Working Together (Again)
What Happens When Artists Keep Collaborating?
By MARK BLANKENSHIP
In some ways, Lisa Kron’s political comedy In the Wake, now playing at the Public Theater, is a major departure. After all, this is the first time that the writer-performer, perhaps best known for her autobiographical dramedy Well, has written a play that doesn’t include a role for herself. But this production, which probes liberal frustration during W’s presidency, also boasts something familiar. It reunites Kron and director Leigh Silverman, who worked together for over ten years.
What happens when artists collaborate time and again? What does a project gain, and what stumbling blocks need to be avoided? Those questions are particularly apt this month, since several Off Broadway productions feature long-standing teams.
Below, three team members reflect on getting the gang back together.
* Director Leigh Silverman (collaborating with playwright Lisa Kron on In the Wake at the Public Theater)
“It’s a lot less lonely to have her with me in the back of the room, watching what’s happening,” Silverman says. “It has only deepened our relationship because we’ve been able to speak as writer-director all the time and not switch between writer-director, actor-director.”
The pair developed their relationship during multiple runs of Well, including a Broadway stint in 2006, and on productions of several other shows. Silverman partially credits their longevity to their focus in the rehearsal room. She explains, “If you’ve had a successful collaboration, there’s always that fear that that will go away. I think you have to say, ‘I trust that this will just be about the work.’ It’s not just about shorthand, and it’s not about liking to hang out, although that happens. It’s about something deeper that’s there. It’s about what you’re there to create.”
She notes that digging for “something deeper” isn’t always easy: “We don’t always agree, and the collaboration isn’t always comfortable, but [as a director], it’s your job to stay critical and objective enough to judge what’s the better way, whether that’s your suggestion or not. You take those suggestions and filter them through your training and experience, and you trust your collaborators to do the same thing.”
* Co-Artistic Director Bernard Telsey (collaborating with playwright Neil LaBute on The Break of Noon at MCC Theater)
MCC Theater and Neil LaBute are inextricably linked. The Break of Noon, a David Duchovny-starring drama about a man who sees the face of God, marks the writer’s seventh production with the company.
Echoing Silverman, MCC co-artistic director Bernard Telsey says the relationship has succeeded because everyone puts plays before personal feelings. “After all this time, you don’t have to dance around during iffy moments when something isn’t working or something needs to be changed,” he explains. “Sure, there’s a respect. He’s still the playwright, of course, but there’s an easiness to go, ‘You know, Neil, I don’t think that’s working,’ where you might have to navigate how you say that with a writer you haven’t worked with before.”
Sometimes, though, the public can have trouble separating such intertwined artists. Last year, when MCC delayed its production of The Break of Noon, gossips wagged that the relationship had soured.
But does MCC feel obligated to work with LaBute? “I am obligated; I want to be obligated to Neil,” Telsey says. “I want him to always give me something, and I hopefully always want to do it.”
Asked if he could ‘pass’ on one of LaBute’s plays, he says. “I feel like I could. But it’s not as black and white as, ‘I think I’ll pass.’ There are so many other ways to say, ‘I don’t think it’s ready.’ It’s more about honoring what he wrote, going, ‘You know, I didn’t get it all,’ or ‘It didn’t affect me as much as I think you wanted it to.’ It’s never been about pass or fail. It’s about, ‘What do you need? What does the play need?’”
Telsey notes that LaBute isn’t obliged to work with MCC either, despite their long collaboration. “I remember when the Public was doing his play [Wrecks in 2006],” he says. “There was that moment of, ‘How come we’re not doing that play?’ But we were doing another one, [In a Dark Dark House,] that season. And you know what? Someone asked him to do another play, and he did it. I remember thinking, ‘That’s going to be a problem,’ and it wasn’t. He’s got to be able to do another play somewhere else.”
* Director Ciaran O’Reilly (collaborating with set designer Charlie Corcoran on Banished Children of Eve at Irish Repertory Theatre)
To help him tackle Banished Children of Eve, Kelly Younger’s adaptation of Peter Quinn’s novel about New York City during the Civil War, director Ciaran O’Reilly reassembled almost his entire design team from last season’s lauded revival of The Emperor Jones. (Only costume designer Martha Hally wasn’t with the latter, but she has worked with O’Reilly before.)
The director relies on designers he can trust, saying, “They sit and watch things all the time. Play after play, they’ll sit there for hours and hours in tech [rehearsals], and I seek what they have to say and how they feel things are going. I get the best advice. I don’t always take it, but it’s very interesting and often just dead on.”
On this production, there were questions about how to represent a dead body. “I went through murder of finding ways to do it, and it really was a conversation with all the designers,” O’Reilly says. “Between them all, we came up with a solution.”
But a regular group can easily keep returning to the same solutions. “If there’s a drawback in working with the same ones over, it’s needing to be challenged and maybe re-think things,” O’Reilly muses. He tries to avoid that rut by working on wildly different types of material. (The Emperor Jones is an expressionistic drama, for instance, while Banished Children is a sprawling epic.)
The director especially cites set designer Charlie Corcoran, who is part of the Banished Children team, as a collaborator who knows how to keep things fresh: “In one or two shows, he’s come back with an entire model which I didn’t think was right, and he just throws it out and says, ‘Alright, we’ll start from scratch then.’ I haven’t seen it with other designers.”
O’Reilly adds that he and Corcoran connect because they seem to speak the same language. “I’m not the most articulate of people,” he says. “A lot of it is very intuitive and instinctual, and I think sometimes he’s really listening hard to find out what’s in my head. I’m groping just like he is. He will take notes and then come back and say, ‘Is this what you were thinking?’ And it either is or it isn’t, but it’s generally close to the mark.”
Mark Blankenship is Theatre Development Fund’s online content editor
[Photo of "In the Wake" cast members by Joan Marcus]