5 Questions I’ve Never Been Asked: Trip Cullman

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Photo by Timothy Greenfield Sander

Fair or otherwise, theater directors, like actors and writers, are frequently typecast in the minds of actors and writers, not to mention producers and occasionally audiences, all of whom may associate a certain director with a certain sort of project. This dynamic is dicier than you may think. For understandable reasons, directors, again like actors and writers, yearn for projects that will unshackle them from their associated norms. This director specializes in musicals, so here’s a play. This director dwells in classical tragedy, so here’s a Chekhov comedy. This director espouses one acting approach, so here’s a project with a theme or style begging for another. Such is the nature of art.

Photo by Timothy Greenfield Sander

Such is also the nature of the business — and brands. And directors, having built a brand, are loathe to toss out the baby with the proverbial bathwater. Which is why, for me, the career of director Trip Cullman fascinates. For me — again, fairly or not — when Cullman comes to mind, I think of plays about angsty x-ers and mythologized millennials: Leslye Headland’s Bachelorette at Second Stage; Adam Bock’s This Drunken City at Playwrights Horizons; the commercial Off-Broadway productions of Dog Sees God and The Last Sunday in June, with all those over-pretty faces. Cullman = hip; Cullman = hipster; Cullman = angsty.

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And now, a curve-ball: I think Cullman knows his strengths and plays to them. Which is to say that the upside of typecasting is that the artist one is typecasting is also a known quantity. Hence, when I receive a press release touting Cullman as director of a play, I have a fairly good idea of what it will be aesthetically and what, as an audience member, I may expect.

(Let me digress here for a sec. I believe the hardest part of writing theater criticism is evaluating direction. Read the reviews of any New York first-night critic and you’ll notice none can meaningfully assess the director’s work. In the last 10 years, one major trend has been to relegate comment on directors to casting choices, which shows a fundamental ignorance of how productions are cast. Many critics could benefit from actually learning script analysis, working with actors, and putting up with the general BS that constitutes life in the professional theater.)

With my impressions of Cullman (who I’ve never met) now out of the way, let’s focus on his latest project: Eliza Clark’s Edgewise, courtesy of Page 73 and The Play Company. The piece is about — well, from the release:

War sucks. Flipping burgers sucks harder. …it’s just another morning at the suburban burger joint where Ruckus, Marco and Emma smoke up, talk smack, and — oh yeah — work. But when a bloodied stranger staggers in, the three teens are forced to choose sides in the grueling war advancing just outside the door.

The cast includes Brandon Dirden, Philip Ettinger, Aja Naomi King, Alfredo Narciso and Tobias Segal. The play runs through Dec. 4 at Walkerspace (46 Walker St.). For more information and tickets, click here.

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And now, 5 questions Trip Cullman has never been asked — and a bonus question:

1) What’s the most perceptive question anyone has ever asked you about your work?
I honestly can’t think of one. Directing is such an inchoate, mysterious art form. No one really understands what we do. You can watch an actor’s performance and assess his or her talent. You can read a playwright’s play and have clear, concrete responses to it. But more often than not I find that people have no clue about what directing a play entails.

2) What’s the most idiotic question anyone has ever asked you about your work?
“How do you get those actors to memorize all those lines?”

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3) What’s the weirdest question anyone has ever asked you about your work?
“Why do you wear such tight jeans?”

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4) It seems like many of the plays you’ve directed deal with relatively young or youthful characters. As a director, what do you know about the under-35 generation that theatergoers don’t?
It seems young people have a very sophisticated, often twisted sense of humor that often is lost on older generations. When Bachelorette was running, the younger crowds howled with the laughter of recognition at the insanely nasty antics of the three main female characters. Yet a lot of the time, older audiences were stunned into horrified silence. I love inappropriate laughter from an audience, as I often find that I am the only one laughing at moments in the theater that make most other audience members very uncomfortable. Edgewise has moments of dark, dark humor. And yet the context of the play is so nightmarish. It will be interesting to see how audiences of various ages react.

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5) Speaking directorially about Edgewise, how do you present a set of flipping-burger kids without making them slacker clichés? Is it strictly about acting or is there something in your staging that makes a difference?
Superficially, the kids in Edgewise may appear to be cut from the same mold as the angsty teens of, say, Eric Bogosian’s Suburbia. Yet the playwright, Eliza Clark, has done something rather brilliant and tricky. About 10 minutes into the play, something happens that makes the audience realize with a shock that things are very, very much not what they had initially appeared to be. Edgewise is concerned with how we react to violence, our own propensity to do violence, and whether decency and morality is even possible in a world ravaged by war. What these kids face during the course of the play mandates that their adolescent inertia is obliterated. They are compelled to act, to react, and to take sides. They are the opposite of slackers.

6) What’s biggest mystery about directing to you? What is the biggest misconception? Is there any facet of the director’s craft that you feel the American theater needs to change immediately? Is there resistance to it?
My favorite aspect of making a life in the theater is that it is a uniquely collaborative art form.

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I love working with other artists to make something vital and interesting. And yet, in the U.S. there is a culture of “serving the play” — that the director is somehow subservient to the writer. This does not exist in Europe. I love writers, don’t get me wrong, but I don’t serve them. I collaborate with them. I’d love to see a paradigmatic shift in the American theater toward recognizing the art of directing as a primary force in the theater.