Lila Neugebauer on Broadway
September 25th, 2018
For the last few years, there has been increasing interest around director Lila Neugebauer, with many theatre-watchers wondering when she’d make her Broadway debut. Well, now she is, with the revival of Kenneth Lonergan’s The Waverly Gallery, an autobiographical play that depicts a family dealing with a grandmother’s mental and physical decline. Prior to this, Lila has established herself as a popular director of critically-acclaimed Off-Broadway plays that range from contemporary writers like Annie Baker and Branden Jacobs-Jenkins, to Edward Albee revivals, to ensemble pieces about high school girls like The Wolves, which was one of the hottest tickets in town. During her first week of rehearsal for The Waverly Gallery, I spoke with her about directing a naturalistic, contemporary but not contemporary-contemporary play; becoming one of the youngest women to direct on Broadway; her career path; and more.
When you first read The Waverly Gallery, what were your initial impulses towards it? Did you feel like you knew how to direct it right away and how you wanted to put it on stage?
The beginning for me is the beginning of my relationship with Kenny’s plays. So many people of my generation first encountered his work through This is Our Youth, which I read when I was about the age of its characters, and then I probably encountered Lobby Hero next. I came to Waverly Gallery latest, after Starry Messenger. I’m also a huge admirer of his film work—I love his three films deeply. The world of Kenny’s plays was personalized for me very quickly, and admittedly that may be because my own anthropology is not a radical leap from his, or the people who inhabit some of his plays. I am a Jewish Upper West Sider and a child of a psychotherapist. The people in The Waverly Gallery are a bunch of Jews who live on the Upper West Side or Greenwich Village and the two parent figures are both psychiatrists.
I don’t think you have to be that related or adjacent to the anthropology of Kenny’s plays to be struck by what is so fundamentally human in them. And this play, like all of Kenny’s plays in some way, is for me fundamentally about decent people who are faced with insurmountable odds. That kind of moral and empathetic conundrum of trying to be a person and trying to be decent is, in some way or another, at the heart of all of Kenny’s plays. It felt to me that his plays require and invite the kind of meticulous and loving attention to detail at the level of characterization, behavior, and world of play that the playwright has very lovingly shown his characters. I think details are incredibly important in this play and honoring those details on a kind of micro, molecular level strikes me as very much at the heart of the project. For me to do a play, I think there always has to be a pretty strong emotional or psychological hook of some kind. But do I assume I know everything about the way to put that play on stage? Certainly not.
Directors usually have to make a lot of design decisions and decisions about the physical production before rehearsals have even started. With this particular play, were there any specific challenges with that?
The play is set in a series of rooms, which are effectively the rooms that [the character of] Gladys inhabited most significantly in this particular chapter of her life, which is close to the end of her life. Her world has become increasingly circumscribed, not violently so, but probably more than previously. Figuring out how to realize these spaces in what is in fact a relatively small Broadway house with no wing space contains some very real practical and logistical challenges.
[Set designer] David Zinn and I began our process in a somewhat more deconstructed abstract way of thinking about the play, and ultimately have come to embrace what you could say is a more straightforward way of doing it. Part of that had to do with us coming to the conclusion that the anthropological details of these rooms were as important as the characters in the play, and that each of the spaces of the play are actually like additional characters, and the particularities of those spaces at an exceptionally detailed level is actually vital to the way the play makes meaning.
I’m not actually that interested in deconstructing this play, and that thought is bigger than the question of scenic design. I don’t know why or how you would deconstruct this play. I’m really interested in what the play itself is trying to do, and how that play wants to speak on its own terms.
I remember once talking to an actress who was saying that she felt there was this false notion that if you are playing someone who, on the surface, is closer to you, that is easier, and if you’re playing a character who seems more distant, that’s more challenging. She was saying that she felt like it was actually the opposite. Do you relate to any of that with this play? That there are things that might be deceptively straightforward?
When I say straightforward, in some ways I think that could suggest that I think taking on this play is simple, which I don’t. I think that there is a meticulousness to the play’s construction and, based on the painstaking accumulation of small detail, the play requires a kind of technical virtuosity that you might not notice. The way it’s written, you just have got to get the details right, and I think that requires a degree of rigor, discipline, and care from everyone involved that is extraordinary and particular.
We are, admittedly, only at the end of our first week of rehearsal, so the question about my relationship to the play and what degree of personal distance does to my process, to some extent I don’t know yet. But I think the question of what makes work difficult can take on so many forms, and I don’t think I primarily asses the question of difficulty when it comes to directing vis a vis the lens of proximity to one’s personal experience. I think it’s questions of scope and space and formal complexity and factors you can never predict, like how precisely the chemistry of the personalities in the room will cohere.
You’ve worked with a number of contemporary playwrights. This play premiered in 2000, and many of Kenneth Lonergan’s plays are from the ‘90s. It seems like since then, even though he’d still be considered a contemporary playwright, there has been a shift in form and use of language in contemporary playwriting. Have you noticed that reflected in the work?
I think things are changing constantly and there are writers who are more in conversation with writers of ten years ago, and there are contemporary writers who are more in conversation with writers of 100 years ago. Because I’ve only been alive since 1985, I suppose it’s hard for me to have a concise thesis statement about the evolution of American playwriting between, say, 2000 and 2018. I was seeing plays as early as 2000, but I was 15 years old, and so the extent of my professional life and conversation with living American writers only spans about a decade.
For me, Kenny is a contemporary writer because he’s still alive and he’s writing plays. Yes, this is a revival. The play was produced in 2000, and it’s set in 1989. I do think that Kenny is a writer who has a particular interest in the minutiae of how people speak. In the cadences, the musicality, and the vernacular of American English as spoken by very particular human beings. In some ways, I think about the language of this play with a kind of forensic interest because some of this language was really spoken. That’s not to say that I think that the realities of biography should over-determine the way we determine what’s most meaningful to the construction of our play world. We’re making a play together. But I feel a great awareness that Kenny’s interest in language is like that of a documentarian.
Maybe it is an impossible question to answer, not having enough distance from it. But sometimes it does feel like the form between things that were written not very long ago to things written today has changed, and that could be an interesting challenge for somebody putting something up, because obviously the majority of the audience members are going to have the memory of plays that they saw back then, but then there are also questions of how it sits in a contemporary landscape in terms of form and use of language.
I suppose my way into that question has a lot to do with what struck me as worthwhile about doing the play now. Part of that has to do with my love for the play, and my feeling that Kenny writes plays that present as domestic in scope, but that are existentially large. I think we are all living in some degree of denial about the fact of our mortality and inevitable frailty—or that of the people we love most. I think that’s intrinsic to being alive. Though the events of this play unfold in a way that has a kind of devastating effect, there are no massive fireworks. I think it’s actually sort of uncommon to see a play on Broadway that relies so heavily on the steady accumulation of meticulous detail to achieve a profound effect. My hope is that doing a play with a kind of profound degree of care and meticulousness and rigor and discipline at the kind of microscopic level, will itself be some kind of occasion.
Does this feel like pressure since it’s your Broadway debut?
When you’re working on this scale, there are different kinds of questions and different conversations that you’re inevitably having—and you have to take a certain degree of responsibility for the larger financial implications of the decisions you’re making. But my job is fundamentally the same: to protect the process and the production and to make artistic decisions with as much integrity as humanly possible. I think if I allowed myself to think about that question, I might lose sight of what my job actually is. I’m thinking about each day’s work, trying to take care of the play and the people in the room, just as I would in any other context.
As far as Broadway directing debuts go, most people are older when they get to Broadway.
Is that still true?
I would say so.
What about Sam Gold, Tommy Kail, Leigh Silverman, Alex Timbers? It’s so funny to think about. But those guys all made their Broadway debuts when they were probably around my age.
Leigh was 31, which makes her the youngest woman [technically, Silverman is the youngest women to direct on Broadway who was specifically a professional director; a Liz Swados show, Runaways, that she wrote, composed, and directed, transferred to Broadway when she was 27]. You’re definitely on the young side for women directing on Broadway. Is that something that’s entered into your consciousness when thinking about it?
I’m aware of it. I think I’m aware of it because I just closed Tracy Letts’ play and Tracy said, “Are you the youngest woman?” and I said, “No, it was Leigh Silverman,” who I adore and love and assisted for and admire tremendously. So it’s certainly entered my consciousness. Am I spending a great deal of time thinking about it? No. And I don’t perceive it as on the minds of the people in my rehearsal room. Nor do I perceive it as in the minds of my producer or writer. I may just not perceive it, but at this point I’ve had the great pleasure of working with a number of playwrights who are significantly older than I am. My first Off-Broadway show was with Pete [A.R.] Gurney, who at that point could have been my grandfather, and was such an astonishingly generous and respectful and loving collaborator. That was actually an important learning moment for me in discovering that it doesn’t have to be an issue.
When we talked last time, we spoke a little about the career of a director and how you structure your life and balance working on different projects at the same time. Have you found that that’s been a learning curve for you in figuring out how to structure your life?
The question of how much is the right amount is, I think, a constant learning curve. I don’t imagine a moment will come when I’ve solved it because the variables are in constant flux, i.e. what’s the scope and nature of the work? And what’s the scale of it? And what the hell is going on in your personal life and emotional life? And what’s going on in the world? And how’s your health? And do you have kids? What I can say regarding the present is that I’m doing fewer plays this year than I did last year, and that is intentional.
There’s the actor thing, where even very successful actors are like, “I’m always afraid of never working again.” Does it seem scary to be like, “I’m going to do less”?
No. It’s not without complexity. To be a freelancer is to constantly surf the unknown. And certainly questions about my life financially are always alive for me as a freelancer. It’s fundamentally not really possible to make a living as a freelance theatre director Off-Broadway in 2018, if you don’t have inherited money or a significant secondary source of income. It’s not really possible to live in New York City on the salary of an Off-Broadway theatre director. Thankfully, I have a very low overhead, and my landlords are people I know. I got extremely lucky with my living situation. Saying no contains complexities. And also it’s important to me to be intentional about how I spend my time, and to have a really good reason for doing what I do.
Also, the last time we spoke, we talked some about how you didn’t go to school for directing and learned mostly on the job. Do you feel like there were benefits of that?
Because I have no point of comparison it’s slightly difficult to answer. I suppose I began in the profession without any assumptions about what it meant to be a director. So each room that I entered I was able to accept the orientation of the director on his or her own terms, and was able to identify somewhat quickly how essential personality is to the job and how essential point of view is to the job, and, frankly, how important identity is to the job—which maybe should’ve been obvious, but felt apparent to me quickly. Again, I don’t know what they teach in those [class]rooms, so I don’t know how it would’ve been different, but I didn’t have some kind of objective archetype of The Director, capital T capital D. Nor did I have any assumptions about the way the profession worked, and, conveniently, it’s impossible to make any assumptions because it contains such arbitrariness. I was never a person with a five year plan or a ten year plan, or with articulated goals. I was a person who was following what was interesting to me. And frankly, that continues to be the case. And maybe, in a way, not having training gave me permission to do that? But again I wouldn’t totally know.
In those early years, is there anything that you think back on now where you’re like, “That was really helpful”? And is there anything where you think back like, “You know, what was really, really unhelpful”? How do you feel those experiences had a positive or negative impact that you can trace to where you are now?
Because all narratives are written retrospectively, it’s hard for me to imagine removing any chapter of the past ten years of my life. Have I always been having the best time? No. Do I consider each of the rooms I found myself in in some way valuable? I do. Do I think some of that learning happened by way of negative example? Yes. In retrospect, I still consider that valuable in terms of sorting who didn’t I want to be.
Fundamentally for me, what was most valuable was getting into as many rooms as I could be in, and ultimately trying to find my people. The meaningful throughline for me in this profession is the deepening of meaningful relationships with my collaborators. That’s what I’m here for, and whatever strange, meandering, personal path I took, allowed me to find many of the collaborators who are in my life now. I feel grateful for whatever bizarre twists and turns revealed them to me and led me to them. The riches in my artistic life are the writers and actors and designers who I get to make things with.
Last time we talked we were also discussing what was happening politically and how you were wrestling with that. You told a story about how when you were little you wanted to be a Supreme Court Justice, and how you’d been telling somebody in theatre about that and then he’d been like, “Yeah, maybe you should,” as in maybe that would be the more useful thing. Where are your thoughts about all of that today?
I just watched the Ruth Bader Ginsburg documentary last weekend. Everybody needs to watch that. I owe her my whole life. And I didn’t even know I owe her my whole life—as well my mother and father and my sister. It’s unresolved for me. But I rely on a healthy degree of ambivalence to keep me alert. It’s not possible for me to do what I do and not have questions about it. Hopefully the work itself is some step towards an answer. But the questions linger.
Going along with that, do you ever find that the attitude the theatre industry has about itself, which can be somewhat self-aggrandizing particularly in these times, can be frustrating as somebody who has questions and ambivalence?
I congratulate anyone who can feel that sure. That sounds very snarky. But frankly, I envy it. Most of the people I find myself in conversation with about this art form share a certain degree of my own skepticism and ambivalence, and also my aspirational wishes. I think to do what we do you have to be some kind of an idealist, because something is leading you to show up for work every day. And there’s a big “why” in the room for me. Every time I show up to work. Every time I pick a project. But that “why” is the essential driving force that brings me there. It’s what galvanizes the work. Because I think to assume that it matters is to find yourself in a dangerously naive or insular space. That’s my hunch.
For the next few years, professionally, what are your hopes and dreams?
To continue to do projects that deeply interest, challenge, and terrify me. And that feel worth doing, in a way that feels immediate and specific to the moment in which I find myself living. To begin to do more work in other mediums. I just directed my first episode of television this past year, and that was a really joyful experience. So hopefully to do some more of that and to begin some foundational steps towards, at some point, making a film. To continue to find myself in rooms with collaborators who challenge and galvanize me. And genuinely to create spaces for my collaborators and for audiences where there’s some kind of empathetic communion.