Ted Sod: Will you start by giving us some information about yourself?
Leigh Silverman: I was born in Rockville, Maryland, went to High School in Washington, D.C., and I went to college at Carnegie Mellon University. I was an undergrad in directing and a grad student in playwriting. I did those degrees simultaneously because I was really interested in working on new plays and there were no clear opportunities for me to get in a room with a playwright while I was in the directing program, and so the only way to really learn was to be a writer myself. I moved to New York 18 years ago and have been directing mostly new plays ever since.
TS: Because you've been directing new plays, what was it like to make the decision to direct a revival of a musical?
LS: Last summer Jeanine Tesori, the composer, called me and asked me to do a concert reading of her first musical, Violet for the new Encores! summer program. She said, “I really want you to reinvent Violet. I want to see what your ideas might be.” She and Brian were both open to my thoughts and my suggestions. I met with Sutton and she said, “Oh, I love this music so much, but I don't know if this is the right part for me.” I told her, “No problem! This is just a one-night-only concert for Encores!" After the concert it was clear we had all fallen in love with the material and we began the process of trying to bring the piece to Broadway. Happily, the Roundabout was the perfect home for us.
One of the really amazing things about this production, although it is a revival, is that after 17 years Jeanine and Brian are going back to work on it. There are rewrites. We're reinventing the form and condensing the whole thing into a one-act. I think the heart and the guts of the piece is what's being revived, and what's being reexamined is the form. It certainly doesn't feel like a revival in the strictest sense of the word.
TS: How will the one-act version differ from the two-act version?
LS: I think what's exciting in the one-act version is that Violet's whole journey is streamlined and the dramatic arc feels more urgent.
TS: Can you remember your emotional response to Violet when you first encountered it?
LS: I had heard different people sing songs from the score in auditions and loved them. A couple years ago, I was at a benefit for Playwrights Horizons and there was an excerpt from the father's song. I was in the middle of eating a piece of fish or something, and I just started crying. I had always been a super fan of Jeanine's—I love Caroline or Change and can sing every word from that amazing score. So when Jeanine asked me to do the Encores! concert version this summer, I went to Lincoln Center Performing Arts Library and watched the original production. I really responded to this story of a woman trying to find herself and learning to be brave. I think it's also a piece about acceptance and forgiveness. Violet is about going through hell and finding yourself on the other side. It is a profound story, an important story, a moving and poignant piece of theatre. It is a gorgeous, lyrical score, and I am so honored to hear that music every day.
TS: What kind of research did you have to do to enter the world of this play? Did you watch the movie version or read the short story?
LS: I did read the short story. I looked at pictures from the early ‘60s in The South. I'm not familiar with that part of the country; I'm not familiar with the world of televised church healings. I've spent a lot of time with my designers delving into that world and figuring out which parts we want to put on stage. I feel like it has been my task to simultaneously understand everything about where Violet goes on her trip and then find the most theatrical and exciting ways to represent those places. I am trying to understand the politics, the place, and the people. We’re not looking to have a lot of scenery, we're not looking to literally represent the bus, but instead to allude to most everything—to find the clearest and most theatrical choices.
TS: Can you tell us what you were looking for in casting the show?
LS: I was looking to cast people who felt authentic to both time and place and could inhabit Violet's world. But most importantly we needed people who could sing their guts out. Jeanine's music is so complicated and beautiful. We really wanted the group to find the right sound. There's a lot of big group numbers, and so it was about being able to find people who have not only the right sound but the right soul.
TS: How hard was it to find an actor to play the younger Sutton Foster? Was that difficult?
LS: We auditioned many, many young girls and when Emerson Steele walked in, we thought, “Oh my God, she's a young Sutton Foster!” She just looks and sounds so much like her. Of course Sutton is Emerson's idol so it's an incredible fit.
TS: What do you make of the relationships between Violet and Flick and between Violet and Monty? Do you see it as a love triangle, or is it something different?
LS: I think in its most simplistic form it is a love triangle, but I also feel the two men are each looking to get their needs met in different ways, and Violet is looking to get her needs met too. I think that they are negotiating their own anxieties as well as trying to negotiate with each other. They find that they need each other and how that changes during the course of the evening is where the drama comes from. They don't realize how much they all have to learn from each other, and they're all at very high-stakes places in their lives.
TS: They seem to bond over playing poker. Are you a poker player?
LS: I have played poker. I'm not very good at it. We have started playing in rehearsal, and Emerson is a real card shark.
TS: I love the flashbacks to Violet's younger self and her father. How do you view that aspect of the show?
LS: The relationship between a young girl who's lost her mother and a father who wants the best for her but doesn't quite know how to do it hits very close to home for me. Young Vi and her father are struggling to understand each other. They are trying their best, but they have many missed connections. We watch those two characters struggle with blame and guilt. This is what makes Violet so universal—we all struggle with wanting to be understood, wanting to be seen, and forgiven for our mistakes.
TS: Are you finding that things are changing for women who direct, or do you feel like gender doesn't have anything to do with it?
LS: When I directed my first Broadway show, which was in 2006, there was an article that came out about how I was only the seventh woman to have ever directed a Broadway play. And it was shocking to me that there had been so few. And last year alone, more than seven women directed on Broadway, so there has already been a massive shift. I think the place where it's shifted the most is off-Broadway. Off-Broadway is ruled by incredible women directors. It's changing on Broadway, slowly but surely. People are starting to consider gender parity a real priority.
Violet plays at the American Airlines Theatre through August 10. For more information and tickets, please visit our website.
2013-2014 Season, Education @ Roundabout, Upstage, Violet