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Associate Artistic Director David New interviews director Anna D. Shapiro

by Anna D. Shapiro and David New

Anna D. Shapiro: It was very exciting when we started talking about contextualizing the season. It was also moving to me to have that question asked, because sometimes I get really torn doing this job. I get confused about its impact, its true value. I didn’t feel that way when the world wasn’t quite so in turmoil. When we’ve had quieter times, which has been most of my artistic life, it’s been very easy for me to justify my work directing plays. But in the last two years it has become more become difficult. I feel deeply challenged at times. I ask myself, “Why am I sitting in this room, spending my day with other adults, figuring out how to tell people a story? Is this a worthy and meaningful endeavor?” I remember a friend of mine who said she hated watching The West Wing. I happen to love it. I said, “How could you possibly hate The West Wing?” She said, “It makes people feel like they’re doing something.” That was very cutting, because every once in a while that echoes in my brain—am I making people feel like they’re doing something when they’re coming to see a play? DN: So you’re delineating the difference between a distraction and a funnel. AS: Right. Exactly. DN: What constituted your familiarity with the play before you knew you’d be directing it and how would you describe your relationship to the play during the time you have been preparing for rehearsals? AS: I think I probably saw it before I read it. My parents were incredibly responsible in culturing their children, so I’ve seen the play several times. I have a vague memory of seeing it before I knew what it was and I am sure I read it in high school. When you read it, you cannot put it down. It’s like a great story. You are not even remotely hampered by stage directions or character assignment of language. You’re just going. Then as I got older, my relation to it was much more related to what its original intent of addressing the situation with the House Un-American Activities Committee, a moment in American history. It was one of the first plays where I thought, “Oh, I get it! You can tell a story about something in the past, and it can relate to something now!” I must have been very young to have that be the first connection to it. Of course, what’s interesting is that what the play is about changes as a result of my way of thinking, the state of the world, and the fact that it is a great play. It moves. It shifts. It’s about a truth. Sometimes that morphs. DN: Since you started looking at it through a director’s lens, what have you found surprising about the play? AS: Oh, man! It’s really scary. It’s really scary. DN: (laughs) AS: It has an engine, a plot engine, based in character. And you just want somebody to stop it. There are moments that are nothing short of, you know, when you are watching a horror movie and you want to shout, “Don’t go up the stairs! Good God, don’t open that door!” Also, the language is magnificent. It is elegant. It is lush. It is high-minded. I can’t wait to get into the room and hear the actors say some of that stuff. DN: What will be the challenges when you go into the rehearsal in two weeks. AS: You know, what I find challenging about it, two weeks out, is opening up the newspaper every day. That’s challenging. Okay, I’m going back into the rehearsal hall. Is that worthy and meaningful? But then all I have to do is look at the play, and I am reminded, yes, it is. Because the play is meaningful. Of course, everyone wants to believe that about what they do. I question all the time whether what we do in the theatre has any meaning. Sometimes I don’t like the answer. This month I get to like the answer.