An Interview with Liesl Tommy
Written by Victoria Myers
Photography by Emma Pratte
March 1st, 2016
It is the morning of February 24th and we’re sitting with director Liesl Tommy in the lower lobby of the Golden Theatre on 45th Street where, the previous evening, Eclipsed, which tells the story of a group of women during the Liberian Civil War, had its first Broadway preview. There was a red carpet and famous names to match; there was a group photo at curtain call; there was a fancy dinner. But now it’s the morning after, and soon it will be time to get back to work or, in Liesl’s case to keep working, because she’s never stopped. Earlier this season, Eclipsed by Danai Gurira opened at the Public Theater and was quickly marked for a Broadway transfer, making it the first Broadway show to be written, directed, and feature a cast of all black women. Hence the celebration, but also the pressure. Some of Liesl’s previous directing credits, which include both work in the US and abroad, are The Good Negro, Appropriate, and 2014’s highly lauded re-interpretation of Les Misérables at the Dallas Theatre Center. And now Eclipsed on Broadway. But this morning, things are calm—the kind of calm that settles over projects where there’s a healthy mix of practicality and idealism. Because, as we discussed with Liesl, that is a large part of a director’s job: to be a leader with a vision and a plan. Here, we talk to her not only about what it takes to be that kind of director, but about her journey with Eclipsed, developing new work, being a force in the room, and much more.
Last night was the first preview of Eclipsed on Broadway. What is your day like today?
Well, the day after a first preview is a very intense day because you get notes from producers about what they loved and what they had questions about, you have your own notes, you have a list from the designers, and you have to create a work list. You only have four hours on each day of a preview to get our work done. The hardest part is that you have a ton of things on the work list and limited time, so you have to be really strategic about what you do with each four-hour chunk. It becomes about chipping away. It’s really hard, as a director, to not get everything done, but that’s not the name of the game. The name of the game is just powering through your work list and making sure that the lighting designer gets what they need, the sound designer gets what they need, you get what you need, the actors get what they need, stage management gets what they need. There are some things that happen the night before where I know that the lighting designer will die if she has to look at that again. I know that there are things that I will die if I have to look at them again, and I know there are things the stage managers are desperate to run. And I always check in with the actors like, “What are you feeling dread about if we don’t review?” That’s, to me, when the collaborative process and the leadership really kicks in.
The show transferred from The Public and now you’re in not only a bigger theatre, but a theatre with a different vibe—from downtown to Times Square. How has that affected things?
The obvious thing we have to do is get the show ready for this different space. We were in a 150-seat theatre with a very narrow stage, and now we’re in an 800 seat theatre with a very wide stage. So the thing that myself, Clint Ramos [set and costume designer], and Jen Schriever [lighting designer] talked about was how to open it up not only to the bigger physical stage, but also to the audience. Sometimes we’d get a note about people not understanding the [Liberian] accent so we loosened it, but I thought for Broadway we’re going to have to loosen it more, since this is a much broader group of people, so you don’t know what their frame of reference is. Pushed the humor even more, I thought that was important. Just making the design more expansive so the play can breathe in the space and the audience has time to process what before was super tight. And the immersive feel—because it was so tight it felt so close—so I had to figure out how to create a sense of immersive-ness with this bigger space. One of the things we did is we really pumped up the way we’re using sound with our sound designers Broken Chord. We have many, many speakers all around so that you feel like you’re in the war, in the bush, in the environment.
Did you find that you had to think more about locating the audience for this play, since it’s set in a country that the average person might just have a Wikipedia understanding of? Did you have to think more about the first five to ten minutes and how you have the audience enter this world?
I spent almost my entire rehearsal yesterday working on the first two scenes of the play—loosening the accents, slowing down the scene work, and just making sure it was as accessible as possible in terms of understandability. And then, this is a small detail, we have an opening sound sequence, which is kind of like our sound design overture—it’s not music, it’s sounds from the war, quotes of people we got from YouTube, this mélange—and that is what located us into the conflict zone. The Liberian accent can be very hard to understand because it’s a specific accent that comes from a hybrid of freed American slaves and that Southern lilt—they basically are just not interested in constants at all. Some of the quotes we were using in the sound design weren’t entirely audible, so we went into the studio and re-recorded it with the actors so that we can extend the sound and have people understand it more. Then another thing I did is the cell phone message in a Liberian accent, so I’m giving everyone time to tune their ears to this accent. So I’m being very strategic about that.
You’ve had this play in your life for a long time. Have you found yourself pulling out different themes depending on where you are in your life?
Pascale Armand, who has been with it since the first workshop, was laughing when we were at the Public and saying, “You’re just not stopping. You just keep giving us new things to think about.” I think what’s been amazing about the journey with this play is the first workshop was six years ago and there have been two productions, and now I’m a different director. I’m older, I’m more experienced, I’m more confident, and certain elements of storytelling I’ve really embraced and I really care about and always will really explore. So, in a way, it’s been great to be able to grow with the show and grow the show as I, as an artist, grow. Even just coming from the Public to here, we had two studio days before we came into the theatre and I had this idea for what I wanted for Bessie, Pascale’s character, that was a little different than what we had been doing, and she just gave me this look like, “When are you going to stop?” It was a big change, but they’re all such amazing actresses that they all embrace the challenge. The thing I keep saying to them is, “What people care about is depth.” Danai [Gurira] has given us this gift of a script where we get to look at all different kinds of women in a moment. It’s so rare to see a play or a movie or anything where you see five women all with different points of view and who make different choices. The opportunity to really mine what womanhood is, what humanity is through this play, it really is the gift that keeps on giving. So I’m going to be relentless in digging deep into womanhood, motherhood, girlhood. Never ever stopping excavating, since who knows when we get a chance to live in this female energy again?
Like you were saying, Eclipsed is about individual, subjective experiences, which you don’t get to see a lot with women. But have you found because of the setting—the Liberian Civil War—that there’s been pressure to give people a history lesson?
It’s interesting because I work on so many political and history plays, and in every single one of them there’s a moment where everyone turns to each other and goes, “You have to tell the story.” Your job is not to be a 60 Minutes episode. You have to find the balance, so people have enough context to lean into the story and focus and care, and then you have to lean into the actual story you’re telling. One of the great gifts of this process is that in this commercial run I have producers, Stephen C. Byrd and Alia Jones-Harvey at Front Row Productions, who support and trust me so much. I’m actually getting emotional thinking about how much space they’ve given me as an artist. They also know I’m a very pragmatic person and I’ve taken into consideration the commercial realities and done what was needed. But at no stage have I ever felt pressure from them to quote-unquote “commercialize” this project or anything like that, because we all understand that what makes this thing special is the thing itself.
(iv.) New Work
What do you feel is a director’s role in developing new work?
I think it’s different for every director. Not every director is a dramaturgical director. Not every playwright looks to their director for that. But I think whatever kind of director you are, when you’re working on new plays the thing you have to do is ask questions of the playwright. Separate yourself from any thoughts of what you think the play should be. Dramaturgy is merely a conversation. It’s me saying, “So what do you feel like the arc for this character ultimately is?” “What do you wish for this?” “What do you want for this story?” I work on political pieces a lot so, “How do you want to tell this political story?” Because there are two things happening: there’s the political story and then there’s the literal play, and [I’m] always helping to make sure that it merges and isn’t didactic. But in the early stages, it’s really just asking questions and not having an agenda, so you can help the playwright get clarity and understand what’s in their head and what’s on the page and where it may not be the same.
Before you start working with the playwright, when you’re picking a project do you gravitate towards things where you’re like, “Yes, I know this. I know what it should be,” or, “I have no idea how the hell I’m going to do this”?
It’s different for each project. For example, when I first read Eclipsed, way back when it was still in workshop draft, I got through the first five pages and there was the first moment when the male CO [commanding officer] comes in, and there was no male actor. It was just a theatrical device. And I went, “I don’t know where this play is going, but I’m doing this play,” because the imagination that it took to come up with that device, the theatricality, the courage, said to me that it was a playwright I wanted to work with. I want to work with someone who is thinking like that. So I made that decision like that [she snaps]. Then sometimes I read a play three times and I still will pass because something tells me no. Being an artist is going with your gut and I’ve always trusted my gut, and the one or two times where I haven’t trusted it, earlier in my career, I paid for it. I’m not going to lie, if I encounter a playwright who doesn’t like to do re-writes in a workshop, that makes me really annoyed. Because why did we take that slot away from somebody who might have really wanted that workshop to do rewrites? I have a really rigorous work ethic and I want to work with people who have that same thing. I don’t necessarily want to do a hundred workshops, but I do believe in people who want to buckle down and get in there. That relentless investigation is what is thrilling for me, and that’s the kind of designers I surround myself with, playwrights I surround myself with, and actors I surround myself with. Never relent.
(v.) Point of View
You always come across as a director with a strong point of view. In film there’s the concept of the auteur director, but that doesn’t really seem to exist in theatre.
Oh, it exists—it exists for European men. That’s who is allowed to be an auteur and have a point of view. I’ve always had a very strong point of view. I used to be an actor—I was an actor for fifteen years—and when I moved to directing I knew exactly what kind of director I wanted to be. I’d worked with a lot of shitty directors, to be frank, and I felt bored by a lot of the shows I was in. And I thought, “You can either become an obnoxious, negative force in the room or you can put your money where your mouth is,” and that’s why I switched to directing. But from the first moment, I knew what I thought was interesting. I knew that the essence of directing, for me, was putting what I like on stage. I have assistants that always say at the end of the process that one of their favorite things about assisting me is how much joy I get from my own work, which is going to sound crazy, but every single thing that I put on the stage I believe in. So when a lighting cue is perfectly timed, or when an actor is just dropping into a moment that you’ve toiled over, it brings me tremendous joy. I feel like, certainly in New York, there’s the idea that the director’s job is to disappear, and that is not something I agree with. My job as a director is to drag that story and drag that audience along for a ride they’ll never forget. I don’t care about having a signature. I just care about how to make the story as rock and roll as possible and as thrilling as possible. I do have a strong point of view, and there are certain things I explore over and over again in my shows, because there are things I’m working through as an artist. But it does feel like Ivo Van Hove is allowed to have a vision, certain directors are allowed to have a vision, but women are just supposed to deliver the show. That’s bullshit.
Something I’ve talked about a few times in interviews is this thing Cate Blanchett said about Americans viewing theatre like literature and as something that has a correct and static interpretation. It’s interesting to think about that and how, for example, in America we say things like, “Oh, what’s your favorite play,” rather than talking about specific productions.
One of the things that was really essential to my development was being able to work abroad, which allowed me to have a much more expansive relationship with design, a much bolder hand when it comes to my collaboration with designers. I’ve done A Raisin in the Sun, Ma Rainey’s [Black Bottom], The Piano Lesson, and Hamlet, and I’ve pushed the envelope in all of those things. I approached them—and I hate to say this—like a quote unquote “European director,” which is [to say] I didn’t do traditional productions. And I know people are going to be like, “How do you not do a traditional production of Ma Rainey?” And Les Mis [at the Dallas Theatre Center]—Les Mis is a really good example. For me, it does start with the vision. It does start with that dirty word: concept. Because of all of my time in new plays, as long as that concept can stand up dramaturgically, as long as it’s not just interesting for the first five minutes, but can stand up till the final moment of the play, it has woven itself into it and propelled it forward [then it works]. I don’t get to do it a ton in this country, but whenever I have the freedom of working on a classic, I’m always going to push the envelope. I’m never just going to deliver the traditional production. I have a point of view, I have an obsession with certain things—death, grief, ghosts—so working on Hamlet, A Raisin in the Sun, Ma Rainey, those elements were infused in those shows because, as I said, I’m an artist, and my job is to expansively explore the things I’m passionate about. It’s not about being safe and it’s not about being invisible. Not for me at least.
Do you feel that fluidity with language, translation, and culture makes you more likely to not see theatre as static?
Yeah, all of that. Using multimedia, using video, it’s just whatever your tools are. Using puppets. People have said to me, “You’re so interesting because you do classics, you do new plays, you do weird multimedia things,” and I just feel like, “Why wouldn’t I?” I am a theatre maker and these are all of the tools of making theatre. If not, I would get very bored very quickly. You just constantly have to be pushing yourself. We’re living in a world where technology is constantly raising ahead, and you have to stay on top of it so the work stays badass and edgy. Whether you’re doing a super traditional production of Uncle Vanya or not, you still have to have a sensibility, I believe, that is modern, or else death. You know, when it’s like, “I can feel dust on my tongue watching this. I’m bored. I want to go watch Girls.”
It’s an interesting time since theatre has done such a bad job with using new technology and, meanwhile, TV and film has gotten really, really good and really theatrical. And there’s very little cultural dialogue within theatre. It’s an odd time.
It is. It’s an odd time. I’m working on this project [Frozen] for Disney right now. For Disneyland, for the Hyperion, which is their 2,000-seat theatre in California. It’s a massive budget. It’s tens of millions of dollars. And from the early stages, they took me through the Imagineering factory, all of the technical wizardry that those Disney Imagineers are coming up with, and let me see all the possibilities. Because it’s a huge spectacle. It’s like they wanted me to deliver a Broadway level musical. But also, once I understood what was available to me I was like, “I’m going to take it to another level.” Because we’re in an amusement park and we have access to technology that we don’t get on Broadway. So it’s become a hybrid live event with story. The excitement of getting to work with cutting-edge video and lighting design—I mean I have fifty-two projectors that are going to be on the stage—and I have pushed them. I have been like, “Let’s go further with this. It can be more.” And, thank God, they’ve really trusted me with this. And that’s when I was like, “Oh I see!” Because at first I was like, “Why did these people hire me? I’ve been doing political theatre my whole life. Why am I working at Disney?” But what I started to understand is that when you work at a level like that, you want the director to have a vision, to be bold, and to lead. That’s one thing that I’ve come away from this with: all of those producers, all of those executives, all of those people whose work it is to preserve this corporate entity, they are thrilled by innovation, they are thrilled by forward thinking. They understand that it’s the future of their company, that it’s the future of their brand. So sometimes at night I wake up and I have an idea and I’m like, “That’s too crazy, calm down,” and then I’m like, “Art is risk,” and one of the biggest risks that we as directors can take is to make a suggestion that might get ridiculed. But we have to be brave and we have to make those suggestions and pitches. When you’re working at that level and that budget and that level of corporate involvement, I feel like I’ve never had to be braver. I feel like I’ve never had to trust my vision more. It’s been informative. I have to be so grateful that I never wanted to be a director who wanted to disappear into the story because I wouldn’t be doing this kind of project now.
Let’s talk about confidence. How has the trajectory of your career been in terms of finding the confidence to do what you’re there to do, which is lead?
I did a reading once where there were about four hours of rehearsal and you just have to smack it together, and April Matthis was in the reading, and at the first break she said, “You put the direct in director.” And yes, I think I’m known as an absolutely no bullshit person. It’s because I was an actor and I loved acting and [as an actor] I felt so excited when people were clear, and so angry when directors didn’t know how to articulate what they wanted. So when I moved into directing, again, I knew what I wanted to do and what I wanted to be. And I knew I wanted to be an actors’ director—a clear communicator—and create a space where actors could shine. Because when clarity is all around them, then that magical, artistic part of an actor can flourish. I’m getting emotional talking about this because it’s like my religion—making a space where actors can be completely confident and free on stage. Acting is a brutal job and so often wracked with insecurities and instability that creating a space where they can really do their best work is really important. It’s part of my belief system. But going back to confidence, I was raised in a very political home. I was raised to be a leader. There was a crafting happening to think as a political leader. I was raised to think about: what are things that go into creating a civil society, what is good leadership and what is bad leadership, how to avoid corruption. These are things that were normal conversation since I grew up in South Africa during the apartheid years, so that was just part of it. So I felt like I had a really good understanding of what good and bad leadership was on the macro and on the micro level. You just meet so many people who have no idea what it is to be the boss and what it is to be responsible for fellow human beings. And it’s important because creating a place where people can flourish; it’s not only affecting their time in the room with you, but affecting how they’re going to spend their time at home with their families. It’s your job as a leader to create a micro civil society that is going to encourage people to flourish. It’s a job I take really seriously. And that doesn’t mean I pat everyone on the head every five minutes—I’m very demanding—but I do feel like we’re creating a community. So because I had a super clear idea of what leadership was and what was missing for me as an actor and what I wanted to provide as a director, I never had a problem with confidence. And I don’t know why that is, and I’m very grateful that I never had to worry about that. From the very first directing job, I just took control of that room because I had a vision and felt like I had to execute it.
Do you think about how you present yourself—what you wear, your tone of voice? All the things male directors don’t have to think about.
I’ll tell you one moment where I realized my femaleness as a liability. It was with an artistic director that I hadn’t worked with before, and they called my agent and were interested in me coming to work at their theatre. And the artistic director said, “People seem to really like her and writers seem to really like her, but my concern is what is she like in tech?” My agent was like, “What do you mean?” This artistic director said, “Can she take control of tech? Can she handle all of those elements?” And my agent goes, “Yeah, I think so.” And the artistic director goes, “I just had a woman in here last season who fell apart during tech.” And my agent goes, “She’ll be fine.” My agent and I talked about it and it was like, “Now have you never ever had a male director fall apart in tech?” [Yes], but you had one woman who had a rough tech and now that’s going to ruin it for all other women? That has come up numerous times, not specifically for me, but as a thing. Just making sure that us ladies can handle all of those electricians and carpenters. And not buckle under the pressure. It’s not fucking rocket science, it’s tech. So [to myself] I was just like, “No matter what you’re feeling in that room, you just never show any anxiety.” I know so many Tony-winning [male] directors who freak the fuck out during tech, who are shouting, being abusive, and they work all the time—all the time. But one of the things I decided very early on is that I would never lose my shit during tech, I would never scream at anyone, and I would always be the most calm person in the room—demanding—but calm. In retrospect, I wish I had allowed myself a little bit more leeway because I was always calm and graceful under pressure, but I internalized so much stress and anxiety. My doctor said to me that my stress levels were way too high and it’s a hormone, it’s not good for your body. I mentioned this to a colleague and he was like, “I know it’s stressful, but I never see you stressed in tech,” and I was like, “Well, all of those guys who scream at people, maybe they’re less stressed because they let it out.” So one of the things I’ve done is to make sure that I have systems in place to let go of stress. When I’m in tech, I work out four times a week with a personal trainer at Core Rhythm Fitness specifically on stress busting. I’m lucky that I have the will and resources for that. But it was an investment in myself that I had to make. As women, I feel like we make investments in all sorts of things before we make investments in our own mental and physical self. The stakes are so high on this project, there are so many eyes on it, that I’m going to be taking care of everyone else all day, so I need to take some time for myself.
Let’s talk a little more about the pressure and how you’re dealing with that. Not only because it’s Broadway, but because so much is being made of the historic nature of Eclipsed.
I’m just working. Danai and I have just been working on this paly for a long time. We never positioned ourselves to be the first anything, it just happened. But I feel like one of the things with being a woman of color in an industry that for a very long time has not been interested in your point of view, was from the first minute I stepped into grad school, I felt pressure. My father used to say to me all the time, “You’re going to have to be better than everyone around you for them to not consider you minutely inferior. You’re going to go into a room where they’re all going to assume they’re better than you, so you’re going to have to work three times as hard to be considered equal.” I have found that to be 100% true. So I feel like from the very beginning of me embarking on this career, and so often being the only person of color in a room, I have felt pressure. And it’s hard to manage, and some of that is self-induced and some of that is societal. But whatever that pressure is, it feels like an old friend. And I feel ready for it. I know what it is.
The societal versus personal pressure can add a whole other level of neurosis that I think can be hard for people to find places to express.
Totally. You’re totally right. Kathleen Geldard—she’s a costume designer—always says that we artists need an extra organ to process paranoia. There’s always a point in any artistic process where you’re just hearing voices that don’t exist and criticism that doesn’t exist, and you have to be so strong to just go, “That’s in my head, that’s not real.”
What do you think can be done to improve gender equality in theatre?
Here’s what I think, but I’m a radical kind of chick, I feel like we have to do three years of programing all women. That’s it. Every single theatre, for three years, three seasons, should program all women, and half of those women should be women of color. That’s my solution. Because it’s literally a muscle. There are massive theatres in this city that get enormous funding, that don’t give a fuck about women or people of color. To me it’s a crime. How is that possible?
You can follow Liesl on Twitter:@LieslTommy and Instagram:@LieslTommy.