Between the Lines: A Director Grows in Williamstown
BETWEEN THE LINES – AN INTERVENTION: A weekly look at the creative process through a literary lens.
A DIRECTOR GROWS IN WILLIAMSTOWN
Lila Neugebauer is no stranger to the Williamstown Theatre Festival, having started as a WTF Directing Assistant. An Intervention marks her Nikos Stage directing debut. As rehearsals sped along, Lila sat down with her friend and sometime-collaborator, WTF Playwright-in-Residence Max Posner, to discuss the play, how she approaches directing new work, and her artistic growth over four summers in Williamstown.
[MAX POSNER] How does it feel to be back here, directing on the Nikos for the first time?
[LILA NEUGEBAUER] I feel honored and delighted to be included in Mandy Greenfield’s first season at WTF. To work at the Festival at the galvanizing moment of a transition in leadership is intrinsically exciting. Mandy and I first met years ago when I assisted on a production at Manhattan Theatre Club, and I was thrilled that she thought of me for An Intervention.
[MP] What first drew you to the play?
[LN] Mike’s work excites me first and foremost because of his capacity with language; there’s a propulsive linguistic velocity in his plays. He makes the English language sing in remarkable, hilarious, and wildly intelligent ways. But it’s his investigations into our humanity that really stay with me: this play, like much of Mike’s work, cuts to a core of our being in manner that’s so elemental it’s almost anthropological. He’s interested in how we survive as a species, how we rely on each other and how, on occasion, we destroy or corrupt or betray each other in order to survive. I’m also drawn to writers for whom the personal is inextricably political; the word “intervention” has myriad reverberations throughout the play, both personal and political. When I first read the play, two alternate titles materialized in my brain: An Intervention (or, What We Owe Each Other) (Or, Contracts). This play explores the limits of friendship and what constitutes betrayal in a friendship —
of self, of another. What exactly is the contract of friendship? We have contracts for marriage, for employment; somehow the contract of friendship can be the slipperiest and murkiest of all.
[MP] And, in an effort to fully explore the possibilities of the piece, you’re directing two separate casts. How did that come about?
[LN] The two characters’ text is denoted by the letters A and B, and at the beginning of the play, there’s a provocation that those characters can be played by actors of any age, gender, or ethnicity. Mandy read that and wisely discerned that Mike is interested in how the assumptions we bring to the characters’ relationship differ when different strands of DNA are woven into the play. How does the play operate differently if we’re watching two white men or a white woman and an Indian-American man?
[MP] How did you think about the production design for the piece?
[LN] In this particular play, language and character are far more important than physical architecture. Circumstantially, the encounters in the play occur in a pub, an apartment, and an art gallery. But to literally represent those locations in naturalistic detail felt like it would dilute the event. We wanted the play’s elemental nature to be foregrounded.
[MP] As a director focused on new plays, and as someone I’ve worked with, I think you have a very keen sensitivity to language. This may be nerdy, but I’m curious about the experience of encountering new plays with different kinds of language.
[LN] Part of what is so exhilarating about working on new plays is that it feels like learning new languages. When I pick up a new play, I’m entering what I’m prepared to experience as an alien planet. I try to take nothing for granted about how life works on that planet. I expect that the play will teach me how it works; good plays teach you how to read them as you read them.
[MP] You’re one of a small, vital army of brilliant theatre directors who have come up at WTF. Will you walk me down memory lane? I want to shine a light on the moments here that really shaped you over the years. When did you first come to WTF? What was that first summer like?
[LN] I first came to WTF in the summer of 2011 as a Directing Assistant. I assisted Bob Falls on a production of Jon Robin Baitz’s play Three Hotels and worked with Anne Kauffman on The Civilians show, You Better Sit Down: Tales from My Parents’ Divorce. As a Directing Assistant, you also direct two late night shows with members of the Non-Equity Company. I directed this little-known Anne Washburn play When The Tanks Break and Stephen Belber’s Tape—I vividly remember rehearsing until 2 o’clock in the morning. What else do I remember? I remember that on the first day of rehearsal for Three Hotels, we were all around the table talking about the play, and Bob turned to me and said, “Well, what do you think about it?” I had done a good deal of assisting—which was sort of my version of graduate school in the theatre—but I don’t think a director had ever point blank asked me to share my personal response to the play overall, with the full company, on day one. It was a shocking moment—an amazing moment. I didn’t know it at the time, but the summer I spent as a Directing Assistant at Williamstown was a kind of farewell to assistant directing. I had always juggled assisting and my own directing, but that marked the transition to exclusively doing my own work.
[MP] And from there you were hooked. When was your next visit to Williamstown?
[LN] The next time I came back, I directed a Sherlock Holmes adaptation outside for Free Theatre. That was a revelatory summer in my life as an artist. The thing about Williamstown is that the work happens so fast that you have to be fearless. We had an ensemble of 30, which was the biggest cast I had directed at that point. We performed for crowds of up to 500. Working on that kind of a canvas with limited resources is the greatest gift for a director: you have to trust your first impulses and go big or go home. And what’s better than directing through a megaphone?
[MP] I’m struck by how, in some ways, you’ve stopped in at WTF at crucial turning points in your career.
[LN] Last year I leapt at the chance to be the Foeller Fellow. Even though I’ve spent most of my career directing new plays, Williamstown gave me the opportunity to direct an existing work I love that I wouldn’t have an opportunity to do elsewhere. I wanted to do Caryl Churchill’s Mad Forest, which I’m doubtful people are likely to program these days because it’s so big and difficult. But it’s the kind of play that got me into the theatre in the first place—
[MP] What is it about Mad Forest that excited you?
[LN] I find it utterly electrifying. Churchill is my favorite living playwright, and each play she writes is, in a way, written in a different language, a different form. Mad Forest is particularly astonishing because the three parts of that play all feel like they’re in different languages. It feels like an impossible play to do, so the idea of doing it at Williamstown felt exactly appropriate. Here, there’s a feeling that the impossible becomes possible.
[MP] What do you think it is about WTF that creates that feeling?
[LN] When you work with actors you love in New York, you don’t usually go back to one of your houses after rehearsal and have a BBQ and hang with their kids. You get to do that here. There’s one bar and one coffee shop. The sense of the thoroughly communal unlocks and feeds the work. I love that at the meet and greet on our first day, I walked in and saw Jason McDowell-Green, who I was a DA with and who is now running the Professional Training Program. Ben Truppin-Brown, who was a sound intern when I was a DA and was my designer for Mad Forest last year, is now the Sound Supervisor. To see the people that I’ve come up with at Williamstown here again and again is meaningful and gratifying—and it’s a big part of what allows so much to happen here so quickly.
[MP] It must make it so that even in a rapid process, you’re actually part of a multi-year, ongoing collaborative relationship with this place and a group of people.
[LN] Yes. “Family” is a word that gets tossed around very casually in the theatre, but I think that thing is real here.