Saturday, 26 November 2011

Jackson Gay

Jackson is a New York City director. She is on faculty at the New York Film Academy and Primary Stages ESPA School of Theater. She holds an MFA in Directing from Yale School of Drama.  Jackson is the recipient of the Jonathan Alper Directing Fellowship at Manhattan Theatre Club, the Williamstown Theater Festival Directing Fellowship and the Drama League's New Directors/New Works Fellowship. She has directed for the Atlantic Theater Company, Alley Theater, Second Stage Uptown, Goodman Theater and Playwrights Horizon.

Jackson will be leading a workshop, ‘Playwright/Director Collaboration’ at Theatre Alliance of Greater Philadelphia on Dec 7th and and Dec 14th 2011.  For more info on how to join the course please visit

Jackson Gay
Fri Oct 28th 2011
New York, 1pm

What are you working on at the moment?

I have a small production company, that does film, TV and theatre.  And we’re working on a new musical by book writer/lyricist Cheri Magid and composer Evan Palazzo.  It started off as an idea for a screenplay and we all decided it would make a great musical. It’s called First Lady of Christmas and tells the story of Dorothy Shaver, the first president of Lord and Taylor and a major advocate of American designers during the Depression. Sarah Lawrence College here in NY, offered to let us develop and produce it with their students.  Sarah Lawrence has a fantastic theater program and Christine Farrell and Robert Lyons of SLC have been incredibly supportive. As we speak, we are putting it up on its feet and it opens Nov 17th.

Can you tell us a bit about your faculty roles at the NY Film academy (NYFA) and Primary Stages?

At NYFA, I have taught script analysis and acting for film.  At Primary Stages, where I teach the most, I teach scene study, monologue classes, dramaturgy and film producing.  I taught a class devoted to (Bertolt) Brecht and one devoted to Tennessee Williams.  I teach different classes there depending on what the students are wanting at any given semester.  All classes are focused on contemporary work--writers that are emerging onto the theatrical scene and writers who are being produced at this moment in time.

Who or what inspires you?

I have a six year old daughter, Lola, and she’s a big inspiration to me.  I grew up in Texas in a much stricter, fundamental christian upbringing, where we really were told, to be seen but not heard kind of thing and, thankfully, Lola is having a completely different childhood.  My number one joy is seeing her become a strong, spunky young woman. She inspires me because she encourages me to continue to do the same thing and follow my passions.  And she makes me laugh, a lot. The person who has inspired me most in my artistic life is the director Paul Berman.  He is the first person who really honed in on me as a director and pushed me to go for it.  He introduced me to Beckett, Chekhov, Witkiewicz, Muller, Kroetz- writers that continue to have a huge influence on me.  Paul Berman continues to be someone who I turn to and I guess I still seek his approval in many ways, if you know what I mean...

What is your directing approach or style?

I started off as an actor, so I consider myself an actor’s director.  My approach is text based.  I tend to start and finish there.   I try to look at the script in terms of what they are doing, what is the action?  Focus on that and everything else will come out of that.   I love discovering things with the playwright, actors and designers.  Which is why I love working on new plays, because no one really knows completely yet and I like that part of it, figuring it all out together. 

What advice would you give to a director starting out in their career?

I know so many people that didn’t go to grad school, or college actually, that are doing extremely well and are fulfilled artistically and having a great artistic life.  For me, I don’t know how I could’ve done it without going to grad school.  Because I came from Texas and didn’t know anyone on the East coast, it was a way to actually get to work and meet people.  A great way in, is to make contacts with directors that are working in the industry and ask them if you can assist.  And not just assisting on one particular production, because a lot of times you’ll run into problems because the theatre has somebody they want you to use, or that sort of thing.  But to actually ask if you can assist that artist.  Directors do a lot at once and have many balls in the air.  I feel like people can get a lot from from seeing what’s involved in a complete way, doing a lot of different projects at once.  I have assistants I have absolutely recommended for things and that’s how it happens.  People recommended me for things and that’s how I got my foot in the door.  I try to not forget that.

Doing good work is number one.  Doing good work is going to get you more work.  And number two, is who you know.  Some of it you can control and some of it you can’t.  But what you can control is being your own advocate, and inviting playwrights to coffee, assisting directors.  What you can’t control, let it go.  Let it go and do good work.

You are teaching a course soon for PlayPenn.   What is one thing you can give us as an insight to a good playwright/director relationship?

Number one is making sure, before you get into the rehearsal room, that you know what each other’s expectations are and what the playwright wants, what they’re going for.  There are many ways to accomplish that prior to the first rehearsal.  Like having the playwright read the play out loud to you.  That’s an incredibly helpful tool- it’s stunning how much you learn from he or she reading it out loud.  The way they say lines, the tone they have, the beats they take etc etc.  There are so many things you learn without having the playwright tell you anything.  It will keep you from huge amounts of misery and miscommunication.

Dream projects?

I directed this play for my thesis production at Yale, but I have always wanted to direct it with age appropriate actors.  Three Sisters.  Really, I would love to work on any Chekhov play.

Final question.  Is the director dead?


Thanks Jackson for sharing your thoughts!

“Words shouldn't be faster than the thought. Only the thought creates reality.”
 Liviu Ciulei

Wednesday, 2 November 2011

Peter Arnott

Peter Arnott is a playwright and director, born in Glasgow, Scotland.  He has been working professionally since 1985 when The Boxer Benny Lynch and White Rose opened in the same week in Glasgow Arts Centre and the Traverse, Edinburgh respectively.  Plays since then have been Muir, Losing Alec, The Wire Garden, and Cyprus.  He is currently the resident playwright at ESRC Genomics Forum in conjunction with the Edinburgh Traverse Theatre.

Don’t miss Peter’s next play The Infamous Brothers Davenport on at The Lyceum in Edinburgh, January 2012.

Peter Arnott
Friday Oct 28th, 2011
Edinburgh, 10am

What are you working on at the moment?

Yesterday I was doing one of my informal get-togethers at the Traverse Theatre, as part of my research into genomics.  I come to the Traverse bar with some videos and discuss with people who are interested in the issues and bounce things off them.  I am just over halfway through this particular residency with the Genomics Forum and the Traverse.  The first half was very much research, the second half is much more with thinking about what play I’m going to write.

What are some of the topics you are exploring and what are some of the responses?

Medical ethics.  Who owns the tissue in the body?  Once the tissue leaves the body, it becomes the property of the researcher.  Issues with synthetic biology.  Is it a useful idea to talk about human dignities in the context of genetic research?  Also issues about who owns this technology.  What are they going to use it for?  Do we trust them? The industry has a misconception that people are luddites, that they are primitive and superstitious.  That they distrust the technology, because it is somehow unholy and I think that’s not true at all.  What we don’t like and don’t trust, are them.  What was interesting, is that it’s almost an immediate consensus, but people have no problem with technology or with the idea of genetic modification. The consensus is they have a problem with authority, with ownership.  And in a sense, it merges into a more general malaise of capitalism, which we are currently living through.  

What is your earliest theatrical memory?

Being in the King’s Theatre in Glasgow, watching Stanley Baxter doing a pantomime.  The great Scottish comic actor and impersonator and impresario. 

Who or what inspires you? 

I suppose the single most inspirational experience would be going to the Citizen Theatre in Glasgow, in a period of about 15-20 years in the 70’s and 80’s ,where it was a world class European theatre.  Which in a sense, didn’t know what it had.   I saw a production of Macbeth in that theatre when I was about 14, all male, with another great Scottish actor, David Hayman.  He was Lady Macbeth.  There was no lighting changes, no set, everything was done with trestle tables, the actors sitting on opposite side of stage reading a newspaper when they weren’t in the scene… and I thought, I have to do this...  this is too exciting!  I was doomed from then on.  Of course many things along the way have been very inspirational.  A show called Woza Albert, done by the Market Theatre in Johannesburg, 1980-81.  A company called ATC,  did a two-part adaptation of Don Quixote (The Life and Death of Don Quixote) that completely blew my mind.  I saw it in the Oxford University union, in an audience of 5 and I thought this is just GREAT

Have you ever directed one of your own plays?  Any challenges/disadvantages?

I directed my play, Cyprus, in 2005.  The disadvantage is that you don’t get a distance from it.  I am quite good at cutting, and saying, I may have loved this when I wrote it, but actually its crap!  Because it was a very small scale show, it felt like the right thing to do.  We did it in a little theatre in Mull, with 3 actors, all one set, not great technical demands, done like an old-fashioned drawing room drama.  Where you have a mysterious stranger and have to find out who he is-- it’s a secret service play about the Gulf War and Iraq.  We did it in a converted barn theatre and it was all very organic.  We had chickens and frogs coming in during the rehearsals.   What was very odd, was that it then transferred to London, to Trafalgar Studios.  No chickens.

What is your directing style?

Oh.  Blimey.  I don’t think I have a style… I think it’s a basic insight or stolen idea.  A playwright is an actor with a pencil.  Being poetic, philosophical is nice, but not necessary.   What matters is the immediacy of the relationship between the audience and the actor.  If I have a style, it is allowing little to get in the way of that.   Never pretend the audience isn’t there.  I worked with some very good directors and some very bad directors.  The best ones have a way of being in the room, a way of working with actors, collaborators and designers.  Really, it has to do with the way of being a person more than an aesthetic system.

Dream Projects?

One of my best theatrical experiences, an early, formative one, was a play called White Rose, which was on at the old Traverse Theatre in 1985.  Basically I was given a brief, a very strict brief--you’re opening on May the 6th, you’ve got 3 actors, this is the space, this is the set- tiny space and make it big - GO!  Working from that brief, I came up with something better, so in a way, if somebody offered me a dream project, I’d probably hide in a hole because I wouldn’t know what to do with it.  I think theatre works the other way around, here’s the place you’re doing it, here’s whose coming, now think of something. 

Final question.  Is the director dead?

No!  Of course not.  Anyone that brings something into the room isn’t dead.  Directors have a way of being in the room, in which they filter, suggest, and cajole.  Their essential role is to substitute for the audience.  Their job is to make this experience as direct as possible for themselves and through themselves as an audience.  The director of course is an innovation. Most of us are here to avoid making an honest living.  David Mamet, said in one of his books ‘The moment they stop burying actors at crossroads, were in trouble’. The moment that theatre becomes respectable and part of the academy then it’s in trouble.  It should be a disreputable way to make a living. The great directors have been organizers of bad behavior.

Thanks Peter for sharing your thoughts!

“Amazement guides his brush.” Bertolt Brecht