Mandy Greenfield of Williamstown Theatre Festival
Discusses First Season as Artistic Director
By: Charles Giuliano - May 18, 2015
Charles Giuliano Recently we attended the American Theatre Critics Association conference in New Orleans. It overlapped with the annual Tennessee Williams Festival.
We got to see some of his work including "The Hotel Plays" which was actually produced by the Provincetown Tennessee Williams Festival which we will enjoy in September. There was also a production of "Suddenly Last Summer." One of the presenters was the former New Yorker critic, John Lahr, who recently published a biography and critical study of Williams.
Mandy Greenfield I have his book.
CG Have you read it.
MG I've started it. I just finished the new book on O'Neill. I just decided to read them in that order.
CG I'm down to the last 80 of 600 pages of the Lahr book. It's a nice way to segue into our dialogue. Having ongoing relationships with artistic directors, playwrights, directors and actors has been invaluable in creating an ever developing understanding of different aspects of theatre. In some instances I have been able to discuss works in progress from scripts and previews to opening night.
The Lahr book provides unique insights into the creative process and what it takes to stage a new play. That tracks from the raw material of the writer, his agents and producers as first readers, to the role of the director and casting. All of these elements have to mesh to make a successful production. A lapse or miscommunication in any aspect can represent the squandering of what is often years of effort.
Lahr discusses the crucial role of the director Elia Kazan in working with Williams to shape and refine the work making it possible to produce and stage. He was essential in the Broadway and film success of Williams. So much so that it created friction between them causing a split. After which Williams had only one Broadway success "Night of the Iguana" followed by a number of failures. Lahr writes insightfully about the role of Audrey Wood who was the first reader of scripts and producer. Getting her interested in the new work as well as notes and feedback was crucial.
In addition to all of those egos and friction Lahr also reveals the crazy personal life including destructive relationships, alcoholism, and drug addiction.
MG A lot of crazy personal life.
CG I am discussing this as a means of addressing the daunting aspects of creating new works and your role in this process.
MG It's insightful for you to say because I think what I do, if it is done well, as it is done well by many artistic directors, and it takes a book like you describe to explain it. There is a need to lay bare what that collaboration can be; the synergy between producer, director, the cast, the design teams.
It's a responsibility which I take very seriously. It's a process that I cherish. And it's a process that, hopefully, you're always getting better at as you do it. Because each one is different from the one that came before it.
CG There is a perception that the primary role of the producer is to raise money.
MG That's true in the commercial sector. There are producers in the commercial sector who see their role as bound to raising money. That's a very important role. In not-for-profit obviously it's very different. Most artistic directors and producers are involved at some level n raising the money. The money is in service of a larger picture endeavor. That also has to weather the storms of the individual shows. It is really in the service of a greater enterprise.
CG This morning (a press conference at the Clark Art Institute about the 2015 arts season in the Northern Berkshires) I loved hearing that your primary focus and commitment is in developing new work. That seems so important particularly when you see the proportion of regional theatre that stages recent Broadway productions. You get the sense that they don't trust their audiences to respond to and support new work. Who then is developing the work of the current generation of creators? Can you talk about what developing new work entails and means to you?
MG Sure. For a lot of years developing new work was a dirty word which meant that you were never going to get produced. A lot of writers felt trapped in a developmental circle. Or they would develop and develop and develop and not get produced.
The way I work is that I feel that writers really need productions and audiences for that to work. They have to cross the finish line. It is, in the end, for audiences that we make this work.
I view the developmental process as from inception then all the way to the end and being in front of an audience. The audience is the last piece of the collaboration.
Plays should matter. Plays should be relevant. They should make sense of the world we're living in. They should give meaning to the world we're living in. That's what you're developing them in service of. There's some germ at the heart of it that is special and exquisite. A voice that is really wrestling with an issue or idea. Or a theme. Or a character that is particularly meaningful and stage worthy for this time. Developing it is saying, yes, let's put this on a path toward being in front of an audience and let's ask all of the best questions we can of you the artists to bring the best version of this thing forward for our audience.
CG In general you're the first reader and surely are deluged with scripts.
CG You are constantly reading and going through works by writers you may know as well as unfamiliar ones. Out of that process something comes up. There is that aha moment that something strikes you as producible. What does that mean?
MG That's the heart of it. The best way to answer the question is with the work itself. I would like your answer to that. The measure of my success is that the audience sees what I see. They have an experience that I have had. That an audience connects with it, is transformed by it, is moved by it.
For me I love writers and I love writing, My background and training is literary. For me it is a lot about the words on the page. It is a matter of how alive they are theatrically. How easily I can see it in three dimensions when it is still in two dimensions on a piece of paper.
CG So you can feel it.
MG The ones that I connect with, absolutely. They announce themselves. They choose me in some way. Right? Sometimes I am very struck by the courage of a writer. It's the sheer bravado of having the courage to tackle something. To wrestle with something and that grabs me. In the end the real proof is how an audience reacts to it.
I take the obligation to entertain, connect and dazzle very seriously.
CG What happens when you respond to a play but there's a "but if." Describe going back to the playwright and the process of feedback, notes and interaction.
MG I do very deeply. Every act of making a new production is an act of trust. It goes both ways. A writer has to think that I have something of value to offer as an artistic director. My insights, observations, thoughts on what they have started have to sound right for it to be a healthy collaboration. That's cool.
CG At what point do you get pushed out? You have put the elements in place. The director is working with the actors in rehearsals. Are you still there providing notes?
MG I wouldn't say that I'm pushed out, your term. I work very hard to enable the deepest collaboration between other people that I can act in some ways as an editor to. I should be able to keep the 50,000' view of the production. And remind us all what our initial handshake was and is about the way forward. To empower them to make the best possible decisions. But only to the point where it's comfortable and healthy. It has to be positively engaged.
It's about empowering others to collaborate.
CG What happens when the initial vision you had is not shaping up?
MG It's art, right? If there was a way to will them all into perfect being it would be a lot easier. They don't all come together. That's OK too because sometimes a failure in result is a success in process. There's a lot that can come about in terms of the next collaboration. Even if incarnation A is not what we all hoped and dreamed. You're sometimes laying the seeds for the growth of the next one. That's OK too.
CG An example might be "The Visit" that opened in Chicago during 9/11. The New York producers weren't able to fly in and see it. There were other incarnations then Jenny (Gersten) brought it to WTF last summer. By then Chita Rivera was more than a decade older. Then it went to Broadway where it is up for Tony awards. That musical was surely a long time in development.
MG It gets born then shaped and reshaped. Increasingly artists are hungry for multi-staged processes. They have opportunities to learn, grow and refine. Then learn, grow and refine again. There is something healthy and beautiful about that.
CG Where does Inge come into that?
MG We're doing a world premiere Inge play. It's mind blowing. It's a full on production of a beautiful play.
(William Inge, May 3, 1913 – June 10, 1973, won the Pulitzer Prize for "Picnic." In addition to "Come Back Little Sheba" he had successful films including "Bus Stop" "Dark at the Top of the Stairs" and "Splendor in the Grass." )
It's an interesting phenomenon to be bringing a work into the world where the writer is not with us.
CG How was the play discovered?
MG There isn't much known about this play. I'm going to be honest with you. "Off the Main Road" was discovered by his family which is also his estate.
(It has a world premiere at WTF June 30 to July 19. Golden Globe and Emmy Award-winner Kyra Sedgwick will make her WTF debut As the second wave of feminism crests in America, the elegant but emotionally-fragile Faye Garrit (Sedgwick) seeks refuge from her husband, a former professional baseball player, by checking into a run-down resort on the outskirts of St. Louis, with her 17-year-old daughter. The future for mother and daughter may look hazy, but personal, political, and sexual awakenings allow them to move forward with new and heartbreaking clarity. Directed by former WTF Foeller and Sagal Fellow Evan Cabnet, this gripping and powerful drama deepens Inge’s legacy of penning rich, emotionally hard-hitting stories populated by complicated and truthful, human characters.)
It was discovered in the papers at Independence College. It was in a box. It had been made as a live telebroadcast called "On the Outskirts of Town."
CG Sounds like "Bus Stop."
MG It's not. There's a theory that playwrights are writing the same story over and over. There probably are strains of "Bus Stop" in this play. He wrote it originally as a play then he adapted it for TV. It was done as a live television broadcast starring Jack Warden and Anne Bancroft. Then put in a box as far as anyone knows. It was found and the Inge Festival delivered it to the estate. I had worked on a revival of "Come Back Little Sheba" and got to know the estate fairly well in that process. Not long after its discovery they sent it my way. I love it.
I thought it was wildly theatrical and wildly alive. I read Inge's work and it feels deeply true to me. If you love Inge you love Tennessee Williams.
CG Quoting from Lahr they were friends then later rivals.
MG I'm excited about it. We will bring it to life for the first time.
CG Looking back over the past decade at WTF as artistic director there was an actor, Roger Reese, a director, Nicholas Martin, a producer, Jenny Gersten and now the board has followed her with another producer.
During the busy season it was challenging when Roger was performing as well as directing and Nicky was also directing at least one production. Jenny was able entirely to focus on an overview of the multi layered festival.
MG I don't direct. I assure you.
I don't have an insight to offer you. Most theaters have one or the other model; a directing or non directing artistic director. That's true in New York and around the country. Either can work. I just happen to be a non directing artistic director.
CG Has that always been true for you? Did you grow up saying I want to be a producer?
MG It's not obvious when you're a kid. When I was in college I interned at a couple of theatre companies that did primarily new work. I saw that the really fundamental foundation of any theatrical collaboration is between the artistic director/ producer and the writer. That living breathing relationship underpins every decision that gets made. That was exhilarating to me.
Of course I grew up as an actor and director. You do all that stuff as a kid. It wasn't until I understood that there was a bona fide role for someone to play in the creation of new work that was none of those things that I really understood what my career path was going to be. It's all I've ever really wanted to do.
CG Are you prepared for the pace of the festival?
MG Look. It's my first summer.
CG You were around last summer.
MG I spent time up here. I'm no stranger to a fast pace. Believe me.
CG Didn't you jump in helping to cast Nina Arianda and Sam Rockwell when the original cast for Sam Shepard's "Fool for Love" dropped out?
MG Let's move forward.
CG That casting was brilliant.
MG She's a wonderful actress.
CG I saw her Off Broadway in "Venus in Fur." I just knew that she was going to be a star.
MG She's phenomenal. She really is. Fearless.
CG That's going to Broadway next season.
MG Manhattan Theatre Club.
CG Your old gig. Did you have any role in that?
MG All artists want their work to be seen by as wide an audience as possible.
CG Now for the coming season at WTF you appear to have hit the ground running.
MG I hope so.
CG We're looking forward to seeing great works and amazing people. I'm anticipating seeing Eric Bogosian with a WTF veteran Jessica Hecht ("Legacy" July 1 to 12). I first encountered Bogosian as a performance artist.
MG He's awesome. An amazing guy.
CG There are so many outstanding actors; Blair Underwood ("Paradise Blue" July 22 to August 2), Cynthia Nixon ("Kinship" July 15 to 25), Kyra Sedgwick ("Off the Main Road" June 30 to July 19) and of course Audra McDonald and Tony Will Swenson ("A Moon for the Misbegotten" August 5 to 23). Cynthia Nixon is impressive.
MG She is an amazing actress and a wonderful human being.
CG You have A list people coming this summer.
MG I'm so happy to hear that. I'm glad I have your confidence coming into it. It begins with great writing. Stage actors do this because it gives them an opportunity to be the best artists they can be. When the writing is good they can't say no. Think of it as less about me and more about the writing.
CG Right now I am just trying to keep up with everything going on. So I have just glanced at the PR materials. But when I read Blair Underwood, Detroit, and jazz that just jumped out at me. In another life I was a jazz critic. So this play is of particular interest to me. Who are the jazz composers for the show?
MG They're great; Kenny Ramson, Bill Sims, Jr. The director Ruben Santiago-Hudson did "Lackawanna Blues" here. He's an incredible actor/ director. He's a Tony winning actor who has now become a director. He has an extraordinary theatrical mind and a great lover of jazz. It's set in 1949.
CG So it's bebop.
MG It's interesting as it's set in '49 but it's looking at what happens just after '49 the change that happens in Detroit. But musically, yes, it's very much of that moment. It's a very human story about a jazz club owner who owns a club in Detroit's Black Bottom neighborhood, a section of downtown, a very specific neighborhood.
The incoming Mayor is looking to revitalize, if you will, although I'm sure that wasn't the word they used. Change, overhaul, upgrade, improve. The methodology for his doing that was offering small business owners money to leave.
The club owner, Blue (Underwood), is approached and the question is to stay or to leave. When that question is posed what it sets off in him emotionally both for himself and his partner a character called Pumpkin. That event is the inciting event and the drama of the play.
On a microcosmic level it's interrogating the stronghold of our demons on us. On a macro level it's looking at what happened in Detroit in the middle part of this century. It changed that city indelibly and irreparably perhaps forever. The community was decimated and is still reeling from that decimation at some level.
CG And yet, Detroit has a remarkable culture. Motown.
MG Absolutely and this play is equally invested in exposing that culture as it is in the problems of it. It's so rich. It's so seductive. It's so complicated. It's a beautiful play.
CG Come to Williamstown and see the divas up close. Last year Renee Fleming and this year Audra McDonald although she has been at WTF previously. Did you have a relationship with her?
MG Do you mean all the leading ladies of the season, Audra, Kyra, Cynthia?
CG Did you hang out with them?
MG Something like that. I can't deny that I'm drawn to at some level, subconsciously, to stories about complicated women. There are a lot of actresses, many of whom are coming this summer.
CG Come to think of it they're all complicated.
MG Yeah. Their roles are certainly. The roles offer them a lot of opportunity to spend the summer interrogating and exploring an exquisitely complicated person on stage. That more than anything explains why they said yes.
CG How often is "A Moon for the Misbegotten" done? How often is O'Neill staged in this region?
(Six-time Tony Award-winner Audra McDonald and Tony Award-nominee Will Swenson take the stage in Nobel laureate Eugene O’Neill’s final masterpiece. When Phil Hogan, a salty tenant farmer, fears he will lose his property, his daughter Josie (McDonald), lures their dissolute landlord, Jamie Tyrone (Swenson), into bed one summer night. Under the glow of the moon, truth comes into focus for these two souls, but what awaits them when dawn breaks? Helmed by Gordon Edelstein and featuring scenic design by the world-renowned Ming Cho Lee, this raw and invigorating new look at O’Neill’s poetic and bitterly romantic "A Moon for the Misbegotten" assures us of the heart’s capacity for infinite love and forgiveness.)
MG I honestly don't know the answer to that question.
CG Gordon Edelstein is directing. He did "Satchmo at the Waldorf" for Shakespeare & Company.
MG That's right. Did you see that?
CG I'm a fan of John Douglas Thompson.
MG He's a wonderful actor. I have to wrap up soon.
CG Tell me something important.
MG (Laughing) does that mean that everything we've said isn't important?
I've said for years that a multiplicity of voices, engaged, informed voices rise up. That matters to you and it matters to me. It's great that your voice is heard throughout the land.
CG You have organized a strong program building on a great tradition and moving forward to a new chapter and vision for the festival. We wish you all the best for the coming season.