Written by Victoria Myers
Photography by Jessica Nash
November 16th, 2016
Lee Sunday Evans has been one of the breakout directors of the last few theatre seasons. In 2015 she won an OBIE for A Beautiful Day in November on the Banks of the Greatest Lakes, and in 2016 won the Susan Stroman Award from the Vineyard Theatre. This year she also directed an all-female Macbeth for Hudson Valley Shakespeare and directed Caught with The Play Company. Currently she’s directing the world premiere of Andy Bragen’s Don’t You F**king Say a Word at 59E59 Theaters, which is just one of many projects she has slated for the 2016-2017 season. During a break from tech, we recently talked to Lee about her process for putting together Don’t You F**king Say a Word, new play development, and the other areas of culture that affect her work.
What attracted you to Don’t You F**king Say a Word?
I met Andy two years ago, and we hit it off just talking about work and theatre and what we were interested in doing. My first introduction was really just hitting it off with Andy as a person. He shared this play with me, and we went in to do a workshop of it, and I really responded to the complicated storytelling in the first section of the play. It’s very associative. These two women are telling the story of this single tennis match between these two men, but then are also jumping back and forth in time to also really recount the relationship between the men and how their relationship was formed. Then, how their relationships to each of the men was formed. I was really attracted to the challenge of the way that the story unfolds. Much more like the way you might actually tell the story if you’re free to make associations as you go rather than the way you might tell it if you planned or prepared. The structural challenge of that was really exciting to me. I thought it was really interesting that Andy chose to write about this moment from his own life experience of really losing his head on the court, and his own self-investigation and how he was translating that into a play about characters and about other people. I was really interested and moved by that artistic impulse to write the play in the first place.
Do you tend to gravitate towards plays where you have an immediate idea of how you would put it on stage or do you find yourself usually gravitating towards things where you’re like, “This is interesting but I have no idea how to do it”?
I tend to gravitate towards things where there really is a mystery. Where I can feel in my gut a response to there being something really dynamic and really alive and full of vitality in proposal. I do tend to gravitate towards things that are unlike something that I’ve done before. I definitely don’t have an immediate gut response of, “Oh, I know exactly how all this is going to work.” I sometimes do have a gut response where I have a core hunch about something that’s really important to making this work. The details in how that’s going to exactly play out, I really can’t tell. It leaves a lot of questions to be answered. I knew, for example, about the first part of Don’t You F**king Say A Word, that it had to be very language-driven. All of the staging and all of the representation of them actually playing tennis on stage had to be in service of creating a physical and visual text that would better illuminate what the spoken text was doing. It had to be really language forward in that way.
What was your dramaturgical process like for this piece?
The dramaturgical process was a lot about Andy and I sitting together and really digging deep into why one part of the story led to the next part of the story, and what the associative cause and effect was to get from one part to the next part. Because it’s not linear, and because it’s not rational and objective, in a certain sense. So it would be me sitting with Andy and saying, “They played this point in the game, then why did the women jump to talk about this conversation that the men had a year earlier? Why did they make that link?” Andy said, “Well, because what happened between the men that day on the court had to do with this deeper dynamic between them where one of them actually wanted to be friends in a different type of way. The other wanted to just be sports partners in a certain sense.” We just really talked through, moment by moment, how all of the shifting works in the first half of the play. There’s a lot of shifting. It’s ever-changing and very mercurial in the first part of the play. A lot of it was through that dialogue with Andy. Then when we got into the rehearsal room, I would say that the next round of dramaturgical work was really in working with the actors about how did they connect the dots, how did they get from one thing to the next.
You’re a choreographer as well and have a background in modern dance. What’s your process for working on the physical life of the play and the spacial relationships between the characters?
I think that my background working in the modern and contemporary dance world is essentially giving me a sixth sense in a certain way about visual composition and physical composition and space. I think that I place a lot of value on what the physical and visual text is that the audience is seeing as a huge component of what story they’re receiving. I’m constantly looking at how the physical staging is creating essentially what I think of as a composite with the verbal text that people are speaking. Through that composite, the audience is experiencing the story. Especially when you’re in a world that’s as non-literal as this world is. I think that that’s really exciting. The other thing that I am really passionate about and that I think partly comes from my background in the dance world is that I think there’s such an exciting range of movement that people can use to express themselves that sometimes gets too narrowed down when you’re thinking about quote-unquote “real behavior” of how people act in real life. There’s something really fun about being able to collaborate with the actors about the intricacies of their staging and physical life as a way to know who these people are and also what the story is. I really think I probably just spend more time on that.
Can you talk a little bit more about that? How did you work with the actors on the physicality?
With this play it’s very specific because there’s so much tennis vocabulary. We are creating a tennis vocabulary that isn’t a literal recreation of how you would play tennis because we have no balls, we have no net, we’re not actually on a court. We’ve been working together to capture something about the intensity of your body and your focus when you’re playing tennis, and actually how good that feels. How you can lose yourself, lose your ego and your neurosis because you give everything over to focusing on the game. Exploring how that translates, particularly with the men and how they exist in this world, has been really gratifying. There was a lot of detail about how racquets are placed and the direction of people’s hips and the space as it relates to where the implied image of the ball would be if you’re just looking at that player from the outside. The direction of where their hips are actually gives you as the audience member a sense of where the ball is in relationship to their body. That physical specificity I think also is interacting with the audience’s imagination.
What was your process like for working with a design team?
Amy Rubin is doing the set. We had a really exciting design process. We really spent a lot of time in this theatre thinking about how to embrace the architecture and shape of the theatre. The first half of the play is essentially in a psychological space, and not in a real literal, grounded, given circumstances place, but it needs to evoke the world of a tennis court. We really spent a lot of time thinking about how to use the squareness of that room to create something about the tennis court. We ended up finding this really interesting correlation. As we played around with how we might put the lines of the tennis court in the space, we made this amazing discovery that in a certain sense they can look like crown molding in apartments. There was this resonance in the visual language between the court world and then the apartment world, which is the second half of the play. That was a surprising idea about what the point of visual connection would be between those two worlds. Ultimately the scenic design process was really driven by the same idea—that the production needed to be really language forward—so that the set wanted to have a certain crispness to it and be really bold and simple. This incredible blue structure that we’ve created is really exciting because it makes their bodies visually pop in the space, and it’s not visually describing to you details that actually you want the audience to be paying attention to through what the characters choose to describe and say in their language. That was the guiding dimension of our design process.
What other areas of culture affect your work?
I would say I’m really heavily influenced by photography and visual art. I would say photography probably more than painting. I really spend a lot of time going to visual art when I’m prepping for a project. I think that there’s something about my visual and compositional brain that it continues to feed so that when I’m in the rehearsal room, that visual and photographic research that I’ve done is informing my eye in relationship to a specific project.
Do you look for pictures that remind you of the show?
Absolutely. Yeah. I do a ton of visual research. For this show, I did extensive photographic research for tennis stills of all different types of people playing tennis. Pros, amateurs, kids, men, women, from the old days, from the 60s and 70s, and contemporary, and I got really obsessed with the un-self-consciousness of people’s faces when they were playing tennis. The idea that you have no social mask because you’re giving everything to how you’re playing. That photographic research primed my imagination and my passion to be able to create that inner production. I would say that there’s an associative level of visual research that often is really an important part of crafting the design, but also going into crafting the staging. I’ve been really heavily influenced by James Turrell, and his use of light and space. I think that there’s something about spending time and visual art before you go into a project that is to me just really nourishing. It’s part of a process.
I was reading an article that talked about how Andy formed a company to produce this play. And now his company, along with Rachel Sussman, are producing it. For you as a director, does how a show gets produced affect your task?
Definitely. I think I’m always interested in collaborating with producers, whether I’m working at a big institution, or with a smaller company, or whether I’m part of the producing apparatus of a piece, because I do think that the way that a piece is produced does affect both the energy of the piece, and of course the material aspects of what the audience is seeing when they walk into the theatre and what’s happening. I’m inspired by the way that Andy has formed this company and the conscientiousness around the artistry that he wants his company to be able to embody and live up to the standards that he wants his company to be engaged with. He and I worked very closely to think through a lot of aspects about how to scale the production. To meet an artistic standard, but also work within the means of a small up-and-coming company that’s being incredibly resourceful, and incredibly successful in terms of raising funds and gathering a group of stakeholders. Essentially, where Andy has put his focus, is on supporting the artists who are working for him. That’s a really powerful way to produce something. I think that as the director you have to know for yourself how deeply to get involved in different aspects of the producing. It really wasn’t useful in this project for me to be a part of marketing. Andy and Rachel really took and ran with that in collaboration with the theatre. I had a lot of say over the process, which I think is a really important part. How the schedule would be structured for tech and previews, and how we needed to work as we moved into the theatre. That kind of dialogue between the director and producer I think is really powerful.
The ability to tailor the process to each project is something that has come up before in interviews as something people find very beneficial.
I really am of the mind that in the places that you’re able to tailor a process to the specific needs of a particular project, it’s a really powerful tool. For this play for instance, because all four actors are on stage the entire time, I felt it was important for us to have concentrated rehearsal times. We rehearsed five hours a day instead of a six or an eight-hour day. In order to maximize essentially the amount of bandwidth, the amount of work that I felt would be productive for the actors to do in one day. For this process, I felt like it was really important for us to have a concentrated, immersive amount of time. You can only absorb so much information in one day. Our collaboration around the schedule for this project was particularly useful and really effective, I think. For other projects, it could be much more important to have more time on the set because you’re actually working with many more doors or details or things that really affect how your tech and preview process goes. With this piece, we were able to translate pretty easily from the rehearsal room into the stage.
We talked about this a little before during the Women’s Project Pipeline piece, but how do you think new work development can be improved?
I think that there’s a lot of really good stuff that’s happening in terms of new play development. I think institutions and producers are really doing an amazing job of listening to writers and directors about what they think a project needs, and the institutions are being very trusting of those lead artists on a team. That I think is really fundamental, so that what support a project is getting is not the institutional status quo, but is tailored and specific for that project, even if it’s in very little tiny ways. I think that the idea of workshopping plays has always been a part of my experience. I’ve never really experienced a theatre that’s unwilling to support a workshop of something that they’re going to do. I think within the new play world, something that’s talked a lot about is the timeline from development to production. I actually think that there are times when the development part is getting stretched out too long. There’s something that happens when you know the venue that you’re going to be in, the design team that you’re actually going to have, and who the audience is and what the culture of the theatre is. The type of work and changes that you make to a new play when you’re in that final stretch are really different than the type of changes that you make in a workshop. I think it’s important for us to all keep talking about the different benefits of a workshop period that’s completely free from the pressure and timeline of a production versus a workshop and support that goes into preparing for a production. Sometimes I think there’s confusion about the difference between those two types of development experiences. I hope that there can be more transparency between theatres and artists about what the specific needs of a workshop are.
Do you think a lot about how the theatre the show is going into and its location and atmosphere affects the way audience engages with the piece?
Absolutely. It’s two big things. One is that the actual physical space of the theatre will have an enormous amount to do with how the play gets tailored to the production. Ultimately, I think of theatre as being a completely cohesive experience. A new play that’s done in a thrust space, they might end up making a whole series of decisions based on the way that the design is interacting with the actual venue thrust space, and then the actual needs of the play, versus a proscenium. There’s that physical aspect of what the venue is that I think is incredibly important to how a director is collaborating with the writer and supporting the best production of a new play that is specific and dependent on the space. Then, there’s what you’re talking about which is the audience. Is a particular play going to feel like a completely different vocabulary for the audience that normally comes to this theatre, or is this aesthetic vocabulary and these ideas of how you create a story, are these things that will feel recognizable to the audience that attends this space? I think there is something about expectations and the audience that as a director you are engaging with an enormous amount.
Something I ask directors a lot is if, particularly when they’re younger and just starting out, is if you felt you had to give a lot of thought to how you presented yourself in the room in terms of dress or how you were assertive in a way that maybe your male counterparts didn’t have to think about?
I don’t really know. It isn’t something that I’ve talked to my male counterparts about. I don’t know really what the full extent of that difference would be. I think I’ve definitely gone on my own journey specific to me that’s about essentially learning how to be myself the most fully whenever I’m in a room with actors or producers, or investors, or writers. I think as a director, part of what you’re crafting is your leadership style. How you like to communicate with people, and how you like to build your team. That’s definitely something that I’ve learned a lot about over the past ten years. I’m sure that other people might have more awareness about what of that is particularly female or not, but I actually try not to think of it in terms of, I’m doing this specifically because I’m a woman, or I’m trying to compensate in this specific way because I’m a woman. I’m really thinking about myself as an artist, and trying to express my full capacity both as a leader in terms of being ambitious, but also ambitious about the projects that I’m doing, and the type of rigor, and how far I want them to go. Then also about how I want to build relationships with people. That’s specific to me I think. Everyone has to find their own way to that.
Leigh Silverman once said that directing can be weird because you’re not exposed to other director’s processes that much, so it’s a lot of just figuring it out.
For me, I’ve found that I try to be as self-reflective as possible because one, you’re not seeing it modeled. You’re not constantly in a room with other directors where you’re watching them do it. You’re also not constantly getting feedback from people. As the director, not a lot of people give you feedback about your style, or about how you communicate with people. I think there’s something that’s been important for me to really think through what’s important to me about how I communicate with people, and how I lead the team. It’s actually been an amazing part of my life for all of learning just specifically what’s important to me, what my values are.
After this, what are you doing next?
I’m doing a really fun project with Jaclyn Backhaus at The Playwrights Horizons Theatre School commissioning program with students. Then I’m doing Porto with Kate Benson at The Bushwick Starr in January. Then after that, I’m doing Bull in a China Shop, which is the premier at the play by Bryna Turner at LCT3. Then I’m going to do the premier of All the Roads Home by Jen Silverman at The Cincinnati Playhouse, which is a beautiful play that she shared with me a while ago.
Is there any type of cultural collaboration that you haven’t done yet that you want to do?
I’d really love to work with this composer Caroline Shaw. That’s a big dream that I have. I’m really interested in working with more dancers in the theatre. I would love to work on a project that was a combination of actors and dancers. It would have to be right for that project. I don’t know what it would be quite yet. I think it would be thrilling to keep bringing those worlds closer together.