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Bartlett Sher on Mourning Becomes Electra

interviewed December 12, 2002 by Ed Hawkins

Bartlett Sher has been INTIMAN Theatre’s artistic director since March 2000.  He most recently directed INTIMAN Theatre’s world-premiere production of Nickel and Dimed, which also opened the current season of the Mark Taper Forum in Los Angeles.  His other INTIMAN credits are Shaw’s Arms and the Man, Shakespeare’s Titus Andronicus and Cymbeline, Craig Lucas’s Dying Gaul, and Carlo Goldoni’s Servant of Two Masters.

He came to Seattle from New York, where his productions included the American premiere of Harley Granville Barker's 1907 play Waste, which won the 2000 Obie Award for Best Play. Previously, he had served as associate artistic director at Hartford Stage Company, company director at The Guthrie Theater, and associate artist at the Idaho Shakespeare Festival.  Sher received his graduate training at Leeds University.

Sher’s upcoming projects include Craig Lucas’s Singing Forest at ACT Theatre, Tony Kushner’s Homebody/Kabul at INTIMAN, and Marvin David Levy’s Mourning Becomes Electra for Seattle Opera. 

Mr. Sher spoke with Ed Hawkins on December 12, 2002.

You are a highly regarded theater director and this is your first time directing an opera.  What has been your relationship with Opera up to this point?

I’ve always been a theater person—a classical theater person.  And I am deeply, hugely influenced by music.  I use music in my work all the time.  It’s a very powerful tool for heightening artistic expression.  I don’t think anybody can have an experience in the theater in quiet.  It isn’t like life.  It needs—you know, we need to fully…hook it up.  Emotionally.  Personally.  All of that.  So I am hugely influenced by music—and theater itself—any form of storytelling, really. 

I didn’t really come to opera as an experience until much later in my life, when I was already a part of the theater, and I began to realize that there was this whole cannon of stories that I had heard about but didn’t really know much about.  So I started to see opera.  I remember going to see Peter Stein’s production of Verdi’s Falstaff at the Brooklyn Academy of Music.  It was a breathtaking production.  Stein had an ability to combine this wonderful scale, you know, the huge emotional core that is provided by seventy people scrubbing away in the pit, with this elegant, beautiful, extraordinary theatrical vision.  It made me go:  “Wow, that looks like an awful lot of fun!  That really makes me want to do an opera!”

I’ve also always admired opera because it seems to me a place of deep traditions.  Some people find them stultifying and other people find them extremely freeing.  I am very respectful of traditions.  I’ve always been very steeped in theatrical history and tradition.  I am also, in my own ways, very experimental.  But I feel that if you really want to go out on a limb and try new ideas, you have to really know what tradition you’re coming from. 

How did you first become attached to this project?

Speight Jenkins [general director of Seattle Opera] called me to see if I was interested and, I happen to believe that Speight is the model of artistic leaders in this community, so when he called I was thrilled and excited.  I have directed the Threepenny Opera, and I’ve directed musicals, but I’ve never directed an opera in an opera house; so my willingness to direct Mourning Becomes Electra was predicated upon an opportunity to meet with [composer] Marvin Levy.  I spent an afternoon with him in New York, and he took me through the whole thing.  We had a great time.  And so that meeting being positive led to my feeling comfortable about accepting Speight’s invitation and taking on the project.  And there I was:  able to begin to plan, and think, and envision, and dream about what it could be. 

You are not doing all that dreaming and thinking and envisioning on your own, are you?

Fortunately, no.  I have relationships with some really exciting people that I’m bringing to the project.  Jennifer Tipton, who’s probably one of the greatest lighting designers in the world, is one of my closest friends, so Speight was especially excited that Jennifer would be able to come and light the show.  She’s miraculous.  She lights all of Paul Taylor and Twyla Tharp’s work.  She’s done all kinds of extraordinary work around the world.  She’s just glorious and exceptional.  She has a great spiritual dignity in her work and in her life.  And Michael Yeargan, whose scenic designs have been brought to Seattle Opera before but who has never created a design specifically for Seattle Opera.  He has also done a lot of remarkable work. 

So right now you all are starting to flesh out the specifics of the production design, color palette, etc.?

Yes.  Right now we’re in the design and development stage.  And for me it’s just an adjustment of scale:  how to make the thing fill this huge room and rise to the challenges of the design and of the writing.  There has to be an enormous fluidity in the storytelling.  There has to be a metaphoric resonance that sort of seeps up through—into the production. 

What makes a really interesting work of art is how specifically it follows its own internal set of rules.  And inside of that it has its own beautiful autonomy.  And one of the beauties about directing is you can make all the rules.  The rule could be:  “Everybody In Pink,” and then all of a sudden in the last scene:  “Everybody In White.”  Well, that’s its own little sentence!  And audiences are very ready to be challenged to follow the sentence that you speak, in physical, visual terms. 

Do you have any ideas yet about what some of the rules might be for this particular world?

They were discovering a lot of new dyeing processes for clothes during the period in which this story takes place.  So we’ve got these really beautiful, rich, extremely vibrant clothes and colors to start and then, as the events unfold, you can feel the world begin to seep, to drain of its color and head into weakness.  And you’re telling the story that way.  Especially as you follow Christine and Lavinia’s mother-daughter journey:  the increasing loneliness, the increasing loss of form and authority, all because of their ancestors’ grip on them.  They go from this rich, exciting, pregnant-with-possibility homecoming at the top, to it all crunching and crunching and crunching down around them.  So it may feel very rich and colorful at the beginning and extremely spare and bleak at the end.  And that’s a movement that we can feel. 

We haven’t worked out the design in terms of how the space makes you feel that movement.  We’re asking that question now.  We know that most of the action takes place inside of and around the grandness of the Mannon house itself, and, like any big house, it has its own…it’s a character in the play.  So we’ll play with that, and I think we’ve got some interesting beginnings of ideas for that. 

Where we’re having trouble, Michael and I, is the ship, the one scene on the ship.  We’re really struggling figuring out what to do about this boat!

Will we be seeing an actual ship on the stage?  Will the scenic design be that naturalistic?

I think pure Naturalism—you know, creating fully realistic sets for every single location—is actually less interesting because then it just becomes basically a big movie.  It misses an opportunity to get to a deeper place.  But some of it has to be realistic in terms of really important things like furniture and personal objects and things like that would then be evocative.  And then have scale.  And then have poetics.  So we’re trying to mix all that stuff up. 

Once you’ve figured out the production design, how will you prepare for rehearsals?

When I’m about to go into rehearsal, I’m really going to have to understand exactly how I want to use the space.  I will need to really work through the script, going beat by beat and moment by moment way in advance.  You can’t go into a rehearsal without knowing where everybody’s going. 

I don’t mean entrances and exits, necessarily.  I’m talking more about the more delicate, precise kind of work.  About where and how Christine Mannon, for example, might turn and fall and lift up this object in just the right way at just the right moment.  It takes some time to get that right. 

Do you have any concerns about working with the “strong personalities” for which opera has a somewhat notorious reputation?

I come from a chaotic, big family.  So, when things get really out of control and emotional and personal and complicated, it’s actually never frightening for me.  It actually does the reverse for me.  I tend to feel quite relaxed and at home. 

I think that we’re really lucky to have some of the people singing this opera that we have.  And they may turn out to be “strong personalities,” but I’m kind of thrilled by the possibility of people really knowing what they want or having complex ways of moving through what they want. 

I think one of the great things about directing is that you have to be a kind of group therapist.  You have to be able to balance all of these emotional needs and creative energies and bitter rivalries and complex jealousies.  You have to build a muscle in which everybody’s focused on the work that they want to do rather than on, perhaps, all these other things.  I think that’s a question that might be good to ask me again after I’ve been in rehearsal for a while.

What about physical characterization in opera?  Do the differences between actors and singers inform your approach to defining characters via their physicality?

Mourning Becomes Electra is a very naturalistic piece.  So I think that the physical life of the piece will be relatively traditional.  At its center is a family.  And it’s a normal family in the sense that they all walk on two legs, you know?  So the actors are not being compelled to use their bodies in a way that’s unique, at least in terms of helping to illustrate, in classic terms, what’s going on.

There will be movement, and some supernumeraries to move through it, that are a kind of chorus to it, but they don’t sing.  They move furniture and things like that, and their physicality will become a very important backdrop.  But the physicality of the rest of the cast will be very traditional. 

One of the challenges in directing opera, particularly in regards to blocking supernumeraries, is that rehearsal time with the staging director on the set can be quite limited.  The supers may just have a perfunctory single-pass at their blocking, and the result in performance is that sometimes they end up looking like: “And now we all move over here because the director told us to.”

Frankly, you have the same problem in the theater.  In the theater, you have some very strict guidelines about how much time you’re going to get with certain performers.

What I’ve found is this:  It makes a difference when you care about somebody.  I think the main way to make it work better is to really show you care that they do well.  And you use the time well.  I really try to go and connect with people like that, because they can be so critical to telling the story.  And I love them.  And that’s what makes the difference.  Just the attention. 

Sometimes you’ll see people just standing there and they look bored.  It’s because they were bored in rehearsal anyway!  And they were not compelled by anybody to being any different.  Or perhaps it wasn’t explained to them what’s going on here in a way that they could all share.  And really get what their role in all of that was.  I always find directing very simple—it’s about specifics.  Be as specific as you can with the circumstances—and there are other techniques—but you’re telling a story.  You’re filling in the part of the novel that’s the descriptive passage and then there’s dialogue.  You just need to be really specific about what’s going on there.  You can always feel the difference when you see it:  when something is specific and when it’s general.

Eugene O’Neill’s play was originally written as a three-act trilogy, and the original 1967 version of Levy’s opera was presented in three-acts as well, but the Seattle Opera production will be the premiere of the final two-act version, correct?

Yes.  Speight feels really strongly that it should be in two acts and not three.  And I think Speight’s impulse about that is really right.  In a juicy tale like this, there’s a million interesting places to suspend the action, you know, really hook you before you go out and come back.  One of these places is midway through Act II of the three-act version, which suggests that it could be the place to break between just two acts.  It’s really Marvin’s task to find that, but based on what Marvin’s already accomplished, this final version has a chance of being the greatest, most evocative expression of what he’s written.  And the entire story is still there.

Did you see the production of the O’Neill play at ACT last year?

I did see that production, which I enjoyed very much.  And I’m excited that some of the audiences who may see the opera also saw that, because then it allows them to have a context for the story, and that always makes an experience better.  One of the great things that [director] Gordon [Edelstein] did was emphasize the psychological torture and complexity of the piece.  It kind of turned the play around for me. 

The story, the themes, even the title of this piece has ties to ancient Greek tragedies.  How do you see the opera as connected to these classical roots?

Yes, it’s based on the Greek tragedies.  The challenge that was put down by the Greeks was that every culture should have its epic, its great family story.  One of the things that people say about America is it’s never had its great epic; and that great epic should have been written around the Civil War, because it was the great struggle that defined the nation. 

So I would submit that O’Neill was consciously taking on this story in order to answer that question:  “Can I write both an epic which tells us something great about American culture and at the same time can I write in the genre of Greek tragedy?”  So he uses both the Civil War as a backdrop for this story and he uses the structure of Greek tragedy to tell this story.

Now, in opera, which came into prominence in the seventeenth century, it’s a very common thing to take on a lot of these Greek tragedies as possible areas of investigation.  So the fact that this is a play with classical roots, which then becomes an opera, seems completely consistent with the historical progression of the expression of mythic ideas. 

There’s also a theory in American theater that all American playwriting is based on family pathology.  OK?  And that’s led by Eugene O’Neill, who was from the most screwed up family in the history of the universe.  So it makes some sense that, as much as he was trying to write the great epic Civil War drama, you can’t divorce the play from family pathology.  And the interesting part here is maybe we’re in a good place to do both the mythic and the personal family thing at the same time.

Ed Hawkins, a Seattle Opera staff member, is active in Seattle’s fringe theater community as a director, actor, copywriter, and playwright.  He recently directed Annex Theatre’s award-winning revival of Stage Door.