Education Dramaturge Ted Sod sits down with Director Daniel Aukin to discuss the major themes in Skintight and the intricate relationship between Playwright and Director.
Ted Sod: This is the third time you and Joshua Harmon are collaborating on a new play: What do you think makes a successful playwright/director collaboration that’s ongoing?
Daniel Aukin: I think if it were easy to define then we would all be following their recipe. I think there’s an element of “who knows?” to it – it’s mysterious. I’ve had multiple play collaborations with playwrights, and when I’ve had those experiences, like the one with Josh, I try to approach each collaboration as if it’s the first time and not take for granted the previous collaborations. I just try to come to it as fresh faced as possible. I think it’s a better question to ask of the playwright than it is of the director since Josh picked me.
TS: What I’m curious about is if there is a shorthand that comes after multiple collaborations?
DA: Sure. Over time, as you become accustomed to the rhythms and vulnerabilities of both parties, there’s a lot of checking in. When does one or another of us need space? There comes a time in the rehearsal process, especially on new plays, where I feel like it would be better for the production if the playwright is not at every rehearsal. That can be a sensitive conversation to have -- negotiating that, giving and taking, what a new play needs at any moment. A director wants to be completely respectful of the playwright’s authorship and ownership of the text, but you also want the actors to feel like they own the performance they’re giving. How one gets there can sometimes involve the playwright letting go for a period. It allows the actors to go their own way and make their own mistakes and discoveries. I think for Bad Jews, Josh was in the rehearsal room 90%-95% of the time. And on Admissions he was there probably 85%-90% of the time. I’m not talking about a lot of time away, but sometimes there are moments where I feel like it is better for the actors if there isn’t somebody who they imagine has the answer to everything – whether they actually do or not -- in the room.
TS: Can you talk about your immediate response to reading this script? How did the writing in Skintight resonate for you personally when you first read the play?
DA: In the case of both Admissions and Skintight, the draft I first read was in a very early stage of development. And even then, there is this tremendous aliveness to Josh’s writing. He has a way of using this medium of the dramatic play to work out things for himself. I feel like there is an urgency to what he’s trying to interrogate that is very personal. And it’s not an academic exercise. That’s been true of all of Josh’s writing that I’ve been exposed to. That sense of urgency and passion is always coming across. That, in a way, is for me a more vital aspect than to be able to come away from reading a piece of writing and saying, “I know what this means and I know how he’s exploring it.” When I read Josh’s writing, I have a feeling of being present with an artist wrestling with complicated and multi-faceted questions.
TS: In Skintight the world of fashion and alpha gays figures prominently in the storytelling and how that world comes into collision with family values and aging. How did you prepare to direct this play? Did you have to do research?
DA: I think one of the things that Josh is interrogating is the culture’s fixation and obsession with physical beauty and youth. And I also think, quite separate from that, it is a play that is about an emotional, familial battlefield. My focus is also on these characters as people more than anything. I have done a lot of research about things to do with fashion and aging and with our culture’s obsession on youth. But, to some degree, because the writing is what it is, the play takes care of that. It’s my job to focus on character behavior that feels endemic and plausible and dynamic and true.
TS: Will you talk about what traits you need from the actors cast in Skintight?
DA: It’s really hard to talk about that. You know it when you see it. Very often, the person you cast is actually doing something that you didn’t know you needed. It’s like “Oh, that’s actually something I hadn’t even considered.” I get excited about an actor bringing in a dimension that I hadn’t imagined. I go in with some kind of a blueprint, but the process of casting can be one of discovery too. What would it mean to have this actor against this other actor? Imagining the pairings, imagining the ensemble. The difference in rhythms, the difference in energies. What do the actors bring to the stage when they are doing nothing? We all have certain energies that we give off even when we think we’re doing nothing. Casting isn’t like putting a target on a wall and trying to hit that target. It’s putting a target on the wall and discovering that the target was misshapen and it wants to go in a different direction that you hadn’t anticipated. Very often with casting, the goal posts keep moving as your understanding evolves.
TS: How does rewriting come about for you and the playwright on a new work? I imagine you might have to be very delicate about approaching a playwright with any suggestions you may have?
DA: Yes, it’s very delicate, and the variables change as the process progresses. A lot depends on where you are. It can take some time before newly rewritten material becomes second nature. It’s easier to execute changes to the text earlier in the rehearsal period. Then with a writer who rewrites through previews up until the very last minute -- which Joshua can be -- one has to understand the consequence of making changes one feels 50/50 about. One can be freer with auditioning changes early on in the process, but as you get deeper in, the cost/benefit risk of a new piece of material and the time it takes to become fully integrated becomes a factor.
TS: And the preview audience I would imagine gives both the writer and the director ideas.
DA: True. There’s some things you might feel 50/50 about changing and one of us will say, “Let’s wait to see what happens in previews. Just because we feel ambivalent about a section of material, we may be dead wrong. So, let’s not fix something if we don’t know for sure.”
TS: What do you think motivates Jodi and Elliot -- is this some parent-child relationship that got stuck in the child’s adolescence? What is going on there for you?
DA: I do have strong feelings about some of these things. But I also think that it’s important not to say that there’s a single reading of it. There are entrenched, complicated behaviors going back to Jodi’s childhood and her relationship with her father that are unresolved. I guess I think it will be an open question for some audience members, the degree to which they may judge or feel that Elliot is somebody who didn’t need to have children. How important is having children and grandchildren in his life? To what degree are they an integrated part of who he is? To what degree are they a burden or a distraction?
TS: Do you feel like Jodi might be making the same mistakes with her son, Benjamin, that her father made with her?
DA: I don’t think they’re the same mistakes. That’s my gut. I think there’s a lot to unpack between the two of them, but it doesn’t feel like it is the same complicated relationship that she has with her father – so, no, I don’t think of it as replication. But, as I say this I haven’t yet begun rehearsals, so…who knows?
TS: I’m curious what you think is going on between Elliot and Trey – is their relationship purely transactional?
DA: I think one of the things that is so deft about the writing of Trey is that for some audience members he’ll be very easy to dismiss. But there is a truthfulness about his behavior. I don’t think he has great illusions about the transactional relationship universe that he’s walked into with Elliot. He doesn’t even see that as problematic, nor does Elliot.
TS: I love that a central argument in this play also deals head on with women and aging and the way women are treated once they pass 40 in this country. Did you have to educate yourself on this subject?
DA: I have a lot of women over 40 in my life. And I have the writing and Idina, but it is true I am not a woman so there are aspects to what it means to be a woman in America at this time that I only see from the outside. So, I will be relying not only on Idina’s responses and impulses, but also female friends and colleagues who come to see the play and whose counsel I engage with during previews to figure out if we’re speaking to that aspect of the play in a truthful and unvarnished way.
TS: I understand you’re going to be working with us again next season.
DA: Which is exciting. I will be directing Stockard Channing in a play by Alexi Kaye Campbell entitled Apologia in the same space.
2017-2018 Season, Skintight