Ted Sod: Where were you born and educated? Did you have any teachers who had a profound influence on you?
Rebecca Taichman: I was born in Madison, Wisconsin to two amazing Canadian-hippie-leftists: my father, at the time a young scientist, and my mother, on her way to becoming a social worker specializing in poverty law. I have one sister, Laura, who did her best to protect me from all the dangers in life then – and still now. We moved to Long Island when I was about five, and I grew up there. I went to McGill University in Montreal for undergrad and then many years later to the Yale School of Drama for an MFA in directing. As far as teachers are concerned, the list is long -- to just name a few: Ming Cho Lee, Elinor Fuchs, so many of my colleagues, Sam Gold, Simon McBurney, Mary Zimmerman, Julie Taymor, and on and on. I've also been very lucky to be part of the Henry Crown Fellowship at the Aspen Institute. As part of the fellowship, 20 leaders from various fields are put through a two-year series of seminars on the ethics of leadership and social responsibility. The Crown Fellowship has been the single greatest learning experience of my life. Some of my greatest teachers were in that group: the 19 other fellows and the leaders Peter Reiling, Skip Battle, Tonya Hinch, and Ben Dunlap.
TS: You directed a revival of Time and the Conways in 2014 for the Old Globe in San Diego. Why did you choose to direct this play?
RT: The play came to me through Barry Edelstein, Artistic Director of the Old Globe. He called me several years ago and said, "There is this extraordinary play by J.B. Priestley called Time and the Conways. I would like to produce it, and I think you are the right director for it.” I read the play that night - and couldn't put it down. I remember reaching out to Barry the next morning and saying, “I’m in. Just tell me when and I'll be there.” I think Priestley a genius and the play a neglected masterpiece -- at least in the U.S. As soon as the Globe production opened, I hoped to do it again. I pitched the idea to Todd Haimes, Artistic Director at Roundabout, and he said yes.
TS: Does the play have personal resonance for you? What do you think the play is about?
RT: Time and the Conways is about so much. On one level, it’s the story of an upper middle class British family just as the upper classes were about to tumble and how, over time, they are hurt by their own greed and narcissism. They are characters from another time and place but feel oddly familiar, and their story feels important and resonant to us in the United States today.
On another level, the play is about our perception of time. With this play, and in many of his plays, J. B. Priestley is challenging our perception of time as a linear arrow, shooting ever forward. Time and the Conways suggests an alternate view of time, one in which the past, present, and future are available all at once. It's a hard thing to wrap one's mind around, but Priestley was writing at a time when time and space were being redefined by new breakthroughs in science and technology – much like our own sense of the world is being transformed by the internet and social media. In Time and the Conways, Priestley proposes that the past, present, and even future are coexistent with each other. I think that Priestley was proposing a sharpened sense of the wholeness of our lives, offering his audience an invitation to release themselves from the panic of being “on a sinking ship,” moving ever closer to death. This was a social awakening as much as an aesthetic one. Theatre, Priestley understood, was the perfect medium in which to communicate this idea – being a place in which, as he once wrote, “Everything still exists: that life of the voice, that gesture, that look, they are still there. [Theatre is able to] recapture the past that has not really vanished at all.” Priestly manages to marry these streams – the story of a family in Great Britain and his ruminations on what he called the “time problem” in the most theatrical of ways. The form of the play and its content are so brilliantly entwined that they reveal and release each other.
TS: Can you give us some insight into your process as a director? How did you prepare to direct this play? What kind of research did you have to do?
RT: When I directed the play at the Old Globe, I did an enormous amount of research and of course was greatly aided by the dramaturg there: Danielle Mages Amato. Right now I am working with a wonderful dramaturg, Drew Lichtenberg, who is again teaching me so much. I am still trying to understand the context of the play as deeply and intimately as I possibly can. Also, and this is true for anything I direct, I read the play over and over and over until I think I know it on the cellular and the cosmic levels. With a play like this, I also like to ask the company to share in the research. In this case, for example, I have asked Gabe Ebert, who plays Alan, to research the theory of time in the play and share what he learned with us in his own way. Each actor is researching a topic that relates intimately to the character they are playing. I find it is a wonderful way to get the whole room engaged in the research together and bring the world of the play to life. I first heard about this idea from Mark Wing-Davey, and I love doing it.
TS: How do you understand the characters of Kay and her elder brother, Alan, at this point in your process?
RT: Kay and Alan are privileged with sight in the play, and capable in some ways of moving from past to present and back again. Alan is partially the voice of Priestley. In the middle of this story of corrosive classism, Priestley creates this humble, unambitious, beautiful character who offers an alternative view, a way of looking at life that unspools the greed and narcissism that infects this family. Alan is the tender-hearted, surprising hero of the play. He envisions a world driven by love, rather than panic and fear.
Ultimately, the play warns against a life of greed, and Alan sees it all most clearly. Kay has glimpses of understanding and struggles to see the larger picture Alan seems to perceive so easily. Many of the play’s ideas relate to what is happening in this country now. We are grappling with greed overtaking the country, with a 1% who can’t seem to see past themselves and an enraged working class that feels it has been rendered invisible. All sense of larger community is broken, and we are divided. Priestley writes about this in Time and the Conways and sees the same basic dynamic unfolding in Great Britain during the years between the first and second World Wars. Despite containing what sounds like the classic ingredients for a tragedy, I feel the play is full of hope. That hope is personified in the characters of Alan and Kay. The fact that they can sense another path for the future invites us to believe that we can, too.
TS: What did you look for in casting the actors? What traits do you need?
RT: Actors who have a tremendous facility with language and can make the language feel visceral and real -- not distant -- so that the action is deeply lived and alive. We also need actors capable of great emotional complexity and range. In the play, they age 20 years. They have to be able to access two sides of one character with grace and dexterity. Not easy, needless to say.
TS: How are you collaborating with your design team?
RT: Working with such extraordinary designers is a thrill. It’s a very collaborative process that is iterative. I ask lots of questions – that lead to more questions. Designers this good bring exceptional ideas to the table, and I respond.
TS: Are you using original music?
RT: There’s a piece of music by Dustin O’Halloran that we are using. It exists on one of his records, which I listen to obsessively – especially when I am dreaming about the play. Somehow it takes me to the center of the play every time I hear it. Matt Hubbs, our sound designer, found it and brought it to me. What a gift.
TS: Do you have any advice for young people who want to be theatre directors?
RT: Being a director for the stage is a very hard life. I believe that if you can do anything else and be happy: do it. For a lot of people there really is no choice. I just couldn’t imagine doing anything else. It’s the lens through which I see the world. So, if directing is something you absolutely must do, then my advice is: fight for it with everything you’ve got and don’t give up, even when it seems impossible. It’s a complex journey with all kinds of twists and turns. Go, go, go, and don’t allow yourself to be driven by fear, but rather by faith or hope.
TS: How do you keep yourself inspired as an artist?
RT: As a director, I think you are a vessel through which a story flows. You’re translating that story onto the stage. I view my job as ever searching for the most evocative, theatrical, moving, and honest way to tell the story of the play. The story for me is the inspiration and guides every choice. As long as the story truly compels and moves me, that’s all the inspiration I really need. I have been very lucky to tell stories that I believe are important and deeply moving, like the one in Time and the Conways.
2017-2018 Season, A Conversation with, Time and the Conways