Ted Sod: Why did you decide to direct On the Exhale? What do you feel the play is about? Does the play have personal resonance for you, and if so, how?
Leigh Silverman: I think Marin Ireland is one of the best performers that I have ever had the joy of working with. She and I have done three shows together. Martín Zimmerman is a writer I’ve never worked with before, and I am honored to direct his first New York premiere. His intelligence and poetry radiate off the page and made it impossible to say no to this project. I do feel very personally connected to the material, and the subject matter is certainly essential right now.
TS: Would you say On the Exhale is looking into one woman’s psyche, or is it more than that?
LS: I would say it’s an exploration or meditation of one woman’s journey to discovery and understanding.
TS: I know you’re just starting rehearsals, but how do you understand Marin’s character. How would you describe her?
LS: She is an Everywoman. She’s a complicated woman who is learning and trying to reach beyond her current circumstances.
TS: What about the grief factor? Is that important?
LS: She’s experienced unimaginable tragedy, but she’s not even at the grieving stage yet. Something else happens first, and the play explores that moment before the grief.
TS: One thing I love about this character is that she seems to lead with her intelligence. Do you agree with that?
LS: Absolutely. She’s fiercely smart and amazing. She’s a very proactive character.
TS: What is the most challenging part of directing a one-person play? Will you give us a sense of your process as a director?
LS: There’s an overall emotional ride we go on with this play. The challenge of rehearsing it is if we don’t want to do the whole thing, how do you get on a ride half-way through — because it’s such a taut emotional piece. Really, the trick of rehearsing it is a technical one, which is how to explore the overall arc of the play while working out the finer points without having to do all of it all day long.
As a director, it’s rarely my job to personally experience the play the same way an actor does. Instead, my job is to stand outside and guide the process in a rigorous and hopefully artistically satisfying and challenging way for my collaborators and then the audience. It is my job to always have perspective. How the process works is mysterious and different with each project. Every process is a snowflake, and they each require slightly different ways of managing the artistic and technical requirements. That’s where the magic is. And directorial craft.
TS: You have a reputation for doing new work. How do you go about working with a playwright on a new play?
LS: Martín and I met for the first time on the first day of rehearsal, and I had never heard the play before. It’s kind of like marrying someone on the first date. I usually spend many, many years developing a play — sometimes three years, sometimes five years, sometimes more — and so the fact that I am walking into the rehearsal room never having heard the play before is very unusual and quite exciting.
Each writer is different. The way I talk to Martín is different from somebody like David Henry Hwang or Lisa Kron — writers who I’ve worked on three or more shows with, and whom I have a much longer, deeper experience with. I will usually ask a lot of questions and hear what the writer intended and sometimes I’ll say, “That’s really interesting, that’s not what I see here,” and then we talk about whether it might be performative or if it’s a writing question or if I am understanding it correctly. And usually, if the writer is engaged in the process, we find a solution. Sometimes I will have a very strong point of view and I’ll say, “Let me tell you how I experience this moment” or if I am looking for a new line or a cut I will say something like, “Might I audition something for you?” I really try to ask permission before suggesting big. That’s just respectful. Sometimes the writer is open to hearing notes and thoughts and sometimes not, and the director has to know what to say when, and when to push and when to step back.
TS: The Underground space is very intimate. Are you familiar with it?
LS: I am. What’s challenging about it is finding ways to turn the intimacy into a virtue, if you will.
TS: What advice would you give to a young person who wants to direct for the theatre?
LS: See a lot of theatre, think about what interests you, what kind of work you want to do. Develop your leadership skills — and by that I mean how to manage big groups of people and get them to joyfully and enthusiastically do what you want. In the professional world, assist people and sit in rehearsal rooms where you can watch people who know what they’re doing. And then direct all the time -- direct in the privacy of your own living room or in small theatres or at school or wherever, so that you’re making your own work. No one is going to offer you that opportunity when you are first starting out. You have to be someone who can proactively make things happen.
TS: What else are you working on now?
LS: I’ve just finished directing a revival of Sweet Charity for the New Group with Sutton Foster. I’m directing a new play by Madeleine George entitled Hurricane Diane, which will be at Two River Theater in Red Bank, New Jersey and Ethan Lipton’s show called The Outer Space at the Public Theater.
On the Exhale is now playing at the Black Box Theatre at the Harold and Miriam Steinberg Center for Theatre. Visit our website for tickets and more information.
2016-2017 Season, Education @ Roundabout, On the Exhale, Roundabout Underground, Upstage