Written by Victoria Myers
Photography by Tess Mayer
December 19th, 2016
At the beginning of 2016, Lileana Blain-Cruz was featured in not one, but two major publications (The New York Times and The Wall Street Journal) for being a director who is, in the words of The Wall Street Journal, “taking the theatre world by storm.” Among the productions she directed in 2016 were Red Speedo by Lucas Hnath at New York Theatre Workshop; Revolt. She Said. Revolt Again by Alice Birch at Soho Rep; War by Branden Jacobs-Jenkins at LCT3; and The Death of the Last Black Man in the Whole Entire World AKA the Negro Book of the Dead by Suzan-Lori Parks at Signature Theatre. Her 2017 looks just as busy. Shortly before The Death of the Last Black Man ended its critically acclaimed run, we sat down with Lileana to discuss her directing process, cultural collaboration, how she balances so many projects, and much more.
The tone of Death of the Last Black Man is very specific and tricky. How did you work on the tone of the show and making sure that it was consistent for the actors and for the design?
It’s one of those shows that kind of haunts you. When I was in college [at Princeton], I played “Voice on Thuh Tee V” in this little excerpt of the show that we did. Then in grad school [at Yale], I worked with [director] Liz Diamond, and we had read the text in class. When I finally was asked to do the show here, I met with Suzan-Lori Parks, and that was kind of like the revelation, because she embodies the tone in a way. She’s hilarious. She’s mysterious. She’s deeply grounded, and then she’s hilariously funny at the same time. I think the combination of all of those elements is kind of what’s inside of the play, inside of the language. It’s full of puns. It’s also full of sorrow. It’s full of love. Then, there are these crazy expressions that, for me, encapsulated the dense complexity of the ways in which we are not just one thing. I think that finding the joy inside of that was part of the way in which we found the tone together.
How did you work on coming up with the physical vocabulary? What was it like working with a choreographer on a play?
I always knew the play operates as structured in a series of panels—panel one, panel two, panel three, panel four—and for me, that always recalled religious iconography. There’s a sort of choreography and movement in those tableaus. That, for me, was something that I was always interested in, and moving between those was something where I was like, “Oh, is there an opportunity to collaborate with somebody to help find a gestural vocabulary with the ensemble and a moment in the middle of the play where dance kind of explodes?” That’s where I found Raja Feather Kelly. Branden Jacobs-Jenkins recommended him, and he had just worked on Funny House of a Negro. He was wonderful and, again, somebody who has a groundedness and a connection to something bigger than himself, and he’s crazy and hilarious. That also contributed to the tone. How we related that to the text,was then just following the instructions that live there. [For example,] Black Man and Black Woman are sitting on a porch, so that’s a given, and then you have the introduction of the characters. We found a movement vocabulary to get that sense of reveal, for example. It was a very organic process with us talking and exploring in the room with the actors.
Do you, in general, have a philosophy about how you work with actors?
Every actor is different and every actor has a different process and different training program, but I tend to gravitate towards folks who tend to be adventurous and willing to try things, and who are not be afraid to do that. I felt very lucky with this company because they were all so incredibly unique and totally willing to dive into the crazy. They were just like, “Let’s go there. Can I try this? What about this? What about this?” For me, it is really fun to live inside of that and pick things out from really brave and courageous choices, particularly on a play like this that isn’t functioning as a [traditional] narrative. The choices that the actors made of finding their core inside of that was really important, and this company in particular was really wonderful at building their own particular narratives.
How did you find the balance between giving the actors playable things and objectives and also keeping track of the macro of the play, which isn’t structured like the traditional well-made play?
I think that was really part of the conversations at the beginning of table work. Suzan-Lori Parks and I talked a lot about what kind of world we were living in, and also the time and place in which we’re doing the show. Even before the election, we knew that there had been so many incidents of black men dying, so there was a kind of urgency inside of that, and Suzan-Lori Parks’s continual reminder of our history being larger than that was always a constant reminder of the macro vision of this play that is at its heart. When it comes down to the individual playable, actable notes, that comes from the text work and that comes from exploring onstage. I think everybody knew how to maintain a fluidity inside of that. It was really my job, when we lost sight of that, to remind everybody of what that means. Even though the play is dense, there are actions. This chorus is trying to help Black Woman understand that her man has died, and they need her to understand that so that he can move forward and so he can pass on. They need to do that to the audience and they need to do that as a community. That kind of uber-task informed the multiple ways in which they try to do that; the ways in which they repeated and revised that statement, “This is the death of the last black man in the whole entire world,” or a phrase as simple as “prunes and prisms.” It all had that kind of urgency inside of it. They’re playing it like a musical refrain that changes in intention, which was fun.
Did you do a lot of research for the play?
Yes. There are so many references inside of this. “Bigger and bigger” is a reference to Native Son. “Prunes and prisms” is a reference to James Joyce. There’s lots of Catholic imagery inside of it. Listening to Ornette Coleman and Bob Kaufman, who she quotes at the beginning of the play, “When I die, I won’t stay dead.” For me, it was about pulling as much out of the references that are inside of the play [as I can] and being present to what’s happening now. I love music and I love visual imagery, and Montana Blanco, who is the costume designer, we were both really excited about looking at artists like Mickalene Thomas and Kara Walker as ideas and ways of looking at silhouette. It’s always a process of research and absorbing anything that feels like it could live inside the world of the play.
When I talked to Suzan-Lori, we talked about the musical structure of the play.
Right, exactly. It’s amazing. It lives in the world of jazz, but I think this production, in some ways, also plays with the way it lives and how that predecessor lives in contemporary music like hip-hop and pop music and dance music, and the way we imbibe that rhythm.
What other areas of culture affect your work?
Everything. Music. Installation art. I’m obsessed with installation art. I’m still thinking about Kara Walker’s installation at the Domino Sugar Factory. Mickalene Thomas was a collage artist that I think was really amazing and influential for me. Pina Bausch. And music right now. Everybody knows Lemonade. Everybody knows Formation and the rhythm that creates. Or Big Freedia. Pop culture is very much a way in for me, mainly because it captures where we are at the moment and it’s so temporal. Theatre is so ephemeral. This show is going to close in a week. To live in the moment right now feels particularly important, and something about music does that too. It sets you in a very specific time and place.
Theatre can be very culturally isolated. It seems that it isn’t in dialogue always with other areas of culture like music or visual arts.
That, for me, is kind of essential. Come on guys, we need to be in the same room together. We’re making art, and I think when it doesn’t do that, or when it doesn’t feel like it’s speaking to the present, you can feel it in the production. That’s a very general statement, but I guess I’m most excited by work that feels like it’s in conversation with the other arts that are happening around it.
When you first get a show, do you have a strong visual image for it right away?
I think I’m usually struck by a particular image that then ends up informing the scenic concept for it. For this show, I was kind of obsessed with the plot—like the “six by six by six” in the earth—and also these figures serving as a kind of halo of saints. That was informative for me in talking with [set designer] Ricardo Hernandez, who then built the slanted space in which the actors can create that arc around Black Man and Black Woman. On a play like Much Ado About Nothing, we played Evil John as a woman who was basically pissed off at the world. She says, “I’d rather be a canker in a hedge than a rose in his grace.” Something about that line was like, “Oh right, there’s this façade of beauty and idealism that hovers over Much Ado About Nothing that falls apart in the wedding scene.” For that production, which was at OSF, we had a million roses dangling from the sky, which was also influenced by an installation artist who does these falling roses. So yes, basically images that come from the text itself end up informing. I think I was really influenced by this German set designer, Katrin Brack. She’s amazing, and one of the things that she does, which I think is so smart, is she’ll take something from inside of the play and then expound on it like a million times over, so that gesture takes on a kind of visceral meaningfulness. Even if you don’t know what happens, you can tell from the production stills that something massive is being repeated and felt over and over again by the repetition of some real material substance. That’s something that’s really exciting to me and what I tend to gravitate towards.
You were an English major at Princeton. How does that affect your work as a director?
I think it makes me gravitate towards thorny, complicate texts. I love Adrienne Kennedy, I love Gertrude Stein, I love Suzan-Lori Parks, precisely because their playing with language is so amazingly gymnastic, almost. What they’re doing with form is essentially challenging notions of linearity, which I think is amazing. The way those three women play with time is gorgeous and beautiful, and I think reflects a more complicated existence, which I’m always more interested in. I love both the chaos and the structure that lives inside of that too. You look at the page at first and you’re like, “Oh my god, I don’t understand any that this is,” and all of a sudden you’re like, “Oh wow, there’s a rhythm and an order and a meaning and a structure to this, and it’s beautiful.”
Do you find there are two sides to that, since on one hand you have all the literary theory, which is greater than in drama, but on the other hand, drama is not literature in the same way?
That’s why I ultimately ended up being drawn to theatre more than following an English track—because it’s alive, it’s people. Ultimately, theatre is people in space and their stories. Even when things aren’t happening linearly, something is happening and we’re inside of that. That’s dynamic. I guess it’s more interesting to me to experience something together and then have a conversation about it and create dialogue about that. That happened more fulfillingly for me in theatre than it necessarily did in English, precisely for the reasons that English can get caught up in theories and the micro. It felt like we could get to the larger picture with theatre, and that’s thrilling.
Do you have a dream cultural collaboration?
I would totally direct a [rock, pop] concert. It’s operatic. I didn’t get to see the Beyoncé concert, but everybody was talking about how amazing it was, and yes, it’s spectacle with music and people and there’s a kind of gladiatorial sport to it. That kind of energy is amazing. I’d love to do that. And I’m going to just keep saying I want to work at the Armory on anything. I’m just obsessed with them. I guess I’m obsessed with the big scale awesome things.
I went there for the first time recently. It’s embarrassing that it took me that long to go there.
What did you see?
I saw Manifesto, the thing with the million Cate Blanchett videos.
What did you think?
Well, at first I just felt that I should have read what it was before I walked in, because I was kind of like, “Oh this is going to take more than fifteen minutes.” At first I was a little turned off by it, actually, but once I was like, “Okay just give it a chance,” then I got more interested.
Okay. Tell me what you got more interested in.
Once I realized she was actually reading manifestos of different artists, I was interested in the way that they were taking the text and putting them in various situations and tensions between the words and the visuals. Have you seen it yet?
I have. I thought it was interesting. I like the idea. The idea of a manifesto is really fascinating, particularly now. What are we doing? What is art? What are we resisting against? I thought it was really interesting that there was a thesis inside of it that most of these artists were really young when they were crafting these manifestos. Then you have these two more established artists creating the scenarios in which they butted up against that, and there was something kind of wonderfully icy inside of that, but then I was like, where is the fire? This [the manifestos] is coming out of a real desire for change, and there’s a hopefulness that art can create a deeper understanding of truth inside of the world, or there’s a criticism of the way the art that exists now is not providing a truth that’s inside of the world. For me, I was missing—and maybe I’m hoping that this exists in all of the things that I make—why are we doing this right now? Theatre is so expensive and crazy, why are we making this unless it’s to speak to this particular moment right now? I saw this opportunity where you have all of this heated text—people are basically screaming at you, we need to get it together, we need to be after something bigger—but it was in this very glossy, kind of clean aesthetic, which was interesting.
It was very ahistorical-ized in a way that I thought was kind of interesting, but I tend to feel that so many times when people reference art from the past or talk about the meaning of art. There is a lot of ahistorical-izing that happens. So I actually do kind of like the idea of somebody putting a magnifying glass on that.
Yeah. That’s interesting. That was coming out of a very particular point in time. It’s true. But again, I love the Armory space because of that. Because there is an intersection of theatre and installation and music, and all of those things, which I think is exciting.
When you first get a project or interview for a project, do you tend to gravitate towards things where you’re like, “I know exactly how to do that,” or do you go towards the things where you’re like, “This is really interesting to me, but I have no fucking clue?”
It tends to be the latter because it’s fun to have to figure it out. I think it’s more about the feeling that you get when either you’re reading a text or somebody talks to you about an idea. If it all of a sudden gives you that nervous feeling, I tend to trust that, because it means that it’s reverberating in you in some way or it feels like it’s reverberating with something that’s happening out here. That’s exciting.
How do you think new work can be better developed?
In this past season, I worked on three new plays. Red Speedo was the first one, but it had already been developed a lot, so I think that that was less of a new play process because it was pretty close to being completed. What was helpful was that New York Theatre Workshop gave Lucas [Hnath] and I an opportunity to have time to sit and talk and work through the play together, and that was really a wonderful thing to have. Then with Soho Rep, we were given a workshop to work on Alice Birch’s Revolt. She Said. Revolt Again. That 29-hour workshop was really an opportunity for Alice to hear what the play was like in an American voice, and we were able to make adjustments around that, but again, that play was fairly complete. Then with War, which was a play where I had been closer to the beginning of that with Branden Jacobs-Jenkins, I felt like we had a lot of time to hear it with actors and work together. I think when theatres are responsive to what a playwright needs, and they don’t necessarily try to fit it in one solution, but just follow what is going to be most helpful to the writing process, I think that tends to be better than just being like, “Okay, you’re going do this, that, and the other thing.” I know Branden, for example, works really well with hearing it with a good group of actors. He works kind of on his feet in some ways. He’s notorious for having new pages out and trying different things, and that was really helpful for that writing process, but I imagine for other folks it might be completely different. I think a sensitivity to that would probably be good.
Is there anything specifically director related?
We tend not to think of directors as generators here, and I think there’s totally a possibility of that. To think of a new play, not necessarily just in its written form, but to think of it as a new event and to provide opportunities for that, I think would be really exciting for not only directors, but also maybe small devising companies as well. To give people an opportunity to think and to play would be amazing. There are some places that do that. The Ground Floor at Berkeley Rep was a really amazing place where I was able to work on this project called Intimacy, which was really just an idea about people talking to each other, which sounds super basic, but it was related to this idea about the ways in which we’re having a harder and harder time communicating and having longer conversations with each other, and then what does that mean to have conversations with strangers, and is there a possibility in creating empathy inside of that? So, not love in just the romantic sense, but love in the sense of human beings loving each other, which was part of me feeling woe and sadness for the world. There are so many ways to make plays that I think if theatres felt open to that kind of experimenting in the ways in which they could help develop, that would be really exciting.
Going back to the Armory and the space there, do you feel like the theatre spaces in New York are limiting in terms of their imaginative qualities?
I think that space is just really important. I think you can be imaginative in any space, but I think what’s happening now, with new buildings in particular, is because there’s such a need to draw people into the buildings, the spaces themselves as theatres are less transformative. That worries me, because I feel like the more transformative the space, the better, which is why Soho Rep at Walker Space was so amazing, because you could literally do anything inside of that rectangular room and it became known for that transformation. New York Theatre Workshop kind of has that element. For me, those are the kinds of spaces that are really exciting, the ones that have that flexibility. When you get into a space where you have to keep that line between the audience and the stage, it just creates a certain boundary to those choices. Not necessarily that you can’t be imaginative in them. It’s just nice when you have lots of options.
Do you also think about the psycho-geography of the space?
Absolutely. That plays a huge impact. You walk into a space, and you can feel what the space does to you, so if you’re going into a room like the Armory, and you can see down for what feels like miles, that does something to you physically. That’s what’s exciting to me. It’s the thing of, you enter into an atmosphere whenever you walk into a theatre. When you have the ability to manipulate that, so many things are possible. When you’re in theatres that have low ceilings, it creates a compression that maybe the audience isn’t aware of at first, but actually is super present, and can have an impact on a play.
One of the things that comes up in interviews with directors is if female directors feel pressure about how they present themselves in terms of femininity, appearance, or how they give direction.
I worked as an assistant a lot before I went to grad school, and everybody that I had worked with, for the most part, was pretty confident and comfortable with themselves in the room. When they weren’t, that resonated in the room. That kind of basic principle that I understood was that the director is also on display. We tend to think of actors as being the ones constantly on stage, but when you’re in the rehearsal room as a director, you’re also being watched. You’re part of the psychology of the space. How you’re being affects the rest of the space as you would expect, but people are reading you in order to understand how to move forward. I was at Arena Stage, and Paulette Randall—she’s an English director—was leading the room, and she just had so much damn love. She is the most giving person, and that resonated throughout the space. It made people feel comfortable to take big leaps.
There is sometimes either a generational gap working with older actors, or you might feel like, “Am I not being taken seriously because of these things?” Then you realize, “Okay, maybe, but that could happen with anybody at any point.” You kind of have to just do the work and fight for the work, and then if it’s about the work ultimately, that can triumph over all. Here’s an inside look. I was doing a show and as I was giving a direction, this actor was like, “No, that’s stupid.” That’s like the worst thing you want to hear [as a director]. I could have crumbled. I could have yelled. But I was just like, “No, it’s not, and this is why.” I think, particularly when you’re younger, you have to fight a little bit harder to be understood and to be heard, but if you do that with confidence and love and understanding that people are coming from wherever they’re coming from, then I think that that ultimately moves past all of the other stuff. I’m grateful because there have been a lot of really powerful woman directors who have come before me, so it’s not like I’m coming into this and it’s not the norm. There are leaders who have been doing this. I’m grateful I’m not coming at the very, very beginning.
One of the other things that seems tricky about directing is how you discover your leadership style. Leigh Silverman once said that directing can be hard because you’re so isolated in a way. Because once you get past assisting, you have no idea how anybody else does anything.
Right. This is so true. Which is why it’s great when directors talk to each other, which is why another lovely director, Taibi Magar, and I talk and we’re like, “Yeah, it is lonely.” You’re leading your room and you’re watching everybody, but who is watching you? You kind of have to be self-aware in that way, but it’s nice to just get together and talk. Leadership style is a thing I think assisting helped me to see, “Oh that’s something I resonate with,” or, “That is something I do not resonate with, that is not how I communicate.” Also, grad school was really helpful for that because you are actually being watched in some ways. There’s a lot of open rehearsals, and people are giving you feedback on how you communicate. For me, I think once I embraced that I’m crazy and kooky and like to jump around and run around, I was really happy. Sometimes there’s a learned processes where you think, “This is really difficult, I should feel terrible,” but once I was like, “Oh, actually I can enjoy the difficulty,” and that this is hard, but the work being hard can be satisfying as you’re working through it, and to enjoy the joy that I feel, then it became really fun.
What are you doing next?
First I’m doing Henry IV, Part One at OSF, and then I’m doing The Bluest Eye at The Guthrie, which is the Lydia Diamond adaptation of the Toni Morrison novel. I’m working with Branden [Jacobs-Jenkins] again on a new adaptation of The Bacchae at Princeton. I’m doing Water by the Spoonful by Quiara Alegría Hudes, who’s amazing, at the Mark Taper Forum. And a few other things I can’t talk about yet.
You’ve been very busy. Did you have to learn to balance that many projects at once?
Totally. Now I think it’s become more of a choice, and that’s nice to have the option. I try to at least give myself enough time to have enough prep work for each project, and to have a little breathing space between each one just to be fully present. There are some people who don’t take a day off, and I am not one of those people. I think just knowing that is helpful for me, that I need time to breathe and to think and to dream a little bit, which is why I think, again, thinking how theatres can also help with play development, giving those opportunities for directors too could be really great, just time to think.
When you’re getting ready to do all those different projects, do you try to keep them very separate in your brain, or do you try to let them cross over and see how they talk to one another?
I think there has to be a little bit of bleeding. When you’re living your life as an artist, those things naturally start to happen. One piece of music might all of a sudden inform something where you’re like, “This isn’t right for this, but oh wow, that could be amazing for The Bluest Eye,” or a character somehow resonates in your mind about how it can live, or how this character might be visiting from this other play. I think when you’re in that process of absorbing or preparing, it’s nice when you have the opportunity to take a lot of stuff in, because then you end up filtering out what’s right for the show, but that source material could end up being used again for something completely different. I think I live more in the melding world than box one, box two, box three. I love collage, I love mish-mashes, I love the way things intersect with each other. Actually, The Bluest Eye is going to be the first piece I’ve done that actually lives inside a particular period, and that’s really exciting for me. It won’t have the same kind of present cultural references, but I think it will still live in the present in how it looks and how it feels, simply from that fact that it’s happening now, but also because there are ways in which now pulls from back then, as well. I love that.