Carissa and Randolph interview Meg Taintor
Meg Taintor is the Artistic Director at Whistler in the Dark, a theatre company in Boston for whom she has directed eleven productions (including the Norton-nominated The Possibilities and IRNE-nominated Tales from Ovid), and appeared in A Hard Heart, Don’t Exaggerate (FeverFest 06) and The Psyche Project (FeverFest 07). Meg has also directed for Mill6 Theatre and New Voices @ New Rep. Her regional theatre credits include the National Players, Rorschach Theatre, Olney Theatre Center, the Potomac Theatre Project and Washington Shakespeare Company. She holds a B.A. in Theatre and Women & Gender Studies from Middlebury College.
Last weekend, Carissa Halston and Randolph Pfaff sat down with Meg and talked to her about her experiences as a director and a performer, as well as her thoughts on the Boston theatre community and her approach to theatre in general.
apt : The name Whistler in the Dark comes from the prologue to Howard Barker‘s play, The Bite of the Night. A fuller version of the quote:
I’ll take you
I’ll hold your throat
And vomit I will tolerate
Over my shirt
Over my wrists
I’ll be your guide
And whistler in the dark
Cougher over filthy words
And all known sentiments recycled for this house
Will you tell us a bit about this quote? Did you cull it from a list of others or did you know immediately that it would be the name for your company?
MT: To answer the second question first, I actually knew that was going to be the name of my company before I had a company. I love that piece. That whole piece, both of the prologues, define my philosophy about what theatre is and what theatre should be. And that line, I just kept saying, “Well, if I ever have a company, I’ll just call it Whistler in the Dark because that’s exactly what I think it should be.” And if you were to continue the quote a little further, it’s the next line that resonates most strongly for me, which is:
None of it
I honour you too much
To paste you with what you already know
The entire argument that Barker’s making in those prologues is the idea that we’ve reached the point where theatre becomes entertainment and the people who are making it are using it to sell tickets and using it as a way of either promoting a feeling of positivity or making sure that you can get butts in seats and I think one of the benefits of fringe theatre is you don’t actually have to have that. I’m not going to make my primary money from ticket sales, so I don’t have to worry whether this is going to appeal to a huge audience. And so, I get to do theatre that’s challenging and makes audiences think and that’s what I’m interested in doing and everybody who’s come to be closely affiliated with the company is interested in plays that make the audience work a little harder than they normally have to.
As I was writing my director’s notes recently, I realized that I’d finished every single director’s note with the phrase, “Sit forward and enjoy,” and it sort of became this tagline for Whistler, that sense that you can enjoy this, this will be fun, this will be pleasurable for you, but you don’t get to just sit back and let it happen, you have to participate in it too. And so, going back to the name of the company, “I’ll be your guide and whistler in the dark,” the guide is that person who says, “We’re going to take you places that are difficult.” We’re going to ask you to sit through The Europeans. We’re going to do Ted Hughes’s version of [Tales from] Ovid instead of Mary Zimmerman’s incredibly dumbed down version of it. We’re going to take the things that are more difficult and more challenging, but you’re in good hands. We just spent six weeks wrestling through it. We’re going to guide you through this and we’re going to help you as much as we can and then your help to us is your response.
apt: Do you feel that that experience separates theatre from other media? I feel that the subtext there is, “You’re not at home watching television. You’re not at the movie theatre. You’re part of this.”
MT: There’s something about live performance. It’s not just that sculpting in snow, it-only-happens-once-and-then-you-never-get-to-see-it-again feeling. There is that element, which is great, but there’s this other element, which is the idea of shared breath. Particularly in fringe and small theatre where you’re working in The Factory [Theatre] and you could be hit by spit or sweat from the actors, depending on where you’re sitting.
There’s a really interesting and, I think, sort of irritating conversation that’s beginning to happen right now, which is partially linked to the Small Theatre Alliance. It’s the idea of trying to make small theatre sound great by saying, “You’re only spending twenty dollars and look at what you’re getting.” And I think that so far ignores the primary power of small theatre, which is the proximity and intimacy of it. It doesn’t matter how much you pay to see a small theatre show. It’s the fact that you’re a foot and a half from the actors. That’s what’s so exciting to me.
apt: But also, that argument changes the focus to the things you just mentioned about big theatre, making it more about, “What am I getting for my money?”
MT: Right. Exactly.
apt: So, your first production, The Possibilities, set the bar at a formidable height for the shows to follow. Did you ever question the level of difficulty for material you wanted to present?
MT: What’s interesting about our production of The Possibilities is that, if asked, I would say we failed. I would love to do that show again and do it correctly. It was a really interesting production and I think there were really interesting roots in it, but most of the actors involved in it weren’t interested in that kind of theatre. It was a company that no one had ever heard of. It was our first show. They were coming out to audition, and they showed up, and there was this moment where they said, “No, but we actually want to be doing naturalistic storytelling, so I’d like to reduce this character down to what I would experience when I read a normal play.” And that’s totally valid and we didn’t have the body of work behind us to say, “I know that you feel that, but just trust us on this one. Go with me on this journey.” And so I think we had a really interesting evening that was very challenging, but that we didn’t succeed in what we set out to do. But because what we were trying to do was so far outside of what people in Boston were trying to do at that point, it didn’t read as flattened out as I felt it was at times.
Every season, we have this offering. We’ll say, “Here’s a bone for you. Look! It’s Tales from Ovid! You know these stories. There are five beautiful people and they’ll be on silks! Have fun with that.” That’s our crowd-pleaser. And then we say, “And now we’re going to give you The Europeans and Aunt Dan and Lemon. Thank you.” But we try to do that every season, where there’s one that’s more traditional. One Flea Spare is a difficult play about the plague, but it’s a straight forward narrative, especially contrasted with something like Family Stories, where you have four kids trying to kill each other.
MT: (laughs) Theoretically. So, we’re always trying to find a way to make sure that our season has the plays that are super challenging for us and super challenging for our audiences, but also that there’s one in there that’s a little more relaxing. Like next year, hopefully, it’s going to be a Stoppard play, so it’s not going to be an easy play, but there’s a known quantity there.
apt: So, immediately following your production of The Possibilities, there was talk about how Whistler was reinventing what fringe theatre could be. Did you expect that sort of reaction or were you more imaging that people would distance themselves because it was such a departure from what audiences expected from the Boston theatre community, specifically in fringe theatre?
MT: This is why I’m not a good business person. I didn’t know what Boston fringe theatre was. I lived in DC and I got homesick and wanted to start a company and there wasn’t room to start one in DC. There were 130 working theatres in the DC metro area at that point. It’s just a thriving town and that ranges from Arena Stage down to the person who’s working in a shoebox. So I came home and immediately started a company here without really knowing anybody in town.
So I started seeing a lot of theatre, but I was seeing theatre based on what appealed to me, so I was going and seeing stuff by Rough & Tumble. So what we were doing didn’t seem that daring to me because you’ve got a company like Rough & Tumble that’s basically doing flat out clown work and this was when Molasses Tank was still functioning and they were doing evenings of Beckett shorts—just these companies that were really, really out there, so it felt to me like we were part of this interesting conversation that was happening. And then it was a surprise to me that those companies weren’t what was “going on.”
Also, because we weren’t really part of the community, we didn’t hear that conversation at all, about us reinventing fringe. We were just doing our own thing and we started to pull audience members in. Something that I’m really happy about is that we don’t tend to lose audience members. We don’t gain them quickly, but once people come, they tend to come back, which I like a lot.
There are a lot of small theatres in Boston. As the president of the Small Theatre Alliance of Boston, I can say that we have twenty-seven member companies right now and those are all small and fringe companies and there are a lot of companies doing really interesting work, but there are a lot of companies doing very similar work. I think that part of what companies need to do if they want to survive past a year or two is create their own niche and develop something that’s different about who they are.
I mean—Imaginary Beasts? They’ll live forever, as long as Matthew [Woods] has sanity and energy to do it because no one is doing what he’s doing. He is so amazingly inventive and so ridiculously wonderful at what he does. And Mill 6 does these wry, cynical, witty plays. They do them and you’re just like, “That’s ridiculous. But there’s so much heart there.” And they do it so well. There are a couple other companies like that and you know what you’re getting when you go there. And with Whistler, you know what you’re getting, but that doesn’t mean that you know what you’re going to see. There’s a certain Whistler stamp to productions, but most of our shows do not resemble each other in any way, shape, or form.
And Jen [O’Connor] and I have had the talk, since we’ve worked together so many times, like, “I need to start calling you on it and you need to start calling me on it when we’re trying to work in the same way we’ve already worked,” because that would just lead to badness.
apt: You’ve done a great amount for the small theatre community in Boston. Even before the Small Theatre Alliance of Boston, you started FeverFest in 2006, then the Whistler Wednesday Reading Series—are there any projects you’d like to see take place across companies, similar to what you did with the reading of The Europeans last year, but on a local level?
MT: We’re doing two things next year, and I can’t give you titles yet because we don’t have the rights, but I can give you playwrights. So we’re going to be starting off our season with a Stoppard piece and this is totally a stolen idea from a company in DC called Forum Theatre. Forum is awesome—they’re so great and so inspiring and they’re a year or two older than us and they’re awesome. And they did One Flea Spare this year and they prefaced it by having a month of weekly staged readings of other Naomi Wallace plays that were done by their friends by different companies around town. So by the time their audience got to One Flea Spare, they had been fully immersed in Naomi Wallace’s writing and her voice. All of our playwrights next year are challenging because our playwrights are Stoppard, Caryl Churchill, Craig Wright, and Euripides.
apt: Just to round out the group.
MT: Of course. Particularly for the Churchill and the Stoppard, we would love to do that: to go to some of our other friends who don’t necessarily have the resources to do a full production, but say, “Hey, would you like to do a staged reading of this play and use your own actors? And it’ll be a free event, but here’s something that you could do,” and we’d promote that.
Something that we’re doing with Mill 6 right now—and we’ll be doing it again next year with Imaginary Beasts—is a rep month. We wanted to share a space for a month. At three weeks, you’re just getting word of mouth, and then you have to close, whereas with a month, you can have the same number of shows you did in three weeks, but you get the fourth week and that’s when you’re really going to start having the word of mouth paid back. But also, now I’m paying for two weeks instead of four weeks in the space. And, because I’m sharing a space, it’s enforcing a poverty of design. It’s like, we can’t put things in there that would be in their way and vice versa for them. And since we love Mill 6—we play very well with them—they’re using most of the actors that we also use. It’s this company of people getting together.
So we’ll be doing that with Imaginary Beasts next year. I love the idea of theatre companies coming together to collaborate and I think it only works when it’s with a company that you’ve already developed a really good working relationship with. We’ve been involved with both Mill 6 and Imaginary Beasts since our first FeverFest and we’ve always shared resources with them. I think the Small Theatre Alliance provides a structure for that to happen, but it’s up to the individual companies to create those networking opportunities.
apt: Since we’re on the topic of those you work well with, let’s talk about Jen O’Connor. You mentioned her briefly earlier: as a director, what is it like to have such a long-standing relationship with one actor? Do you find you can push Jen in ways you don’t push other performers—and I don’t just mean having her choked—because you’ve worked with her so often? Does she push you when others wouldn’t?
MT: Yeah, I get teased a lot about how it looks like I’m working through relationship issues with Jen onstage. People will be like, “Yeah? Yeah, you said that? Well, you know what we’re going to do next season? You’re going to be chained to a wall by your neck for an hour!” (laughs) Because she’s always getting the rough end of the stick in terms of getting the crap kicked out of her. But she’s such a versatile actor and I feel like she’d be wasted in some of the roles that are—like, we let her do Mary’s Wedding and she was lovely and heartbreaking and she was a pretty girl in it. And it was great because she had this horrible teacher at Salem State who told her she was too ugly to ever play an ingénue, which is one of the reasons why I’m like, “I kind of hate Salem State for that.” I mean, how dare you say that to a nineteen-year-old?
MT: Yeah. Actually, the full quote was something about how she had a great body and she was totally hot, but it was such a shame about her face because no one could ever fall in love with that face. And that’s a teacher. So we have a problem with some of our educational institutions thinking that pushing actors towards the business side of things is an appropriate way to behave. So, whenever I hear that woman’s name mentioned, my hackles go up and I say, “That woman shouldn’t be allowed near students.”
apt: Or humanity.
MT: Or humanity, yes. So, I just find it a blessing that I get to work with Jen because she’s one of the smartest actors I’ve ever worked with and she’s one of the hardest working actors I’ve ever worked with. You can give her a note and, that day, it’ll be crap and you’ll be like, “That’s fine,” and then she’ll go home and do, I’m sure, eight hours of work on her own in her apartment, making her neighbors think she’s insane, and then come back in and be like, “There you go.” She has absolutely no interest in making easy choices.
Something that I find really interesting about actors that I continue to work with—I am not good at the directing style which you’re taught in school, to direct via actions. Like, “You’re trying to do this, so do this.” I’m not good at that. I direct from gut feeling, pit-of-my-stomach, and I’ll often describe things that way to somebody. So, there are actors who I’ve worked with, like Danny Bryck—we did Family Stories together—and afterward, I always do postmortem with actors who I want to work with again, to ask them what the process was like so I can do better for them next time and to let them know what I felt. So Danny said, “You know, you would just give me direction and I would think it was just full of shit and I didn’t believe in it and I didn’t try, but then I would try it and think, ‘Oh, she’s right. Okay.’ So now I just believe you, even though I know you’re going to tell me something and it’s going to be stupid.”
It’s not that Danny (or any actor) blindly follows me, but that we have a healthy enough relationship that we can push each other and try things we might not otherwise do. There’s a trust that comes from working with people who give themselves the permission to fail. And god knows, I do it myself all the time.
Another thing is that I always admit when I’m wrong, so if someone does try something, I’m like, “All right! Sorry! That was stupid—and I thank you for going there. Let’s never talk about that moment again.” And we ran into that in Ovid and after a couple weeks, I had to have a conversation with the cast where I was like, “All right, you guys are being kind of selfish because you’re not letting yourselves fail and so you’re being really protective of yourselves and I walk in here with twenty bad ideas for rehearsal. So I need you to throw out some bad ideas too. I need you to risk failing too.” And then, instantly, it fixed itself. And of course they were terrified in the process—they were asked to work with silks, the silks weren’t in the room. They were being asked to translate poetry to stage. There was no reason why they should’ve been able to walk in and be like, “I’m open and free!”
But going back to Jen, because Jen and I have worked together so often, she and I trust each other, so we both know that if I say something that she doesn’t agree with, or if she comes to me and says, “I know what you’re saying, but I’d like to try it this way,” there’s the knowledge that we’re going to be honest about it. I know that she’s not going to take the note and show me how it’s wrong, which some actors will do. Like, “Yeah, I’ll take your note—see how bad that was?” (laughs) That’s so healthy.
And now that I’m acting with her, which I’ve never gotten to do before, I know that she’s an awesome scene partner. Because of the way Aunt Dan and Lemon is structured, we don’t talk to each other. I talk at her for a half hour and she just listens, and then says something like, “As I listen to her, I watch the sunlight glow on her hair.” And then it goes back to me and I talk for another twenty pages, but she’s such a responsive scene partner.
MT: Thank you.
apt: How did you feel when you heard? Did you want to run victory laps?
MT: Well, it’s very flattering of course, but I don’t put too much stock in awards. They’re completely arbitrary. They’re based on what those people happened to see. There’s no open adjudication process. So I think that it’s great. It’s really nice to be recognized and it’s a great marketing thing. We can put “IRNE and Norton-nominated” next to Ovid for a while, next to the company, and next to my name.
But the response that I got from the audiences meant so much more to me, because Ovid sold out for two weeks and that doesn’t happen for us. And then people were just calling and e-mailing and talking to me for months afterward about how important the show was. And that’s so much more important than some committee who decide to give you a nomination. The audience feedback was so much greater.
apt: As long as we’re on that topic, let’s talk about Tales from Ovid. The silk choreography was an inspired bit of staging, but the quieter moments (like the collective sighs to signal the transitions between different myths, or the haunting tones that you elicited from wine glasses) were equally as striking. How difficult is it to maintain that balance between elegant spectacle and background details?
MT: Yeah—so. The breath thing?
MT: Figured it out the day before we opened. (laughs)
apt: (laughs) But it seemed so practiced!
MT: It really did. And that was because Danny was finally like, “I don’t know when the myth is over!” And I was like, “Okay, great—we’ll figure that out…” And he’s the most patient actor, but when he gets to a point where he needs an answer, it’s imperative. So, when we were rehearsing, we didn’t have the silks in the space. We had access to the silks twice a week. We had an hour-long class that we all went to and then the next day, we had an hour-long practice session in the space with the silks. And that was it for the silks, which was not ideal and it was kind of insane—and then we had a rehearsal space where we had Xs on the floors for where the silk columns would be. So, they’d be staging and I’d say, “You know, I think we need to figure this out when we’re in the space—someone mark this—we’re going to need to get that silk out of the way because it’s a sightline issue. So, let’s pretend it’s a tree now. Someone turn it into a tree.” And two people would grab it, and be like, “TREE,” and you’re miming it and holding it. Given that we had so little time with the silks and given that none of those people are aerialists—they had had two months of work on silks prior to doing that show—we knew there was a finite amount of the silk work that we could do. And so we looked at the myths we had chosen and said, “These will be places where we could be in the silks,” and, “These will be places where the silks will be used to create something.”
I fell in love with the image of the bed we created by pulling the silks open, and I really just loved that image and hoped it would look good. We tried it out once in the rehearsal studio and said, “All right, that kind of works, but maybe PJ will create something amazing with lights,” which she did. We were trying Lecoq-based movement work and Mac [Young] is really into contact improv, so we were doing a lot of work with that.
But the problem with doing that play is that it’s not a play and it doesn’t have a progression and in fact, Ovid’s last lines are, “Dude, I’m going to be famous for writing this shit.” (laughs) Essentially, that’s what he says. He says, “I’m so badass, you can’t even understand it. Peace.” And we’re like, “Well, that actually is not going to function for us.” So then we had to figure out what our progression was. We figured out this loose progression where the gods involvement would be very heavy at the beginning and then sort of fading away until the last myth, where they’re completely absent and it’s just human beings.
The collective breath came from a need to figure out how to begin the next myth, but also how to let go of the myth we just came out of. Starting the next myth, while Danny was playing two characters and now has to play Acteon and Mac just got killed and has to be a narrator—it was just too much. And toward the second week of the run, we started to figure out exactly how interactive the narrators could be with the myth because we were just working on it the whole way through. So, those quiet moments were due to a lot of things. My cousin, David McMullin, helped us with the music and I thought the wine glasses were brilliant and then there was the sandpaper—which we of course didn’t get to add in until the final week—so there was a lot of stuff, where we said, “We think there’s going to be something happening here. We know the wine glasses are going to be in all of the water sequences.” It was a great example of a true collaboration, where everyone was just coming to the table with a lot of information and with a lot of things that they wanted to try and everyone else was saying, “Yes, and—” and going forward from there. And then it was my job to look at it and say, “Okay, too much,” and then readjust it.
One of the things that I also believe is that audiences will tolerate split focus a lot more than we give them credit for. And it’s most easily proven in a show like Family Stories. So, it’s not a problem when something is happening on one side of the stage which might draw focus because audiences will figure that out. Being able to see the musicians making the music and knowing that you’re watching one part, but something else is happening over here and knowing that you can do that becomes very fun to me.
apt: I think that’s especially true because of the way you handle space. When the audience isn’t seated, looking at something on an elevated stage that is so visibly and physically separate from them, it’s a lot easier to take that leap when you feel closer to the action.
MT: I think so too.
apt: So, the silk dynamic was brought to you by sponsors in your audience, which is great and sounds a bit like a PBS commercial, but it allowed you to put all your actors through the aerial silk classes. Would you use Kickstarter again for another ambitious project? If so, what’s your ideal project?
MT: I don’t know. The thing about Kickstarter that’s amazing is if the story you tell about why you need funding is interesting, people will help you. We didn’t know a lot of those donors and most of them gave under twenty dollars and that’s amazing. It activates an under twenty-dollar donor base, which is remarkable because five of those were a hundred. (laughs) And that’s great. But I don’t know what the next project would be. If we do end up going back to Ovid, we might go back to Kickstarter and say, “This is what we want to do now. We want to work on these elements of it.” I think it works particularly well with devised theatre, theatre that you’re working on that’s not already in a script form. It might be something we could use for Trojan Women next year just because we had such a great time doing The Bacchae when we did it three years ago and we’re remounting The Bacchae next fall, so we could pull in images from that and say, “This is what we’re going to be doing. We’re going to have a much larger cast. It’s going to be nine people.” And Ben has such a great idea for how he’s going to be doing it. Talk about using space. He’s going to have people spread throughout the Factory as if you’re in a refugee camp, so you’ll be sitting on crates and boxes and bales of hay. Very Grotowski-style seating. I just love that idea. I would want to watch that show. But, yeah, I don’t know what the next Kickstarter project would be, but it’s definitely a remarkable resource for young companies.
apt: Speaking of your seating, Whistler has a practically symbiotic relationship with the Factory Theatre.
MT: I love the Factory Theatre.
apt: Every time we see a production, you use the space in a different way and admirably so, most notably with Tales from Ovid. Is there an unexplored facet at the Factory you’d like to showcase, or a show that would allow you to use every inch of the space, possibly co-opting part of the hallway and loft area?
MT: Yes, there is—I don’t know what that would be. (laughs) Yes. I love the Factory, but I hate the way everyone uses it, which is that long row of seats along that one wall. You have to watch the show and your neck hurts. I’m reading a book right now called Frantic Assembly, which is a book about devising theatre written by this company called Frantic Assembly. I think I love these men. I want to meet them and then learn at their feet. But they keep saying things that I agree with and one of the things they keep talking about is pre-show. And pre-show is a wasted opportunity for a lot of people, when audience members walk into a theatre that is lit gently with some nice music playing and you just get to sit and read your program. The way Frantic Assembly says it is, you get to claim your audience then. You get to tell them right then and there that you’re in charge, so play the music too loud so they can’t talk to each other. And what we’ve always tried to do is to unsettle our audience right when they walk in. For Family Stories, the fluorescents were on and there were no seating risers and you had to notice the chain on the wall—“I bet I don’t want to sit there. I probably don’t want to be anywhere near that.”
apt: And for The Europeans, there was all that fog and that was immediately unsettling.
MT: Exactly. Or, that there is no music playing. I always find that unsettling. And, oh, here’s a secret about Whistler. Always walk across the stage if you can to get to your seats because we always reward bravery. The people who are in the uncomfortable-to-get-to seats always have a better show. We put the King’s seat there because you kind of have to have a King’s seat somewhere in your theatre, so you might as well put it in the place where you want to be rewarding people. About the spacing, I want to have people sitting in the alcove. I haven’t done that yet. But I do love the orientation we used for The Europeans and Ovid. I think it’s my favorite use of the space yet because it just makes the space feel so big. And for anyone to make the Factory feel big is amazing.
apt: So many of your productions originate from a place that the average American theatregoer isn’t altogether familiar with. This past year, you gave us a look at post-plague England, war-torn Serbia, and an alternate history of Europe. What role does place play in determining what you produce in any given season?
MT: None at all, actually. We read plays that we’re interested in, which don’t tend to be set in modern-day America. Although next year—and this is one that I can tell you about because we have the rights to it—we’re producing Craig Wright’s Recent Tragic Events, which is a blind date that was set up on September 12, 2001. And they go through with it. But it’s not a naturalistic play and there’s a narrator and Joyce Carol Oates is played by a sock puppet. (laughs) And she plays a drinking game. And what we’re looking for are plays that speak to us, but also in some way, speak to each other. We usually find the season name afterward, so this season, it was called Re-cognition—recognition—the idea of the recognition scene, where you’re in a place and suddenly, you have the ability to move forward. Last season, we were exploring different definitions of family. I think it’s that our tastes don’t lead us to choose familiar settings. I’d rather have everything be “other” because it’s easier to look at issues that are important now through another’s lens. It’s like saying, “No, no, no. This isn’t about modern class war. We’re talking about England in the 1500’s. This has nothing to do with how we behave toward each other. These are four kids in Serbia.” And that people are much more willing to take trips that include self-examination. For example, Aunt Dan and Lemon is horrifically relevant. It’s amazing, every time we do it, I think, “Oh god, I’m so uncomfortable with this play. Our audiences are going to be so mad at us for doing this to them.” It’s such a difficult play.
apt: I recently saw the post that Jen put on the Whistler site that basically said, please stay and talk to us about this.
MT: We keep saying that Jen’s going to have to be escorted to her car afterward because the audience is going to want to kick the crap out of her because she’s not a nice person in this play. She makes a marvelous case in favor of the Nazis, but not from an anti-Semitic point of view, just saying, “Weren’t they successful? And here, when you react like that, aren’t you being a little hypocritical because wouldn’t you destroy things to protect your way of life?” And I listen to her final speech and I’m just thinking, “I hate this play so much.” It makes me feel so uncomfortable.
apt: You love that play.
MT: I love it! And actually, I say things in that play that I listen to and I actually get very upset with myself about saying them and agreeing with them and then I say, you don’t agree with that.
apt: Your last show was Barker’s The Europeans. In your introduction, you refer to Barker as “hard.” What was the hardest part of the rehearsal process?
MT: Barker does not sum anything up for you. He’s not interested in drawing conclusions. He’s not interested in teaching lessons. “Clarity, meaning, consistency, logic, none of it.” There you go. Here are some people. They’re operating in a world. What do you think? And I just had a really interesting conversation with someone who said she really hated the play because she felt that it had these two heroes who behaved in abhorrent ways and she was supposed to agree with them. So I said, “Well, why in the world were you supposed to agree with them?”
apt: Wait, you were supposed to agree with the Emperors?
MT: No, she was talking about Starhemberg and Katrin. And she wanted to know why they were heroes. And I said, “I don’t think they’re heroes.”
apt: No, not at all.
MT: And she said, “I think they’re very arrogant.” And I told her, “Yes, they are arrogant to stand up to a society and say I’m not going to live the way you want me to live,” but what about our production told you that you had to side with them? And she said, “Well, they were the last people lit.” (laughs)
apt: That’s kind of awesome.
MT: I said, “They are the central characters, but I don’t think there’s anyone in that play I like. I maybe like General Pasha, the Turk at the end who takes her. I maybe like the painter?”
apt: I have to admit: I do like the Emperors. I told you that after I saw the show.
MT: I am enchanted by them, but I think they’re pretty awful people.
apt: But they’re all awful.
MT: And they’re much more honest about their awfulness than anyone else is.
apt: Yes, that’s what it is!
MT: They’re like, “We’re corrupt and we know it.”
apt: I think I find their honesty admirable—possibly their only admirable quality.
apt: So, the reception of The Europeans wasn’t consistently positive, but I know that you enjoyed that inconsistency because it generated thought about difficult material. Is that, for you, part of the dialogue that is necessary for a collaborative relationship between company and audience members and playwright and viewer?
MT: I think this season in general, and with The Europeans in particular, it’s the most successful we’ve ever been at engaging our audience. I give my e-mail address at every curtain speech I do and a lot of people talked back about The Europeans. A lot of people said, “Really great production, the acting was really solid—what the hell was that that you just made us sit through?” And a lot of people wrote to say, “I had a really hard time with this, I didn’t agree with this, and I’d like to talk about why you chose this.” I think that any time a play makes its audience engage that much that they take the time to sit down and write an e-mail to the Artistic Director, saying, “Your play was really good and I didn’t like it. I want to talk to you about that,” then that’s great. That’s a satisfying evening for me. That is something that’s worthwhile. Those people are going to come back. They’re invested enough to talk to me about it. They’re invested enough to stay after the show and tell me why they thought the play was terrible. People like that come back and see more theatre and take ownership of the company. That’s exciting to me because that means those audience members really do feel that they’re part of the company and they get to talk to us about it, as opposed to the BCA, A.R.T., or Huntington where you just watch the show, that’s it, it was good or it was bad, but you don’t feel that you can write Diane Paulus an e-mail and say, “Here’s what was wrong with your production.”
There’s actually a process in theatre, and in Boston theatre specifically, which is this sort of open kitchen approach: if you throw open your doors and write a process blog, the audience will come. But I think the one thing that we’re doing differently is that we’ll accept your negative feedback too. A lot of people think that it’s just a way for people to tell you how much they enjoyed something, as opposed to really fighting with you about it. I think those are constructive arguments and those are good to have. I don’t think we’re always right. I think there were definite flaws in our production of The Europeans. There were scenes that we didn’t get quite right. I would watch every night and think, “Oh, we didn’t quite get that moment,” but having an audience who participates in that conversation makes us better the next time too.
apt: One last question, your next production is Wallace Shawn’s Aunt Dan and Lemon. I’m excited for this for a slew of reasons, but mainly because you’ll be performing instead of directing. Is that role an easy one to relinquish? Is there anything you get from acting that you don’t get when directing?
MT: Yes, because Bridget is brilliant. I tease her that her method of direction is alternately hitting on and abusing her actors. And I find that so refreshing because it’s this insanely hard play and she does not make it hard to be there. For example, every day, she’ll say to Jen, “I’m sorry, you talk for the first ten pages of the play. Let someone else have a chance now.” And Jen will be like, “What?” (laughs) It’s this remarkably lovingly abusive, wry, acerbic relationship that makes it very, very easy to be in the room. Because none of us get a chance to be precious about ourselves. We work incredibly hard and it is exhausting, but it’s that thing about feeling safe to fail. She’s also brilliant. I would have no idea how to direct this play. I would look at this play and be like, “Ugh, I don’t even know what this is about.” Bridget’s so smart. She’s got it in such a way that she walked in, she created a world for us and now we just get to inhabit that world. I had one rehearsal this week—it was the one where you can’t get out of your own way, you can’t talk and think and everything you said before…you just don’t even know where you are, you get really mad at yourself—but that was the first time I had it. And then we had a run of the show yesterday and I felt totally confident. For that to happen two weeks before the opening, that’s a really good sign.
apt: Actually, at the two week point, you’re ahead of the game.
MT: I know! I was thinking, “We could totally fine tune this.”
Whistler in the Dark’s performance of Aunt Dan and Lemon runs April 29-May 21 at The Factory Theatre (791 Tremont Street, Boston), as part of Stories, Fables and Lies, a month-long rep series with Mill 6 Collaborative. All photos found herein are credited to Meg Taintor.