Pillow Talking’s Interview with DARKO TRESNJAK
Someday Productions LLC and Pillow Talking are proud to present the following interview with DARKO TRESNJAK
DARKO TRESNJAK’S name has become synonymous with great, innovative theatre. He won a Tony Award for directing Broadway’s long running A Gentleman’s Guide to Love and Murder. For the past five years, he has been the theatre gods’ special gift to Hartford Stage in Connecticut, serving as its Artistic Director. He has brought his love of the classics such as Shakespeare to new generations of theatre goers while creating new and unique shows like his forthcoming Anastasia. He has worked with legends, masters, and icons. Darko is a visionary who brings out the best in each actor in every production. He says, “I never forget that it’s not me on stage.”
Pillow Talking is thrilled to have caught up with Darko who took time out of his busy and hectic schedule to discuss theatre, directing, technique, process, and countless other things. Sitting with Darko Tresnjak is like being in the presence of brilliance in the way he both lights up a room as well as what he brings to the art of theatre. Read on for a frank and engaging interview.
Darko — thank you so much for granting us this interview! We know you’ve been interviewed many times before. Since we consider ourselves more than just press, but theatre fans and creative artists as well, we like to structure our interviews more like informal conversations. We are sure we will cover some things in past interviews, but we hope to cover new ground as well.
PT: If you don’t mind, we’ll begin with the standard question. What led you to the theatre and was there a defining moment for you growing up when you said, Yes, that’s what I want to do?
DT: I’ve mentioned it in past interviews so many times, so I’m struggling how to make it fresh [for you]. But I saw the opening ceremonies of the Olympics in ’72. And I was like – I’m going to do that. So I staged my first play – which was the Olympic Ceremonies (laughs) with all the kids on the street and that was the beginning.
PT: Did you come from a theatre background?
DT: No. I don’t come from a theatre family. But from that point on I was always directing plays. If there were no children to play with me, then I would make puppet theatres and design sets out of Legos. So I think it’s always been with me since we came to the United States when I was 10 years old. I started going to Arena Stage and Kennedy Center and all of the great DC theatres. I was directing before I even knew what that really meant. It’s in the blood.
PT: You said you family wasn’t in the theatre, but did they expose you to it?
DT: The first thing I remember is seeing King Lear when I was seven years old so we skipped the children’s theatre (laughs). But I remember everything about King Lear, so yes they did. And I remember laughing at a Phaedo farce when I was eight. But growing up in DC it was just wonderful. And then I started ushering at the Kennedy Center when I was in high school and that was great. So I got to meet many great people. By then I had the bug.
PT: But you did do some acting, right? You started out as an actor?
DT: Yes and no. I always wanted to direct – but right out of college, when I finished at Swarthmore College, how do you start a directing career? By then I had a great deal of dance training so I joined the Puppet Theatre Company and toured with them across the United States and Japan over a period of five years and I worked with several dance companies. For some reason I started getting many choreography grants. My major was English literature from Swarthmore College – a great school, so right away I could turn out a mean grant application. So I started getting funds, but for dance, not theatre. There was much more dance funding which is really weird if you think about it. And then my friends noticed that there was less and less movement and more and more speaking and plot in the works that I was doing. And they were like, you need to go back to theatre. And so I did.
PT: What’s interesting is that we have been seeing many shows with puppets lately. We just recently discovered that the Connecticut Repertory Theatre Company at UCONN has an MFA in puppetry.
DT: Yes they do. In fact, we performed there and taught a few master classes. And that was about twenty-five years ago.
DT: Yes. It is one of the few places in the country where you can get a degree in puppetry. One of our staff members here and another of our staff member’s husband are studying there. So we have two people who are products of that school.
PT: We’ve read some of your past interviews when you first became Artistic Director of the Hartford Stage and you had to follow your predecessor’s agenda starting out. But now, five years later, what is on your agenda for Hartford Stage?
DT: I like to say that the only rule is not being predictable. And always to go with the most exciting projects that we can line up. I look at the way people talk about season planning and programing, and I think it’s not that we don’t think about it. We think about it all the time and so many factors go into it. But I always say go with the most exciting programming that comes along. So I’m not afraid to switch things around. But once we make human commitments then we stick to them. In this season we announced for next season, four plays and it just wasn’t time to announce the last two until something exciting came along. Well, it came along last year. We had a project that I wasn’t so sure about and then a friend was like, Would you like to direct Rear Window with Kevin Bacon? I was like, Sure.
PT: (Laughs) That’s definitely hard to say no to!
DT: (Laughs) Yes!
PT: And now you are working on Anastasia. (Stephanie) I have daughters who now are teenagers who loved the movie.
DT: Are they all coming?
PT: (Laughs) We have seven children between us – we have to work that out! But we are excited about it!
DT: The movie has a huge following.
PT: (Wayne) I know that you are working with another of my heroes in the theatre on Anastasia – Terrence McNally. How is it working with him?
DT: It’s a blast. It’s wonderful. Last night he broke into a Bob Fosse routine on Pratt Street which is more excitement that Pratt Street has seen in a while (laughs). I saw the picture on Facebook. He’s wonderful to work with and it’s a great honor. And then the composers, lyricists – in theatre they’re known as Flaherty and Ahrens – they are like Rodgers and Hammerstein. They are a brand. So it’s a wonderful group of people to work with and hang out with.
PT: We know you have the rights to the animated movie and the Ingrid Bergman movie. We’re sure putting it all together is a huge undertaking and Terrence McNally has a big part in doing that. But as director, how do you approach a project like Anastasia which has so many different facets including multi-media, and the fact we are living in such a multi-media society?
DT: It’s really interesting because when you take on something like this, nothing takes more time than a world premiere musical. And I’ve directed operas, plays, musicals, operettas – nothing takes more time. It’s years of development. I’ve been working on this already for three years.
DT: You have to make sure you’re right for the project – otherwise it’s dishonorable to take on something that you’re not right for. So one has to have a great connection. You mentioned the multi-media thing and what I like to tell people is that every age in theatre uses all the theatre technology that is available to that age from the Greeks to the Baroque era to our time. So with this particular show, it’s an interesting marriage of heart, storytelling, music, and technology. It’s exposing our audience to a whole new thing that we’ve never tried. I don’t want to reveal too many surprises (laughs). People sometimes say, look at what theatre artists are doing and I’m like, well they have only been doing it for the past twenty-five centuries.
PT: (Laughs) That’s true. How do you think social media has affected live action theatre?
DT: The changes are huge, you know. It’s an odd thing to talk to members of the press about but I think it’s probably difficult for people who work in journalism in some ways. But it’s interesting for people who work in theatre and I’ve come to really embrace it. We create our own publicity, if you know what I mean. We get a great deal of hits – is that what you call it?
PT: (Laughs) Yes, hits, visits, views. We keep a constant watch on those things.
DT: Yes. So it’s shifting a great deal. Our box office has, for example, what’s called a heat map. It tells us where people come from who see our shows. We notice that for Shakespeare plays, people are willing to travel from different parts of the country – from schools, universities, they come. The reach is further when we do musicals – the map becomes a national map. People are coming from New York, people are coming from all over to see Anastasia. So it has changed a great, great deal.
PT: Do those statistics become part of your programming decisions?
DT: You know, it’s interesting. Years ago Jack O’Brien, who is a great mentor, he told me, just be careful about giving audiences too much sugar – then you can get an audience that likes candy – you know what I mean? So we always strive for quality, but sometimes we do things that are more entertainment. But then last year I made sure that we did a play, Reverberation. There was a great deal of nudity and it was a very sexually frank play, and the audiences loved it. We had subscribers who have been with us for fifty years saying, “This is great that Hartford Stage is doing this!” That’s the thing. You have to shape the subscriber base, I think. A few years ago a friend of mine, Nicky Martin who ran the Huntington Theatre Company, wanted to do a very controversial play. And he said, Well we lost a few people – but we got a few really interesting new people; and we come out the same. And I truly believe in that.
PT: (Stephanie) We’ve been to many plays and sometimes I am one of the youngest people there. And I’m surprised because the play appeals to me, but it also appeals to older audiences as well, even the more provocative plays that you might not think would appeal across all demographics.
DT: One of the things I wrote about when I applied here is that we don’t accept so many things in theatre and we shouldn’t – you know what I mean? But ageism somehow is still okay. It’s real interesting in that people say, The audiences are getting old. And I’m like, It’s great that somebody is in the seats. (Laughs) The problem is not who is in the seats but rather who is NOT in the seats. I actually program for the senior citizen crowd and I’m proud of it. They are really loyal.
PT: (Stephanie) I think that the way I look at things, personally while I’ve gotten older, I’m still the same person. So when did someone stop having the same interests as they did twenty years ago?
DT: Exactly. Ageism is a horrible thing in the assumptions that older people’s views change as we move through life. It’s ridiculous (laughs).
PT: Yes. But in the same token, we also love seeing young people in the theatre. As we said, we have seven children between us of varying ages (from 11 to 19) and we try to expose them to many things.
DT: It must be rough bringing up kids today. I don’t think theatre will hurt them (laughs).
PT: We agree. So tell us, how do you pass the theatre baton to young people?
DT: It’s interesting. We reach 20,000 students in the state of Connecticut through our education programs. Some of it is short term and other programs have followed through from year to year.
PT: How do you handle criticism as an artist? (Stephanie) I really loved your take on Shakespeare’s Romeo & Juliet. It was so dynamic – it gave me goosebumps. But theatre is subjective. How do you handle it when someone maybe tries to say you bastardized something by making it more contemporary?
DT: My feeling about Shakespeare in particular is that there’s no such thing as traditional. People wearing Elizabethan outfits doesn’t make it traditional all because that clothing means something different than it did when Shakespeare was alive. So there’s no such thing. I think people call it The Renaissance Faire mentality, but it doesn’t necessarily make it authentic to a contemporary audience. And the other thing is – especially with Shakespeare and after directing twenty-five plays – I kind of – at the end of the day, seek my own approval. As an artistic director I track everything because that is my job. As a director I don’t actually follow the press for freelance things. I’ve actually gotten very good at not reading what is written about me.
PT: (Laughs) We hope you read our interview!
DT: (Laughs) Interviews are fine. But reviews are different.
PT: (Laughs) We have only given you great reviews!
DT: (Laughs) But someday you may not and that’s okay!
DT: When it gets amusing, I remember one critic commenting when I did Hamlet and asking, Why do the actors turn out to look at the audience? I was like, if the reviewer doesn’t know that that is the basic tenet of doing Shakespeare plays, then why should I seek out their approval? That’s directing Shakespeare 101 – how it was done in his time. So does something like that bother me? No. Am I amused? (Laughs).
PT: Do you think your stature in the industry has anything to do with it?
DT: I will say that you’re an underdog up to a point. The moment you win a Tony Award you’re never an underdog anymore. Going into Anastasia, people look at my work differently.
PT: Because of the demands and expectations?
DT: Yes, yes. So I miss my underdog status.
PT: You’re no longer under the radar.
DT: Yes, but at the same time when I won the Tony I got to thank my mom on national television so of course I’m grateful, and it has opened many doors in many venues, partially for Anastasia, and many other things so I don’t really mind. But you’re definitely not coming in under the radar anymore.
PT: We’re sure that puts a bit more stress to an extent on you knowing that people are looking at your work with more scrutiny.
DT: It does.
PT: (Wayne) I also was an English Major and a big Shakespeare and Milton fan in college. And when I heard you were going to do Romeo & Juliet, I said to myself how are you going to take one of Shakespeare’s most produced plays and make it fresh and engaging? And then when I saw it, I was so impressed with everything – from the acting to the scenic design.
DT: Well, before you were asking about what goes into planning a season. I don’t mind saying that as one of Shakespeare’s most produced plays, it’s very tough to portray the Capulets, the Montagues and the world of the prince – it’s a huge canvass. And we knew that we could only do one huge period costume piece a year given our staff. If you are going to do it well – and I’m not going to do it badly – so I knew it wasn’t going to be Elizabethan when we programmed it. I know theatres don’t usually like talking about finances and things like this, but I don’t mind talking about it because we are all subject to practical things. And knowing we were going to do Anastasia, we started building costumes in January and planning it so I knew that Romeo & Juliet had to be a more contemporary construction.
PT: But you came up with so many phenomenal ideas, the bicycle, the flashlights, the lighting and shadow work – they were all incredible effects that enhanced the performance.
DT: The bicycle thing – that was really fun. We know that that scene takes place at night and I love playing with flashlights. I’ve actually done that a lot. When I did Titus Andronicus the first time, I did entire scenes with flashlights.
PT: Titus Andronicus! I was going to ask you about that.
DT: I did entire scenes with flashlights.
PT: Wow! You have to have your actors completely spot-on to pull that off.
PT: So not only did you direct one of Shakespeare’s most popular plays, but you also directed one of his least produced plays when you were at the Old Globe in San Diego, Titus Andronicus.
DT: I did it in Canada, too, at the Stratford Festival. It’s one of my favorite plays.
PT: (Wayne) It’s one of my favorite plays as well, but I’ve never seen it because it’s so rarely produced. It’s on my bucket list to see it.
DT: Well, you will see it at Hartford Stage. We’ll do it one of these days.
PT: That’s fantastic! What was it like directing Titus Andronicus?
DT: Titus is a really violent play. And I think the reason why people find Titus disturbing is the reason why people find Quentin Tarantino movies disturbing. [Titus] is the original Tarantino movie. It’s a comedy. It’s a comedy with violence. It’s one of the funniest plays that he wrote. I think the point is the humor intensifies the horror of human existence, so it’s a dramatic strategy; but I think if you really do it as written – if you really point out the jokes – and I’m glad I did it – but if you do it well not everybody is going to like it. In both venues I had many people fainting in the audience. There was a woman in San Diego who passed out. And then her sister was trying to help her and then she passed out. So we had ushers taking out these two sisters in the middle of the show.
PT: Wow! In a very twisted way you know you did it right then.
DT: (Laughs) Yeah, I know. But I do love it. I think it’s an incredibly smart and imaginative play. And it was one of his early breakthroughs. It was actually box office gold. We know that the audience flocked to his Titus.
PT: Yes. (Wayne) Well you made my day by saying it’s coming to Hartford. Because as I said, it’s on my bucket list.
DT: (Laughs) I seem to have made many people’s Shakespeare bucket lists because I directed The Two Noble Kinsmen three times, Pericles, and a lot of the Shakespeare titles. So I thought, I’ve done enough of the obscure ones, now I have to do famous ones (laughs).
PT: What is your process when you approach a play as a director and with your actors?
DT: I’ll just riff a little bit. When I commit to doing a play, as I’m reading it, in the margins I’m always scribbling those initial impressions. Those are huge – which is on an instinctual level. When I get images as a director I write them all down. There’s a reason why things, visions come to us in a subconscious way – there’s something right about that. And then for Shakespeare especially, tons of research. But I don’t do it the closer we get to rehearsals because a director’s job is not to write a thesis paper. You have to have a very clear point of view. If you listen to everything that has been written about Hamlet, you’re going to have a completely schizophrenic production. So the idea is to do as much research and go, Oh, this rings a bell. And then with actors, I really do gravitate towards, especially when I’m doing Shakespeare or when I’m doing a musical – I think highly technical, trained actors who can do justice to Shakespeare’s language or to Flaherty and Ahrens’ music. So technique is everything. They have to do it in theatre eight times a week. So somebody who doesn’t know how to take care of their vocal instrument or physical instrument is not going to make it. Right now we are having a huge dance day [for Anastasia] – our dance call is going to be eight hours non-stop and they have to know how to warm up, how to take care of themselves. It’s pretty much the same doing a Shakespeare play, a role like Hamlet – a role like Juliet you have to have people who have –
PT: Discipline and focus –
DT: Yes. Exactly
PT: We love that in a past interview you said when you are casting you do not worry about race or ethnicity. You cast the best actors for the role. How, as a director, do you work with actors who have different techniques, methods, backgrounds, etc.?
DT: I would say that I’ve been in a pretty good place for a while. For plays, we go through an extensive audition process. For Anastasia, for example, it took several years.
DT: Yes, we went back to auditions over and over again – first round, second round, third round – sometimes fourth round depending on the project. The way I think about it at this stage I have an acting company, really; they are all over the world. They’re in England, they’re in Canada, they’re in Los Angeles, they’re in New York, they’re all over and I can draw on a lot of them – they are people I simply love. But I take a great deal of responsibility about who I work with, does that make sense? So I would say I don’t take careless risks. Risks are good. But don’t take careless ones about casting. And I do check on the people’s training on the resumes. Juilliard still produces young people who know how to act in a Shakespeare play. By the time they graduate, they know every hairpin turn. It’s like a great ballet academy producing talent.
PT: Have you ever recrafted or reshaped things based on the individual you’ve put in the role?
PT: How much do you allow the actors to bring to the table?
DT: You know, it’s really interesting. I envision the [theatre] world completely and the way we do theatre in the United States, we have to. You have to have design ideas. You have to start building things. But the internal arc of how an actor interprets a role – I never do any of that. I never forget that it’s not me on the stage. So people are sometimes surprised, but I think it would be like violating the actor in the role. For example, for Hamlet, the actor who played the role, Zach [Appleman], he auditioned on his iPhone in a bathroom because he was shooting a TV series somewhere. So he sat in the bathroom and did one of the most difficult monologues in that play and he just held the iPhone this way [like a selfie]. And it didn’t matter. I was like, this guy understands every turn of the phrase. He hears Shakespeare’s music the way I do and so I called him on the phone and I said, Let’s do this.
PT: That’s an incredible story!
DT: It’s one of the best stories!
PT: Talk about how technology has changed our industry. He must have been really happy when he got the call.
DT: I don’t think he was that surprised, he was that good. He started studying and preparing the role of Hamlet when he was 14 years old.
PT: That’s incredible.
DT: And he was 29 when he did it here. I said, You started when you were 14? And he was like, Yeah, I assumed that someday someone would cast me (laughs).
PT: Talk about persistence and focus!
DT: He was confident and confidence goes a long way.
PT: (Stephanie) In psychology they call that protective optimism when young kids pretty much think that they can do anything. That belief that they are always going to get what they want…usually we grow out of that (laughs).
DT: Yes, he was that good.
PT: Tell us about your interest in opera.
DT: Well, in grad school I studied with Andrei Şerban. He’s a great theatre and opera director. He took me to France to Opéra de Nice. We worked on Electra together. Dame Gwyneth Jones a great dramatic soprano was playing Electra. And one day the woman playing Clytemnestra was sick and I said, Well I’ll do the blocking. I know the staging. So I did this thirty-minute scene with one of the greatest dramatic sopranos of our time. And I was hooked. I said, I want to do this because the power of her voice was astonishing. So now I try to do at least one opera a year. Last year I did The Ghosts of Versailles at Los Angeles Opera and I’m about to work with Plácido Domingo on Verdi’s Macbeth and a few more operas after that. I think later in my career – ove the next few years, I’m going to very much focus on doing opera.
PT: That leads into our next question. What is your future agenda?
DT: I’m in the process of renewing my contract here. I think it will be three more years and then we’ll take it from there. The subject of film has come up. I have written something and I have a producer who wants to…produce this movie (laughs).
PT: With you directing?
DT: Yes. So I have to find the time in my schedule to do that.
PT: We have to follow you on that project!
Yes. I came up with this idea and it just doesn’t work in theatre. It’s a really cinematic idea. So there’s that. And then, there are a few plays that I look forward to directing here. And then the book writer for Gentlemen’s Guide, he and I are working on a new musical that we are hoping to premiere here. In the next few years. So it’s busy (laughs).
PT: Wow! What do you do in your free time? (laughs) Do you have any? We know all about that. We don’t have any. But we know your husband must be very supportive.
DT: Yes. Right now we bought a beautiful house in Manchester. I’ve only lived in apartments. I didn’t know you could love a house. It’s really beautiful. A mid-century house.
PT: (Wayne) I use to think that, too, until I had to mow the lawn, shovel snow. What’s a boiler?
DT: (Laughs) We are learning. We just dealt with a boiler. But it’s really fun. Right now – for this opera Macbeth – it’s got a rock climbing set. The entire set, the witches are going to be rock climbing –
DT: Yes. So I need to go back to the rock climbing gym this summer. So I’m hoping to take ten weeks this summer and rock climb and get into shape.
PT: (Wayne) I’m envious. Every day I say I’m on a diet. Who are some of your favorite directors? How’s that for a segue? (laughs)
DT: Theatre? Film? Everything?
DT: Hitchcock taught me about what a director does. He was my best education. I saw Vertigo as a kid and I was like, Wow, this is how you manipulate an audience. And American directors like Joe Mantello. He’s an American master. I love his work. I haven’t seen The Humans yet but when I saw Casa Valentina I was like, Okay, this is what a great American director does. He’s one of my favorites. You know Jack O’Brien – he’s a friend. He has versatility – he goes from Henry IV with Kevin Kline at Lincoln Center to Hairspray to Tom Stoppard and everything in between. So I’m inspired by directors who are very versatile. And then my favorite opera director just passed away – Patrice Chéreau. His production of Electra is playing at the Met and I went to see it almost as a tribute to somebody I consider a master.
PT: (Wayne) I grew up on Hitchcock films. And Stephanie and I both teach. I’ve taught cinema studies and showed the class Vertigo and Rear Window and even Psycho, and what I’ve found is the majority of the students today felt the films were slow and dated. They are used to rapid cuts. Even Brian DePalma early films which were really homages to Hitchcock, they felt had better pacing. Have you found something similar to that in theatre? The shortening of people’s attention spans?
DT: I have an opinion about that as I am moving through life. It’s generational. I view things differently when I was ten versus twenty, thirty, forty, fifty. So I think it’s just how we move through life. I noticed that when I started directing people were like, Oh my God, this is the most physical, at times over blocked – I got a lot of criticism early on. That it was like, he has the shortest attention span of any theatre director. And now I suppose some younger people might think exactly the opposite about my work. So I think it’s just how we change through life. But one of my favorite movies to come out in the past few years – and actually I saw it three times in one weekend – Polanski’s Ghost Writer. Did you see that?
PT: No, we haven’t.
DT: It’s old fashioned suspense. The kind that I like. It was just superb. Amazing.
PT: We will definitely have to check it out. Our kids are on their phones, computers all the time. They watch six second videos on Vine. Do you think this shortened attention span in the cinematic media has affected theatre?
DT: Students come in and see our production of Romeo & Juliet or Hamlet or Macbeth and we show it to them uncut and they stick with it. You can tell that it forces them to think differently.
PT: Romeo & Juliet had such great pacing and it was so engaging.
DT: What’s really interesting is that I included much more material – things that are usually cut. I didn’t cut them – like Paris’ role. It’s interesting that you say that because I actually went in the opposite direction.
PT: Romeo & Juliet hooked us in right from the beginning. (Stephanie) You know, I notice with our kids oftentimes they find older productions, especially films to be slow to start – in fact, they’ll sit there on their phones for the first ten or fifteen minutes until they get going. And what’s also interesting, we just saw one theatre production – a revival — and it seemed like it was slow to me. And I asked myself, Am I going to enjoy it? But ultimately it was dynamic and engaging, but it was slow in getting there.
DT: How we think about the set up time, that’s changing. Setting up stories. And it’s in musical theatre, too. I would say it’s like the basic rules. But now the pressure is greater. So like with Anastasia we felt like it was just taking too long to set up the title character, so we reshaped the first act. It’s one of the biggest things we’ve done over the past four to five weeks of rehearsals. We felt it takes too long to get to her. We needed to recraft it so we moved the leading male role to a later point. So we are aware with something like Anastasia that it has an appeal for a younger audience. I guess we do think about it.
PT: As you know, we do He Said/She Said reviews and articles where we (Stephanie especially) combine psychology and film and theatre elements. In fact we were asked to create an Honors course which would highlight psychology in entertainment. When we produce theatre, we are mindful of the humanity and psychology of a piece and how characters can tell a story and how it can manipulate the audience. Do you feel the same way?
DT: Completely. And I love going to theatre, movies or watching a TV show and being manipulated. I’m somebody who is like great – manipulate me – that’s why I’m here.
PT: Yes! It’s like, if I cry it’s because they wanted me to cry. If I laugh it’s because they wanted me to laugh.
DT: Yes. As a director you deal with two kinds of psychology on a daily basis. That’s why I’m starting to design more because that is my form of therapy (laughs) because you deal with the psychology of the characters and then you deal with the psychology of the actors. So right now I have 21 actors that I deal with on a daily basis. I’m like, Why is that person having a good day? Why is that person having a great day? And Oh look, they’re responding to this, they’re not responding to that. So there’s that. And then there’s the separate psychology of the characters and, ideally, by the time the show opens the people just see the characters on the stage. In going back to your question about actors and working with them, I think I gravitate toward actors where in front of the audience you see the character. The ones who can harness their personal issues into art – that’s great, but if it sticks out like a sore thumb then they shouldn’t be doing theatre. Does that make sense?
PT: Yes, it makes perfect sense. It is often said that theatre is an actor’s and playwright’s medium and film is a director’s and editor’s medium. How do you see the differences between directing film and theatre? Or do you see any differences?
DT: Some things are very much the same and some things are wildly different. I think it’s true – that theatre rewards action and film rewards being on an acting level where one can edit things and you can do close-ups on actors face in film. That has been an issue. I’m very careful about who I work with. Sometimes film people decide they want to try and do theatre and they are great at it. But at other times I’ve had issues. The first time I directed somebody with a film background I had to say, You know I can’t edit this. And they were like, What? And I said, You have to say the next line, we’re dying out here. (Laughs) There’s no editing. And with one of the actors I worked with, I was like, You do know we’re sitting everywhere. I can tell you are doing a close-up and that the camera is over here [points] but it isn’t. The audience is everywhere. Conversely what’s really interesting, a theatre friend, an actress with mostly a theatre career and then later she got cast in her first movie – they kept telling her to relax. She couldn’t quite do it at first but then she realized that they can edit things out. Compelling film acting can be very naked, it’s very emotionally exposed. Somebody like Vanessa Redgrave – that level of vulnerability is staggering. It’s frustrating for a lot of my film friends who don’t know what part of their performance will end up on the cutting room floor. But for theatre, they are assured that their presence will be up there. What I tell them is that every take in theatre has to be of a certain quality. The worst night has to be at a certain level and if they can’t hit that level they shouldn’t do stage.
PT: What do you think about getting young people into the theatre? Hamilton is doing box office madness and is bringing many young people to the theatre.
DT: I think musicals bring young people in and good Shakespeare productions. Shakespeare audiences from an early age come to theatre. We’ve seen an increasingly younger age at Hartford Stage. I’m not quite sure why that is. Going back to what you said about social media, there is a lot of pressure. Even regionally. Even a theatre like Hartford Stage, sometimes it seems like every show has to be an event. And every show you have to reach a certain group of people. Does that make sense?
PT: Absolutely. When we see a show at Hartford Stage, we have certain expectations. The bar is raised to a certain level and we expect to see that quality in every show. For example, we loved A Christmas Carol.
DT: Yes, almost twenty years with that production. But again, that has its own set of rules. Seasonal entertainment like Nutcracker and A Christmas Carol, people come for the same. When we refurbish the production – we spruce it up – but you keep everything that people love about it. Ballet companies have tanked because they changed their Nutcracker. People like tradition with perennial productions.
PT: We also thoroughly enjoyed Having Our Say. We wondered before seeing it if it was going to be dynamic and it more than met our expectations.
DT: Well, the two actresses were a blast. Olivia was so modest that she wouldn’t even put a bio in. Yet you look her up and in 1972 she did Roots and won an Emmy Award.
PT: We love walking in and just seeing the setup of the stage before the show starts. It’s amazing what you do in terms of scenic design. (Stephanie) I especially love to take all that in before the show even starts.
DT: With Anastasia – it’s the biggest production in this company’s fifty-three year history – so it’s going to be something.
PT: (Stephanie) so people are going to walk in and be like, Wow!
DT: But then you have to be like, How am I going to do that again? (laughs)
PT: (Laughs) (Wayne) Well, I have a confession to make about Romeo & Juliet. I was so impressed with the set and Stephanie had walked out ahead of me. After it was over, I hung back and went on stage after everybody left to touch the wall with all the names on it. It felt like real stone and real engravings. Security came over and asked me, What are you doing? and I said, Just touching the wall.
DT: (Laughing) The ushers go after me, too.
PT: When I met Wayne he told me he was a child. But I was like, I need a grown up! We already have seven kids!
DT: (Laughs) The woman who played the nurse – Kandis Chappell – she’s a friend and she’s the real deal. She’s an Italian lady and she asked if we could put the names of her relatives on the wall.
PT: Wow! (Wayne) That’s the other thing I asked security. I asked, Where did all these names come from?
DT: There’s a website and we got the names from tombs in Italy between the 1930s and the 1950s, but we incorporated Kandis’ relatives because it meant a lot to her.
PT: That’s wonderful!
DT: They were in the upper left hand corner.
PT: (Stephanie) And I loved Romeo’s [Chris Ghaffari] gymnastic feats — when he did a flip off the balcony.
DT: Do you know what’s funny? That moment on the balcony? I taught him that.
PT: (Stephanie) Did you! Did you demonstrate it for him?
DT: Yes and do you know where he was taught that? Right at this table [knocks on the conference table at which we are sitting]. We started here. We had people sit at either end of the table so it wouldn’t topple over. On the stage when you look down it was a twelve foot drop. So we started right here.
PT: (Laughs) That’s great! Too bad we aren’t videotaping this, we’d love to see you demonstrate it!
DT: (Laughs) Yes. It’s fun!
PT: One of our last questions that we always ask is if you were to sum up your life to date in one word, what would it be?
DT: Wonderful. Every show is like a different lifetime. So you get to live a hundred lives. It’s a great way to live. Yes. Wonderful.
PT: That is the best answer we’ve ever received. Thank you, Darko, for this wonderful interview!
For More Information about Darko, Harford Stage & Anastasia