Ted Sod: Where were you born and educated? When and why did you decide you wanted to become a theatre director? Did you have any teachers who had a profound impact on you?
Tyne Rafaeli: I was born in London to American parents. My parents worked in the film industry, and they worked for American networks their entire careers. I’m deeply connected to London as a city but don’t have any real familial connection to the UK. I was a very serious child gymnast from the age of 6 to the age of 14, but I got injured. When sport left my life, theatre entered. Physical and visual artists like Pina Bausch, Simon McBurney, Peter Brook, and Ariane Mnouchkine were my early introduction to what theatre could be. I was lucky enough to be accepted into the Guildhall School of Music and Drama as an actor, and that was a very rigorous classical education from the Greeks to Chekhov to Shakespeare. It was at Guildhall that I met Patsy Rodenburg, who is one of the foremost Shakespeare teachers. She took me under her wing; she was the first person first to identify that I had a director’s instinct. I worked with her for many years after graduating Guildhall, and worked as an actor on stage and film, but gradually my directing work phased out the acting work. I was offered a generous scholarship to Columbia, and I went to grad school there for directing. Anne Bogart runs that program, and she is an extraordinary educator. Anne opened my eyes to the craft of directing. And it was really at Columbia that my early experimental influences, my classical education, and my desire to do work on a bigger scale all came together. It was at Columbia that I met Bartlett Sher. I met him through Anne, and Bart brought me on board as his assistant for Golden Boy on Broadway, which was my real first step into the professional American theatre. Bart Sher has had a profound influence on me and has been the most transformational teacher of my artistic life. I think we did about six or seven shows together. We share a value system. We share a frame of reference. We share a sense of humor!
TS: Why did you choose to direct Usual Girls? What do you think the play is about, and how is the play relevant to you?
TR: Ming Peiffer, the playwright, and I were put together by people that I greatly trust, and the first time I read the play it shook me at my core. It is a celebration of the wonders and mystery of growing up as a woman in the world. It also shines a microscopic light on how we treat young women. And it has a very particular perspective of an Asian-American woman growing up, especially in relationship to her body and sexual identity. I use the word “celebration” specifically, because Ming has a wicked sense of humor and a strikingly honest voice. This play could not come at a more perfect time. It doesn’t come down on any side. It’s not political with a capital P. It’s human and, as I say, it shines light on things that I have never experienced in the theatre: how our bodies work, how silenced we are about our bodies, how as young women we discover things without any real guidance. Within the community of young girls, you are discovering things that there are no roadmaps for: what is this stuff that’s coming out of my body? What are these things that are growing on my body? What are these impulses I have? What are these feelings I have? Why am I treated this way by the world? We put words to them as a collective because no adult is giving us words that accurately describe our experience, so it’s funny and wondrous watching these girls in Ming’s play try to put language to the mystery of growing up as a woman.
TS: What do you find most challenging about staging the play in the Underground? Is it the space itself?
TR: Yes, the space is going to be an enormous challenge because we travel in time and location. We go from the characters being seven years old to being 30 years old. We jump from a playground to a bathroom to a basement (any many places in between!). The set designer, Arnulfo Maldonado, and I are excited about finding a way to do it in that small space. What I like about the space is its forced intimacy. We’re going to be looking at these girls very close up, and I think that’s incredibly important.
TS: I want to talk about the relationship between Kyeoung and Anna. It feels like that is the one relationship that has a beginning, middle, and end among the girls, and there’s a sexual overtone to it.
TR: The relationship between Anna and Kyeoung is incredibly complicated, and the sexual overtones are there. Sexual exploration is common between groups of girls growing up but very rarely dramatized! I don’t know what it’s like to be a young boy in the world, but I certainly know what it’s like to be a young girl. As a young girl growing up with a group of other young girls, you are exploring your sexual identity together. You feel certain things. You’re experimenting. Nobody is telling you anything, so who do you have to turn to except each other? That can create certain feelings and certain connections that are not articulated. It’s very beautiful, natural, and joyful. And then society starts to work its way between these two girls, and separation happens as they are trying to survive and identify with groups of people that they think will protect them. A kind of tribalism starts to set in. It wedges a gap between these two girls that goes to a very extreme place, but it is this kind of thing that we all share. We all start together in the sandbox, and then this differentiation and distinction starts to happen, and that can be cruel and painful. I guess the question the play is asking is, “Is it necessary?”
TS: I love this word “tribal.” One of the things that seems tribal in the play to me is this casual racism towards Kyeoung.
TR: I think it’s expertly woven into the play. It adds a whole other level when you have an Asian-American female protagonist. The play wrestles with being an Asian-American woman in the world and how people perceive you sexually, and also how you perceive yourself in terms of standards of beauty. We have elevated and made primary white European standards of beauty, which has caused enormous problems. Being a young Asian-American girl and trying to fit into those ideals is a very painful and complicated experience.
TS: Can you talk about the development process? How did that work?
TR: The play has changed and shifted significantly since Ming and I have been working together. Some of it has been purely dramaturgical, some of it has been in response to how the world has shifted. I think the hardest question Ming and I have grappled with—that I’m sure that we will continue to grapple with—is, can a female story be triumphant? We have come to the conclusion that the act of articulation is the triumph. The act of speaking about our experiences is the triumph. That’s what we’ve experienced with #MeToo in the last year. Have we solved gender discrimination in the world? Absolutely not. It’s a work in progress, but the active articulation that we have experienced in the last year—hearing these women’s stories, people feeling like they can talk about their own experience, talk about their oppression, talk about what they go through on a daily basis —that is an act of triumph for us. That is what Ming and I also feel about the play. Active articulation is the triumph. And that’s something we are working on making clear in the play.
TS: What traits did you need from the actors in order to cast this play? Obviously you need actors who can play various ages, but what else were you looking for in casting?
TR: The casting process was very important. It was crucial that we have the right spirits at the center of this play, and I’m thrilled by the actors that we’ve been able to find. We needed actors who have a very open relationship to the universe, who are incredibly intelligent without being too knowing. There’s a purity that makes the play very, very funny. You can’t approach this play with cynicism, you can’t approach it with acidity.
TS: What keeps you inspired as an artist?
TR: Oh, my God, that’s a very complicated question. On the deepest level, what inspires me as an artist are acts of courage. Courage in both the artistic and personal realm. I think that’s what I am moved by. On a practical level, I definitely go into the world of dance and into the world of film to get a lot of inspiration. I go into the visual medium of film and the physical medium of dance to shake things up in my own work.
TS: Do you have advice for a young person who wants to direct for the theatre?
TR: I would say two things instinctively. One, to be a great director I think you have to be a student of the universe. So, I encourage you to travel, to read, to look at other cultures and how they create and what their practices are, before perhaps getting a formal training. And then the second thing is, there is no one path to doing what we do, which is enormously liberating and frustrating. Sometimes it’s helpful to have a path, but with directing, there really isn’t one. Listening to one’s own instinct and not allowing too much noise in is very important.
2018-2019 Season, Usual Girls