An Interview with Leigh Silverman and Sonya Tayeh
Leigh Silverman and Sonya Tayeh
Written by Victoria Myers
Photography by Emma Pratte
July 13th, 2015
When we got out of the elevator on the fourth floor of City Center to interview director Leigh Silverman and choreographer Sonya Tayeh, we briefly stood outside The Wild Party (momentary musical theatre sidebar to clarify that it’s the Andrew Lippa version) rehearsal room not knowing exactly what we should do next. Should we wait outside? Should we peek our heads in? Should we “accidentally” make a loud noise so someone would come investigate? We settled on peeking our heads in, and were immediately greeted with waves and smiles. About ten minutes after that, we were in conversation with Leigh and Sonya, and we were completely hooked and never wanted to leave that rehearsal room. During the first season of Encores Off-Center, Leigh directed Violet, which would end up transferring to Broadway in the 2013-2014 season and earning four Tony nominations including Best Revival of a Musical and Best Direction of a Musical, making Leigh the only female director nominated that season (yep, we talk about it). Other directing credits include Well both off and on Broadway, Bright Half Life, The Way We Get By, and In The Wake (just to name a few). In addition to being a choreographer on So You Think You Can Dance, Sonya has choreographed everything from Madonna and Florence and the Machine, to the Martha Graham Dance Company, to the musical The Last Goodbye, to the play Kung Fu (which Leigh directed). These two ladies are passionate and smart about theatre—and life. We talked to them (and watched them talk to each other) about everything from putting together The Wild Party to women and ambition. And, seriously, if we could have gotten sleeping bags and stayed in that rehearsal room, we would have.
So, since this is Encores Off-Center, let’s start off by talking about the concept of concert staging. Do you adjust how you think about certain things when it’s not a full production? Especially the physical storytelling and how you calibrate certain moments?
Leigh: Absolutely. I think it’s really important when doing an Encores show that you’re really stealth about what you’re planning to present to an audience and how you do it; you train the audience to watch the show in the way that you want them to watch it and not set them up with wrong expectations from the beginning. I’m really interested in sort of letting people see our rough edges and not pretending like we’ve had a full rehearsal process when we’ve had eight days. And I really want people to walk out of there like, “Holy shit. How did they make that happen?” I think both Sonya and I are really interested in keeping people’s expectations low and then blowing their socks off.
Sonya: I think that’s what inspired me to work with this one [Leigh]. I found her ambition really inspiring and her pushing limits inspiring. I’ve grown a lot since I’ve started working with Leigh. It’s a “trust your instincts” type process. There’s not a lot of second-guessing. There’s a lot of pre-planning. A lot of talking. And then coming in, and forward motion. I think it creates a really awesome energy in the room. Everyone feels safe. We’re all in this safe space together. I think it’s what Jeanine [Tesori, artistic director of Encores Off-Center] was saying too, that it’s not a place of saying, “We don’t have enough time,” it’s just, “This is the amount of time and this is what gets done.”
How do you two work together? This is actually the first time we’ve talked to a director and choreographer team.
Leigh: Because Sonya and I worked so closely together on Kung Fu, she was the obvious and only choice for me to do The Wild Party. I think the way Sonya works is so physical and so fierce and so smart and so unusual. We’re sort of saying that this is a show that’s set in a period, but it’s not a period piece, and I think what Sonya brings is a very “now” feeling to the dance and the music, which, I think, is essential to getting the piece to work. I think having a choreographer is a terrific opportunity for collaboration because I get to say, “Here’s my idea,” and then she gets to say, “And what if we did this?” And then the next three things that we come up with together are things that I don’t think either one of us could have necessarily come up with on our own. To have a choreographer who wants to tell the story that I want to tell, and for us to first figure out what that story is, and then for us to figure out how to do that in the most theatrical and exciting way is so great. Usually it’s just me in a room talking to myself, so to be in active, rigorous conversation with Sonya is dreamy.
Sonya: I was going to say the same thing.
Sonya, your background isn’t in traditional musical theatre. What other styles are you going to bring to the show? It seems like there would be room for a lot of different things.
Sonya: Yeah, it is a piece where you could do a lot. I think what is special about our process is that she lets me be who I am [as a choreographer] with the point of focus being what the show is. It’s not a specific type of style so you can jump around. I can’t even tell yet. It’s not specific [to a style]; it’s the feeling of what’s happening in that moment in the journey of the show. There’s definitely darkness to it and a rigidness to it. There’s a heat that builds to it, which I’m very attracted to in terms of physical challenges.
Leigh: I’ve seen her modern dance stuff and I’ve seen her more commercial stuff like for So You Think You Can Dance, and I feel like she does all of these different things and it always feels like it’s coming from her, and very whole in terms of who she is as a choreographer. It never feels like she’s trying on a new persona for whatever style she’s working in. So this has a little bit of everything in it, as it should. I find that super cool. It doesn’t feel very traditional musical theatre, but there are also elements of it. I’ve been teasing her because there’s a whole section of jazz squares and she’s the only person on the planet who can make a jazz square cool. And it’s in the show.
Sonya: I love a jazz square.
Leigh: And who knew? No one would ever believe it.
Sonya: When you put your shoulders in, it really changes things.
Leigh: So like that kind of thing. It’s like, you could say that’s a traditional musical trope, but the way Sonya does it is her essence and it serves the story and the genre.
What, thematically, is The Wild Party about for each of you?
Leigh: Well, it’s a show about show people. Our main characters are performers, and there’s a blurriness between what’s performed and what’s real, and the confusion that we all often have in our own minds about what’s real and what’s rehearsal. For me, it’s a story about transformation and love. And risk taking. I think in the case of Queenie and Black, it’s about letting yourself be seen by someone in a very profound way and letting them undo you and then being transformed. And although Queenie and Black are probably not going to end up together, it’s an exquisite night that they share and they’re forever changed. That feels like an exciting story to tell.
Sonya: I think that’s what’s beautiful. That someone can have that effect on you in a blink of an eye, and maybe that journey ends in that moment, but it changes your entire life or your entire perspective. I think we all crave those moments of getting your mind blown. They don’t happen often, but when they do, it’s timeless, and has such an effect on you. I think there’s a vulnerability that happens before it happens and a shutting that happens during it. I find it very beautiful and inspiring that it’s an ageless desire.
As we’ve touched on, the show is set in the 1920s. And that’s a time period people have very specific aesthetic ideas about—some of which are correct and some not—and kind of have a romanticized idea about. So we were wondering if you could talk more about how you were leaning into that or subverting that at different moments?
Leigh: I like to say that the design is shmeeriod [as opposed to legit period]. It’s a show that’s about a period. Not a period piece. When Clint Ramos, our amazing costume designer, and I started talking a few months ago, he brought me these incredible images from this year’s fashion week. There were all of these women with their heads covered in bobby pins and long pearls and they were very 20s-esque but with a very 2015 feel, and that’s exactly what I’ve used as inspiration for everything. What feels important to me is that in this re-invisioning of The Wild Party, which includes a lot of changes from the original production, is that it feels like there’s a reason for doing it now and that reason feels undeniable to an audience. And that’s been part of the piece from the beginning. I mean Andrew [Lippa, the composer] starts the show with an electric guitar. It’s anachronistic and it’s strange. It’s smart on his part because it’s saying, “These are people who lived in the 20s, the poem is set in the 20s, but we’re doing it now.” I think it makes it feel energetic and there’s a kind of bumping up of the period to the material and to a contemporary audience.
Let’s talk about gender roles and sexual politics with this piece. How are you thinking about that? Especially with a female protagonist and a female protagonist who is sexual?
Leigh: I love it. I think one of the ways that this world is being reimaged is because it’s me and it’s Sonya, and that feels like already it’s changing everything about the DNA of the show. And to have a protagonist like Sutton [Foster] who brings so much to it, and I think this is going to be a really different type of role for her. I’m also interested in there being a smart, conscious look at gender and sexuality in the show. It’s not to say that those priorities weren’t there in the first incarnation, but I think some of the focus has changed. For example, the way the original production worked is that everyone sang about themselves in the third person and in this version that doesn’t happen, and already that changes and personalizes the way the story is being told. That feels very exciting to me. I think a woman who comes to realize that she is not the person that she wants to be and then makes a change is kind of a fantastic story to tell. There are a lot of ways in which Burrs and Queenie coexist in a very dysfunctional way, not unlike George and Martha in Who’s Afraid of Virginia Woolf, and they kind of need to throw a party because they need to be in public and show everybody how fucked up they are, and they need all of those people in between them in a way. Those all feel like timeless, theatrical stories to tell. I do feel like our Queenie is a strong one and part of what she comes to is her own awareness about herself and the way she’s kept herself imprisoned.
How much do you think having a female interpretive team affects that? It seems like the 1920s is one of those time periods that suffers a lot from male gaze syndrome. Like how people romanticize Zelda Fitzgerald and, you know, in reality she died in a fire in a mental institution.
Leigh: Yes, that’s true. It’s such a hard question since I don’t know how else to interpret it since I’m a woman. I’m just interpreting it however I am. I don’t feel like we go in like, “We’re women and we’re going to interpret it this way.” But I do feel like having two strong feminist points of view, as a human and a human, makes it so that the storytelling of the show will naturally reflect that.
Sonya: Yes. Awesome. There’s nothing sensible about [the show]. Queenie’s unleashed and that’s the beauty of this show. Like Leigh said, it’s not, “We’re going to be strong women,” but it’s just instinctually how she portrays things; it’s instinctually how it’s happening. I think that’s what’s amazing about it. It’s not a frail, sensible presentation of it.
Leigh: I know Andrew feels like it’s really different. I think his experience of it feels different since he’s surrounded by women. Also there’s Jeanine who’s like the Godmother of this Encores Off-Center thing. So he’s surrounded by all of these women who have all of these opinions.
Going back to something you mentioned earlier, Leigh, which had to do with directing the audience. It seems like directing an audience must be a big part of putting a show together.
Leigh: I feel like Encores is such its own beast because never would you go into a process and be like, “Let’s just keep everyone’s expectations low in the opening number.” Normally you’d go into a process and want people to see the opening number and go, “Yeah! This is going to be amazing!” But at Encores—because there are going to be parts that are less well rehearsed, parts where people are going to be holding scripts, parts that are going to be messy, parts that are going to be great—you want to teach the audience about their own expectations of what they’re going to see for the night. So Encores, I feel like, has its own gestalt. I feel like my job as the director, frequently, is to have a vision of how an audience is going to enter a world, what they’re going to be taught, and what they’re going to be taught right away. And who it is that they’re supposed to be watching and how to watch them. It’s one of the most important things I can do as a director once you move into that production process, which is to figure out how to let the audience in, let them know what world they’re in, and who those people are. That entry point is crucial. You as a director have to build that portal or else they don’t come with you.
Do you see any themes in your work?
Sonya: I feel like I really enjoy phrasing that is repetitive in different ways. I find that’s my instinctual go-to. I have yet to pass the “handle with aggression” first approach. Everything can be a little angst-y in my first approach. It’s just something I tend to ride with. I think my main desire when I try something is to challenge myself. I really enjoy feeling terrified and pushing limits and seeing how far we can take them, even if they don’t always work. It’s very satisfying, at the end of the day, to feel exhausted physically and mentally knowing that I pushed someone or many people who thought they couldn’t do this thing. It makes me proud to do what I do.
Leigh: I do this because I like collaboration. And so, for me, it’s working with people who I can deepen my relationship with, and who I feel like have the same work aesthetic that I do but who are also challenging to me in exciting ways. I’ve been really lucky in my career that I’ve had writers that I’ve worked with again and again. I don’t know if there’s a topic or content that’s like, “Oh that’s a Leigh Silverman thing,” but I do feel like there are types of processes and theatrical experiences that have to do with strong storytelling. I feel very proud of the work that I’ve done where people say, “Oh, I didn’t imagine that story could be told this way,” or, “I didn’t know you could do something like that,” like a David Greenspan play or how we reimaged Violet or Kung Fu where it feels like the style is sort of being invented as we go. That feels really exciting to me. But I don’t know if I have a thing.
Sonya: She has a thing.
Leigh: I have a thing? What is it?
Sonya: I just feel when you know you’re going to work with her you know there’s the utmost passion, always. This is the second show we’ve done together but it feels like there have been a lot of shows. I feel like I’ve been in this space with her for a long time because it’s so thick; it’s so many emotions in a day. It’s pure excitement and care, and a selfless care, which I think, in terms of collaboration, is what we want. I can have so many conversations with her and ask her so many questions and she’s very giving and honest and stern. To feel safe in a room is very inspiring. And everyone feels safe in the room.
We’re always interested in cultural collaboration. What other areas of culture affect your work?
Sonya: I definitely get inspired by things that are non-dance. I don’t watch a lot of dance. I have this weird fear of being influenced and then subconsciously taking. It’s outside things that I really get inspired by. When I first started choreographing, I just wanted to choreograph everything. So I knew I was going to be jumping around. It’s a constant surprise to me that it’s still going. But in every situation, I take from and use. I feel like I have my hands in so many types and styles of dance that help me build into what I’m going to do next.
When you start with a piece are you someone who hears it first or sees it first?
Sonya: It depends. I often create work without any music. I guess I see it first. I can do a lot of my work without any music. I just don’t.
Leigh: I feel like you work from feeling. You are the music, in a way. You work from feeling, which is really interesting to me.
Sonya: It’s very emotionally driven. In any piece I try to find something that’s personal in it for me that I can use. I find I can’t breathe if I can’t connect to it in a certain way.
Leigh: I feel like I see so much theatre and I always want to create more space for things that are not theatre. I wish there was more space for more influence. I spent two weeks last year with Sundance at MassMoCA and everyday at lunch I just walked around the museum, and I was like, “I wish I could do this everyday in New York.” Being in a rehearsal room and then going and looking at incredible pieces of modern art, it opens up your brain in a way that I think is so helpful. Because particularly as a director, you have to all the time be able to work really small and specifically micro, and then go macro and then micro and then macro. In order to be able to get yourself to have a bird’s eye view of what you’re doing, it’s so helpful to listen to music or go see dance or see art. But to be totally honest, I do very little of anything else except see theatre. And read The New Yorker. And listen to NPR.
Do either of you have a dream cultural collaboration?
Leigh: There are all kinds of people who do amazing things. Like I’m obsessed with Cheryl Strayed and all of her Dear Sugar stuff and Wild, and I want her to write for the theatre because the way she writes is spectacular. She feels outside of the theatre world and I think she’d write a great book for a great musical that Sonya would do a really great job choreographing. But it’s always about bringing it back to our environment. I was always really inspired by our work on Kung Fu. We called it a “dancical” since there was no music, but there was this dance. I felt like that was a really interesting way to tell the story of the play. So I’ve looked for other projects that would involve that sort of thing.
Sonya: I would love to do a full-length work with Meredith Monk. She’s one of my dream inspirations. And if Frida Kahlo or Martha Graham were still alive those are the two I’d die to work with.
Leigh, you’ve done plays and musicals on Broadway. We talk about development of new work a lot. What’s something you think can be done to better develop new work?
Leigh: David Greenspan and I always joke that the American contribution to the theatre is the reading. That is what we do. That will be our legacy to the theatre. And there are a lot of readings that I do. I believe in development and I believe in process, so I’m not one to say get rid of every developmental workshop and just produce plays. I don’t think that’s the answer either. What I would like to see is groups and theatres that focus on young writers and emerging writers, that those plays being developed are then the plays slated for production. I think there are theatres that are committed to having writers’ groups, but, in general, that’s not the pool they’re pulling from. So that’s the bridge we need to build. Theatres are interested in writers for writers’ groups, and I’d like to see those plays actually put into pipelines, and I don’t think that happens as much as it should and I don’t think those pipelines exist right now. I will also say there’s a lot of money and funding in new play development and there’s very little for directors. Something I talk a lot about with other directors, is because directors don’t have a deliverable in the way writers do, how do you support young directors in practicing their craft? Writers, you can give them a grant or a commission. Directors don’t have that. So for directors, what is that and how do we begin to talk about that, because what we do is so ephemeral, it changes process to process, and we don’t have a deliverable. So I feel like that’s somehow also tied into process of working on new plays because I believe that directors are essential to that process.
When did you first feel like a grown up?
Sonya: That’s really hard. I just keep fucking up left and right. I still pay my bills late. I don’t know if I do grownup things.
Leigh: I weirdly feel like the tragedies in my life are the things that have made me feel the most grown up, but I don’t know why that’s true. I don’t know why I can’t be like, “I had an amazingly good day today. I feel like a grownup.” Instead it’s like, this horrible thing has happened…
Sonya: Well, usually, with tragedy you watch yourself being able to heal from it. You’re handling more. I think I have a lot of growing up to do. There’s this gypsy life we live where you just want to be in the space where you work. I get super antsy when I’m at home. I feel like I’m missing something. Like I’m not using my body and my brain enough. This is tough.
Leigh: I feel like a grownup. I’m just not exactly sure when it happened.
Sonya: This is silly, but it really was profound for me. When I was so broke and trying to figure out how to make this happen, when I could eat out and buy a cup of coffee and not have to check my bank statement I knew I was pulling it together.
Leigh: Totally. I feel like the first year that I had my full year of health insurance covered by my union insurance I just felt like, “Oh my god,” that I’d worked enough and that I had health insurance. That felt like a really grownup thing.
What is the first piece of storytelling that had a major impact on you?
Leigh: I have to say one of the most influential things I saw when I was a kid was ET and it scared the shit out of me. I hated it so much and I had nightmares about it for two years, and I feel like that is a very influential piece of storytelling for me because everything about that movie scared me to death. I feel like my first crush was Princess Leia because she was the first brunette person I saw. I felt like everyone who had ever been in my zone was blonde, and I had really long hair that I always used to wear in pigtails or buns, so when I saw her and her hairstyle I was just like, “She’s for me.” And so I was really into her and I was really into Wonder Woman and I was really into Charlie’s Angels. So fear of ET, love of Princess Leia, love of Kate Jackson, love of Wonder Woman: those are all things that have made who I am today. One of the first plays that I ever saw was Lily Tomlin do Intelligent Signs of Life at the Kennedy Center and it rocked my world. She was an enormous influence for me as storyteller and how stories could be told and what a solo show was and how a play could be done and how that style of performance could be done. It completely rocked my world.
Sonya: I was brought up in Detroit and there’s a really impressive underground dance scene that my sisters took me to at a very young age. Seeing all the amazing drag shows and voguers and breakdancers who were dancing on their own and just feeling the music, and watching epiphanies happen in improvements in the body at night, was really crazy to me. It was really, really inspiring. And just smelling the mildew and getting the drops of the water from being in an underground train station…. At fifteen [years old], at nine at night to six in the morning, and no drugs, no nothing, just dancing. It was profound. It was a really amazing time. I’m also very intrigued and obsessed with horror films. My mother took me to see horror movies at a very young age. Carrie was always really inspiring to me. It was always visual. The way she walked and the way her eyes moved. My mother used to say, “It’s a theatrical experience. It’s not real.” So at nine I could watch that stuff. I sometimes still wake up at night and watch Carrie.
Were either of you imitative as kids? Or looking for role models? Looking at people and being like, “I want to be like that”?
Leigh: Everyone. Everyone. I was an only child and my mom was sick my whole life, and I think that I was constantly alone and playing make believe in the most intense way. I think I was really always on the search for great role models and was always really inspired by women who were around me and who I didn’t know. And Kate Jackson. Really strong women, and women who were able to fend for themselves and make it out alive without dying. Those stories were always the ones I was really drawn to. I grew up in Washington D.C. and Zelda Fichandler was running Arena Stage and she’s basically the founder of the regional theatre movement. So I always knew that there could be women in charge in theatre. It was only later that I realize how rare that was and that it was an anomaly compared with the rest of who ran theatres. I feel like knowing she was there and being able to go to that theatre—I mean she wasn’t really in my orbit. but she was in my emotional orbit—was really important to me.
Sonya: I went to Wayne State University in Detroit and all of my professors were women, and that’s when I really started dancing. And all of them created their own techniques. We learned Graham and Horton and all of these amazing techniques, but watching them create their own techniques was so inspiring to me, to have my own voice, build my own shit, and invent. Inventing was always in my mind from a very young age. And my sisters are both very inspiring to me too. They all had a sense of themselves and really strong opinions and taught me that as a kid.
The dance world seems so intriguing because it does seem like there are a lot of female choreographers, but at the same time it’s also a world where there’s a lot of emphasis placed on the body and women’s bodies and how they should look. Was that ever confusing or did it ever seem like a mixed message?
Sonya: It’s crazy because I didn’t feel that until I started getting more into the professional world. I didn’t know I looked unique or quirky—that’s a word that gets used a lot, which I find strange.
We’ve had a lot of conversations about the word quirky.
Sonya: It drives me crazy. And I get that a lot. And just that it’s always a thing.
Leigh: And it’s always code for something else and you’re never totally sure what it’s code for.
Sonya: Totally. Or I get, “Oh, watch out for her.” As if I’m armor and I don’t have any sensitivity because I have my sides shaved and have lots of piercings. This has been me since I was a teenager, so I never think about it ’til it’s in my face. And my professors were the same way. Most of them were bald. They’re amazingly strong women, so I was always surprised when that was a surprise. When I moved to Los Angeles, and some of the jobs I would get, I’d walk into a room and it would be jarring. I’m loud and aggressive and lead aggressively. When you’re creating in that way, it’s as if you’re only that way. Or they think of it as a rebellion. Like I’m rebelling against something. And I’m not rebelling. This is what I naturally feel comfortable like. It’s very frustrating to me. And it’s very interesting that I’ve found in many interviews in the past five years, I’ve found that when I’m talking about my life, they then write about the way I look, which I find very strange. Like, “She came in with her this…” It’s really crazy to me.
Leigh: Yeah, I get that a lot. I once did this interview and they referred to my long fingers. But, yeah, I feel like women get comments on what we look like all the time. I sort of snarkily have said a bunch of times in the press, and will say it again now, but last year at the Tonys people would ask me all the time, “What are you wearing?” “What are you wearing?” “What are you wearing,” and I’d be like, “Did you ask Michael Mayer what he’s wearing? Because he’s probably wearing something way more interesting than what I’m wearing.” I feel like that was the thing more than people being like…
Sonya: Like, “How do you feel tonight?”
Leigh: Yeah. Or the fact that I was the only woman nominated.
One of the things that we ask a lot, especially to women in positions of authority, is if they feel they have to think about how they present themselves in terms of how they look and what they wear, and all of those conversations that men seem not to have to have.
Leigh: I feel like that was much more in my brain when I was younger. It’s really hard to be in your 20s and a director, and trying to get a job and get people to believe that you can handle a room. I’m finally fucking old enough—because I’m 40—that no one cares what I’m wearing and, more importantly, I don’t care. When I was younger I lied about my age all the time. I was constantly trying to assert because I had to. No one takes young women directors seriously in the way that they should be, and I felt like I had to do that. And I think that relates to everything about how you dress, how you talk, how you look, what you wear. As I’ve gotten older, that stuff has been able to fall away. It’s the world, but it’s also my own sense of, “I just don’t give a fuck.” And I don’t need to promote my authority because I have the confidence and I have the experience to back it up. When I look at young women who assist me or talk to me about directing, the hardest time I think for a young female director is in those early years, because I think it’s really the place where young men and women are treated very differently as directors. It’s the thing that people say: men are hired for their potential and women are hired for their experience. People look at a young man and he is bright and he is shiny and they’re hiring for his potential and people look at a young women and are like, “I don’t think she can handle it.” Jill Soloway said this incredible thing about Sundance and about how men who just do a little indie movie, then they get giant blockbusters because they’re like, “He did such a good job with that movie,” and women don’t get hired for blockbusters because they’re like, “She just did a small indie, we don’t know if she can handle it.” So I just think it happens. I don’t think it’s special to our profession, I think it happens all over. But it’s something I’ve been so gratefully able to shed as an added bonus to getting older and knowing better and knowing myself better. But it takes time.
Sonya: It’s stressful and it’s pressure. And you just don’t have the time for it and you find it’s just too much time.
Leigh: Yeah, I just can’t be bothered in the morning. I have too many other things to do.
Another thing along those lines that comes up is how to be authoritative and figuring out how to do that, and it’s especially hard when you’re young and being mistaken for an intern all the time, and then you overcorrect. And also how men can say things neutrally and it’s…
Sonya: It’s taken.
Yeah, it’s taken. And with women if you say something neutrally, it’s usually taken as you being angry. How do you navigate all of that stuff?
Leigh: Yeah, there’s a lot of it.
Sonya: I just feel like, of course, I try to work with respect, but there’s too much to do to sort of graph out how I’m going to act in the space. I just have to be myself and act as naturally as I can, and if I say something that I need to apologize for then I will. But when I’m in the room it’s for the cause, and I can’t possible graph out what I’m going to do.
Leigh: And it’s all personality. Some people like to lead by fear and some people lead by kindness and some people lead by being the class clown. It’s a combination of who the person is and who the people in the room are, and I think the struggle for authority can be a real one and a real difficult one. I have to say, I’ve just encountered it less in the last five to eight years. I think it’s just experience. The experience relaxes people and then relaxes me. But I’ve also had so many terrible experiences. And I’ve had so many terrible experiences where I’ve really learned. You get hazed. I can’t speak to whether that happens to men too, but I know it happens to women. There’s a kind of hazing process because no one is going to give you authority, you have to learn how to take it, and how you take it and how generously or graciously you do it, I think is where the personality part comes in.
Sonya, let’s go back to something you said earlier about dancing passionately and leading from emotion. Do you ever find that gets misread? Recently when we talked to Lisa Kron we spoke about how we’re still learning what a female protagonist is and how to read those narratives. So do you feel people tend to put your work into certain types of boxes?
Sonya: Totally. Or they see the minute and thirty that they see on TV and they think that’s all I can do. I did a piece I was really proud of about this woman getting beat down and allowing it, and it was critiqued as, “one of her dark, scary pieces.” I think we’ve all had a lot of life and pain, and I experienced loss at a young age, and that’s how I get all of this stuff out. For some reason those types of pieces stick and people think I can’t do anything softer, if you will, or beautiful, but I think that’s beautiful, since that’s a moment in time where I can look back and say, “Wow, I really came back from that.” I survived that, and I think all of those wounds are beautiful and ladders to get to other experiences. But yeah, if I do company work it’s compared to what I do on television, and it’s very frustrating because I’m also very proud of what I do on television, but it’s a minute and thirty seconds. It’s not fair to think that’s possibly it.
Leigh, going back to being the only female director nominated last year for the Tony, how many times did you get asked about that?
Leigh: A lot. This is how people ask me that question. They’re like, “How do you feel about it?” And I’m like, “I feel great that I was nominated.” When I did Lisa’s [Kron] play Well on Broadway in 2006, I was only the seventh woman to ever direct on Broadway, and that number has exponentially increased. It’s four times that now from 2006 to 2015. That is awesome progress. I mean this year alone can be the new benchmark for success for women in our industry for all kinds of reasons. That being said, I don’t understand why people don’t take gender parity seriously. I do not understand it. I do not understand why it’s not part of the conversation artistic directors have. When they’re talking about what plays they want to do and what musicals they want to do, why not have it be half and half? Why not? Why is that not part of our conversation still? Still. I feel like it will change, but I find it kind of frustrating on a daily basis. So when people say, “How do you feel about being that woman?”… I was so proud of that, and I was so happy that year that Pam [MacKinnon] and Anna [Shapiro] won. I mean that was like a revolution. It was unbelievably radical. I never thought. In some ways the world is changing incredibly fast and it’s exhilarating and in some ways you’re just like, “What?! Still?!” So when it’s like “women directors” and “only woman,” and I’m like, eh, I feel like we have to keep talking about it until it’s part of the conversation and then we’ll all just be like, “Cool. It’s part of the conversation.”
Did you find when people were asking you that, “What does it feel like to be the only woman” question that there was an undercurrent of you not being fully allowed to be happy for your own success? This year for the Tonys we did all of this stuff about the significance of Jeanine and Lisa, and every time we’d say things like, “Jeanine is the first female composer to do x, y, z,” we’d get comments from people like, “You need to be acknowledging every other woman.” And we’d be like, “Nope, she’s allowed to have her moment. And not be held to a higher level of gratitude.”
Leigh: Yes. I think women have a very hard relationship with ambition. I’ve worked very hard in my life to have a comfortable relationship with it. I feel happy and proud to say that I am ambitious and that I don’t think that’s bad. I think Lisa and Jeanine are ambitious. Lisa and I have talked a lot about what that word means over the years. I think it’s only people with ambition, with vision, with drive and passion, that can break through. I think that, in general, the idea of women having ambition is uncomfortable for women. I think that’s a self-generated myth. It goes along with a reflexive apology that women feel like they must do; I think they don’t even know that it’s happening. So I do feel all the time like women need to find a level—and I say this to myself also—that we need to feel a greater appreciation for our own ambition and not feel like it’s wrong or dirty, or like it’s a bad word or ugly, or that we shouldn’t talk about it because it’s not polite. I think you don’t get anywhere by being polite. And by “anywhere” I mean wherever it is you’re going—the full expression of whatever it is you want to be doing. And that requires an idea and that requires ambition. Particularity if you’re a director whose job it is to lead people—you need it. It has to be in your DNA.
What’s something you think people can do to improve gender parity in theatre?
Sonya: I tell my students, the younger ladies from nine up, that knowledge is power. And for them fighting to get through this, it’s about being smart and studying and being obsessive about it, because you have all that backup to stand tall and work.
Leigh: To me it is so fucking simple: hire more women. Just, everybody, hire more women. That will do it. Like there are cities in the country—like DC is one of them—where they’ve decided that this year every theatre is going to have gender parity. Why can’t New York do that? We’re supposed to be the leaders in the industry. That’s why we all fucking live here—so we can live in the place where it all happens. So hire more women. There’s really no excuse not to. It feels absurd.
You can follow Leigh on Instagram: @silverleigh.
You can follow Sonya on Twitter: @sonyatayeh and Instagram: @sonyatayeh.