Interview with Director Giovanna Sardelli

Posted on: January 16th, 2015 by Ted Sod

Jeff Augustin (Playwright) and Giovanna Sardelli (Director). Photo by Walter McBride.

Ted Sod: Will you tell us about yourself? Where you were born and educated? When did you decide you wanted to become a theatre director?
Giovanna Sardelli:
I was born and raised in Las Vegas, Nevada, when it was really just a desert town, so I didn’t get to see much theatre. Right before I graduated, I said, “Oh my god, I’m about to get a degree in theatre and I’ve never seen a play.” My family sent me on one of those theatre trips where you go to London and Edinburgh and see twenty-one plays in twenty days. That trip made me realize that I needed to go to grad school. I got accepted into the graduate acting program at NYU when Zelda Fichandler was running it and Ron Van Lieu was the acting teacher. I started my career as an actor but was never quite satisfied. One day, I was sitting in Zelda’s office having a crisis and Zelda said, “You’ve always had the eye of a director, I think you should direct. Why don’t you come back for another year of education?” At that time, NYU had a directing lab where they would invite three former grads of grad acting for one year of free training in directing. Everything I learned at NYU just gelled, and my career as a director has been so much easier than my career as an actress.


TS: Why did you want to direct Little Children Dream of God?
Wendy Goldberg at the O’Neill Center called me and said that she thought it would be a good play for me and would I like to do it? Well, my first thought was, “Oh, yeah! I want to go to the O’Neill”. Then I  read the play and loved it. Jeff Augustin’s writing is so theatrical, so large in size, scope, and imagination; the play is about intimate relationships and basic humanity. It spoke to me on so many levels because it’s pure, theatrical fun, yet he’s telling a compelling story about people making their way in the world.


TS: Will you talk about your first emotional response to the play?
I think that the great thing about the writing is that every time I met a new character they became my favorite. It’s a rare play where you care about everyone, you follow everyone, you get just enough of everyone's story to invest in their journey and what’s going on in their lives. I think Jeff did this in such a fascinating way. The tapestry of different people that he has woven together, how he makes their stories intertwine, is really beautiful. I was captivated by that. I always find it so refreshing when a playwright brings his or her culture to the story they are telling. It’s eye-opening for the audience.


TS: What has it been like to work with Jeff?
 GS: He has such a special soul. He absorbs and processes everything. He’s gentle, but he’s not a pushover and he doesn’t make changes until he’s ready. He’s got such a unique voice, and I’m so glad he’s being produced at the Roundabout Underground.


TS: It is a really complex piece to direct in the Roundabout Underground space, isn’t it?
Oh, yes, it is. I’m laughing because we’re in the middle of the design phase right now. I feel so lucky because the entire design team is absolutely incredible. Andrew Boyce, who is designing the set, and I have worked together before. He designed The Mountaintop for me at the Actors’ Theatre of Louisville, and I love how we created the design of that play together. I knew he would be a fantastic designer for this because he’s smart, he understands limitations, and his imagination rivals that of our playwright. So, we’re going to figure out how to make this space expand by using imagination. That space, I don’t think, has ever had to transform quite in this way before.


TS: Do you define this play as magic realism? Or cinematic? Or are those terms that have no meaning for you?
I just call it theatrical. I think it would be filed under magic realism on a library shelf, if you were to categorize it, but it’s really just theatrical and imaginative. Part of what makes the play so special is that all of the magic that’s in it is a part of that world and a given in the play. It’s integral to the story.

Photo by Walter McBride.


TS: How are you addressing the changing of location?
We are trying to keep it a surprise. We want the audience to engage their imagination so we want to give them just enough so that they can go somewhere with us, but we’re not filling in all the blanks. I just don’t think we can. So during the play there are some interesting ideas about voids and colors, and right now we’re figuring out all the specifics.


TS: What type of research did you have to do to work on a play like this?
At the O’Neill, there is incredible dramaturgical support, so we came away from there with some amazing images of life in Haiti: about immigrant life, about the specific neighborhood in Miami where the play takes place. One of the members in the cast at Roundabout is actually a Haitian gentleman. The conversations I’ve had with him and Jeff are living dramaturgy. They told me about their families and their food and cultural rituals. I’m also doing research on Haitian religion and vodou, but that’s something I don’t really want to read about -- I want to find somebody who can tell me stories first hand.


TS: Has the play changed much from what you were working on up at the O’Neill Center?
The play has changed because we have been blessed to have great dramaturgs, Sarah Lunnie at the O’Neill, and, of course, Jill Rafson, Robyn Goodman, and Josh Fiedler here at the Roundabout. I think the best thing about the play’s development is that Jeff keeps honing the story. At the O’Neill he cut an entire character and two scenes.  Every change he makes makes so much sense.


TS: What did you look for in casting the actors? What traits did you need?
We needed actors who are larger than life and yet honest in their core being. Everything they do, no matter how big it is, no matter what the circumstances, has to be grounded in reality. We needed actors who have an incredible vulnerability. And, in the midst of all their pain, can also land a joke.  I think it calls for very brave and skilled actors because Jeff is asking them to play with language in a different way and to create a world that’s larger than normal. What we were looking for were imaginative, brave, and bold actors with big hearts.


TS: Will there be original music?
M.L. Dogg is our sound designer, and I chose him because he has such a great ear, not to mention he could easily be a character in the play. We’re having a meeting to talk about Haitian drumming because it is clearly an integral part of the story. One of our questions is: who are we going to hire to provide that? So, there will definitely be drumming, and we will see what else comes to light.


TS: I also wanted to know how you saw this play vis-à-vis this national conversation about immigrants.
I think part of Jeff’s story is why we have immigrants, why they’re fleeing, and what are they hoping to get when they come here. Immigrants make such a contribution when they’re here, and their survival is really based on their community and having a home. The play doesn’t preach, it really just speaks to what happens when you land on our soil. Who’s here to greet you? Who takes care of you? And what happens if you don’t find that? Most of the characters in the play really don’t have a lot to give and yet they are phenomenally generous with what they do have.


TS: The play made me feel that you can be born here and still feel like an outsider.
That’s definitely true with the character of Joel. The feeling of being torn between two worlds, the obligation of being connected to a place is a huge part of the story, as well. We have a few characters who are Haitian-American who are dealing with their relationship to Haiti.


TS: Do you have any advice for young people who want to direct?
If you want to direct, the best thing you can do is meet playwrights. My love has always been new work. I always love creating a story, and in order to do that, one has to meet those people who are the creators. I sought out playwrights. I think what it comes down to is finding the people who are doing what you like and then meeting them. Send out emails to people whose work you admire and ask if you can assist them. I think most people are more generous than you think. If you’re worried about rejection, the good thing is that most people don’t remember that they said no to you. Meet the artists who are making the work you like. And, of course, see theatre.


TS: Do you still feel that it’s a struggle for women to direct in this country?
I do and I know statistically that it’s true. It’s funny, though, because most of my close friends are female directors, and they are all doing well. If I compare our careers to the men of the same generation, I think ours have been a little slower to pick up, and yet we are all working. We are all supporting ourselves. I know that if more women continue to become producers and artistic directors, which is happening slowly but it is happening, it will actively change the gap.


Little Children Dream of God begins previews at the Black Box Theatre January 24. For more information and tickets, please visit our website.

Related Categories:
2014-2015 Season, Education @ Roundabout, Little Children Dream of God, Roundabout Underground, Upstage

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