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.