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Summer of Sam: An Interview with Fun Home and The Flick Director Sam Gold

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Summer of Sam: An Interview with Fun Home and The Flick Director Sam Gold

For the past five years, director Sam Gold has been a standard bearer for seriously accessible American theater. He zig-zags from 70-seat to 2,700-seat venues, from new plays to revivals. He works prodigiously (five shows this season alone), but never without care. Not everything has been received rapturously, but all have featured tightly knit acting ensembles, a keen consideration of text, and precisely configured playing spaces. In 2013, he directed The Flick by frequent collaborator Annie Baker, who went on to win the Pulitzer for the play. One of the two finalists was Jeanine Tesori and Lisa Kron’s adaptation of Alison Bechdel’s autobiographical graphic novel Fun Home, which he’d directed at the Public Theater.

This spring he’s brought the two back. Though Fun Home wasn’t broken, he’s continued to fix it up, transforming a stirringly effective show into the most emotionally satisfying new Broadway musical in decades. The Flick remains an essential work of hyper-realist art. Both translate cinematic ideas of focus and framing into arresting, theatrical visions which grab the heart. I spoke with Gold between TV rehearsal for a Fun Home promotional event, in the march toward the Tony Awards, and an Off-Broadway preview for The Flick.

In Fun Home, Alison Bechdel is split into three characters: “Small Alison,” college-age “Medium Alison,” and grown-up Alison. Who are your Small and Medium Sams?

I grew up on the Upper East Side, when there were movie theaters in the neighborhood. They’re all gone now. I started acting in high school, went to college as an English major, not knowing what I’d do. I was acting and, early on, was encouraged by some people to direct because it was right for my temperament, which is a nice way of saying I’m a very bossy, opinionated person. And also I was a terrible actor.

You were a replacement understudy in The Diary of Anne Frank on Broadway. That counts for something.

Oh, you can be terrible and be a replacement understudy. I was a young bad actor, but I was smart, so somewhere there was a place for me in the theater.

What made you bad?

I was thinking about everything except being present in the moment. When I was an understudy in Anne Frank, I’d sit backstage and get very angry about dramaturgical things. In the play, every character is a real name of a living person, except one character whose name is Dr. Dussel, which means Dr. Stupid or something. It was the name Anne had for that man in her diary. It was so un-rigorous to take a historical work and cheat one person’s name. I’d argue with the other actors backstage about things like that and they’d say, “You should probably be a director.”

Did you have a sense of the kind of work you’d like to do?

When I was in college I saw the Wooster Group’s The Hairy Ape at the Selwyn. That blew my mind. And I loved Ariane Mnouchkine’s work [Moliere, Les Atrides]. It was much more visual than my work, because I come more from acting. But I try to bring a meticulousness to the visual landscape that comes from my love of that work. I didn’t come from loving Broadway musicals, which, I think, was a great asset with Fun Home. Because, when Jeanine Tesori said, “You can’t do a Broadway musical in the round,” I didn’t know you couldn’t do that.

The Wooster Group and Mnouchkine have very specific approaches to developing work. Do you?

I tell the actors how I see the story and how we’re going to tell it. I try to inspire them with the reasons I care about it and hope they fight for it the way I am. Then we sort of make it together. I’m very honest. People think of a director as a very manipulative position: like the writer’s writing honestly, but it’s up to the director to do whatever will work. I don’t believe in that. I want to be honest and treat people with integrity. Then they’ll come to me. I believe that about the actors, and I believe it about the audience. I don’t have to sell anything. I just have to care about the work and, if it’s honest, that will bring them to me.

The choice of the physical space seems to be an essential part of your process. You interned with the Wooster Group, which seems to have a similar sense of space.

I try to be real to the experience we’re all having. And that experience is in the space. It’s not on a set. It goes very much to what I learned back at the Wooster Group. They rehearse every day and perform in the same space at night. Their offices are above the stage. And there’s almost no distinction between their lives, their rehearsal, and the performance. There’s none of that tension of “Oh no, we’re about to go on.” Everyone’s just hanging out, being alive to the moment, going down the ladder, and walking out on stage. Audiences are just people to interact with, like, the people upstairs. There was no feeling of “being on stage.” And part of it had to do with the fact that they work every day for years. There’s a kind of boredom I think that contributes to something beautiful. It’s very Zen. They’re just willing to go with it and see what happens. I’ve always tried to have that casual relationship with the work. It’s not precious.

When I saw Fun Home at the Public Lab, the first performance after Hurricane Sandy, you gave a very informal speech before the show.

I did a pre-show announcement every night. It’s a very vulnerable thing to write aggressively during the day, then put it in front of people every night. If you go out of town, you can be “Oh, let’s try something in front of the audience.” But in New York you think everyone coming is someone you really want to like the show, who’s a sort of tastemaker. Knowing that you’re totally in process, it’s like this open wound. So one of the things I tried to do is lower expectations. I’d do the speech holding a Heineken, a little prop I got from the bar, and that would usually relax the audience a bit. They’d realize I’d had a long day of work. I do this all the time: Establish a casual relationship with the audience that says we’re all in the same room together and something’s going to happen. So you can put something up that’s unrehearsed and not feel worried that people are going to say, “Hey, that was unrehearsed.” Things can be really beautiful when they’re sort of unrehearsed.

How aggressive was the rewriting?

Jeanine and Lisa are tireless and brave. We must have had 15 opening numbers over the course of that lab and it was always on poor Beth Malone [as grown-up Alison] to learn something new. Oh my God, Jeanine would come in having a new song, then we’d make Beth learn it, put it on that night, and the next day we’d say, “Oh Beth, we have a new song for you this afternoon.” Luckily she was often at a writing table so she could have her sheet music and her lyrics on the set. Joel Perez, who plays various roles, came up with a little jingle for every time we brought in a new song. He’d sing, “We’ve Got New Pages.” Then when we rehearsed the show uptown in the round, Joel amended the song to, “We’ve Got New Staging.”

What did the Lab teach you about the piece?

When I started work, the writing was much more about the making of the graphic novel. So my idea was to be in this woman’s studio as she was writing her book and the memories would infiltrate the studio. She’d open a box and a memory would pour out. We visited Alison in her studio in Vermont, watched YouTube videos of her process. Jeanine and Lisa wrote songs like “Draw” and “Living in Boxes.” But I kept wanting to push the show away from an artist at work and make a more democratic story where Alison, Medium Alison, and Small Alison were all equals. I think my set actually really helped us understand that because we started feeling, “Oh, we don’t want to stay in that studio.”

You realize when you develop work with writers that they have a way in, but you might shed that like the skin an animal sheds before it becomes an adult creature. So when we made the production for the Newman, I made the thing much more porous, like floating memories. We saw how the stories of all three Alisons are the same, but we struggled with how much of each should be in the show. Many people advised us to cut Alison, that you don’t need the framing device. But that was just a sign that it hadn’t really come together yet.

It was always the goal to be as ambitious as the book. So Alison got to be an observer, an investigator, and a narrator. For a lot of that, there’s no writing. It’s done through the staging, because, like the graphic novel, you can tell stories through juxtaposition. It’s not just about Small Alison. It’s about her and Medium Alison, and also how Alison is watching. I can play with ways of focusing the audience’s attention from one to another, and get them all happening simultaneously which to me was all inspired by the graphic novel. There, you have what’s inside the frame. You have the thought bubble. You have the caption below the frame. Then you have the progression of how the frames are laid out on the page. And you have the page break.

I got fascinated by how I could stage a musical with the same kind of simultaneity. And that’s why at the Newman [Off-Broadway] we built a turntable, where I could keep things flowing and help the audience see multiple perspectives and change their perspective easily. But really what I learned was that the turntable was a substitute for my desire to put the audience all around the show, to put them in the memory with Alison.

So that was the birth of the idea of doing the show in the round?

As soon as I was presented with the idea of moving the show uptown I immediately thought of Circle in the Square. I knew the strength of the show had to do with a kind of intimacy. I didn’t want to sit in the back of one of those old Shubert houses and feel so far away. So I said to the producers, “I want to do this so that people can come see it on Broadway and the show is more intimate than it was before.” People should think, “I’m getting the experience of Fun Home more now.” At first, Jeanine was really worried because the idea of how it would sound fully in the round was very scary. It hadn’t been done. I think one of the things I’m proudest of is that it looks very simple now but actually it took a lot of work to make it look that simple.

Kai Harada, the sound designer, really opened up the world to the ability of doing musicals in the round. You can hear the orchestrations perfectly in whatever seat you’re in, which I can’t say about any musical I’ve seen in a proscenium house. Kai made an algorithm for every speaker in the house so that every audience member receives the voice on a different delay based on where they’re sitting and where the actor’s moving on the set. With live sound, if you’re behind the actor, you’re getting a delay before it hits the opposite wall and comes back to your ear. For it to sound real, that delay has to feel live. And because the show’s in the round, the performers move constantly so no one is seeing an actor’s back for very long. You’re asking the sound designer to take moving actors and send their voice in a million different directions simultaneously. It’s very complicated.

And you can say the same about the lights. You have to light every actor from four directions simultaneously. And with lighting it’s very tricky because things look better when it’s not even, when there’s one key light. So you want to light something from only one direction, but there’s always someone sitting in that direction. There are always people who don’t experience what you want it to look like.

How did you convince your producers that this wasn’t a terrible idea?

They thought I was crazy. The idea of a show with our subject matter to work on Broadway is challenging enough. Trying to put that together took very brave producers. So to say to them, “The one thing that gives you a safety net, which is a successful production downtown, is the thing I’m taking away by completely re-staging it.” That’s not the recipe most people want to use. But in the end it wound up being the best way to tell the story because it was the easiest way for the audience to take in the multiple realities simultaneously. It provides this kind of over-the-shoulder shot. You see a character from the same perspective the other characters do. It helped me tell the story much clearer.

It’s ironic that you’ve treated the show as something endlessly fluid, but it’s about a woman who’s stuck. In what ways do you feel stuck?

I have a lot of feelings about that. I’ve often felt stuck when I approach an old play. I’d like to treat them like a living text and to connect with them personally in the present and not like period pieces. But people get very antsy in New York right now with what they call “revisionist” versions of old work. It’s an ontological question to me. You can’t do a “faithful” production of an old play because you’d have to bring the audience back in time. Europeans don’t feel this way about old plays. So I feel stuck with the question of how to make old plays connect to contemporary American audiences in the way they’d actually speak to me.

Do you work primarily from instinct or, like Peter Sellars, do you research what was conventional and otherwise about the original, then find a contemporary analogue?

That’s very much how I think. It’s funny. I did a production of John Osborne’s Look Back in Anger [Off-Broadway at the Roundabout in 2012]. A lot of people who didn’t like it were lovers of that play and felt I wasn’t faithful to it. But the whole thing Osborne was doing was toppling your expectations. What happens when you come in and there’s an ironing board on stage? Well, an ironing board means every single new play written since then. Kitchen-sink realism is the convention. So I said, “I’m getting rid of the kitchen sink. It’s going to be in the auditorium in front of the stage.” We blocked off the proscenium behind it, filled it with concrete, which to me was engaging in the exact thing Osbourne was doing. So I felt stuck when the John Osborne estate said, “I didn’t like your production.” Because that means I probably won’t get to direct another Osborne play. And to me there’s a great irony in that, in someone trying to preserve the style of a play where its entire point was to frustrate the style of its day.

When people revise their own work, it often just reflects how they’ve changed. Did you worry about this with Fun Home or worry that you were being too faithful to The Flick by not changing it?

The Flick is a tightly structured event, like a dance piece. There’s no gray area. Annie wanted to do a lot of rewriting because with a few years of distance she saw things she really wanted to change. I spent most of the process trying to convince her not to. Because that was you two-and-a-half years ago. You have to be true to who you were two-and-a-half years ago. That’s very different than moving Fun Home. That was an organic process that was culminating in the production that’s running now. And it’s still an organic process. I’ll have to do another production if we go on tour, go to London. It’s an organism that’ll keep growing.

But with The Flick, this was just about more people getting to come see it. We loved the space at Playwrights Horizons. It was the production I wanted. The question was: Would it be good enough at the Barrow Street Theatre to be worth bringing back? It was a hard decision. We rented out a rehearsal room and taped out the size of the new stage, which is smaller, and did the play, me and Annie playing Sam and Avery, to be sure.

Are the silences which generated some controversy still there in all their long glory?

The word controversy is a misnomer for the public airing of that private letter [sent by the Playwrights Horizons Artistic Director Tim Sanford to subscribers to discuss some of their frustrations with the piece]. That play at that length with those pauses was beloved. The only controversial thing is whether it was marketed correctly in advance to the subscribers. This is the challenging nut with non-profit theater. You have to sell tickets to people before they know what they’re buying tickets to. Well, no play is for everybody. And some people were frustrated early on because they weren’t getting the show they assumed they’d be getting.

They needed the version of your talk with the Heineken.

I would have loved to stand in the lobby and say, “Hey everybody, you should probably go to the bathroom now because it’s going to be an hour and 40 minutes before intermission.” If people just knew it was that, I think those subscribers would have loved it. Which is another reason why we wanted to do it at the Barrow, where there are no subscribers, people want the thing that it is, and having read whatever the “controversy” was, still want to come.

Finally, as you dive into rehearsal on John, your fifth collaboration with Annie Baker, how will you keep the long runs of Fun Home and The Flick alive and organic?

We developed the musical with a lot of the cast that’s in the show now. The Flick has the same cast as before. I try to keep people with me along the way, because when you’re developing work, everyone’s invested in the storytelling. They become a family, bonded by something they all care about. And that care, the love they have for each other and the material, that’s motivation on stage. It keeps them fresh and searching. Also, I tend to give the actors no safety net.

Especially when they’re in the round.

Yes, and that’s very scary for actors because at all times there’s someone two feet away from them and someone 200 feet away from them. If they play it really broad for the person 200 feet away, it’s very eggy for the person right next to them. So it puts this pressure on the cast to be so honest and so lived-in that they can’t fake it, but it also has to have the muscularity of a Broadway musical to fill that space. There’s no set, just a bunch of hand props and furniture pieces. No big production numbers. No big bells and whistles that are going to save the day if they have an off performance. There’s nothing else to hold onto. I make very simple productions that have nothing about them of interest if the acting isn’t really deep and nuanced and beautiful. And then they take it over with that responsibility on their shoulders and the desire to achieve it. My work would be so bad with a bad cast. If I believe one thing about my work, it’s that.

Fun Home is playing an open-ended engagement at Circle in the Square Theatre. The Flick runs at The Barrow Street Theatre through August 30.

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Awards

Oscar 2019 Winner Predictions: Original Screenplay

This season, Hollywood is invested in celebrating the films they love while dodging the cultural bullets coming at them from every angle.

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Green Book
Photo: Universal Pictures

You know, if it weren’t for the show’s producers effectively and repeatedly saying everything about the Academy Awards is terrible and needs to be changed, and the year’s top-tier contenders inadvertently confirming their claims, this would’ve been a comparatively fun and suspenseful Oscar season. None of us who follow the Academy Awards expect great films to win; we just hope the marathon of precursors don’t turn into a Groundhog Day-style rinse and repeat for the same film, ad nauseam.

On that score, mission accomplished. The guilds have been handing their awards out this season as though they met beforehand and assigned each voting body a different title from Oscar’s best picture list so as not to tip the Oscar race too clearly toward any one film. SAG? Black Panther. PGA? Green Book. DGA? Roma. ASC? Cold War. ACE? Bryan Singer’s Bohemian Rhapsody. Even awards-season kryptonite A Star Is Born got an award for contemporary makeup from the MUAHS. (That’s the Make-Up Artists and Hair Stylists Guild, not the sound Lady Gaga fans have been making ever since A Star Is Born’s teaser trailer dropped last year.)

Not to be outdone, the Writers Guild of America announced their winners last weekend, and not only did presumed adapted screenplay frontrunner BlacKkKlansman wind up stymied by Can You Ever Forgive Me?, but the original screenplay prize went to Eighth Grade, which wasn’t even nominated for an Oscar. Bo Burnham twisted the knife into AMPAS during his acceptance speech: “To the other nominees in the category, have fun at the Oscars, losers!” In both his sarcasm and his surprise, it’s safe to say he speaks on behalf of us all.

As is always the case, WGA’s narrow eligibility rules kept a presumed favorite, The Favourite, out of this crucial trial heat. But as the balloting period comes to a close, the question remains just how much enthusiasm or affection voters have for either of the two films with the most nominations (Roma being the other). As a recent “can’t we all just get along” appeal by Time’s Stephanie Zacharek illustrates, the thing Hollywood is most invested in this season involves bending over backward, Matrix-style, to celebrate the films they love and still dodge the cultural bullets coming at them from every angle.

Maybe it’s just tunnel vision from the cultural vacuum Oscar voters all-too-understandably would prefer to live in this year, but doesn’t it seem like The Favourite’s tastefully ribald peppering of posh-accented C-words would be no match for the steady litany of neo-Archie Bunkerisms spewing from Viggo Mortensen’s crooked mouth? Especially with First Reformed’s Paul Schrader siphoning votes from among the academy’s presumably more vanguard new recruits? We’ll fold our words in half and eat them whole if we’re wrong, but Oscar’s old guard, unlike John Wayne, is still alive and, well, pissed.

Will Win: Green Book

Could Win: The Favourite

Should Win: First Reformed

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Watch: Joanna Hogg’s The Souvenir, Starring Honor Swinton Byrne and Tilda Swinton, Gets First Trailer

Joanna Hogg has been flying under the radar for some time, but that’s poised to change in a big way.

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A24
Photo: A24

British film director and screenwriter Joanna Hogg, whose impeccably crafted 2013 film Exhibition we praised on these pages for its “disarming mixture of the remarkable and the banal,” has been flying under the radar for the better part of her career. But that’s poised to change in a big way with the release of her latest film, The Souvenir, which won the Grand Jury Prize at this year’s Sundance Film Festival. Prior to the film’s world premiere at the festival, A24 and Curzon Artificial Eye acquired its U.S. and U.K. distribution rights, respectively. Below is the official description of the film:

A shy but ambitious film student (Honor Swinton Byrne) begins to find her voice as an artist while navigating a turbulent courtship with a charismatic but untrustworthy man (Tom Burke). She defies her protective mother (Tilda Swinton) and concerned friends as she slips deeper and deeper into an intense, emotionally fraught relationship that comes dangerously close to destroying her dreams.

And below is the film’s first trailer:

https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=t9Al2nC0vzY

A24 will release The Souvenir on May 17.

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Awards

Oscar 2019 Winner Predictions: Sound Mixing

For appealing to voters’ nostalgia for drunken karaoke nights of yore, one film has the upper hand here.

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20th Century Fox
Photo: 20th Century Fox

Given what Eric wrote about the sound editing category yesterday, it now behooves me to not beat around the bush here. Also, it’s my birthday, and there are better things for me to do today than count all the ways that Eric and I talk ourselves out of correct guesses in the two sound categories, as well as step on each other’s toes throughout the entirety of our Oscar-prediction cycle. In short, it’s very noisy. Which is how Oscar likes it when it comes to sound, though maybe not as much the case with sound mixing, where the spoils quite often go to best picture nominees that also happen to be musicals (Les Misérables) or musical-adjacent (Whiplash). Only two films fit that bill this year, and since 2019 is already making a concerted effort to top 2018 as the worst year ever, there’s no reason to believe that the scarcely fat-bottomed mixing of Bryan Singer’s Bohemian Rhapsody will take this in a walk, for appealing to voters’ nostalgia for drunken karaoke nights of yore.

Will Win: Bryan Singer’s Bohemian Rhapsody

Could Win: A Star Is Born

Should Win: First Man

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