March 21st, 2019
Recently, the new play “Daddy” by Jeremy O. Harris has been getting a lot of buzz. Last summer, the new play Pass Over by Antoinette Nwandu got a lot of buzz when it reached New York City after a successful—and at times complicated—run in Chicago where the production was filmed by Spike Lee for Amazon. And in the winter of 2017-18 the new play queens by Martyna Majok was highly anticipated and the writer went on to win the Pulitzer, albeit for a different play. One of the things all of these productions have in common is they have all been helmed by Danya Taymor, a director on the brink of firmly establishing herself as no longer emerging, but a sought after interpreter of new work. For the last few years, she’s worked consistently on a wide range of new plays that have caught audiences’ attention and produced numerous conversations among theatre-goers. I recently spoke with her about working on “Daddy”, her directing process, the challenges of a career as a director, and more.
You’ve been very busy this past year. How have you been managing everything? It seems like you’ve gone from show to show.
I’ve gone from show to show, but I feel like I’ve been lucky in that I think my closest turnaround this year was a day. I was doing a Brian Watkins play at Juilliard called Evergreens, and then the next day, I left to go do Korde Tuttle’s play [Graveyard Shift] at the Goodman. I did a few back-to-back, but then right before “Daddy”, I got three weeks off to prepare, which felt great. I think that I have been able to find some balance, so that’s made it a very enjoyable year.
In the last year, have you felt like you’ve reached any type of different level in your career? Has it felt like there’s been a shift in terms of what you’re able to say yes to and what you’re able to say no to?
Absolutely. I feel really lucky that I’m working on plays by writers who I love that I really believe in. I feel like that’s also a privilege of getting to be in what feels like a new place in my career, getting to choose what projects I work on. And there are lots of different reasons why you would choose one. That has felt really exciting. Then for the first time, there isn’t that crazy pressure to say yes to everything for panic that you’ll either never have work again or that you need to do everything or that you need to be breaking your back in order to be making good work. That sort of alarm bell thing in my brain has quieted a little bit more in the past year, which is really nice.
When you first got the script for “Daddy”, did you feel like you immediately had some idea of how to put it on stage, or was it more like, “It’s interesting, but I have no idea yet”?
Definitely the former. I feel like when I read “Daddy” for the first time, I watched it, which has only happened to me a few times on a few plays. Whenever that happens, it’s the most exciting experience, when you get lost in something on a first read and you just sort of fly through it. I had that experience reading it, and I could really even see the set. I remember when Jeremy and I first met, we had coffee and we started talking about the play, and we started talking about the visual life of the play immediately, because that is entwined in the storytelling. It’s about many things, but one of them is voyeurism and observing other people, and how we are when we’re alone versus when people are watching. The set is a character in the play, because there are so many places to observe and be observed. I think that the set that you see [in the production] is really close to that first thing we described three or so years ago when we met to talk about the play.
Could you talk a little bit more about the visual influences for the play? You have the David Hockney-inspired set, and the play is set in the art world, but also on top of that, like you were saying, the visual storytelling is a huge part of the play.
An idea that came about super early on—and even if you don’t know this is what we’re doing, I think you can feel this is what we’re doing—is because the play has so much to do with the art world, we started to find different paintings in each scene. The staging would organically make a painting. The first painting that we make is Black Star by Kerry James Marshall. I don’t think anybody would know that by looking at it, but you see a body arranged in space a certain way in a certain composition, and there’s a reason why it made a beautiful, successful, evocative painting. The [staging of the] wedding scene [in the play] is inspired by Andy Warhol’s take on The Last Supper. Lamentation by Kehinde Wiley is a big one that comes up. Puberty by Munch. There are just many different artists whose work you see embedded into the fabric of it. So that was one of the physical jumping off points. “Daddy” is called a melodrama, and traditionally that form has music, it has movement. Before melodrama had the sort of negative connotation it has now of being like a soap opera, it was just a form of three act drama. This play also takes from that huge tradition, as there’s tons of music and movement in the play that guides it.
Do you view yourself as being a visual director?
My mom is a psychiatrist, but her other identity is a painter, and she’s a wonderful painter. She exposed me to art from the time I was a kid growing up, because she’s always just been drawn to it. She’s a very visual person. So that’s my relationship to art, is having seen it. Then I think every time I do a play, I draw on images as I’m trying to think about it, just getting ready for the design process. I’ll definitely look to fine art, but also photography, music, and films. I think that absorbing things that way is definitely part of my process. I definitely think I would consider myself a visual director. I’m curious about what clues in the text lend themselves to imagery and how the imagery can forward the storytelling. I don’t think I’m a visual director in ever putting anything on stage for the sake of spectacle or the sake of a beautiful image. I think every image comes out of the text. That’s where I take my visual inspiration from.
You mentioned that the play is a melodrama, and there’s what that form is traditionally and how people think of it today. How did you work with that form and what the audience’s preconceived notions might be?
I can’t know what people think melodrama is when they come in. All I know is how it needs to be served in the production to tell the story. After we had worked on a play for a long time and as Jeremy was getting the script ready, he put this amazing note in. It was this piece of text that we had found when we were trying to crack the tone of the play that Peter Brooks wrote on melodrama. It’s called The Melodramatic Imagination, and he put a lot of language to stuff that we were already doing, which felt really helpful. Jeremy wrote this note in the script that says, “Look to that text for guidance, because this is a piece that moves from melodrama’s dream to melodrama’s nightmare.” I think that’s really apt to what we’re doing in this production. I think the melodrama of the play sneaks up on you and grows throughout the play. You might walk in and you see this gorgeous, realistic set, and think we’re in the real world. Slowly, even in that first scene, we break that, but I think we do it in a cumulative way. It starts slow and then gets more and more and more as all the tools that we’re using come into play. Then in the third act, we can explode them all out. I think that melodrama is a style, and so we put in those clues so that the audience can understand, okay, this is not realism. You can let your imagination go. Somebody’s going to break out into song after they’ve just been having a deep, serious conversation.
Was there any moment in the play where you thought you knew exactly what it was, and then as you were going along in the process, you were surprised and like, “Oh, it’s actually this”?
So many moments in the play. We worked on this for just under three weeks before going into tech, which for a play with this many amazing ideas and layers is almost no time. I still feel like, even when I just go watch the play, I’m learning a new thing. I’m learning, “Oh wow, it’s really this.” I think that upon first read, one might have different ideas of who the villain of the play is, and through working on it, something else is exposed. I think that there’s many images that occur in the first act that then are subverted in later acts or repeated in ways that distort them. So hopefully the play is turning around any image that you see or any connotation you have about these relationships and turning them on their heads. So many moments in the play sneaked up on me and continue to excite me.
I read that this is a play that Jeremy used to get into grad school and is actually an older play of his. For you as a director, when you’re working with a writer who wrote something when they were at a different stage in their life, does that present any particular challenges for you, in terms of how you dramaturg the play?
Definitely. I think what was lucky for me was that I met Jeremy and this play not long after he’d written it. When we met, he was the person he was when he wrote it. I got to interact with it at that time. I sort of had a sense of Jeremy’s growth as a person, because we’ve been good friends since then, and also I got to move with him. I think what’s exciting about working with a writer who’s trying to do a production of a play they wrote when they were a different self is encouraging them to preserve the impulses that are there and not necessarily tear it all up.
When Antoinette [Nwandu] and I were doing Pass Over, she had been working on that play for a long time and also was, perhaps, a different self than the person who wrote that. I think it does pose unique challenges, but I think it’s an exciting thing to try to go back in time and capture some other way you looked at the world or that the writer looked at the world, and try to make sure you deliver that unfiltered, because that point of view is important to retain.
You’ve worked on a lot of new plays. Do you find that there are certain commonalities that you take to each in terms of how you like to work with the writers?
I think that I’m always a really physical director. I always want the ensemble do be doing physical warm-ups, even when we’re just doing table work. I feel like that brings something unique and important to table work, because when you start to get text into your body, it makes you ask different questions. I think I always bring that kind of ensemble work, which I think when you’re in the trenches on a new play, unifies the group so we can really have the united goal of serving the work. I think that I am a very text-driven director. I always want to investigate whatever stage directions are in there. I definitely don’t cross them out before I start. That’s sort of my blueprint. I think that that is also a commonality I bring, which is an ability to show the writer what they wrote, which can be the most useful thing you can do on a new play, especially in workshops or in early stages.
When you’re approaching plays that are from a different world than your background, have you found any specific things you like to do to prepare for those?
Absolutely. I’m going to direct a play by Will Arbery that takes place in rural Wyoming and follows young Catholic conservatives. That couldn’t be more different from my background. This January, I went out to Wyoming to a town an hour and a half outside of Jackson just to see what it’s like to live in a place that is so remote and has so few people and has so much land. Just going there gave me a different perspective. With a play like Pass Over, I just immersed myself in all the references that Antoinette makes in the play, like Waiting for Godot, and she has all these references to these great comics like Nichols and May, The Three Stooges, and The Marx Brothers. There are all these forms that she’s referencing there. I read a ton of Richard Wright in preparation for Pass Over, especially Eight Men, a book of his that takes place in Chicago. I think no matter what the world, I try to do a ton of research and immerse myself in the world through music, movies, and books, and try to fill myself with the perspective of the people the story is about.
You went to Duke. Did you study theatre there?
I joke about this with Jeremy—at Duke I was directing Neil LaBute plays. The first play I directed was The Shape of Things, because I wasn’t exposed to that much cool avant garde theatre, especially not when I first got there. It’s not to say that my teachers at Duke weren’t amazing, because they were. I got to work with this amazing Spanish director, Rafael Lopez-Barrantes who, when I tried out for my first play, he cast me as the assistant director. And I was really confused, but I did it and then started directing at Duke. But the best part, for me, about being at Duke, where I did study theatre but also studied public health, was making theatre for people who don’t go to the theatre and don’t even really care about the theatre or have never been, and also making it with people like that. The best actors I had were all athletes and in sororities and going to do totally different things with their lives, but it was so worthwhile, especially the farther I get from Duke, to try to work with people who aren’t trying to be actors, because it means you have to adjust to many, many different approaches, which I think as a director is a good skill to have.
Then, the other thing that was exciting about being at Duke, was making it for the general public. Even though you’re trying to make something artistic, making it appeal to the masses was really fun about being there. I also think because there weren’t that many theatre majors, I got to make a lot of work. So even though some of that was Neil LaBute, I also got to direct Stop Kiss. The best part was I wrote a play. I wrote the only play I’ve ever written for my thesis, and that was an amazing experience too.
You also have a background in translation. Do you feel that affects your directing?
My mom was born and raised in Mexico City, but didn’t teach me Spanish when I was growing up because she thought I wouldn’t learn English. Then I spent a decade learning Spanish, really wanting to connect with her and speak her language. I met this couple, Ana Graham and Antonio Vega when I was maybe 21 or 22, first working at The Flea. Jim Simpson introduced me to them; he thought that we should meet because he knew I had an interest in Mexico. They asked if I wanted to help translate with them. I started translating, and the first thing I translated was I Hate Fucking Mexicans, which on to be the first play I directed in New York City. We’ve done three or four things together. Mostly we do from Spanish to English, but also the other way around sometimes. That kind of work was exciting to do, especially when I was earlier in my career, because I think it gave me such an appreciation for the way writers choose words. Because when you’re translating there are so many different words you could use, and so you consider, “Well, should I get the rhythm of it right, or should I get the meaning of it right?” Some words have a special sound, and that’s what’s most important about them. So you really have an appreciation for how considered language is in plays. It kind of got me into a writer brain, which I feel makes me a good dramaturg as a director too.
Are there other areas of culture that influence your process as a director?
Opera, a lot. I love listening to opera, even if I don’t understand the language or don’t even know the story of it because there’s so much emotionality in the singing. I haven’t been to the Met that many times, but I want to go more. It just fills your whole body. I definitely am an avid moviegoer, both of new films and I go to Film Forum a lot and watch old films. I’m a big reader of fiction. I think that the feeling of getting lost in a book for me is the most pure escapism my brain can do, even more so than a movie. The best theatre trumps everything, but a good book, getting sucked into that gives me the feeling I want to have in the theatre. I think I very much pull from all different kinds of art forms. I hope you can feel that in plays too, because I think that way of working is of an older tradition. It makes me think of different artist communities like in Mexico City or in Paris in the ‘20s where photographers would mix with theatre and painters would mix with dancers, and there was way more overlap between the different disciplines. I feel like that enriches all the work. Jeremy and I think about when Dali was making sets for Romeo and Juliet, and how amazing would it be if Kara Walker made a set for a play? But it doesn’t seem like that kind of work is happening right now, but I’m excited for it to happen.
Earlier in your career, what do you see as the thing that was the most challenging and your biggest hurdle?
I think there’s a really nebulous period, and it’s hard for me even to pinpoint one moment. Anne Kauffman said this best when she was introducing the Clubbed Thumb Directing Fellowship where they get to do Winter Works. She was talking about this nebulous time when you go from being completely invisible to suddenly visible. All of a sudden, people actually know your name, and not even that many people, but an artistic director might write you back in a way that they wouldn’t before, but that time in between is super nebulous. There is no blueprint for it. I feel like that time is confusing, and there are so few opportunities to actually make work, which is what you need to do. To be able to get over that hurdle [you need to] make work, and I think that finding those opportunities was the most challenging thing.
I think that fellowship that Clubbed Thumb has is amazing. I think other theatres need to make opportunities for directors, because it’s really, really challenging to get your work seen or made as a young director. I think that weird time between literally nobody responding to your emails and then finally that trickle starting to come in is the hardest part. It’s agonizing, because you’re trying for something, and you don’t have any sense of approbation yet from the community.
I feel lucky that I was at The Flea at a really special time in its life where I could make work and I did feel supported. I could still have a full-time job, because I think that’s the other tragedy right now for the theatre. People are wondering why more diverse people won’t come into the field, especially in directing, and it’s because it’s financially impossible. There are no big ticket directing fellowships for young directors who haven’t proven themselves yet. If there were, you might see more kinds of folks coming up. I feel like that would really benefit the theatre.
Going forward, what do you see as being your biggest challenge?
I think that my biggest challenge will be to retain my sense of self and my moral sense, because I think that this business is amazing and wonderful, but can also be complicated, even when you’re choosing what work you want to do. What do you want to stand behind? How do you want your collaborators to be paid? What are your priorities, essentially? I really want to continue to fight for those things that I believe in, like people getting compensated for what they’ve done, actors having agency and a voice in the room so that they don’t just have to do whatever anybody tells them to do. I want to be a leader in that way without totally alienating producers. I think that that’s something that I see and I’m looking forward to because there are so many open and amazing producers to start having those conversations with. I feel lucky to be in a position to have them, but I definitely want to make sure that the theatre and the model that we’re using is changing, because it doesn’t work. It does treat theatre as a hobby. People need to be paid a New York City living wage, or else it will always be an exclusive place to make art.
As a younger director, have you felt like you’ve had a lot of control over those things or like you’re stuck going along with the whims of the industry?
No, I definitely think that there are things that can be done, especially if you advocate and you’re kind of a broken record, because certain plays need certain things. I think I have been successful in making sure that the collaborators who need to be on a play are compensated for the work that they’re doing. That has been important to me, and I feel like I’ve really fought for that on behalf of my collaborators. I don’t think I have had as much success as I want to, but I do feel like fighting for what people need is important. I feel like I’ve had some success. I’ve had other attempts to do it that have not been successful, but I feel like I’ll still try. I remember one of my first jobs in New York was getting paid $200 a week but working 90 hours and thinking, “But how is this a thing? How is this legal? Who can do this? Who can survive on that?” I remember being told, “If you don’t want this job, there are 100 people who would be happy to take it.” I feel like that mentality has been in the theatre for too long. It’s an honor to do the play, but it’s an honor to get to do the play. It’s a reciprocal agreement. I’m excited for what’s happening with Actors’ Equity and for the power that those negotiations have had, and excited to keep fighting for those things.
Many directors that I’ve talked to have mentioned that one of the things that’s hard about being a director is so many people have no idea what you do, and that creates specific challenges when you’re younger and you don’t have something like a script that you can show people, if they didn’t see the production. You’ve worked with a bunch of writers who have gotten a ton of attention. For you as a director, has that ever left any feelings of, “Wait, I was there too,” or of your work being seen less?
No, because I’ve also benefited from those successes. You are the company you keep. I think by getting to work with and collaborate with the people who I think are the most talented writers today, that only brings great things to me. Even in the beginning, the way I started to get other jobs was people saw my work. I think that the work you put out there is how you get more work. As a director, the way you get jobs is people see your work. They’re impressed and they want to hire you.
I think that what’s challenging about not being able to send out a script or something like that is that you’re only your work. That’s why those opportunities for young directors, like what Clubbed Thumb is doing, what The Flea sometimes seems able to do, what EST sometimes seems able to do, is gives directors a place to make their equivalent of the script you send out, which is a short play or a longer play. That’s the most important thing. The success of the writer and the success of the production is certainly my success too. Absolutely.
Your aunt is Julie Taymor, the first woman to win a Tony Award for directing a musical. Did having someone like that in your family influence how you saw working in theatre?
Growing up, my aunt was always somebody I admired. I grew up in California and she lives here [in New York]. I remember seeing The Lion King as a kid and being totally blown away, but we had a normal cross-country aunt and family relationship. I got to go see all her plays, and that must have opened my imagination in ways that I didn’t realize were happening at the time, and maybe planted the seed that it was possible to do theatre, although I don’t even really feel like I felt that way myself until my senior year of college. But she was always a presence in my life, and I did theatre all growing up. She saw the thesis I did in college and offered me my first job, which was a PA, and then I went on to assist her twice. Working with my aunt in my early career gave me a first class education in visual rigor—she has an eagle eye for detail and can work both from a macro and a micro perspective simultaneously. I also was able to observe an awful double standard applied to her as a powerful woman even as she reached great artistic heights and continued to break the mold and forward the art form.
In the next five years do you have any dream professional projects?
I would love to work in London. That’s a dream, for sure. I would just love to work internationally, in general. My other major was public health, which because there’s no public health in this country, was called Global Health. I have done a ton of non-professional theatre-related things internationally with non-theatre people, just regular communities. I think making work internationally would be amazing, just because of the cultural exchange and getting to be somewhere that is not your homeland always stretches me. That’s a big dream. I’d also like to direct TV. I recently sat down with Lila Neugebauer who is like, “Theatre directors can do it. This is a job you’re capable of doing,” and really encouraged me. So that’s also something I think I would like to do in the future.