SDC Member Kim Weild was awarded the first Guest Artist Initiative Grant of the season and was hired to direct Charles Mee’s Big Love at Arizona State University. Kim kept a production diary for us, some of which is excerpted below.
January 7, 2010 – 8:12 p.m.
SDC sends an e-mail announcing the new Guest Artist Initiative Program to facilitate the hiring of SDC professional directors and choreographers for Guest Artist positions at universities around the United States. Arizona State University is chosen to inaugurate the program with their production of Charles Mee’s Big Love (written in 2001 – well before the HBO series of the same name came to fame). Consumed with my own Mee production of Fêtes de la Nuit (about to open in downtown New York at the much beloved and now defunct Ohio Theatre), I make note of the e-mail and vow to read Big Love, research ASU, and apply “as soon as I get Fêtes open”. Weeks go by, but every few days – as though to ensure that I do not forget about it – I receive emails from my colleagues forwarding the SDC announcement, asking: “Have you seen this? This might be for you.” A total of 22 e-mails pointing to this new opportunity are received, so the message is loud and clear. I make sure to apply, lest I tempt the fates into punishing me by virtue of thinking that I am ungrateful to my eagle-eyed colleagues.
March 9, 2010 – 6:32 p.m.
While standing in front of a window in a rehearsal studio, looking out across West 130th Street into the mauve evening sky while reflecting on the day’s work, I receive the first of two calls from Linda Essig, the then Director of the ASU Herberger Institute for Design and the Arts. “Hello, Kim! I’d like to speak with you about your application to direct Big Love. Do you have time now?” “Yes,” I answer, than nervously look at my watch wondering if someone might be in need of the room. I check with the front desk: all clear. Linda gives me an overview of ASU, then quickly gets to the meat of the conversation, explaining the thrust of the training program, that the play was brought to the selection committee by two graduating MFA students (Jessica Weaver and Lee Hanson, who will audition), what ASU is looking for in a director (patience, rigor, discipline, an ability to challenge the students) and asking more pointed questions about my sensibilities as a director, my process, and greater vision for Big Love.
In response to a staging question, I reply, “The playwright has written an extraordinary moment at the end of the play where he imagines 100 actors on stage partaking in a mass wedding immediately followed by a mass murder, and I would like to stage that with 50 brides and 50 grooms – not because it is born out of a director’s concept, but because it is the playwright’s vision. He is saying something powerful in its accumulation that builds to an exquisitely expressive moment of the human condition that earns its operatic size. The moment is rife with the violence of both sexes who are demanding to be understood while life and death are being slammed up against one another, all in an effort to highlight some of the questions that his characters pose such as: ‘What else can you do if your father won’t protect you, your country won’t defend you, and you flee to another country and no one there will take care of you? What is left?’ ‘If we cannot embrace one another, what hope do we have of life?’ Linda, I believe in the power of theatre to bring people together, in its ability to inspire the next generation to create change. This production is being done at a university with a student body of 60,000. Imagine reaching out to that greater ASU community not only to tell them about the play, but to ignite their imaginations, get them excited about an event, and have them participating in this big theatrical moment. There is a reason why this play is titled Big Love.” To her credit, Linda does not wince or recoil. At least not audibly.
Half an hour later I hang up the phone, hungry for and excited by the prospect of this opportunity. Why? Because Linda Essig is asking – no, allowing – me to dream big. The feedback that I receive is supportive, and I have a hunch that this play is a perfect fit for ASU.
As told through Mee’s bold, visceral theatrical collisions of dance, song, language, and drama, Big Love is inspired by Aeschylus’ The Suppliant Women (written in 490 B.C.) It is one of the oldest surviving dramas in the Western literary canon. It examines ancient yet still continuing issues of women’s rights, gender inequality, politics, immigration, male/female stereotypes, and the complicated, contradictory, and conflicting nature of human relationships. It is a play that lends itself to a large canvas. It is panoramic.
Fifty Greek women faced with crises flee to an Italian villa seeking refuge and escape from arranged marriages to their fifty American émigré cousins. Their intended grooms hunt them down to confront them and claim what they believe rightfully belongs to them – after all, contracts must be enforced. Pacta sunt servanda! Both sides seek their justice. An epic, messy battle of the sexes ensues until the discovery that love conquers all is made. Amor vincit omnia!
Big Love would be produced in the 485-seat Galvin Playhouse on a campus of 60,000 students, not to mention in a state that was considering signing the toughest bill on illegal immigration. It would be given a 6 week rehearsal process with an ensemble as big or as small as I wished, comprised of both undergraduate and graduate actors, designed, built, and crewed by students…all being closely mentored by their professors. What a thrilling challenge! What a call to adventure!
April 29, 2010 – 12:40 p.m.
As I disembark U.S. Airway’s Flight 683, bright and blinding white sunlight hits my face straight on, and unexpectedly hot, dry desert air envelops me, seeming to suck every ounce of moisture off of my skin like an inverted hot air hand dryer. The affable John Tang (program coordinator) greets me at the gate. I’m in Tempe, Arizona for three days of auditions and the first of several design meetings. My room at The Twin Palms hotel is a strange mix of Southwestern adobe and what I imagine to be Howard Johnson circa 1972. It is within walking distance of ASU. Five months from now, starting in September and continuing over the course of six weeks, the iHop attached to the hotel will become known as “Kim’s office”, I’ll be on a first name basis with all of the staff (even arranging tickets for them to see Big Love), and Sadie, the African Grey Parrot who lives in the lobby, will come to trust me enough to feed her, pet her, and even whistle a salutation my way upon seeing me in the morning or as I leave for rehearsal in the evening. But now it’s April, and while I might have a dull nudge of hope at the beginning of this artistic adventure, there is no way I can know that in November I will emerge from my own monomyth – greatly enriched, deeply proud of the collaboration, and grateful to have my world expanded artistically, intellectually, and emotionally.
Auditions begin. Another NY-based director, Jerry Ruiz, is also in attendance for the auditions. He’s directing Quiara Alegria Hudes’ play 26 Miles, which will open ASU’s mainstage season in their 164-seat Lyceum Theater. We discuss what each of us is looking for, including cast size, and discover that our rehearsal/performance schedules overlap for two weeks. Quickly we realize that we will have to negotiate with one another regarding which actors we cast for our plays. On breaks, we sniff each other out, and in the process, discover a coterie of friends and colleagues in common…because as Aristotle said, “Man is by nature a social animal,” and as if to amplify that, the theatre world is socially promiscuous (and has been long before Facebook or LinkedIn). We discuss and strategize for the next days’ auditions/callbacks, then head back to the flamingo pink Twin Palms.
April 30, 2010 – 12:00 p.m.
FAC building. My first Big Love production meeting. Walking into Design Studio 222 on the second floor, I am greeted by a sea of people, only a few of whom I can distinguish as students. It’s a young looking faculty. The room is alight with excitement, yet I’m a little disoriented by the new surroundings, the noon-day heat, and not enough water. Internally, I make a note at the difference in size of the production meetings for my current Off-Broadway show and this production. I only recognize John Tang and my stage manager Jen Yauney (a terrific talent who early on endeared herself to me with a bombardment of intelligent questions in an effort to understand my expectations of her). I sit at one of the tables. Linda introduces herself and informs me that, come the fall, she will be on sabbatical. She reassures me that I will be in good hands with the interim director Guillermo Reyes whom I will meet when I return for future production meetings. Once all are seated, introductions are made. The Production Manager, Tom Aberger hands things over to me, and for the next two hours, I engage the room in the dance of infection-downloading and sharing everything I know up to this moment about the play: images, my concept, what I am drawn to, what I wish to draw out, what I would like us to say with the play, and asking about who is our audience. How do we reach out to and engage the wider community? I’m hoping my excitement is igniting everyone’s imaginations. It’s a tough room to read. Eventually I say, “Oh, yes, we will be putting 100 actors on stage for the mass wedding/murder!” I can feel the room shift. I take a sip of water. I know they are wondering if they heard me correctly. I repeat my statement. There is no response. The large meeting over and we break so that set designer Jeannie Bierne and I can sit down to review some material I had previously sent her. In Jeannie, I discover an articulate, sensitive, smart, talented, and industrious young woman who by mid-May sends me a prodigious number of drawings that it is almost an embarrassment of riches.
May 1 & 2, 2010
The foundation for Big Love is being laid. I am thrilled with the wildly talented main cast of 10. All of whom seem perfect for each role they will play. I am excited with the direction, with the designs that are going in, and with the fact that we’ve decided to add media. Walking from a fight choreography meeting with faculty member and head of the MFA acting program, David Barker, I pass Tom and Jerry in the hall, and overhear Jerry explaining his set. Tom is responding approvingly to the simplicity of it. I take note, aware that ours will inevitably present build challenges due to the action in the play where women and men throw themselves up in the air, slamming their bodies down repeatedly – not to mention the mass violence at the end of the play in which several men are thrown into the orchestra pit. I leave Tempe encouraged, still dreaming big, but with a small sense of worry.
In the ensuing months, a plethora of meetings occur via phone, e-mail, and Skype. Jeannie and I agree upon a sketch. She will build the model when she returns from her honeymoon, appropriately in Italy (remember Big Love takes place in Italy). Our costume designer Maci Hosler, a former couture wedding gown designer, is very much in her element creating bridal gowns that illuminate the character traits of each sister: the militant Thyona with her one shoulder dress and straight lines, evoking Diana the huntress; as love blooms in conflicted Lydia, her gowns go from a Grecian column to the über feminine, with suggestions of Botticelli’s the Birth of Venus; and the young, materialistic Olympia is wrapped in structured curves as though Frank Gehry had decided to even further expand his design empire. In sketch form they are quite something to look at, but what I will never forget are the looks – nearly 6 months later – on their acting partners’ faces, the audible gasps upon first seeing the actresses in costume. It was as if grooms were seeing their brides on their wedding day for the very first time, and for a brief moment, time stood still.
August 22 , 2010 – 10:08 p.m.
Back in Tempe for a whirlwind 24 hours: my last in-person design meeting before being in residence. Jeannie presents her model. I sign off on it. Media designer Alex Oliszewski makes an impressive presentation. Sound designer David Kenton hands me CDs, and Production Manager Tom raises several concerns about the 50 brides and 50 grooms, budgetary, costuming, casting, and manpower. I defend my choice. I offer up alternatives, and I look for ways around what is beginning to feel like a “no” on the horizon – anything to keep this notion alive, not wanting to let go of this vision. The room gets heated. The whole meeting lasts for an hour and twenty minutes. Two hours later, I’m back on a plane bound for NY. My thoughts return to the meeting. I’m surprisingly not worried about the mass wedding scene, but instead obsessing about the set. It’s all wrong. As soon as I land, I call Jeannie. “Jeannie, I apologize, but I’ve led you astray. You’ve done a terrific job, but we have to start all over again, from scratch. Chuck’s plays are expressive, so the set needs to be a container for the huge thoughts and emotions to not only resonate in, but also to push against. There is an integration of the ancient and the modern, the holy and the mundane, the world of women confined that needs to be reflected, and we are not there with this set. This set is too realistic. In the next 36 hours I will send you images, lots of images.” Calmly, Jeannie replies, “Ok.”
Over the course of the next week, Jeannie takes the images of various cloisters that I sent her and runs with them. By September 8th, we have our set. An exquisitely beautiful ancient yet modern cloister complete with a raked grassy knoll, recessed reflecting pool, and a 15 foot Olive tree. On the mass wedding front, due to budgetary and costume issues, I make the painful decision to kill my baby. (You saw that coming, didn’t you?) It’s clear that I am not able to get the support I need. We settle on a combination of seven additional couples, bringing our cast total to 24. Alex shows me a mock-up of media that has the potential to amplify the couples in an expressive way should we want to go in that direction. By September 15th, I’m chomping at the bit to get out to ASU. I can feel the need for me to be there in a more hands on capacity.
September 26, 2010 – 12:18 p.m.
My six week residency at ASU begins. My room has a lovely northern view of the campus, the huge Grady Gammage Auditorium, the desert hills (upon which is emblazoned a mighty maroon “A”), and a never ending smell of bacon, butter and syrup…even with the air conditioner on. I begin to wonder if I might also be partaking in a strange medical experiment of which the hypothesis asks: “Will a person gain weight if, for six weeks, they are perpetually exposed to the scent of a fatty breakfast?”
September 27, 2010 – 8:30 a.m.
Surprise! The smell of breakfast wakes me. To my dismay, I realize that it’s not as if breakfast is waiting in the next room. I text Jerry, who is ensconced two floors above, and invite him to join me downstairs. Over poached eggs, bacon, and sadly weak coffee, I prod him for information about the dynamics within the department. The nature of this kind of freelance directing gig requires one to step into an already functioning social structure. Since he’s been here for the past four weeks, I figure Jerry must have some insider information. Most times, we must very quickly evaluate the variables, be sensitive to and understanding of existing hierarchies, look at the politics and agendas that might be in play, as well as temperaments, all alone, in an effort to figure out how our role as guest artist can galvanize people to stand behind the vision of our project. I’ve been aware that there is a strange tension in Production Meetings, and I don’t know if it is because I might be challenging the department, or because of something else. I am clear that I don’t want things to get contentious. That’s not how I work as a director. Jerry provides me with some very helpful insights.
In half an hour, our first rehearsal begins. Rehearsals are scheduled from 6 p.m. until 11 p.m. Mondays through Fridays, and from 10 a.m. to 5 p.m. on Saturdays. Sundays will be our day off. As I walk into the first floor rehearsal studio, butterflies in my stomach, I am once again struck by its size, which feels like such a luxury. All the studios at this school are well proportioned and appointed.
I greet Jen, who is placing butcher’s paper on the wall for our collage. I meet the two assistant stage managers: Courtney Jackson and Dale Barber. We confirm the evening’s schedule. Tables are placed for the read through. Actors, designers, my assistant director, Grace Rolland, and the dramaturg, Jayson Morrison, saunter in. By 6 p.m., we are all met. As actors take their seats, I am reminded of something a much beloved and well-known director once said to our class up at Columbia: “The first day of rehearsal is always the hardest. I’m internally a bundle of nerves while externally I project a calm and in-control demeanor.” I can relate.
As we go around the table, introductions are made. It’s almost an even mix of undergraduates and graduates. Some have worked together before. I later discover, much to my astonishment, that for one actor, this is only his second play…because he is that good. We read through the play, we discuss it, and we challenge it. We talk about the playwright. I talk about my concept. There are design presentations, and there are many excellent questions. It’s a bright group of students. I can feel their creative juices churning, see flashes of ideas, synapses fire as their eyes alternately widen and narrow. Toward the end of the rehearsal, I give them an assignment (something I stole from Pina Bausch and then adapted). It’s a list of questions to answer as a means to facilitate a way for them to go deeper into their character backgrounds and relationships with one another. Some of it requires them meeting together outside of rehearsal. Before leaving, they are reminded to wear movement clothes for tomorrow’s rehearsal.
One of the perks of working in this setting is that I can ask the actors to be off book by first rehearsal. By week’s end, this proves to be an invaluable tactic as actors are able to more readily incorporate the play’s text into their showings, more quickly get closer to the text, enabling a deeper marriage of the physical with the spoken word. Friday, we start blocking. Through Viewpoints work, scene work, character music/dance exercises, choreography assignments, image/collage work, and more, an ensemble begins to form.
There is an extraordinary amount of trust amongst these 10 actors. I think some of it must have to do with the tight knit yet exploratory theatre community that I am beginning to discover at ASU, and certainly with the program itself. As I begin to inquire about the training, I soon learn that students are exposed to ways of making theatre that engender an appetite for performance. It’s a kind of quiet revolution not based on a classical model, but rather immerses the students in what some might consider more experimental, cutting edge trainings and pedagogy. I’m fascinated by what I am seeing and hearing…talented students dreaming and creating big work with exactitude and a fine focus.
Over the course of the next three weeks (as designs are finalized, builds begin, and more and more props arrive in the room), the mighty Technical Director Ronald Thacker not only builds a mock up of the raked grassy knoll – complete with mats – for our rehearsals, he secures a live, 15 foot olive tree. It all seems to be a good omen.
The only real frustration comes in the form of scheduling the fight choreography rehearsals with David Barker and the two thrashing moments I’ve asked faculty member Jeff McMahon to create with six actors. Even though I go upstairs into another room to work, at times it feels as though my whole process is being stopped. Suddenly, it dawns on me that, out of necessity, I’ve cultivated a faster way of working because the rehearsal process in which I am usually engaged is three weeks with a week of previews. Here it is a six-week time frame. In an odd way, I experience a radical shift in my relationship to my own process and how time functions in it. I feel myself open up as I negotiate a more relaxed (but no less intense) focus. It reminds me of the “soft focus” used in Viewpoints. I’m a little giddy with relief. I catch up on sleep. My mornings are spent in a combination of meditation, reading, developing new work, meetings, and exploring the vast cultural arts scene, both on the ASU campus and further afield. I hit museums, I delve into the history of Tempe and Phoenix. I explore ASU’s Frank Lloyd Wright-designed Grady Gammage Theatre (it’s the last building Wright designed, and was originally meant to be the Bagdad Opera house). Oddly, it reminds me of a carousel. It seats over 3,000, and seems to be the go-to theater for the Broadway shows on tour, yet it boasts an impressive roster of programs, including “a national model for The New American University”, which brings the world’s most celebrated contemporary performing artists to ASU for a three year guest residency of performance, intensive teaching, career mentoring, and community engagement.” Arizona is much more alive and thriving culturally than I ever naively anticipated.
October 15– 2:25 pm
Sitting outside in front of the E2 café, a productive meeting with Tom comes to a close. Seconds later I receive a text message. At first glance I think it to be a hoax. I pick up the phone and make a call. The sound on the other end of the phone almost defies description. Through gasps and sobs I hear Adam say the words, “It’s true. Ashley’s dead”. My body rushes with adrenaline. One of my dearest friends, a young bright 24 year-old artist theatre maker sushi chef from Los Angeles has been killed in a car crash. I call her mother. A few more calls are made to friends. I go to a costume fitting. I work to keep it together, stay focused. It’s useless. After seven minutes I burst into tears. Everyone is gracious and more than understanding. I’m a little embarrassed. I pull myself back together. In between phone calls I attend several more design meetings. There is no question. I must go to LA the following day, my birthday.
I prepare for rehearsal. I have no idea how I am going to focus but from deep within I gather myself up. At the appointed time I walk into a room abuzz with the energy of 10 actors ranging in age from 18 to 26. They look at me. Clearly word has gotten out. There’s no denying it and really it only takes one look at my swollen red eyes to know something has happened. We start rehearsal. I have never felt more alive, in the moment, present. These young actors are stunningly beautiful in their openness, in their effort, their commitment, their generosity of spirit, their desire to connect with one another-their humanity. They move me. They remind me of the power of theatre to save lives. How at one time it had saved Ashley. Inside I am holding on tight to my steadfast commitment to these young artists, to making sure they know I am fully present with them, that I see them. An hour and a half goes by. We take a break. Drew Ignatowski who is playing Giuliano comes over to sing a new rendition of a song we have added to the show for his fantasy gay marriage moment. He sings “When I Fall In Love” straight to me, keeping eye contact the whole time. He’s letting me know, he sees me too. The pure clear sweet tone of his voice, the ease of his demeanor coupled with the lyrics and implicit care, pierces my heart. I break down. I reveal to all in the room what they already know. Then we return to the immediate task at hand and get back to rehearsal. I know with every fiber of my being it is exactly what Ashley would want us to do. There is theatre to make.
October 16, 2010– 7am
I look toward an eight hour rehearsal day. I haven’t slept. I pack. I compose an email filled with detailed information for Monday’s rehearsal. I am putting Jen and Grace in charge. They’ve proven themselves fully capable.
(Yes the same time as that first call from Linda.) Rehearsal is wildly productive. As I leave for the airport I take one last look at the room. I am torn about leaving even though I have complete faith in Grace. Besides being capable, I like her and I am reminded of the times when I was assistant directing and directors entrusted me with their rehearsals, the personal growth that came from that and I understand too that for me now on the other side, through the act of giving over to Grace there is a different kind of growth that can happen for me as a director. It is all good.
October 20, 2010– 8pm
Straight off the plane from Ashley’s funeral I walk into a bustling rehearsal room, it is a glorious sound and a salve for my weary soul. Instantly I am embraced. I am uplifted. I have been missed and selfishly that feels good. I ask to see the work they have done. I am impressed and perhaps even a little proud of them. We push on. Two hours later we end rehearsal and under the blanket of a black inked desert sky glistening with stars, I marvel at all the support from faculty and students I have received both professionally and personally. I am acutely aware of being alive, of being a part of something. There is nowhere else I want to be. In 16 days, Big Love will open.
November 5, 2010– 7:00 pm
Opening night I assemble the cast onstage to thank them. I must single out Jessica and Lee for without their strong conviction, their ability to follow their interest this production would not have happened. There are hugs, a few tears and big big love. As I walk off stage Jen whispers in my ear, “the house is sold out.”
The house goes to half and then out as the Italian accented voice of a woman informs the audience to “eat their snacks now and hey, no texting cause it’s rude”. Mozart’s overture to “The Marriage of Figaro” blares like a trumpet and we are off! The stunning opening image as lit by Troy Buckey invokes the Garden of Eden awaiting Eve. In our case it’s Lydia clamoring through the back of the house, disoriented, one shoe off and wearing a torn wedding gown. From a design perspective the whole show is absolutely beautiful and for the next 90 minutes the cast takes the audience on a wildly entertaining, physically visceral yet poignant ride.
After the performance the audience lingers in the house and lobby for quite some time. I wonder is this because it’s opening night or because people feel a part of something they don’t want to leave. I am deeply proud of the work and everyone involved.
November 6, 2010– 9:00 pm
Another full house and terrific show. Immediately following there is a talkback organized by Jayson our dramaturg. On the panel sits Professor Michael Tueller (classics department) who is delighted with what he has seen, Professor Arthur Sabatini (Humanities, Arts & Cultural) who is a Mee enthusiast, the cast and myself. About a third to half the audience, a mix of young and old, stay for a lively, at times heated discussion. Toward the end an older woman raises her hand not to ask a question but to say, “I walk in and I don’t know what to expect, there’s no curtain. I wait for the break (intermission) it never comes-I don’t miss it. I’m absorbed in what I am experiencing and I loved it!” She then proceeds to go down the line directly addressing each actor giving her opinion of them and their character, concluding, “You were all perfect!”. The audience and the actors eat it up. It’s a delicious collision of university theatre with the general theatre going public. Shortly after we all descend downstairs. Guillermo has thoughtfully ordered us a wedding cake complete with a headless groom and a blood-splattered bride. The cast presents me with two gorgeous paintings created by Jessica. I’m actually left speechless.
As I walk back to my hotel the sky alight with a full moon, I pause to listen to the desert birds, to look at the silhouette of palm trees, to smell the night jasmine-to soak the moment in before I return to my room to pack.
November 7, 2010—4 pm
After the matinee I make my way to Sky Harbor International Airport. Sad to leave yet clearly richer for my time at ASU, I board a plane for my next destination. I shall not forget this place or these people and I shall always remain grateful to them.
December 6, 2010– 11:15 pm
Ten weeks later I am home in New York City still in contact with students and faculty from ASU wanting to encourage the SDC membership that the next time you receive an announcement about one of the Guest Artist Initiative positions, consider applying. It’s a unique opportunity for professional directors to explore regions of the U.S. they might not otherwise consider, to experience first hand how alive and integral the arts are to the diverse communities that make up our country. It is an opportunity to create, mentor and potentially develop long lasting relationships that who knows, might result in the creation of new work or future residencies or even audience support. Above all, it is a way to tap into the pulse of America, to engage with, be inspired by and enter into a deeper dialogue with our next generation of theatre artists.