Education Dramaturg Ted Sod interviews the director of Significant Other, Trip Cullman.
TRIP CULLMAN: I am a native New Yorker. The only times I haven’t lived in New York were when I was at college and then drama school both at Yale. I knew from an early age that I wanted to make a life for myself in the theatre. My parents took me to plays and musicals all the time growing up, and the onstage worlds that I was exposed to seemed to me the most wondrous, magical places. I wanted to be a part of them so badly. My fourth grade teacher was also a playwright; his name was Ronald Bazarini. To this day he was the most influential person in my development as a theatre artist. He was truly the greatest teacher. He wrote and directed our fourth grade play, which was about the founding of Rome. In an all boys school, I was cast as the mother of Romulus and Remus. I borrowed two of my sister’s Cabbage Patch dolls to portray the twin babies and wept during the performance as I left them on the banks of the Tiber. I was hooked.
My senior year of high school was my first directing experience. My drama teacher selected a group of us to direct an evening of one acts. The rest of the kids decided to do these sweet, charming little plays. I decided to do Sam Shepard and Patti Smith’s Cowboy Mouth. The drama teacher had to put my play at the end of the evening and make an announcement before it ran that anyone easily offended by strong sexual content and foul language should feel free to leave. It was thrilling. Through college and for a few years afterward, I continued to act. But I got frustrated being directed by people who I felt didn’t know what they were doing. I remember thinking, “I could do a better job than them.” Furthermore, as it turns out, I was a spectacularly mediocre actor. There were many people who could do a better job than me in that field. So I decided to concentrate on directing exclusively.
TS: You have directed a lot of new plays. Why did you choose to direct Significant Other? How do you collaborate with a playwright on a world premiere?
TC: I saw Joshua Harmon’s Bad Jews here at the Roundabout a few years ago and was blown away by it. When I was offered Significant Other, I leapt at the chance to work with him. I pretty much can tell instinctively from the first read of a script whether I want to direct the play or not. I remember sitting on my couch and laughing out loud and then crying as I read Significant Other for the first time. I had just gone through a really bad breakup, and the play’s evocation of loneliness and its yearning, aching heart moved me deeply. Early in the play the main character Jordan says to his best friend Laura: “I know life is supposed to be this great mystery, but I actually think it’s pretty simple: find someone to go through it with. That’s it. That’s the, whatever, the secret. And so then that’s the hardest part. Walking around knowing what the point is, but not being able to live it, and not knowing how to get it, or if I ever even will...” The simple, painful truth of that shattered me. I knew I had to direct the play.
The collaboration between a playwright and a director on a new play is extremely intimate. The playwright is entrusting a director to bring to three dimensional life no less than the deepest expression of his or her soul. It’s an awesome responsibility. There has to be enormous trust. If the playwright is the author of the text, the director is the author of the production. And for the production to be cohesive, the communication between director and playwright is crucial.
TS: What do you think Significant Other is about? Does the play have personal resonance for you and, if so, how? How do you see the relationship between Jordan and Laura?
TC: Significant Other is a contemporary play about loneliness. It also – radically, I think examines the nature of friendship between gay guys and their best girl friends. Too often on television and in film and also on stage we see a stereotypical, two dimensional representation of this friendship. I can’t think of another piece of art that examines this topic with more unflinching honesty than Josh’s play. The majority of my closest friends are women, and Significant Other rather perfectly reflects the complexity of those friendships in my own life. The intimacy of Jordan and Laura’s friendship evolves over the course of the play. As Jordan remains single and Laura finds her soul mate, this is inevitable, and really rather heartbreaking. Jordan says to Laura, “We were best friends when we lived together or when we spent every weekend together, or when we talked multiple times every single day and we don’t do that anymore, not even close. You wake up next to Tony and you fall asleep next to Tony and when your Mom pisses you off you call Tony and when you’re sad you turn to Tony. But I haven’t found someone to replace you...All the things you got from our friendship, you get from Tony now. Which is great. But all the things I got, things I really need – I’m not getting them from anyone, and then you tell me I’m your best friend but it’s so different, it’s so, so different and I feel so alone, Laura...” The honesty of that passage just kills me.
TS: Can you share a bit about your process: How do you prepare for directing a new work? Do you have to do any research about the world of the play?
TC: The process of preparing to direct a new play is different for each piece I work on, but there are some constants. I always create a playlist of songs that for me help evoke the feeling of the play. The songs more often than not don’t find their way into the production, but they help me feel what I eventually will want the audience to feel when watching the play. I also read and reread the play hundreds of times, and take notes for myself in the margins when ideas spring to mind – a staging idea, an image, a thought about design, an observation about theme. I look at a lot of art as well. I was an art history major in college, so visual art is a really useful tool for me.
For example, there is a Diane Arbus photograph of an older lady sitting in her house with these billowing gauzy curtains behind her – and this image was the basis for the character of Helene in Significant Other: her costuming, the set design of her home. I also meet many, many times with the playwright and get a good sense of his or her vibe, asking the playwright a million questions and really trying to get inside his or her head. Writing a play is a lonely business, and directing a play is the opposite – it is all about collaboration. So in fact preparing to work on a play is a lot about conversations – with the playwright, the designers, the actors, the producers, the casting director, the marketing people, the technical director, etc. It’s my job to get us all on the same page.
TS: What did you look for in casting the actors? What traits did you need?
TC: The adage that directing is 90% casting is in fact true. Other than the relationship with the playwright, the collaboration between director and actor is the most intense, the most intimate. I need to find actors I can trust, who I feel will be brilliant, and fun, and hardworking collaborators. Actors who will reveal things about the characters that would have never occurred to me otherwise. This to me is a million times more important than the superficial requirements of how they look or their “star power,” etc. In the case of Significant Other, it was vital first and foremost to find an actor who could confidently handle the role of Jordan: someone who could make you laugh hysterically one second and then break your heart the next.
Jordan is a huge, huge role. The character is alarmingly verbal and he has these massive, bravura arias cascades of language really. The trick was to find someone who can handle the character’s verbosity with ease and whom the audience will root for unequivocally. Gideon Glick is more than up to that challenge. It was important to me to cast his best girlfriends – Laura, Vanessa, and Kiki – in a way where the audience truly believed that they could all be close friends. And to distinguish the three characters in as specific a way as possible. Laura is the heart of the play, Vanessa is the intellect, Kiki the fun. Laura is the friend you call to come over and eat ice cream on the couch with as you get over a heartbreak. Vanessa is who you have deep conversations about art or politics with. Kiki is who you call when you want to go out and get drunk. Lindsay Mendez, Carra Patterson, and Sas Goldberg will delight in these roles. Luke Smith and John Behlmann are tasked with portraying several characters in the play. Their skills at transformation, as well as their inherent humor and charm will add immeasurably to the fabric of the production. Finally, the great Barbara Barrie will essay the role of Helene. Helene is Jordan’s “Bubbe” – his beloved grandma – and their relationship is perhaps the most touching in the play. I have been a great admirer of Barbara’s since Private Benjamin and Breaking Away, and I am so lucky to be able to work with her.
TC: How will the play manifest itself visually? How are you collaborating with your design team?
TS: Significant Other is a challenging play to design. There are many, many scenes in many, many different locales but having scenic transitions would be death. As Josh writes in the forward, “The scenes of this play should bleed into each other. Because love bleeds. Ugh.” So the major task of the design was to allow the world to transform magically and in a split second – without a turntable, without flying scenery, without automation all of which would slow down the way the “scenes bleed into each other.”
Mark Wendland is a brilliant set designer. This is our sixth collaboration, with several more planned in the coming years. He has become one of the most important partners in my artistic life. I always say that designers make the best dramaturges, and Mark is the sine qua non of deep readers of play texts. The dark, mercurial, abstract world that he has made for Significant Other is evocative of the play’s lonely, fragile heart. It feels like the contemporary equivalent of the original set for Williams’s Glass Menagerie where the memories and isolation of the main character become three dimensionalized in the sceneography. Japhy Weidman, who collaborated with Mark and me on Simon Stephens’s Punk Rock earlier this year, is an extraordinary artist. I can think of no other lighting designer working today who can evoke mood as brilliantly as he.
This is my first time working with Kaye Voyce, whose costume designs I have always been a huge fan of in other productions I have seen. She has her work cut out for her on Significant Other, with its series of lightning fast quick changes. She is more than up to the task. Dan Kluger is a magnificent sound designer, whose work with me earlier this year on Halley Feiffer’s I’m Gonna Pray For You So Hard was impressive in its rigor and exactitude. I think Significant Other will have an almost continual soundscape – the paradoxical sound of being alone in a city of millions of people. Joni Mitchell has a lyric, “But when he’s gone me and the lonesome blues collide/The bed’s too big, the frying pan’s too wide.” The design of Significant Other will evoke this notion of being alone in a world meant for couples, the pain of a single person moving through that world.
TS: Was turning 30 a traumatic event for you and if you haven’t reached that age yet – do you expect it to be?
TC: Haha – ugh! I just turned 40 this year so turning 30 was like an eternity ago. Jordan says in the play, “I know I’m still young, I know twentynine is not thirtynine, but...” I died a little when I read that line. Jordan would think I am an old man! But I do remember the anxiety and apprehension of approaching my thirties. Will I find love? Will I make a name for myself in my career? What will it be like to become a fullon adult with, like, responsibilities?
TS: How do keep yourself inspired as an artist? Do you see the work of your peers? Travel? Read? Go to museums?
TC: I love seeing the work of my peers. My generation of fellow theatre directors are an impressive bunch, and I think our aesthetic sensibilities are quite radically different from those of the generation above us. I think we bring a more downtown, experimental sensibility to the work we do. I always learn something from seeing the work of Leigh Silverman, Annie Kauffman, Daniel Aukin, Alex Timbers, Liesl Tommy, and Sam Gold among many others. I do love to travel and read, and try to do so as much as I can when I am not in production. But my favorite thing is to cook and do hot yoga. I am obsessed with both and try to bring my full creative self to those pursuits in the same all‐consuming way I tackle a directing job.
TS: What other projects are you working on besides Significant Other?
TC: Right after I open Significant Other I travel to New York Stage and Film to workshop a new musical by Stephen Trask, Peter Yanowitz and Rick Elice. I then go straight to the Williamstown Theatre Festival where I direct the world premiere of the musical Unknown Soldier, by Michael Friedman and Danny Goldstein. I then have the opportunity to direct Bess Wohl’s Barcelona at the Geffen in L.A., and Halley Feiffer’s amazingly titled A Funny Thing Happened On The Way To The Gynecologic Oncology Unit At Memorial Sloan-Kettering Cancer Center Of New York at MCC. I’m also working with my frequent collaborator Leslye Headland on her new play The Layover and developing a new musical by Adam Bock and Justin Levine called Halfway Home for MTC.
Significant Other begins previews May 21 at the Laura Pels Theatre. For more information and tickets, please visit our website.
2014-2015 Season, Significant Other