An Interview with Gaye Taylor Upchurch

Written by Victoria Myers

August 13th, 2014

If we had to pick a theme from our conversation with director Gaye Taylor Upchurch, it would be the importance of knowing who you are in the world. It was evident how important a point of view is to her, not only from her discussion of her work, but also from listening to her speak about storytelling. Needless to say, this is something we love. Gaye Taylor is a frequent director of new plays, and some of her recent credits include Laura Marks’ Bethany and Simon Stephens’ Harper Regan and Bluebird. She has worked with many playwrights on workshops and readings—all the things that help get new plays onto the stage (which is something else we love). She traveled all over the world as associate director of the Bridge Project, and her background as a dancer gives her a fascinating and thoughtful perspective about staging. Plus, she references Swan Lake and The Lord of the Rings. Need we say more?

(i.) Point of View

What is your process like for picking projects to direct? Do you look for things you feel like you have a strong point of view on and that fit with your aesthetic? Or do you look for something that will be a big learning experience?
First and foremost, I look for a project that is intriguing to me, and also one that I feel like I have a way into. As a director, you have to have a connection to the piece you’re working on. You have to really love it because you end up spending a lot of time on it—you end up spending a lot of time living with it. So I want to make sure that it’s something I have a point of view about, that I have something to say about, that I connect to. And also something that I’m passionate about.

You’ve worked on a lot of new plays. We’ve been asking people a lot about the role of interpretation when it comes to revivals, but what do you think the role of interpretation is for new work?
As a director, you’re constantly filtering something through your own experience and vision, and gathering a team of people that you feel like is best going to speak to what the piece is. And I think on a revival I’d feel the same way. I’d want to work on a play that I felt like I had something new to say about. Annie Baker’s The Aliens is one of my favorite plays of all time, but I feel like I saw the perfect production of it directed by Sam Gold. I’d love to direct that show, but I don’t feel like I have anything to say about it at this moment, so I wouldn’t necessarily direct that show at this point in time.

What is it about a script that grabs you?
I’m interested in doing plays that speak to a certain theatricality that can’t be experienced in any other art form—whether it’s the exchange between the audience and the performers, or a way into the design that’s abstract. I’m very interested in visuals that are open and spare. I have done kitchen sink dramas that are very realistically rendered, but I tend to be more drawn to plays that are abstract in their design, but not necessarily in the way the actors perform—very naturalistic acting in an abstract space tends to be what I’m drawn to. The first production that I ever saw that made me want to direct was Jack O’Brien’s production of The Invention of Love by Tom Stoppard. It was the intimacy of the actors that made me feel like a voyeur—there were certain scenes that I felt like I shouldn’t even be watching because they were such private moments. And all of that intimate acting was against the backdrop of sweeping scenery that moved and changed and led the audience through the story. And that production got me hooked on figuring out what a director can do and how a director can bring all the elements together. That production informed the way that I think about directing.

You brought up the concept of theatricality. We live in a time where there’s a lot of theatrical stuff happening on film and TV. How do you think theatre responds to that?
I think that theatre’s great strength is that it can be a very simple exchange of live performance, and that is something that actually can’t be duplicated in those other art forms. So rather than becoming very tech heavy, I’m mostly interested in work that is celebrating the live experience.

(ii.) Process

One part of directing that seems to get talked about a little less is directing readings and workshops of new plays. You’ve done quite a bit of that. What do you consider to be the director’s role in that?
I always talk a lot to the playwright up front to get very clear on what their goals are for that particular process—to find out where they are in the development of the piece. Because doing things like making drastic changes when you only have three hours of rehearsal, if they’re not to that stage of development yet, I think can be very detrimental to the development of a new play. So I work in close collaboration with the playwright to find out where the play is in its development. I feel like [a big part of it is] getting people in a room who aren’t afraid to try new things, and experiment with new pages that come in, or change their approach to something, so we can find out what we need to discover about the play.

It seems like one of the most challenging parts of directing is balancing all the different actors’ processes. How do you approach that?
I’m still learning that. Being sensitive to that, I think, is a big part of the director’s job. You always want to get the best work out of people and help them find their best performance. I think it’s a constant checking-in and constantly challenging people in the right ways—sometimes that’s trial and error and sometimes that’s a conversation. It just depends. It’s very individualized.

(iii.) Next

What are you working on next?
I’m directing a new play by Victoria Stewart called Rich Girl at the Old Globe in San Diego. It’s not the first production of it, but it hasn’t been done in New York yet. It’s about a woman taking over a massively financially successful company from her mother and, in doing that, she has to learn who she is in the world—she has to distinguish between if people are coming to her because of her, or because she has great wealth. It’s a coming of age story, but told from [the perspective of] a girl who is uncertain what people want from her.

It’s interesting that it’s a new play, but not a world premiere. There can be so much focus on premieres.
I haven’t seen the other productions, so it’s new for me, which is great. I’d rather approach it not having seen it before. I did direct two different productions of Bethany by Laura Marks and, going into that, I worried that the second time around wouldn’t be as exciting. But it’s a completely different process when you’re working with totally different collaborators—there’s a different energy in the room, you emphasize different things in the play. And in the first production Laura was actually still doing some rewrites—she actually rewrote one of the scenes entirely. In the second production you’re working much more with a set script. It was exciting working on it the second time around because I got to try some different things that I didn’t have time to try the first time.

(iv.) International

You were associate director for the Bridge Project and did an international tour. What impact did that have on your artistic development?
It had a huge impact on me. I love travel and it gave me a great excuse to travel the world and experience audiences around the world, which was eye opening. Getting to put plays that I loved into enormous theatres in Auckland and Singapore, and tiny jewel box theatres around Europe like in Amsterdam, Madrid, Paris—it was a breadth of experience that I hadn’t had before. I also got to work with so many different actors, some British and some American, who have different backgrounds in the way that they approached the work. I think a big part of directing is learning how to respond to what different actors need. And that gave me a great opportunity to do that.

Having spent time doing theatre in other countries that all have their own theatre traditions, are there things where you were like, “Wow that would be awesome to incorporate into the American theatre?”
I was in those countries, but I didn’t get to see a lot of other theatre that was going on in those places. It was watching the audience respond to our work. I really loved the response of the audience in Madrid to hearing Shakespeare. They told us afterwards that they actually do see a lot of Shakespeare there, but it’s usually translated into Spanish and [this production of The Winter’s Tale] was one of their first experiences actually hearing the play in its natural language. And that for them, they said to me, even though there were times where they missed some of the words, just hearing the rhythm of the text was a fantastic experience and made them think about Shakespeare differently. It made me want to see more foreign language plays in the States that are allowed to live in their natural language.

(v.) Storytelling

Do you see any themes in your work?
I do tend to direct plays that have female protagonists.

Is that important to you?
It is important to me. When I assisted [director] Garry Hynes on Translations, which is a very political play, we talked about that a lot, and her desire to put political work onstage. At one point she said to me, “But, you know, all theatre is political. It’s always a political act—what stories are getting told and what are you putting onstage.” And I do think about that.

It seems like anytime you have a female character it can become a political act.
Human beings are storytellers and the people who get to tell the stories feel greater ownership of the culture, and I think it’s something that should be shared. I feel like it’s an exciting time in theatre because people are wanting to throw those doors open and to share that.

What is the first piece of storytelling that had a major impact on you?
My background is in dance, and I think the stories of ballets were huge in my development: Swan Lake, Giselle, and The Red Shoes. I also grew up going to church a lot, and I grew up with Bible stories. My dad used to tell me a lot of Hans Christian Andersen fairytales going to bed, which were dark and wonderful. So I think that all of those things together. All of those feel mythic on some level.

(vi.) Dance

Does your background in dance affect your work as a director?
It does. It’s something that I’m thinking a lot more about now than I used to. I think I didn’t quite understand the impact that it had on choices that I made earlier on. It’s something, at first, other people pointed out to me, and now I’m seeking out opportunities to bring my dance background into my work. It’s something that’s new for me to actually start to think about in that way. I do think of staging as choreography quite often. So bodies in space—where they are in relation to each other, to hold the tension of a moment or dispel the tension of a moment, and the line of the body and the specificity of where it is in space, and how it’s turned—I think is a huge part of storytelling for me.

Who were your heroes growing up?
Nina Ananiashvili, who is a ballerina—now she’s artistic director of the State Ballet of Georgia. She was a fantastic ballerina. I got to see her perform in Jackson, Mississippi when I was eight or nine, and she was glorious. I actually encountered her again. I came to New York when I was about seventeen and I opened The New York Times to see what I might do that weekend, and there was a full-page ad of her as a principle dancer at American Ballet Theatre, which was amazing, since when I saw her dance in Jackson the KGB was following her around making sure she didn’t defect—it was that time in history. But she eventually made her way to New York and became a principle dancer at American Ballet Theatre. She was fantastic. I have a black and white photo of her on my wall that my mom gave me that I love.

Do you have a favorite ballet?
Swan Lake is always my go to. And she was one of the greatest interpreters of that [Odette/Odile] role.

What is it about that ballet that gets you?
It’s a dark fairytale. There’s shapeshifting in it. There’s incredible chorus dancing in it. The ensemble work is incredible and detailed, and there suddenly can be 40 dancers onstage and they’re coming on one at a time as the swans. The choreography. The music. It’s fantastic.

What are your top five dance experiences?

  1. Swan Lake at ABT with Nina Ananiashvili
  2. Merce Cunningham’s Ocean
  3. Alvin Ailey’s Revelations
  4. Paul Taylor’s Caught
  5. Jewels at New York City Ballet by Balanchine

(vii.) Culture

You were an English major in college. What’s your relationship like with language?
Literature has always been a big part of my life. I love reading. I was a quiet child and I read a lot. I actually ended up teaching seventh grade English for a while after I finished school, before I ever discovered theatre—theatre didn’t come to me until later in life. I loved teaching and used stories as a way to reach these twelve and thirteen year olds who were struggling with their own identities, trying to figure out who they were in the world. It was a very raw look at storytelling and how it can shape us. I used to get my students to sit in a circle and I would read The Hobbit to them, because a lot of them, I think, felt like they were beyond simple stories, and they were so delighted by it. It definitely strikes me that you are never too old to sit down and listen to a good tale.

Is there a fictional character you’d like to be friends with?
Samwise Gamgee from The Lord of the Rings. He’s awesome.

What other areas of culture inspire you?
Music. I listen to a lot of music. I love going to hear live performance. I used to incorporate live music into plays that I directed and I’m looking into ways to get back to that.

What would be your dream cultural collaboration?
Working on a movement piece with [composer] Nico Muhly would be amazing. I also work with incredible theatre designers, who are artists in their own right, and I would love to see what they might do if given an art gallery. To do installation work with them would be fantastic. And also get a different kind of audience.

(viii.) Development

What do you consider to be a decisive moment in your career?
Well, for me, I think the moment that I decided to go back to school to pursue theatre. I was teaching seventh grade English and decided to make a change, and it was really scary to just jump in. Gerald Freedman, who was the Dean of Directing at North Carolina School of the Arts, let me come in and observe classes. And if he had instead said, “Go away, direct a lot on your own, and come back,” I might not have ever done it, because I was teaching in Winston-Salem, North Carolina and it would have been really hard there to direct on my own in the community. But he allowed me to come observe and see if it was something I was interested in, and then let me try out my first directing [work] once I was in the school, which was great. So that moment of my decision to go for it, coupled with Gerald Freedman’s acceptance of me into the program and taking me under his wing, was the deciding factor in my doing this.

What was the first moment you felt like “I’m a director?”
In school I directed the first half of A Hatful of Rain, which is a 1955 Michael Gazzo play. I read it and loved it, and knew I could cast it well with the people I was hoping to work with. We used visual art. We used the artwork of Ross Bleckner in the set design. And there was a live saxophonist that played. It was a really great collaboration with everyone working on that piece. I was proud of that. And I felt like we brought fresh life to something that was from the 1950s. It felt new for us.

What was your experience coming to New York like?
The summer before I graduated, Gerald Freedman set me (and the other two directors in the program) up with an internship at the O’Neill Playwrights Conference in Connecticut. That was a great moment because I got to work on new plays for the first time. I was assisting, which meant mostly observing these readings be put together, but I got to see the process of new play development. I also got to meet a ton of people from New York theatre who were lovely and open and generous, and made me think the New York theatre was not necessarily a scary cut-throat place that I’d imagined it to be. So that helped me make the decision to come to New York.

What has surprised you or been very different than you imagined about being a director?
It’s a lot of energy, which I knew, but it’s a lot of energy in terms of gathering projects. I don’t think this surprised me so much, but I don’t think I realized the extent to which directing would constantly allow me to immerse myself in different parts of the culture or other cultures of whatever I’m working on.

When did you first feel like a grown-up?
I think there’s a little part of me that maybe always has felt like a grown up. I used to love falling asleep listening to the adults talking in the other room.

Do you think that listening to people in other rooms is something that also pulled you towards directing?
I definitely am an observer of the world and interested in rhythms and silences. So I do feel like, because a director is partly orchestrating the rhythm of a piece, that’s inherent to what I’m doing.

(ix.) Representation

We think it’s important for people—and especially girls—to see women directing and writing and so on. You mentioned having a mentor. Do you think that it’s important to have female mentors?
I think a mentor [male or female] is important. But that being said, it is nice to have other female directors that you can talk to candidly about the experience of being a female director.

What are some things that you think female directors face that the men don’t?
I think that role modeling is important, and now, thank God, there are suddenly more women directing on Broadway—but only a few—and I think crossing that line is crucial. There was a McKinsey Study done in 2011 that talks about how men are often thought of for promotion based on potential, and women are thought of for promotion based on past experience. And that makes it difficult if you’re not able to get past experience. And I think everyone having an awareness of that—that unconscious bias—actually helps to open the doors. I think we do work in a field that is intelligent and socially conscious, and has people in it that want to open those doors. So it’s a matter of everyone being aware of those places where we feel unconscious bias is a problem.

Did you (or do you) ever feel pressure to present yourself a certain way, especially in terms of femininity, in order to be taken seriously?
I think early on I had the idea that I should wear button downs or jackets or something that felt more masculine. But actually, I think the most important thing you can do as a director is know who you are in the world. So I don’t feel that way anymore. I feel like you have to present yourself as someone people can trust with money, with their time, and with a company. So I tend to focus more on that.

There’s so much talk about women and their behavior. It’s really analyzed. We don’t do that to men. As someone whose job it is to be in charge of a lot of people, do you feel like your behavior is discussed more than it would be if you were a male director?
It might be, but it’s not something that I can think about going into a room because that would be paralyzing. I feel like as a director, it’s more important for me to be able to speak and behave the way that I need to get the job done. And I hope that we land in a place where my behavior always seems valid. I have heard people say things about how female directors, in the rehearsal room, should never say things like, “Is that ok?” “Does that make sense?” “Do you understand?” That we should never answer things with questions like that. But I disagree. I don’t think it’s weak to check in with your collaborative partners. And I don’t think it’s weak to say, “I don’t know.” And I’ve assisted enough men to know that they use those words constantly in the rehearsal room. So if there’s a problem with women using those words, or checking in with other people in the room, I think that’s a problem with perception and not necessarily a problem that female directors need to address themselves.

(x.) Future

What’s something you think people can do to improve gender parity in theatre?
Make sure that you are considering candidates equally [when hiring]. I think it’s about being conscious of who you’re considering for jobs. It’s our responsibility to constantly seek out those candidates—and those candidates should reflect the culture.