An Interview with Giovanna Sardelli


Written by Victoria Myers

October 6th, 2014

Director Giovanna Sardelli was heading to a martial arts class after chatting with us, which seemed incredibly apropos given her well thought-out and fascinating views on women and power—especially in the theatre. Okay, her views on pretty much everything were interesting, but after reading her interview we think you’ll get why we started with the martial arts thing. Giovanna is an accomplished director of new work and has worked on world premieres by Rajiv Joseph, Matthew Lopez, Theresa Rebeck, Lynn Rosen, and Zoe Kazan. Starting on October 10th, you’ll be able to see her work on display in The God Game at Hudson Stage Company, and this spring she’ll be directing Little Children Dream of God for Roundabout Underground. We talked to her about everything from the development of new work to Fred Astaire (and, yep, a little martial arts). She’s a really exciting director—and she can chop a block of wood in half with her hand.

(i.) New Work

You’ve worked on a lot of new plays. What do you feel is the director’s role in developing new work? 
I feel like, primarily, you have to be on board with the story. You have to love the story you’re going to tell. I think, when you do a new play, you do a disservice to the play if you’re looking to put your stamp on it; if you’re looking to influence it beyond what the playwright wants to say. So when I read a new play, the first thing I think is, how did it affect me? Did it move me? What are my questions? I want to make sure the writer and I share the same questions and agree on the journey.

When you’re choosing projects to direct, do you pick things that you feel like fit with your aesthetic or do you go towards things that are very different?
I feel like I have to understand the story and believe there’s value in the story. I actually like to be challenged, so I do projects that tend to scare me. A couple of times a year I like to do projects that I feel are in my wheelhouse, but I like a challenge. When I read a play, I track my journey through it—so if I laughed out loud I’ll put a little check, if I got emotional I’ll make a mark—so that when I read through it I see what happened.

Recently you were director of new works at TheatreWorks in Palo Alto. What was your process like for curating new work for that festival? 
I was actually hired really late, past the date you would have wanted to name your plays. So, I think I was very lucky in that I read all of these plays and meet all of these playwrights, and I had this arsenal of people I could draw upon. I had other directors who I could call and say, “What is your favorite play right now? If I asked you for three plays what would you send me?” So this year the process was a little more insular than I would like it to be in the future. It was important to me that the festival celebrate diversity. It was important to me that the festival had a strong female presence. I needed to test the boundaries of the theatre company and make sure that we are excited by the same type of theatre. So I took some risks. I colored outside the lines with plays that I knew we may never produce, but I knew we could get away with in a festival. So that’s really how I curated it this year; it was more playwrights I knew or had been following.

(ii.) Audiences

So much development of new work takes place outside of New York City. How do you think that affects the development process?
One of the great things about being outside of the city is that you can really experiment. Your friends, peers, theatres, and producers usually aren’t going to come see it. Part of the reason I love working in development around the country is you’re away from the pressure and pace of the city. I think it’s nice to be able to leave, and it’s nice to be able to present your plays for people who aren’t as jaded as New Yorkers are. I mean, New Yorkers have seen it and done it, you know? So it’s nice to be reminded that the rest of the country doesn’t think the way we think. I’ve been really lucky to work with a lot of different play development centers, and a lot of them actually are not producing organizations. So that also takes a burden off, since you know you’re not auditioning; you’re just developing. I think the hardest thing for an artist to do is find a space where you can fail. And you have to do that. Unless you end up just working in a narrow set of parameters for yourself, you have to have space to fail.

Was there anything surprising about audiences outside of New York?
One of the things that shocked me was really having to watch swearing. It didn’t even occur to me to track that. I’m pretty good—and I think most playwrights I know are pretty good—at looking at the use of swearing and keeping it character specific. But it was amazing to me, as you move outside the city, how that is really an issue and how people are offended by language in a way that I don’t even hear. So that was very interesting for me to learn. I wondered about that—these are people who have raised children and lived rich and full lives—why does that matter so much? Why is this an issue outside of the city? I’m actually still trying to figure that out. And I wonder if part of that is when you go to theatre outside of New York, you get in your car, you choose where to eat dinner—you can really select the path you take to everything—so are you insulated? I don’t know, but I’m curious. And yet, the same audience who will complain about language will watch Water by the Spoonful. It is something that I wonder about. I think an antiquated idea of theatre is maybe what it stems from.

And an antiquated idea of theatre is not good for new work.
No. I think we live in such an exceptional time for new work because nothing is off the table, and I find that fascinating. I find the entire question about gender identity fascinating—that we live in a time where you can ask a question about gender identity and have it answered in a multitude of ways.

(iii.) Space

We’ve been talking a lot about physical spaces. The theatre spaces for new plays can be a lot of black boxes. How do you think that affects your work?
I think a lot of people write for the black box. I think it’s hard when you get a highly theatrical play. I haven’t done a play in a black box in a long time. I’ve been lucky that a lot of the new work [that I’ve done] has been in larger theatres. But, as I’m saying that, I’m laughing because the next two plays I’m doing in New York are both humongous plays in tiny theatres. It requires a level of imagination and a commitment to theatricality. You don’t want to define a new play outside of what the play is; to throw a concept on top of a new play before the writer has had a chance to meet their play. So finding a language that serves the space—you can’t lie about the space you’re in—and that serves the play you’re doing. So you’re marrying those worlds. Designers are invaluable.

(iv.) Theatricality

You’re directing Little Children Dream of God for Roundabout Underground in the spring. Can you tell us a little about the play?
It’s a really amazing and beautiful play about our future, and our ability to escape our past and dream beyond. And this idea that, to do that, you need a community and your community needs a home. It’s a legacy play—what world do we leave our children, what strengths do we gather from our children, and what do we give to them? [Playwright] Jeff Augustin is a Haitian American, and there’s a size to the play. There’s a character who is 115 years old and he just is and that’s just that. One of the characters may or may not have children by God. And that just is. There’s voodoo and all kinds of exciting things. So it’s highly theatrical, and yet very personal and intimate

So that’s an interesting play to put in the Roundabout Underground space.
This is what I love about Robyn Goodman [artistic producer of Roundabout Underground] and Jill Rafson [literary manager] and Josh Fiedler [literary associate] and the Roundabout: their belief in theatricality and that we will find a way to do it. And I think they were smart in selecting this play because you’re going to have to find a highly theatrical way of doing it, but in the end it is personal. So, it should succeed in the space, although the space is undeniably a challenge.

You have a couple of other things before that, right? 
I’m working on a new play by Rajiv Joseph. It’s a workshop at NYU and I think one of his most ambitious plays. And I’m doing Suzanne Bradbeer’s play, The God Game, at Hudson Stage Company starting on October 10th.

(v.) Storytelling

Writers get asked a lot about themes in their work, but as a director do you find that you have any themes? 
I do. I think one of the things I’m drawn to is the everyday heroic. I’m drawn to stories where, against all odds, our humanity and our better angels shine through. I’m very excited by playwrights who walk that line and who are not afraid to examine the ugly in humanity, but then the hope that exists as well. So, I love plays that celebrate the fact that a man who goes to work and comes home and takes all of his dreams and hopes and sets them aside for his family is actually a hero. Or a woman who redefines herself, who looks at her family and goes, “I’m going to ask for more,” even if makes no sense. Those plays I love.

You were an actress before moving into directing. How do you think that affects your work as a director?
I think it makes me a good liaison between the person who wrote the story and those people who will tell it. I’m pretty good at seeing the how of telling a story. I’m pretty good at encouraging actors to be brave and to work faster than they may be comfortable working. Part of that is that I understand their process, and my training isn’t limited to one method of acting. I really was lucky in that I went to a school [NYU] where whatever worked, worked, so I can work with a lot of different styles.

Do you think it affects the pieces you choose to direct?
Yes, definitely. That’s why I look at the story and who’s telling. The style can excite me, but I can never choose style over substance because that’s not my specialty—there are better directors for that. Since people are telling the story, I need to follow the story through them.

(vi.) Transitions

What was the transition like going from acting to directing?
It was, oddly, really easy. I’m incredibly lucky. I grew up in Las Vegas, Nevada so my understanding of culture and opportunity within the arts was very limited. I wanted to be a performer because that’s what it was that I saw. And it wasn’t until I actually started to be a performer that I was like, “Oh, wait, you imagine what I’m wearing? Someone does that?” All of those things that I never pieced together. I was standing center stage at the Public Theater and, while all of my friends were acting, every time a light cue would go on I’d think, “Oh, that’s interesting.” And I got lucky that Zelda Fichandler, who ran NYU at the time, was doing a directing program where they invited three students back every year, and you essentially went to school for free for one year to be a director. And so I was crying in her office and I said, “I don’t know what to do. I love this business, but I can’t act. It’s actually hurting me, not helping me.” And she said, “Well, you’re a director.” And there was just something in the way she said it—and that she could not only say, “You’re a director,” but, “I want to invite you into this program”—that was really life changing, because it was what I was meant to do. All that training was to tell stories—and not just a piece of a story.

You grew up in Las Vegas. That is one of those places that has a mythology in American culture. How do you it affected your artistic sensibilities? 
There’s a positive and a negative to it. It actually truly was a cultural wasteland. I really did not have an artistic sensibility growing up. I mean what saved me was the fact that my family traveled—my father was in entertainment, so we traveled—and Saturday movies. The world had to become larger than what it is because Las Vegas is dazzling, but it was also a mafia town and then a Mormon town. I mean, just growing up, the tension between the mafia, the Mormons, the desert rats who are all through Sam Shepard plays, and then you have showgirls. The characters I met… I realized it prepared me for everything. However, I will, on top of all of that, I will take all of that humanity and add glitter. So I need someone to say, “Maybe not so much glitter.”

There’s always room for glitter.
I think so too. I really do. If it sparkles, I watch it.

Do you think that had a big effect on your idea of theatricality?
Completely. As much as there is no culture, Las Vegas is the land of yes. So, if you want 37 showgirls to come out of a volcano that’s going to spew lava, someone is going to figure out how to do that. I had high standards of what could happen on stage. And what NYU did was go, “You don’t have to build the volcano, but you can tell the story of the volcano and figure out how to do that.” But I had no sense of no or you can’t do this.

(vii.) Past

What is the first piece of storytelling that had a major impact on you?
I’m thinking of it now because of Robin Williams passing, but I think Dead Poets Society. I didn’t see any theatre until I was about to graduate from college, but I remember watching the movie Dead Poets Society and sitting in the movie theatre sobbing hysterically because I realized that I would leave Las Vegas—that in order to be who I wanted to be and do what I wanted to do, I would have to leave my family, my home, my friends. So that was such a profound moment; sitting in that theatre and thinking my world had to be larger than Las Vegas and I had to leave. It was actually devastatingly sad and poignant.

It’s interesting that you went into theatre without growing up with it. 
When I was in high school and college, I was in music videos, and flown to LA and stuff like that. I probably would have done that [track] except, when I graduated with a degree in theatre and realized that I had never seen any, I came home crying saying, “I have to see plays.” So my parents sent me to London. I went on one of those theatre tours and saw Vanessa Redgrave, Jonathan Pryce, and Natasha Richardson in The Seagull, and that’s why I went to grad school. That changed everything.

Who were your heroes growing up? 
Fred Astaire. Honestly, I have to say my parents. My mom was a dirt-poor daughter of an Oklahoma cotton farmer who raised children in Las Vegas who were aware of the world. She encouraged us to go to every church. Both my sister and I had half-Japanese best friends growing up, so we went to Buddhist temples. She made sure I took a transcendental meditation class when I was a senior in high school. She made sure I read. My mom passed away two years ago. She was, for me, Atticus Finch; someone with such an innate sense of fairness and human dignity. I just feel blessed that amidst all of that chaos of Las Vegas—all that sex (and I mean, you grow up as a little girl in Las Vegas with an understanding of, “if you show these, you get this much”)—and it’s amazing that my mom and dad protected me from that. It’s really phenomenal. Then my father because he’s one of those great characters in life. Because of my father, I understand Chekhov and Sam Shepherd. My dad is just this amazing personality. Fred Astaire was my artistic hero. Every Saturday I watched Fred Astaire. Fred Astaire was elegant and he was supremely confident. I think about Fred Astaire, but I also think about all of his partners. For me it was incredible, as a young girl, to see women who were sexual, but the antithesis of Las Vegas sexuality; it was genuinely powerful and respected. I think I also responded to that.

Growing up someplace so hyper-sexualized had to be an interesting experience. Does it affect your work? 
I think I had an awareness of how to use sexuality. And I did a lot of therapy to be able to understand this in a healthy way. I think women underestimate their power. When I was first starting out as a director and wanted to control a room, I wanted to be the alpha male, which is just ridiculous. You cannot be the alpha male. But you can still control the room. I worked on really aggressive, male-dominated plays, so I didn’t know how to be in the room. So, I think I had an awareness through all my studies—growing up in Las Vegas, martial arts—that how you dress and how you present yourself in the room changes the tone of the room. I think women have to be conscientious of how they enter a room in a way that men do not, and I think you have to understand what a powerful tool it can be: how you show up in a room.

It’s not something male directors have to think about. 
No, not at all.

When did you first feel like a grown up?
Sometimes I still don’t. I still live the life of “summer is a special time” and I’m an adult woman, so that should not be the case. Part of me felt like a grownup when I graduated. I was done with NYU, moved out of the apartment with my boyfriend, and got my own apartment. And the first night that I put together my futon and locked the door and realized, “Oh my God, I live alone in New York City. I have achieved a dream.” That was a moment I went I’m an adult.

(viii.) Culture

What other areas of culture affect your work? 
Well, because I grew up in a cultural wasteland, when I’m working on a play I try to read as much as I can. I live near the Met, so I’m often at the Met. I like to fill myself up with other ways of looking. I like to take advantage of everything so there’s no one thing. And people watching. Sitting on a bench and watching all of these people whose lives are so different than mine. Travel—whether it’s out of the country or just a different neighborhood.

What are the top five travel destinations you want to go to?
1. New Zealand
2. Moscow and all through Russia
3. Jerusalem
4. Italy (I’d go back anytime)
5. Machu Picchu

(ix.) Representation

We think it’s important for people—and probably especially girls—to see women directing and writing and so on. You mentioned a female mentor. How important do you think it is for women to have female mentors?
I think you have to have that. I think it’s hard to find. Again, I think I was lucky that there are five women that are very responsible for my career. That’s rare. Most of my female friends don’t have that. I think it’s imperative that women see other women in those positions. My role models growing up were women who kind of desexualized themselves—you know, pantsuits—and now you have directors like May Adrales who is sexy and she’s who she is and she went to Yale. I think it’s important that there are mentors out there who can help you find your path—like if you want to be a director and a mother, you can find someone who took that path. I don’t remember having that choice. I got lucky that I got into NYU. If I’d gone to any other grad school, I would not have had Zelda.

Who are the five women?
Zelda. Theresa Rebeck. Theresa Rebeck introduced me to Angelina Flordellisi and Rajiv Joseph, and that is a moment my career changed. Carole Rothman at Second Stage (and Chris Burney). Then, through Theresa Rebeck, Dina Janis (and Cusi Cram!). Julianne Boyd. Wendy Goldberg at the O’Neill. There are women who have my back and say, “We’ll put our money behind you again and again, so people know it wasn’t a fluke and wasn’t because of the playwright. “

Does your acting background make you more cognizant of having good female roles? 
Yes and no. I would call myself a feminist, and yet I’ve worked a lot with Rajiv Joseph and Matthew Lopez and the female roles have not been as pivotal as the male roles. But those are two writers who, if they call me and say, “I have a terrible idea on a napkin, will you do it?” I’ll say yes, regardless of the story, because those are two artists I want to support, and whatever they do I’m excited to be in the room with it. I am conscious of trying to put together female designers. If there are no women in the play, I want to make sure there are women on the team. But it’s amazing how you have to check yourself—I mean I have to check myself, and I’m a woman who is concerned with these issues. I make lists, and it’s not until we’re starting to hire that I go, “Oh my God there’s no women on this list,” which is a crime, because there’s always a woman who is as good as everybody else on the list.

People sometimes can be surprised when a woman directs a male-driven play. Yet they’re never surprised by a man directing a show with a female protagonist.
That comment drives me bananas, and thank God that in my career there are people who don’t believe that or I never would have done The Whipping Man. I have no business directing The Whipping Man if these are your guidelines—I’m not Jewish, I’m not black—what do I bring to the table except an incredible ability to tell that story, understand those dynamics, and understand how to create fear and tension and hope on stage. Men have been directing women’s plays for years and no one has ever asked that question. Like I just loved The Hurt Locker—thank you, Kathryn Bigelow. I’m a martial artist, and when it comes to violence on stage I have more skill than most male directors. Yet people don’t see that, because I don’t present myself to the world as someone who is violent, or fascinated with power, violence, and manipulation.

Do you feel like there’s more discussion about your manner in the rehearsal room?
Completely. I think power, as a woman, is a really interesting thing. I study it. I’m fascinated by it. And I studied it partly because I was failing. I’m a strong woman, and it was important to me that everyone knew that. So the way I entered a room was actually antagonistic in a way I did not mean it to be. I just wanted everyone to know I could run the room. So I think, for women, understanding power and what that looks like, I think we have to be more attentive to it. A few years ago, my agent got feedback that I was too nice. I called him back, and asked him to call that person back, and ask what the hell that meant. It bothered me so much. And he said, “It’s not the first time you’ve been called nice.” What does nice actually mean? And I don’t know any man who would be called nice. You’re either too nice or too bitchy. It’s rare you get called confident.

We don’t have discussions about confidence with men.
Exactly. It’s like, “You’re in the room so you must be confident.”

Do you feel like you have less room for failure?
Oh God, yes. Even our successes are not lauded in the same way. I think men get to have an arc to their career that women don’t. Sam Gold—who is an artist I respect—got a bad review in The New York Times for something, and in the bad review Isherwood or Brantley made a point of reminding us how wonderful he was, “That while he didn’t succeed in this play, let us remember…” and then they listed four of his successes. And I thought to myself, “I don’t know any female that has ever had that experience.” I also can’t think of any artist that’s more hearty than Sam Gold. He can fail—he’ll be fine. It was stunning to see.

(x.) Future

What’s something you think people can do to improve gender parity in theatre?
I think the first thing is a consciousness towards it. If you have a season and have seven plays, and only one is by a woman, you need to look at that. And you need to look at how many women are in leadership positions. And audiences help. There was a theatre years ago that did an all-female season, and it was the lowest attended season they had ever had—that’s an audience’s fault. I think there’s an idea that if a playwright is female, then a play is gender specific. Everyone has to be smarter about it and make sure you’re not marketing it as a “female play,” because sadly, audiences shy away from that. You want to make sure you’re casting a wide net in all areas.