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BWW Interview: Theatre Life with Eleanor Holdridge

Eleanor Holdridge

Today's subject is living her theatre life as one of the area's busiest theatre directors and educators. Eleanor Holdridge's work can currently be seen at Round House Theatre in Bethesda Maryland with the world premiere of Lauren Gunderson and Margot Melcon's Miss Bennet Christmas at Pemberley, inspired by Jane Austen's beloved characters. The show has been extended through December 23rd.

This is not Eleanor's first time directing at Round House Theatre. Her work was previously seen with Double Indemnity and last season's The Who and The What. Other area credits include Body Awareness, The Tale of the Allergist's Wife, Something You Did, After the Revolution, and last season's Helen Hayes Award-winning Queens Girl of the World at Theater J; The Gaming Table at Folger Theatre, Much Ado About Nothing at Taffety Punk Theatre Company; and Darius & Twig at the Kennedy Center. She also co-wrote and directed Zorro at Constellation Theatre Company.

Eleanor's work isn't limited to the DC area, however. Her work has been seen at such prestigious companies as Perseverance Theatre, Portland Stage, Shakespeare and Company, and Geva Theatre. She's directed such Off-Broadway plays as Steve & Idi at Rattlestick Playwrights Theatre, Cycling Past The Matterhorn on Theatre Row at the Clurman Theatre, and The Imaginary Invalid, and Mary Stuart at Pearl Theatre Company.

Now, you would think that with the amount of directing work Eleanor has, she wouldn't have time for anything else. She is also the head of the MFA Directing program at Catholic University and has taught and directed at the Yale School of Drama, New York University, and the Juilliard School, among others.

Here's is a true example of an artist that keeps her theatre life going full tilt pretty much all the time. Eleanor Holdridge's work bats 1,000 every single time. Very few directors can do that. Please consider putting Miss Bennet Christmas at Pemberley on your holiday theatre viewing list. It features a great cast, attractive production elements, and the always fine direction of one of the best around, Eleanor Holdridge.

Had you been working in another theatrical role before becoming a director? Where did you receive your theatrical training?

I've always loved theatre, but I started out studying to be a choreographer at Sarah Lawrence College. Then, halfway through undergraduate school, I took a lighting design course, and fell in love with what light could do, first with dance and then with theatre. It seemed to wed beauty and humanity and an idea together in such a wonderful way. But, I loved classical theatre and was seeing the same plays over and over so I founded a classical theatre company, The Red Heel, with a colleague, Gage Johnston, to remedy the situation and breathe new life into little known classical plays. Someone had to direct, so I began to do so, learning as we went along, by the seat of my pants. I loved the rehearsal room and the act of bringing a group of collaborators together to forge a production. I loved that moment where there was text and then suddenly a group of people in the room make a moment that lives-the lightning of the idea. Eventually I felt the need for some real training to understand the theory behind what I was learning practically. I went to Yale School of Drama where a world of ideas opened up to me.

L-R Erin Weaver, Katie deBuys, Katie Kleiger and Miranda Rizzolo in Round House Theatre's production of Miss Bennet Christmas at Pemberley. Photo by Grace Toulotte.

Most directors have a specific reason for choosing a project. What attracted you to directing Miss Bennet: Christmas at Pemberley?

I've always been a closeted Jane Austen fan. I used to shuffle through her books every few years and studied them in college. I have seen pretty much all of the films of her plays and, recently, many of the plays that have been being produced. I love the wit and the warmth of her world. Not only that, I'd directed two of Lauren Gunderson's premieres, so when I found out that she was one of the two playwrights, I couldn't sign up fast enough.

Can you please tell us almost everything we need to know about Miss Bennet: Christmas at Pemberley?

It's a perfect confection for this time of year, celebrating love and the finding of love when hope for it seems lost. It takes a forgotten, overlooked, and marginalized character and makes her live as a feminist heroine for today. She doesn't give up one ounce of herself as she finds an improbable love. It celebrates being a smart woman. It celebrates the re-forging and coming together of a family at the time when the children become the hosts at holidays. It celebrates opening up hearts and homes to outsiders, who don't at first seem like family, but become so.

L-R Paul Morella, Lise Bruneau, Susan Rome and Barbara Rappaport in Theater J's production of The Tale of the Allergist's Wife. Photo by Stan Barouh.

You directed The Tale of the Allergist's Wife at Theater J last year. You were in touch with the playwright Charles Busch about making some updates to his script. What was his first reaction to this request and why did you think the show needed some revision?

I had an idea that I wanted to see the whole thing from the doorman Mohammed's perspective. I loved the idea of taking this small and vital character and seeing Charles Busch's brilliant comedy of these privileged Upper West Siders' manners through his eyes. Charles had written some incredibly poetic stage directions and I had an idea that Mohammed would say them. Charles thought the idea was great, but felt that he would need to be present to do a complete rewrite, which he did not have time to do. With Charles' blessing of the idea, if not the text, I staged it with the Mohammed being ever present. Instead of having him actually say the words, I projected them above the stage as if he was writing his memoirs or diary.

You are the head of the MFA directing program of Catholic University. When you are directing a show, how do you juggle rehearsals and teaching?

Mondays are traditionally the day off in professional theatre, so I load up all my classes on Mondays. I often teach three classes on that day and try to get - with the help of a very supportive faculty - our faculty meetings scheduled on that day as well. When I have undergraduate classes that require meeting multiple times a week, I try to schedule them in the mornings to free up my afternoon and evenings for rehearsal. When I am deep in tech, I often have my directing students come to the theatre to witness the work and get a glimpse into the profession. I integrate this experience with the assigned class work. In terms of research and preparation, I plan ahead so that I can be ready for either class or rehearsal. I do find that I am a better teacher because of my professional work, and a better director because I teach.

The first show Eleanor Holdridge directed at Round House Theatre was the film noir style play Double Indemnity. Pictured are Marty Lodge and Celeste Ciulla. Photo by Danisha Crosby.

Do you find that many of your directing students were performers beforehand? Or, do they know that directing is the path they want to take in their theatrical career?

There are many paths to finding your way as a director. I find that many students who develop an interest in directing, but don't come to university knowing that they want to direct, start out interested in stage management or design. Then they get excited by the big picture thinking the craft requires.

You always have a project in the works so what does the rest of your season look like here in DC? Are you directing anywhere else this season?

I just started work on Michael Frayn's stunning Copenhagen at Theatre J, which will run January 5 to 29. I just finished a workshop for the world premiere of Meg Miroshnik's fabulous and frothy new adaptation of a play by Mariveax (Fickle: A Fancy French Farce) that will play at Olney Theatre Center from March 1 to April 2. I'll direct Shakespeare's Macbeth at Catholic University with the students. It runs April 20 to 23. Next season's still up in the air, except for a 2018 tour of Darius & Twig that I did at the Kennedy Center last year.

Special Thanks to Round House Theatre's Associate Director of Marketing & Communications Sarah Pressler Randall for her assistance in coordinating this interview.

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