Constance Shulman (“The Strega”), Trip Cullman (director), and Marisa Tomei “Serafina Delle Rose” from The Rose Tattoo. (Photo by Emily Curro)
BETWEEN THE LINES – THE ROSE TATTOO: A weekly look at the creative process through a literary lens.
During rehearsals for The Rose Tattoo, director Trip Cullman paused to catch up with WTF Associate Director Laura Savia. A Williamstown regular, Cullman discussed his relationship with the Festival, his history with Artistic Director Mandy Greenfield, and why and how this play speaks to him.
[LAURA SAVIA] As a director, you came up through the ranks at Williamstown Theatre Festival, first as a Directing intern, then working with the Non-Equity Company. What did Williamstown give you as a young artist?
[TRIP CULLMAN] In a lot of ways, those years coming up through the festival were about connecting with other young, aspiring theatre artists who would eventually become the people I collaborate with professionally. Whenever anyone says to me, “I want to be an actor, I want be a designer, what should I do?” I always say “go to Williamstown because it is an incubator for talent. The Festival is for people who have the passion to make a commitment to a career in theatre.” As a result, throughout my three shows as a professional director at the Williamstown Theatre Festival, it’s always been important to embrace the “teaching hospital” aspect of this place; I try to utilize as many of the non-Equity or apprentice actors as I possibly can for my productions. In Unknown Soldier, which I directed last summer, for instance, the last scene takes place in Grand Central Station, so I thought: well, we have scores of brilliant young actors — let’s create Grand Central! And so for that last moment, we had 60 actors on stage, 50 of whom were apprentices.
[LS] I want to talk about your history with Mandy Greenfield, who has produced many productions you’ve directed. What is the history of that relationship, and why are the two of you such a good match?
[TC] Mandy and I actually met as undergraduates at Yale, before she was a professional producer and before I was a professional director. And then, my very first professional job in the theatre was as the assistant production manager at New York Stage and Film, where Mandy was the Associate Producer. It really is true that theatre careers are long and unpredictable. But it’s also true that the people you start out with often become the people you end up with down the road. Many years later, Mandy was the Artistic Producer at Manhattan Theatre Club, where she was at the helm of the two off-Broadway theaters. One of the theatres, Stage II, enjoyed a re-launch during her tenure, a re-launch that was largely about committing to bold, new, more experimental work. That season, Mandy hired me to direct both shows in the space. We spent a year working so, so closely together on two world premieres — one was a musical, Julia Jordan and Juliana Nash’s Murder Ballad, and one was a new play, Tarell Alvin McCraney’s Choir Boy. And what I found was a kindred spirit. I’d much rather have a producer who has a vision, who tirelessly and ferociously works to execute that vision in concert and collaboration with the artists who work on the show, than a producer who is simply there to oversee the money and logistics. Mandy Greenfield’s passion for what she does is equal to an artist’s passion for what he or she does, and that’s rare to find in producers. On top of that, she is super smart, super insightful, and super brilliant in her notes and observations on the work. And, I find Mandy to be a deeply funny person. When you’re in crisis mode, when you’re in tech at the Williamstown Theatre Festival and you’re running out of time, it’s better to have someone who will laugh through the crisis with you than someone who’s going to despair through the crisis with you. Having someone to laugh with is definitely better. That’s why I love working with Mandy so much.
[LS] Let’s talk about The Rose Tattoo. Is this the first time you’ve directed a Tennesse Williams play?
[TC] No, my thesis in grad school was A Streetcar Named Desire, so I’ve had a love affair with Williams for a long time –“we’ve had this date with each other from the beginning,” as Stanley Kowalski says in Streetcar. But, this is my first professional opportunity to work on a Williams play.
[LS] What attracted you to The Rose Tattoo?
[TC] It’s an interesting piece because it doesn’t occupy the same place in the canon as The Glass Menagerie, or A Streetcar Named Desire, or even Cat on a Hot Tin Roof. Part of my process for this play has been to try to realize it in a way that reveals its greatness. Frankly, past productions have been staged in a kind of stagnant realism. I think the flights of symbolic realism in this play demand a kind of lyrical poetry in the production values and in the mise-en- scène. Williams said that prior to writing The Rose Tattoo, he had put poetry into the dialogue of his characters, but what he did in this play was to give the characters a kind of blunt realism in dialogue, and to take that lyricism and poetic symbolism and put it into the visual landscape of the play. This is a real opportunity to lean into the moments of visual poetry. The Rose Tattoo is a very intimate love story on some level, about a woman reawakening to herself as a sexual being. It is set against a backdrop that is a tapestry of an almost mythic time in the history of immigrant culture in America. We are in a Gulf Coast town with an enclave of Sicilians who are discovering and shaping their Italian-American culture and identity alongside other, different immigrant communities. All of these things are larger than just this little love story. So to me, it is really important to create the larger aspects of the story – to create that mythic tapestry by utilizing the Non-Equity and Apprentice Companies. Contemporary playwrights don’t write plays like this anymore — the original text has 24 speaking roles in it.
[LS] And Williamstown Theatre Festival can give you that many people, and then some!
[TC] Yes, exactly. And no other theatre can do that. On some level what attracted me to the play was this opportunity to work on a larger scale than I could ever do in New York City. One other aspect of what I found so bewitching about The Rose Tattoo is someone who’s been broken, finding a way to heal and to become a whole. Someone whose potential for vibrancy has been squelched by circumstance. Williams dramatizes her renaissance, her reawakening. If you think of The Rose Tattoo in terms of another great Williams play, A Streetcar Named Desire, we see the range of Williams’ exploration of female sexuality, which in some respects is a metaphor for his own homosexuality. Blanche’s sexuality – her need, her desire, undoes her in so many ways – she is raped and then sent off to a mental institution at the end of the play. In The Rose Tattoo, a woman’s sexuality is glorified, celebrated, and held to an almost mystical level of power and transformation. For me, for all those reasons, the play is irresistible. Especially when you have Marisa Tomei as the totem of that kind of mystical energy. I can’t think of someone more spiritually attuned to that kind of power, depth and sensuality. Furthermore, Marisa’s sensibility and instincts are perfectly attuned to the vibrations between comedy and pathos where this play lives.
[LS] Talk a little bit about music in this production.
[TC] The impulse to have a kind of aural landscape comes from the way in which I read the play. I look at this text almost as an orchestral score. In some ways as a director, I’m like a conductor. Every time Serafina has a crisis moment, for instance, there’s a sound cue Williams has written into the stage directions of the play: the scream of a child, a goat bleating, a truck driving across a highway – he punctuates the text symphonically. I thought that utilizing music would augment that. I felt strongly about using Sicilian and other Italian folk music. If I do my job right, these songs will actually illuminate the soul of the play and the soul of Serafina. The music that has been selected for the play by Michael Friedman – these authentic Sicilian folk songs – are haunting and bewitching, not simply because they’re beautiful, but because they don’t sound like anything we’ve heard before. And, that’s what we’re always after: telling a story – even one like this, one that we think we all know in a way that is new and fresh and startlingly alive for audiences. We want to open the heart of this play for the audience, so they can leave the theater feeling the transformative and enduring power of love and sex and happiness. That is my goal.