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Introducing W/D Lab Member… Kristan Seemel!

headshot stylinWe continue our 15th Writer/Director Lab with Tracy Thorne’s new play THE NATURE OF THINGS, directed by Kristan Seemel. This interview with Kristan continues a series of interviews with the participants of this year’s Lab. Come and join us the reading at Soho Rep. on May 6 at 7PM.

 

1. Briefly tell us about your directorial thinking on your THE NATURE OF THINGS.

Tracy has written a tense examination of two people flirting with “the wrong thing.”  The language is terse and the emotional expression concise.  The dialogue has the kind of vigorous rhythm we will be at our wits end to translate from the page into performance.  Rabid Pinter with a dash of Beckett’s aplomb. The piece is a gift to actors, exacting in the momentum of its events and yet ventilated with silences only a particularly astute artist can fill.  I’m excited for us to charge into those white spaces and see what we come out with.

 

2. What part of the Writer/Director Lab process was the most instructive and entertaining? How are the directors utilized?

It has been invigorating to watch five plays evolve from a sparkle in the playwright’s eye to fully formed scenes on the page. The lab provides directors with an intimate look into the early stages of inspiration, experimentation and shaping that normally take place before anyone besides the playwright sees the script.

In a sense, the lab is more about moral instruction than academic training. There’s humility that comes from working so closely for so long with a number of writers who are brave and generous enough to share their work at its rawest. Certainly, before being in the lab, I had seen unfinished pages before, but in those cases the playwrights were looking to make simpler, later-stage revisions: clarification, changes in temperature and, most of all, cuts. In the lab, we see scripts undergoing massive changes in direction and playwrights wrestling with the angels at the core of the stories they are telling. How do we, as directors, match their daring? How do we draft so that the work shakes us down to our spurs and talons, the way it does these playwrights?
And the playwrights are so different; each one has a unique creative process. For example, Tracy works on a scene at a time, pressing into a small landscape again and again until it’s right. She would draft a few pages, then redraft those pages, draft a few more and then redraft the whole.   It was as if she was knocking on the door of the play, and in response the play would announce its tone with increasing clarity. Once Tracy heard the play, the writing came together quickly. (As a director, I’ve worked in a similar way, continually revising how we play one scene until it unlocks the rest of the play.) Other writers were more sure of how their plays would be structured, overall, very early in the process and spent the weeks revising individual moments. Another lab playwright rewrote her play practically from scratch every couple of weeks, in what I imagine were marathon sessions alone with her imagination.
Seeing my own creative patterns in these writers’ strategies has given me a sense of empathy with playwrights and a greater appreciation for the complexities of their craft. Even better: it has given me experience in a fruitful, tandem approach to making plays. 
Rigorous as it is, the lab is also unpredictable, entertaining and full of good humor. We meet for four to six hours at a time, with two-and-a-half full-length plays read aloud by playwrights and directors in one session.   Sometimes nonsensical giggling plagues us all night long.  Most nights, at some point, someone opens a bottle of wine.  Every week there are new pages, and no one knows quite what to expect. Playfulness and spontaneity sustain us in the hard work of building new plays.
3. How do you think the Lab will influence your future work?

The lab has introduced me to a longer view of the collaboration between playwrights and directors. I direct new plays and am always wondering how to make a life out of that specific work. The lab models a sustained method for bringing new writing to the stage. 

4. It’s the 15th anniversary of the Lab! Looking back over the history, which plays that have come out of the Lab are you inspired by and why?

One of my favorite new plays I’ve ever worked on as a dramaturg came out of the Lab: Adam Bock’s THE THUGS. Other phenomenal plays from the Lab that have touched me at various points in their development include Anne Washburn’s COMMUNIST DRACULA PAGEANT, David Adjami’s MARIE ANTOINETTE and Jason Grote’s MARIA/STUART.  These plays intersected with my journey when I most needed them and made me excited about contemporary American writing. And then there are my writer friends who went through the lab before I did: Mallery Avidon, Greg Moss, Dan LeFranc and Jackie Sibblies Drury.  These writers are innovators; each has a unique voice, and their work inspires me to keep making theater.

5. Do you have any advice for emerging young freelance directors?

As an emerging young freelance director, I’d love some advice myself!  I bend a lot of ears for advice, and the big message I keep hearing from fellow directors, young and old, is that there is no one pathway toward a fruitful career in directing. There isn’t even a cluster of paths.  Every director bumbles along in the woods, grabbing inspiration wherever it presents itself and developing professional élan over time. And then all of a sudden, if you’ve been putting in the work, you realize you’ve made a life for yourself in the theater.Wow… I hope it works!

That said, here are what seem to be the common themes: 
  • Get yourself some excellent mentors and look for them outside of traditional channels. 
  • Surround yourself with a base of dependable peers who love making theater as much as you do.
  • Friction and conflict, their generative long-term results and biting short-term spur to discomfort and disquiet: these are to be embraced rather than resolved. This is the work—so be in it rather than laboring to minimize it.
  • Pick wickedly inventive collaborators who are always questioning the fundamentals of how and why we make these plays. 
  • Practice regular, orderly reflection and evaluation on your rehearsal work, no matter how busy you are. Be honest with yourself. 
  • Inevitability trumps enhancement every time. 
  • Kindness and truth are the only policies.

Before settling in New York two years ago, Kristan was a freelance director on the West Coast for the better part of a decade. Kristan came up in the theater working on new plays as a dramaturg in Portland, OR. His passion for new American writing is clear from his direction of premiers such as THE ELECTRIC LIGHTHOUSE by Ed Himes, MUTT by Lava Alapai and THE VERSPIARY by Matthew Zrebski as well as NW regional premieres of Carlos Murillo’s MIMESOPHOBIATHE LONG CHRISTMAS RIDE HOME by Paula Vogel and Mac Wellman’s A MURDER OF CROWS. A graduate of the Brown/Trinity Rep MFA program, Kristan helmed workshop productions OH GURU GURU GURU by Mallery Avidon and THE DARKSON CHRONICLES by Theo Goodell while in Providence. Recent favorite revivals include THE THREEPENNY OPERATHE DUCHESS OF MALFIHAMLET and THE HONEST WHORE. Kristan’s staging of Gertrude Stein’s DOCTOR FAUSTUS LIGHTS THE LIGHTS garnered him a Portland Dramatic Critics Circle award for Outstanding Direction. He is elated to be in his second season of residency at the Flea Theater. www.kristanseemel.com

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