Ted Sod: You’ve directed Don’t Dress for Dinner before, correct?
John Tillinger: Yes, I did.
Is that where Artistic Director, Todd Haimes, saw it or did you bring the project to him?
Todd saw it in Chicago when I directed it there in 2008.
What attracted you to the play and what made you decide to direct it again?
Comedy is hard, in my opinion, and not everybody realizes that. At any rate, I had enjoyed Boeing-Boeing quite a lot. The recent Broadway revival that Matthew Warchus directed and Mark Rylance starred in. And this play, which is also written by Marc Camoletti, is almost the same. It’s in the same genre. It’s very challenging to get it right. Certain elements have to be correct for it to really fly. So that was one of the reasons.
I always wanted to do a play in Chicago and when I first directed it, it was around the time of the last presidential election—a very exciting city to be in. It was just a good project for me to do at that time. And what happened was that despite some misgivings initially, it took off almost immediately after the second or third preview and the audience was screaming with laughter. There’s nothing I like more than laughter in the theatre or in life. So I was really pleasantly surprised by that and it seemed to work. When there was talk of it being done in New York at Roundabout, I was very pleased.
It’s perfect timing for our season because we’ve had a dramatic first half.
Exactly. I do think people need to laugh from time to time. I think that goes for any difficult period in our lives. I am very pleased to be able to do it again.
This play has had very long runs in France and England.
Don’t Dress for Dinner is in the tradition of a Georges Feydeau farce. It ran in London for seven years, which is really a long time. I think the initial production of Boeing-Boeing ran in London for about four or five years. That’s an enormously long run.
Why do you think this play is so popular?
Some people like to go to the theatre and have a good time after they’ve had a hard day at work. A couple of drinks and a good laugh and you go home feeling terrific. It’s not illuminating about infidelity and so on. It’s just fun. It’s silly and fun.
Would you describe this play as a comedy or farce?
It’s very hard to define in this particular case because usually farce is about doors slamming and so forth, but this play is more about misidentification. There are a lot of farcical elements in this play, people chasing around and being hit and smacked and falling over and all that. So, it is more a combo of farce and comedy. If you call Feydeau a farce, then it’s a farce. If you call Feydeau a comedy, then this is a comedy. Don’t Dress for Dinner is a bit of a hybrid.
The best definition of farce I’ve ever heard is when somebody should call the police and they don’t.
That’s pretty good. One tries to keep it as real as possible. Two things have to be real: the setting and the characters. It’s the situation that goes out of control. Or, conversely, the situation and the setting are real and the people are out of control. This play is quite funny. The circumstances get out of control and everybody behaves in a crazy way, which can sometimes happen in life I think.
You’ve been at your craft for a long time; did you have to do any research to do this kind of play?
Not really. The research is really what I’ve learned by working. The revivals of Joe Orton’s plays I’ve directed were very big hits for me. I just responded to Orton’s work the first time I encountered it. I thought so much of the writing when I read Loot without even seeing a production. In fact, I never saw a production until I directed it. I just respond to that kind of humor. Orton’s plays have a very specific language. I call it Ortonese. This has more ordinary language, not the sort of ornate, witty language that Orton uses. I learned how to make it work. I study the script as much as I can. For me, most productions are a thing of discovery. I like actors to explore things and we work it out together rather than me dictating it. Some directors have it all worked out before the first day of rehearsal and that’s great, but it doesn’t work for me.
John Lee Beatty, the set designer, tells me it’s now happening before the women’s movement—was that a conscious decision?
Well, you know it is a French farce. Marc Camoletti, the playwright, was French despite his name. The attitude toward sex in France is very different than in America. We live in a puritanical society. People seem to think that we live in a very open society, but one minute there are people talking about their penises and orgasms on television and the next minute we’ve got people getting very hot under the collar because somebody said the f-word or whatever. The women’s movement has nothing to do with this play really because the women do what they want to do and the men do what they want to do. It’s about sexual conundrums.
What were you looking for in casting the actors? What traits did you need?
People who were adept at comedy. Somebody like Jennifer Tilly who I think is probably the best-known here in the states. I’ve never directed these particular English actors before, but they know how to do this kind of material. One of them auditioned on tape and it was exactly what I was looking for. When you have to try and explain why something’s funny to the cast then you’re in trouble. I needed to have performers who understood how to play the material. It’s all about the rhythms.
How are you collaborating with your extraordinary design team and how will the play manifest itself visually?
We’re setting this play earlier than it was written because the designers and I thought that it would look better. And it has to be set in a time period before cell phones, because if cell phones existed, none of the plot would have happened. We’re just going back to the old conventions. I’ve worked with all these people before, which is why I was so glad that they responded and that they wanted to work with me again. John Lee Beatty is doing the set which is gorgeous. I’ve seen the drawings of it. And then we have William Ivey Long designing Balenciaga-like costumes. People will come to the theatre and see people who live the kind of life that we don’t live anymore. I think one of the major attractions of Downton Abbey, whatever you may think of it, is that there are elegant people dressing up and behaving in a very studied manner.
It’s a return to an elegant lifestyle.
A return to major elegance, yes.
Is there a particular character in the play that you relate to?
To all of them, really. I like all of them.
I rather like the character of the cook.
She is the lynch pin of the whole plot because she is caught in the middle of this thing and she is working it for all it’s worth. You know, the whole point of it is naughtiness. It’s an old fashioned word, but it is naughty fun. In the end, the two couples go off and the cook and her husband go off together. Everybody goes to bed with the person they’re supposed to go to bed with.
Are you still inspired by certain people’s work or by going to museums or traveling?
I am. Peters Hall and Brook and then Mike Nichols influenced me. When you see a really great actor or actress, it’s just thrilling. I may be 900-years-old but I still get thrilled and it’s wonderful. Working with Julie Harris was very inspiring. I was feeling a bit disillusioned when I directed her and she was so great, so dedicated, it put me right back on track. Same goes for many others: George C. Scott, Stockard Channing, Nathan Lane and Eileen Atkins. Recently, I saw Alan Rickman in Seminar and he was spectacular, effortless. I also read a lot and I go to museums. I am very much dedicated to being stimulated by visual things. I think that one of the reasons I like being a director is I get to be stimulated by everything, not just the literary aspects of a play, but the visual as well.
Did you have any great teachers who inspired you?
I worked in the English theatre. I’m not English, but I grew up there. I just consider myself very lucky that I grew up when there were all these really great actors working. I saw Gielgud, Richardson, Olivier, Scofield and Guinness when I was eleven or twelve and it knocked me sideways. So they were my teachers. I thought, “I want to be part of that.” Initially, I had wanted to direct Fred Astaire movies but then I changed course and worked in the theatre. That’s where I learned my craft, by the doing of it rather than from teachers.
What advice would you give a young person who would like to direct?
I think one of the great things you can do is to work with other directors. You know, I’ve had one or two assistants who’ve gone on to win Tony Awards. I’m not saying that I was a huge influence on them, but I think that’s the way you learn, to watch and to work with a director you admire. You learn that way, even if it is how not to direct a play. See as much as you can and then direct. I think it’s much better to dirty your hands.
How did John become “Joey”?
Joey became John, I’m afraid. My real name is Joachim and nobody seems to be able to pronounce it, so people called me “Jo”, and after a while people said, “You can’t call yourself ‘Jo’." So my agent persuaded me that John would be better and I regret it, but there we are. I wish I just left it Jo. Joey is the name everybody knows me by. It’s also very useful to me because if someone comes up to me and calls me “Joey”, I realize I know them.
Is there anything else you want to say about the play or your work?
I want people to have a good time and not examine the play for its social value or whatever. I love Ibsen and Chekhov too but sometimes a part of theatre-going is to have a good time and relax and have a laugh and go home. It’s not an earnest examination of infidelity and the trouble you can get into. It’s about foibles of the heart and “what fools these mortals be.”
Don't Dress for Dinner plays at the American Airlines Theatre through June 17, 2012. For more information, click here.
2011-2012 Season, A Conversation with, Don't Dress for Dinner, Education @ Roundabout, Upstage