plays all over the place - in just the last few years, Northern California, Southern California, New York, Houston, Little Rock, etc. How have you managed to live that kind of peripatetic existence?

A lot of dead plants and mail that chases me across the country. [laughs] I love a good story and so I am at my happiest when I am in a room with people telling stories. And sometimes the story is the place, like going to Little Rock, Arkansas and doing theater there. That was incredibly meaningful in a way that I'd found very moving, so I was so happy to go back and do another show in Little Rock and talk to a different community. And I think I've been very lucky of course that I started my career with playwrights like Rajiv Joseph, Matthew Lopez and Zoe Kazan.

Is that just luck? I noticed the impressive list of playwrights you've been working with from the time you were a a novice director and I was like "How did she pull that off? How did she get those gigs?"

The truth of this business is there's always an element of luck. There are so many talented people, who are so deserving, and cannot gain traction. But there is also skill. You have to deliver, you have to be good at your job to continue to work because there's so much competition.

So with someone like Rajiv Joseph, because you've directed a lot of his works -

Oh, geez, we've done over a dozen shows together, many of them world premieres.

Thinking back to the very first one, how did you get that job?

You know, that was a funny story because I had just really become a director. I was still new and didn't understand how you got a job. So I met the producers for Cherry Lane Theatre and the meeting was great, and they said, "Come back tomorrow and meet the playwright." Which I thought meant "You have the job. You start work tomorrow with the playwright." [laughs] I didn't understand that the playwright got to hire me. That's crazy! [laughs] And so I showed up and there sits Rajiv Joseph with his first play out of grad school, and I say, "Nice to meet you. Listen - I have some questions. I was just wondering..." and I dove in and started working. I said "I'm confused by the ending" and blah-blah-blah and after about a half hour of that they said, "Well, that's great. We have a few more people to interview and we'll let you know tomorrow." And my eyes got huge and I wanted to say, "Omigod, I didn't compliment you! I didn't do all the things that you're supposed to do." [laughs] But how telling and how remarkable for Rajiv that he was excited by somebody who was questioning him. Cause he just thought that's how I interviewed. And I'll tell you that because that's the way we started, our relationship is always so work-based, and it was real before it probably had the right to be real.

And if you're taking that approach during what he thinks is an interview, then once you've actually gotten the job you don't have to work at establishing that dynamic.

Exactly! It was a fascinating way to begin. And also what a lesson it taught me about the kind of artists I'm attracted to and the kind of people who I want to work with. They're always striving to do their best work, they love the questions, they love the examination.

Is there also a lesson for you about not hiding your authentic self?

Yes! I learned early on that you have to love the story you're telling cause it's never easy. You have to want to tell the story, and as a director you have to want everyone who comes into the room with you to succeed, and to felt seen and heard and to value the contribution they're making. And that's also not always easy. It's what you strive for, it's what you hope for, and whenever that doesn't happen I think you have to take a hard look at why and how and just keep challenging yourself to learn and be better.

You currently have a really good job with TheatreWorks so I'm not implying you're ready to leave anytime soon, but as a next step in your career, what would your "dream job" be?

You know what's fascinating? Before the pandemic I wondered if my dream job would be leading an institution. But I am so grateful and so fortunate to be still working and to be working for a theater company that has a new artistic leader and a new vision, so right now I'm so excited by Tim Bond and the healthy foundation that TheatreWorks sits upon and where we can go. I'm so happy to see what the next few years hold so I have given myself something I never have, which is two years to kind of slow down and love where I am. Being a leader of an institution is still something I think about, but it would need to be a really great fit, because I do have such a great job.

And I would imagine that in your current role you have a great vantage point to observe how Tim Bond is approaching myriad unforeseen challenges. I can't imagine his job right now. It's enough to follow Robert Kelley who was there for fifty years, but to take over on in the middle of the pandemic, economic crisis and urgent conversations over racial justice? Talk about increasing the degree of difficulty!

Again, here's luck. How lucky am I that I have had somebody like Kelley who's so respected in the industry, and then to have Tim Bond come in and watch somebody start something new in the middle of a pandemic, and to watch another leader? I feel like I have been trained by the best. And that goes with Laura Kepley [Artistic Director of Cleveland Play House], too. One of the lucky things about traveling and doing plays all over is you really do get to learn from the best. You get to see what makes Laura Kepley and Dina Janis and Vivienne Benesch, all these women running companies extraordinary. You get to see why it works.

Finally, of course I've been wondering how it's going with Tim Bond. Just as a person to work with, how is Tim different from Kelley, and how is he maybe not that different?

Well, I think one of the ways he is not different is that they're cut from the same cloth of decent, warm, kind human beings. The heart and soul of TheatreWorks is so intact because they are both men who lead with heart and soul. I think what's fascinating about Tim Bond is that he has lived a different life in the theater. You simply can't have an artist, a Black man in America, who hasn't had a different life, a different experience. So the art that excites Tim, the way in which he's always viewed theater, that's what we're all learning about. What stories we're gonna tell, what's exciting to us, that's a real robust conversation around the table at TheatreWorks right now. It's a fascinating unknown for all of us. And the desire to excite our subscribers, to create new programming that brings more people into the fold. It's what we spend Zoom meetings in our little, tiny squares talking about. [laughs] What I love about it is that we have the chance to build something new, to add something new to a dish that was already very well-seasoned.



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