An Interview with Tina Landau
Written by Victoria Myers
Photography by Jacqueline Harriet
January 30th, 2018
SpongeBob SquarePants, The Broadway Musical has become one of the most well-reviewed and popular musicals of the 2017-18 Broadway season, which is something a lot of people have found themselves surprised to say. The musical, which has a score composed by multiple songwriters, blends an array of theatrical and visual techniques to make a precise and hermetic world. All of this came from the mind of Tina Landau, who not only directed the show but conceived it (it’s also the only Broadway musical directed by a woman this season). On Broadway, she previously directed Bells are Ringing and Superior Donuts, which transferred from the Steppenwolf Theatre in Chicago, where she is a member. We recently sat down with her among the glittery excess of the Baccarat Hotel to discuss how she conceived and brought SpongeBob to life, how she views directing, ambition, and more.
I read that you went in and pitched a very big idea for what the SpongeBob musical could be. I was wondering if you could tell a little bit about the process of conceiving what you wanted the show to be?
When they first approached me about doing a SpongeBob musical, I barely blinked an eye before I said, “No.” I just couldn’t imagine anything other than a big theme park show with giant mascot heads. I was encouraged to think a little outside of the box, and asked, “What could I do that would excite me?” And I realized, “Oh, I have nothing to lose here, because I don’t want to do a big mascot costume show. So really, what would excite me and challenge me?” And I thought: to create a whole new universe on stage. It needs to be some hybrid form calling on lots of art and performance and installation and musical disciplines. That, like the show itself, it needed to be a mash-up of anything and everything we could pull that would somehow create this otherworldly world.
The couple things I knew for sure that were sort of the building blocks were that the characters had to appear in human form exposed, because I think we go to the theatre to identify with and relate to and care about and cheer for folks or beings we identify with. And I felt that if the cast was too concealed or too theatrical, it would put a barrier between us and the show. So, there was that. There was a notion I had about a kind of general immersion. I wouldn’t say it’s a completely immersive production, but it’s certainly one that asks you to enter into an environment that is replete and all around you. And that’s the world of Bikini Bottom. I knew that I didn’t want the audience looking at a box inside a proscenium that was something they looked at, but rather something that they entered into. And that really came from my desire of when I was young to be an oceanographer. I loved being underwater, and I still do. I just kept thinking, “I would love to journey to a world that feels part underwater, part carnival, part party, part junkyard.” All the things that I kind of thought the show was.
The other two biggest things were that it would be a world made of found objects. Although we would have a big budget and access to all sorts of technology, there was something about keeping it inventive and raw and made out of found objects, which felt completely true to SpongeBob to me. nd then, the last thing was the composers. Again, I just wanted the world to be fresh and singular and not a cardboard cut-out of things that we’ve seen or done or heard before. Bikini Bottom seems to welcome that. So, I pitched the idea of asking a variety of pop and rock and hip-hop and country artists to each write a song for the show. I thought, not only could the piece stand it, but it sort of called for it in the spirit of how the TV show operates.
You mentioned at first you said no to the project and were not thinking that there was a way that it was supposed to be done. Was there anything that you did creatively to get yourself to stop thinking about the way you thought it should be?
It was actually my agent, Patrick Herold at ICM, who said, “Hold on. Hold on. According to Nickelodeon, Stephen Hillenburg, the creator, doesn’t love Broadway musicals, and is interested only if something can be made that captures what he called the quote-unquote ‘indie spirit’ in which he feels like he started the original series.” There was something about Patrick just saying those words—indie spirit—that was freeing to me. And he convinced me that Nickelodeon wasn’t in the business of just wanting to do a big money grab. They, in fact, only wanted to do the show if it could bring something new to the brand, and something unexpected. So, when he told me those two things, I was like, “Okay. I’ll open up.” Then I started watching the show, which was a big part of it, because it’s so frigging surreal and wacky and full of non-sequiturs and upside down logic and it was instantly screaming, for me, to put it on stage—because it’s the kind of thing that can’t be put on stage. You look at it and you’re like, “Um, I would have no idea how to do that. I want to do that.”
So, there was watching the show, and then there was also reading about Steve Hillenburg’s original influences, which were buddy films and experimental animation and the surreal and Dadaism. And it was [when I was] really starting to look at some of that art and think about it in combination with the other stuff that I became very excited.
Did the structure of the show, especially using all of the different composers, present a particular kind of dramaturgical challenge?
It did. You know, what was great about the way that we worked on it was we didn’t have a story or script for a really long time. Nickelodeon did what I requested, which was a first workshop just focusing on the physical and visual vocabulary, and even seeing if this idea was even worth pursuing? And by that, I mean the idea of SpongeBob on a stage. So we had a lot of time to develop that and convince ourselves that it was fruitful. Then we developed a story and did a workshop on the script.
By the time we went to composers, we knew a lot about the variety and juxtaposition that had to occur in the piece, and we had worked out a very specific story outline. We were really able to go to artists for very specific moments, saying to them, “Don’t try to write something forsome idea you have of what musical theatre sounds like, or what a SpongeBob musical should sound like. Write your music from your heart with what comes up with this moment.” It was interesting, because we kind of designed the story and the story beats around the pre-knowledge that we were going to be asking for different kinds of flavors and genres of music. That was always embraced as part of how the story would be told. And it lends itself to it, because there’s a character Sandy Cheeks, the squirrel, who is from Texas, and in the show she sings a song with a Texas twang and her guitar, so it made sense to go to Lady Antebellum to write that. There’s Squidward, who thinks of himself as an artiste and wants to perform in all sorts of venues, so it was born out of that, that we thought he should have a Broadway show-stopping number. In every case it felt kind of oddly organic.
When you were figuring out the visual landscape of the show, and during that initial workshop, what was your process like for working with the designers? I’m assuming you’re a fairly visual person?
What tools did you use that way? And did you find that there were challenges, especially in a show like this, going from a workshop setting in a rehearsal studio to the actual space of a theatre?
The very first workshop, I just kept thinking of this idea of hybrid. I wanted to steal and borrow and get inspired by every single current cutting-edge performance technique that existed. So I was like, “Yeah, let’s think of it as a mash-up of the Gazillion Bubble Show with Blue Man Group with Pina Bausch with…” I really thought, we’re cooking this giant brew, and let’s get all these people in a room together.
We had multiple designers. I hadn’t chosen one designer yet. [We had] all kinds of performers from different disciplines. I warned everyone. I said, “If you’re coming into this room, we’re going to make a ton of shit, and no one owns anything. It’s all going in a giant pile in the middle of the room, and we’re going to pick out the best of the best.” There’s a way of thinking about this that I learned from Anne Bogart, which I think is kind of mythology at this point. On this TV show that existed a long time ago, Miami Vice, there was a person on the show whose job it was to go around and be a liaison for continuity and casting and script and location, and they were to walk up to things and nod their head and say, “Vice” or point to something, shake their head and say, “Not Vice.” And, you know, as Anne also taught me in this regard, according to Wittgenstein the philosopher: if you can’t say it, point to it. That’s how we worked in that room at that period. I would just point to things, and say, “Vice. Not Vice.” I didn’t even know why sometimes. And to this day, I do that in rehearsal.
I gave people assignments. I said, on the first day, everyone—whether they were a designer, a stage manager, an AD, an actor—had to come in with SpongeBob in some form other than a traditional doll or puppet. People just had to express or create or embody SpongeBob. That was the first thing we did. And from there, we did lots of assignments where it was pure exploration.
I also am a very visual person. When I pitched, they asked me to do a visual presentation. So I made these big boards, which to this day, to this last iteration, 10 years later, we’re still carrying into the room and putting up against the walls. I kept saying to Susan, my producer, as we went further, “Should I clean these up and make them look more slick for the next pitch?” She was like, “No. They perfectly encapsulate what you’re pitching,” which was a kind of handmade, messy, splatter of paint, glue stick smeared, visual representation.
You touched on this before, but I would think deciding on the tone of the show would have been a very complicated process because there are so many things involved, but in the end, it’s a very precise tone. Could you talk more about how you did that?
I watch the show and there is not a moment that wasn’t curated or sculpted. The first email I got about my interest was exactly 10 years to the date we started rehearsal for Broadway. We probably didn’t do the first workshop until maybe three years after that or something. But, over the whole rest of that time, I feel like that’s what the process has been. And as frustrated as I sometimes was about the tempo at which we were working, in retrospect, it was the biggest blessing because it took that long to curate what was Vice and what wasn’t. And I really feel like, more than anything, that’s how I directed the show. I hate to be all artsy and pretentious about it, but Michelangelo said this thing about when he went to a block of marble to sculpt something, he could either have the idea of the figure in his head and go about chipping away to create that thing he saw and predetermined, or he could simply begin chipping and believe that there was an angel or a sculpture or a figure within the marble that his task was to free. So, rather than him coming at a time to make it, he believed his task was to begin so that it could reveal itself. And that’s a little bit how I feel like we made this piece, because I didn’t know. I didn’t know exactly what it should look like or how it should operate, but over time, we allowed it to reveal itself.
How did you work on the arc—not so much in terms of story, but in terms of energy? It is one of those shows where you do something and the audience is like, “Oh wow, that’s so cool and different,” but then you have to keep that going.
I had such a useful experience once at Steppenwolf. I was directing a play called Time of Your Life, and it was just after 9/11 and I had turned 40 and I was sick of theatre and I was about to quit, and because I didn’t care, there was this moment at the end of act one where I turned around and the whole cast was practicing some weird tap dance that had nothing to do with the show. I just loved it, though. And I said, “That’s in,” and so that’s how we ended act one. I could not begin to explain to you why. But, in energy, it felt right.
I felt like I worked a lot like that on this, in that we tried everything. I did not censor. I thought, this show is going to fly if we can make a mess and add everything in the kitchen sink because I know how to edit later. I knew that if we didn’t work that way, we’d be cutting off all sorts of surprising and unexpected and wild and spontaneous ideas that anyone could have. I was a little scared because sometimes I’ve been criticized or called out for what one might call my excess. I was like, “Wow, I’m just really going balls to the wall here.” I just decided that’s what it needed to be. I needed to try everything. And, as a result, I think the moments are chock full of all those everythings. Although, we did spend a lot of time in the last month or so editing. But I knew that day would come, and I was happy to do it.
Did you find that there were particular challenges in working that way? Both in terms of what you were saying about too much excess and outside producer things, but also in the sense of you, as a director, being the authority figure in the room and dealing with all sorts of personalities in that situation.
It felt kind of like a culmination of how I’d been working for years. This is just how I work on everything. I feel like the rehearsal room is a playground where my job is to create an environment where everyone feels empowered and has a sense of possibility. I always tell my casts, “I’m working at my best when I’m editing.” I don’t ask people or tell people what to do. I encourage them to try something and to feel free in that. Especially on this, because there were so many disparate people working on it from projection to movement consultants to bubble people, I was very clear that my job was like the clearinghouse, and the buck stops here. So, at the same time that I was open, I would say I was more clear-visioned and strong and decisive than I’ve been almost ever. Because I knew I had to be.
Did you find that this experience was different than your past experiences working on Broadway?
Yes. First of all, I will say I can’t imagine a better scenario for doing this kind of work that Nickelodeon provided. I know that’s crazy to say because everyone thinks, “Ooh, you work for the corporation, you’re immediately limited in your freedom.” I would say the exact opposite is true. They were spectacular, and all the time just kept saying, “We want you to do the show you’re seeing.” So, while there were certainly some restrictions and logistics and I had to convince them ten times through various workshops to take the next step, I didn’t feel cramped that way.
I’ve only directed on Broadway twice before. Once, I was young and I was working with Betty Comden and Adolf Green and Jule Styne on Bells Are Ringing. I was so happy to be there and so honored and so in awe of them that I kind of turned myself over to them. In retrospect, I learned that I lost myself in the process and, had I known then what I know now, it was a show where I would have stood up for a lot of things in a very different way and even walked away from it if I had to. So, my experience of Bells was a slow, silent process of compromise. I think that it helped and formed where I’m at now, which is like, no, never again. And when I directed Tracy Letts’ play, Superior Donuts, we had come from Steppenwolf, which is really my home theatre, and I was very clear about my role in that, which was to support and bring the best life I could to Tracy’s work with the tools I had. So, this felt different. It really felt like this is my creation, I conceived the thing, I pitched it, I hired people, and there was a great responsibility, but mostly a great freedom in that.
Did you find that there were other external changes in the industry—like economics, audiences—between your Broadway debut and now?
Broadway, at the moment, feels to me more oddly malleable and, in an odd way, open to more progressive ideas and experiments. I look at everything from Rent to Hamilton to American Idiot to Come From Away. There are so many examples of ways that the envelopes have expanded. I’m grateful to be in an environment where audiences not only accept, for instance, our diversity of casting, but celebrate it. It feels like a really good moment for us all to be able to look at this commercial monster and say, “It also affords us the opportunity to say and do things that are important culturally.” So, there’s that difference. There are certainly more female directors. There is certainly more attention being paid to female creatives.
Thinking about your career overall, do you feel like there are themes in your work?
I do. I remember discovering very early on that rather than me knowing what I wanted to say and creating work that did that, I feel like I’ve created work that revealed to me my own values—and not just themes in my work, but my life themes. I would say those have to do with the outsider as the perennial object of interest for me. And that could be a SpongeBob, who I consider an outsider, or it could be a Floyd Collins, or it could be the characters of a play I directed called Wig Out!, by Tarell [Alvin] McCraney. I am drawn towards those who are just a little outside of the mainstream. I feel that I want to tell those stories. As my friend Tarell would say, “Give voice to the voiceless.” Within or around these tales of the outsider are stories about how we may find hope and salvation and strength and future life through the communities we create and fight to protect.
Do you feel like you had a decisive moment in your career where either something shifted your perception in a certain way or cemented something in a certain way in terms of how you viewed your work?
Time of Your Life at Steppenwolf. For sure. It’s the way William Saroyan, the author of that play, thought and worked and wrote, and he said something like, “This is a circus, a carnival, a debate, a political argument, a religious experience, a vaudeville, and those go on all at once.” And the cross section of humanity that he gathered together in this bar I found to be so beautiful, and they were all people who, on some level, were outsiders, but contained great beauty, great potential. And he told the story in this play with what I call a kind of loose form, or he called it a drunken form. Because he in fact was drunk for the six days over which he wrote this play.
But again, it was just after 9/11, I had just turned 40. I had just had a big project I was working on with Disney that I loved fall apart. I remember going into the first day of rehearsal for Time of Your Life and saying, “We either have to make something extraordinary that is live and in the moment and blows the roof off the place, or we should go home right now because I’d rather work in a shoe store.” No, I don’t think I said a shoe store—I think I said a bookstore. I didn’t get the point of theatre at that moment. I basically revisit my “why am I doing this,” every five years, which, ultimately, I have found reinvigorating, because I feel like I have to constantly reinvent and reconnect with the why. But at that point, I kind of was reckless and bold and angry, and so I made choices that were the same. And to this day I’d say it’s one of the shows, if not the show, that I’m most proud of and I feel like is my strongest work, and it’s because on some level, I cared most and I cared least. I cared most that something actually occurred in that theatre every night, and I cared least about critics.
What is your relationship like with ambition?
I surprise myself, because sometimes I feel ambitious and a certain kind of red hot passion emerges out of me where I have to get something or I have to do something. But, I’ve learned by looking at my career and my life, that I’m not so ambitious that I’m willing to play some of the games and do some of the schmoozing that maybe, if I were more ambitious, I would do. Because I have never been good at nor engaged a lot in parties and making contacts and showing up for public moments. I’ve always thought, if I spent more time on my career and was able to do those things better, I’d probably have a much more successful career. I’ve really stuck to the things I care about and love and find connection with. So, I don’t think my ambition for career has propelled me. I do think I get very ambitious in terms of the work itself. I want everything to be the greatest thing ever and I want it to speak to all people and run forever and make a difference, and that’s a kind of ambition.
Did you ever feel, earlier in your career particularly, that you had to think more about how you presented yourself in the room or in meetings?
I would say I kind of wrestled with that and conquered that in my entire growing up. I think by the time I got to meetings, I had already really deeply embraced a kind of slightly more rebellious, screw you kind of approach to how I dress and what I look like. I moved to Beverly Hills from New York when I was going into my freshman year in high school, and if you look at pictures of me, you will see a girl who blew her hair straight and wore Chemin de Fer jeans and espadrilles and carried a Louis Vuitton bag. I am not kidding you. I tried so hard. I would go home every night and wrap my hair to keep it straight. This went on for a year, at the end of which, if you look at pictures of me the next year, I’m wearing balloon pants, men’s tee shirts, a bow tie, and Vans sneakers, and my hair is long and scraggly. I did a total 180. I flipped so big and fully at that time, and really never went back.
I feel like, were it not for going through that in my high school and with my family at a much earlier age, yes, I think I would’ve struggled with it. But I feel like I had that so exorcised and worked out in myself, especially in terms of dress. I’ve gotten teased a lot for wearing pajamas all the time. I guess I’ve sort of owned it and exploited what I can look like, and it’s something I feel very strongly about, and if anyone were to ever imply that I couldn’t, I would be out the door. No question. I don’t know if it’s different for other women who are raised different ways. I’ve always been slightly tomboy-ish. I’m a lesbian. You know, there are just so many ways in which I feel I kind of ripped up the formal gender expectation line so early in my life that I’m over it.
In terms of the lifestyle of a director, what is the thing that you feel takes the most work to learn how to manage?
Money. Again, I never could take jobs because they paid well. I had to do what I cared about. And, as a result, I’m 55 and I have never thought of myself as particularly successful. I know others see me that way. But part of that is because even up until this moment, I have never not worried about my bank account and paying bills. And I know people do all kinds of other work. I know people teach, which I’ve done a lot. But more than anything, I would say I learned very early on that when I took a couple shows for the paycheck, I got sick and I had to quit them because I just found that my constitution couldn’t lie about what I cared about. So, figuring out how to navigate that and making peace with it, which I have, I would say has been the biggest challenge. Not artistically, obviously, but in terms of lifestyle.
What do you think people get most wrong about you as a director and about directing in general?
What do people most get wrong about me? I think people think of me as a very serious experimental avant-garde director type, and don’t know that I have the opposite in flying full colors, which is I’m completely childlike and revel in fun and play and I’m actually funny, which no one knows or thinks. So I think people get that wrong. Both those things have always existed in my work. When I was growing up, when I was in college I directed The Maids by Jean Genet and I directed The Music Man. Those are the two me’s, and I feel like one of the joys for me of SpongeBob is I feel like those two faces have been able to exist at the same time.
What people get wrong about directing: I hear some people talk about directing as the art of getting out of the way, and that the best directing is invisible. I hear other people talking about directing as having the clearest vision, and directing is telling people where to go and what to do. I think it is both of those things and neither of those things. It’s far more complex and ever-changing than any one notion of what directing is, because every time you direct, you are dealing with thousands of factors that are different from the time before. So I think the biggest misconception is that it is either that one thing or the other thing, and I just think directing is everything and its exact opposite.