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Collaboration and Connection

by Martha Lavey, Tina Landau and Tarell Alvin McCraney

Martha Lavey: Tina, this is just one of many collaborations between you and Tarell. You’ve remarked in the past that the two of you came from really different backgrounds and traveled a long way to find each other. How would you describe your own beginning in theatre? Tina Landau: My parents were film producers and we lived in New York. I grew up in what would be called a showbiz environment—I spent time on movie sets and I met famous actor types. We went to the theater constantly and I grew up going to Broadway musicals in particular. Tarell has talked about when he first saw a Broadway play or musical was in his very adult life. The thing that was amazing to me was that I have always taken it for granted that Tarell and I so deeply share a set of values about the theater and our intentions in the theater. It never occurred to me until then to query how disparate our backgrounds were and how they possibly could have led to such similar territory in this moment. ML: How would you describe the values that the two of you hold in common about the theater? Tarell Alvin McCraney: When I saw Chuck Mee’s Iphigenia that Tina directed at Signature Theatre Company, I thought about how [Tina] synthesizes the thing that’s so important—taking the old and the new and making something else. I just remember in that show those men standing up on that stage doing a dance—and, of course, you had choreographed it with them, so it wasn’t like you had an African choreographer come in—but I thought, “I wish you could see this hip-hop African piece called Scratch and Burn.” The choreography was almost exactly the same. TL: We’ve both been working for a really long time in our work individually, not to juxtapose the old and the new, but to actually discover and give life to how they are one and the same. It’s an aspect of our interests that I think are really parallel. We are both very interested in, and committed to, telling stories either from perspectives or about people who have been less represented on the American stage up to now. In the most general terms, one could call that “the outsider.” In terms of Tarell’s work, that is the African-American community and, very specifically, the African-American community of the less privileged projects around this country and particularly the South. ML: Significantly, the three plays that we are doing are also from a gay perspective. TL: Yes, absolutely. Certainly one thing that Tarell and I have in common is that we are both gay. But in addition to both of those things, I would say we share an interest in the form and the modes of storytelling in the theater. We are both really interested in the theater as a place where something singular happens between a particular audience and cast on a particular night, and ways to juice that, exploit that and make that the magical core of the experience for all the participants. ML: Who do you both regard as theatrical mentors? TL: I have this really odd split personality, which involves, on the one hand, people like Bob Fosse, Jerome Robbins, Michael Bennett and Hal Prince, i.e. the American musical staging masters who, of course, I never met, so they weren’t really mentors. On the other hand, there’s Anne Bogart, Robert Wilson, Meredith Monk and Pina Bausch, who are icons to me of the avant-garde performance world of theatre and dance. I really feel my life has been a journey, first to try and reconcile those two things and then, ultimately, to recognize how they’re actually part of the same thing and how they can live in happiness together. I really feel I’ve learned the most from artists I’ve worked with. Just as Tarell might speak about Peter Brook or August Wilson, both of whom he’s been in the room with, for me it’s been people like Anne Bogart, Chuck Mee and Adam Guettel; peers and collaborators who I have just been inspired by. ML: How about you, Tarell? TM: I talk about Alvin Ailey all the time, you know, I’ve never met Alvin Ailey, but I’ve seen almost all of his work. If you watch the trio in Revelations, it is exactly The Brothers Size; it is exactly three men trying to find a place to hide, trying to find a place to run to. It is rhythmic, it’s infective, it’s athletic, it is full of sorrow and fear, and I’ve never been in the room with him at all. I have been in the room with August Wilson, but I can say that I’ve learned more from that trio about how to stage theatre than I did from August. With August, I learned much more about how to talk to people and how to be generous with stories and how to listen and what to be inspired by, which is no small feat. ML: You know what the marvelous thing is? That there are people who have never met either of you, but for whom you, as artists, will be their inspiration. There’s no question in my mind. TL: As we both fall silent. TM: Yeah, I’m like, “Really?” TL: It’s a combination of “Really?” and “No, Martha,” and kind of like, “Huh, is that possible?” ML: The two of you have put up these plays in many different theatres over the past few years. What has marked each production as unique for you? TL: Just from my personal experience having Steppenwolf as a home, I could absolutely not be where I am at with my own work without the constancy of Steppenwolf. Directing In the Red and Brown Water at Steppenwolf will be my fourth version of that production, and I was thinking as we were opening at the Public Theater [in October], “Oh my gosh this is what happens when you get to work on a play for months at a time over a couple of years.” I have been able to enter Red and Brown with a level of understanding and detail that I just never experienced. I feel having done The Tempest at Steppenwolf, “Ok that was my workshop production.” I felt like I just began to get that play, and I would want to do it again and incorporate what I have actually learned. TM: Tina and I talk about this a lot, this notion of a standing company to collaborate with. Usually, you get in a room with each other and you find, “Oh, this is the place that we want to go,” and then your two weeks are up, and you have to go do something else. It’s the most frustrating thing in the world because you have just started to scratch the surface of what it is and where it is you want to go. It’s great to have places like Steppenwolf that say, “Yes, we do want to go in that direction. What else can we do to mine that?” TL: You know, Martha, you’ve commented before about how much you can look at my work and say, “Oh, you’ve done these kinds of things all over.” I do experience my own work as part of one giant endeavor. Obviously, you can feel that in Tarell’s plays. I just feel like every time you return to anything, whether it’s the theatre, or an ensemble like Steppenwolf, or Tarell who is developing his own kind of satellite of actors who do his plays and know his work, it really makes a difference in how far you can take it. ML: Both of you are very generous to your audience. That desire to communicate, I have always felt, is the center core of your work. TL: The other day I had to give a talk at Columbia, and one of the questions was “who do you make art for?” As an artist do you go into a room and follow your impulses and say, “either they will get it or they won’t?” I have gone through stages of feeling like I had to do that, but mostly I feel the only thing that matters to me is that we communicate with a group of people. I think of the E.M. Forster quote, “Connect... Only connect.” And that to me is the only reason to do what we are doing.