In October 2007, something astonishing inside of a nondescript, modest black-box theater stood as a stern reminder of what practitioners and critics often forget: space matters. Also, space doesn’t matter. Universities of stripes major and minor, sizes big and small, concoct well-funded (or not well-funded) theater programs and think, “Gee, wouldn’t it be best to give our budding actors, playwrights and directors performing spaces of heft?” However, the very best programs understand that one needs a room, a box, to make a play. And imagination.
The black-box in question was the Gloria Maddox Theater, which is the production hub for T. Schreiber Studio. Terry Schreiber is a New York stage institution. He has been teaching acting and running a school for so long it could elicit a gasp from Thespis — provided Thespis didn’t remember back as far as 1969. The production wing offers some of the most spirited independent-theater work in New York City right now; a play called Sister Cities, by Colette Freedman, sported a setting by George Allison, was the something astonishing: the multileveled interior of the strife- and tsuris-ridden ancestral home of the characters in the play. Not an inch of the space was wasted: an area of the “house” extended nearly to the entrance of the house. The set, the space’s transformation, the ability to weave it into something aesthetically united required imagination. Who helmed the production? Cat Parker.
Parker has been flying under the New York theater radar for so long — no, no Thespis joke here. But she is one of the most impressive directors at work today. Her fundamentals include an exactitude about story, a precise view of the characters and an artful way of drawing character out of the psyche of an actor.
Parker is now staging a revival of Tom Stoppard’s Rosencrantz and Guildenstern Are Dead, running at the Maddox Theater (151 W. 26th St.) from Oct. 15 through Nov. 22. For more information, call 212-352-3101 or click here.
And now, 5 questions Cat Parker has never been asked:
1) What’s the most perceptive question anyone has ever asked you about your work?
The most perceptive question was posed by a designer early in my career. He said, “What do you want it to mean?” It was the basic reminder that everything on a stage should mean something. It isn’t just any chair, it’s that chair because — fill in the blank. Playwrights don’t pick just ‘any’ word, they chose that word because — fill in the blank. Actually, in the playwright’s case, because it best fulfills the desired function. I have to give as much attention to every acting nuance, every blocking move, every design decision as the playwright gave to the word. As Stoppard says in Rosencrantz and Guildenstern Are Dead, “There’s a design at work in all art.”
2) What’s the most idiotic question anyone has ever asked you about your work?
Someone once asked me if there would be “previews” of the rest of the season before that night’s play! Umm, right — we’re going to cast, rehearse, costume, block and perform segments of Alan Ayckbourn’s Joking Apart as a lead-in to R & G. Riiiiight…
3) What’s the weirdest question anyone has ever asked you about your work?
Most of the odd questions come from many people’s lack of knowledge about what a director does. They range from “Do you use a conducting stick, like the guy at the symphony?” to “You just tell ’em where to go, right?” Close, but no cigar.
4) Rosencrantz and Guildenstern Are Dead opens with a long scene in which the title characters engage in coin flips. How does a director make this fascinating, pivotal but legendarily difficult scene all at once comic, dramatic and interesting?
We are incorporating a bit of the dramatic with the inclusion of Hamlet in the scene briefly (can’t tell you more, would ruin the surprise!), and Stoppard’s words take care of the comic. The “interesting” is the most difficult: how to show these two men are calm yet terrified, stationary yet traveling, curious yet apathetic. You have to cast well and then provide the audience — and Ros and Guil — a way to connect with each other.
5) How do you think R & G, Stoppard’s breakthrough play, compares with his later work? Did you read any of his later work to try gaining insight into the play? For a director, what’s the most challenging aspect of staging the piece?
Yikes! Major questions, those. Yes, I’ve read his other work and seen several productions of them. I’m in love with his ‘voice.’ It’s easy to say that he has gotten more emotional in later work, but I’m not sure that it isn’t just that it’s easier to see in later work. There’s plenty of emotion in R & G, but it’s veiled, covered over by the things we all use every day to avoid emotion: conversation, games, ambition, challenges, escapism. It’s a tricky thing to act: “Hi, I’m scared but I can’t show you that I’m scared, so here’s me pretending to be scared while pretending not to be scared.” Whew!
As for staging challenges, well, R & G offers several of those. If I had a dollar for every time the script says, “And he disappears,” I might have enough money to actually pull it off! And, just in case things weren’t challenging enough, we decided to stage it in the round. It has been a lot of fun, but it does raise the difficulty level a notch.
6) Do you think audiences are more accustomed or open to meta-theatricality today than when Rosencrantz and Guildenstern Are Dead premiered in the 1960s? If so, how does that affect your approach as a director, thinking about how an audience might receive or interact with the play? Is there a call for heightening the meta-theatricality or toning it down? Is that even possible?
I think audiences are more accustomed to it, certainly. So my approach has to be how I walk the line between achieving the goals of the playwright and hitting the audience on the head. On one hand, the playwright is pointing a finger at art talking about art, theater talking about theater, and unreal, non-living characters talking about the reality of death. On the other hand, audiences today, and New York audiences specifically, are more sophisticated. You have to up the ante to get their attention, but without tipping the scales on “shock for shock’s sake.”