2010 Season Artist Profile: Joel Sass

In the months leading up to our 2010 Main Stage season, we’ll be profiling the creative minds behind the season’s productions—John Steinbeck’s The Pastures of Heaven, Mrs. Warren’s Profession, Macbeth, and Much Ado About Nothing—in our e-newsletters. For the third installment, I spoke featuring Joel Sass, who directed Pericles for us in 2008, and will helm Macbeth at the Bruns this season. What follows is the full transcript of my email interview with Joel. To sign up for our email newsletter, click here.

What projects are you working on right now? What have you done most recently?
Well, I just directed a new production of Noel Coward’s Blithe Spirit for the Jungle Theater in Minneapolis—which was eighth show in a row I’ve directed & designed for that theater. After 16 months of back-to-back activity, I am actually enjoying NOT directing at the moment; this break is giving me time to recharge and focus on pre-production research and planning for my next projects: The Mystery of Irma Vep for the Jungle, The 39 Steps for the Guthrie Theater … and of course this exciting new version of Macbeth for Cal Shakes!

Can you share any early thoughts on Macbeth?
I think Macbeth is one of Shakespeare’s most intense, harrowing journeys – he takes the audience on a dark ride into the most private ecstasies and agonies of Macbeth and Lady Macbeth— the ultimate “power couple”: ambitious, intelligent, and fiercely in love with each other. They are not intrinsically evil, but they nonetheless commit a terrible crime—murder— in order to attain power, wealth and prestige. My current thinking is that the aesthetic for our Cal Shakes Macbeth (both visually and as performed) should be much more contemporary, incorporating strong elements of a gritty ‘reality’ BUT primarily evoking a world and behavior that is more dreamlike, interior, psychological… I’m after a sort of David Lynch-y quality I’d characterize as feverish, ominous, and slightly ritualized… Events in the play should unfold in a space that contains the residue of events that have already occurred OR that will be re-enacted; it is a dream-space that reflects Macbeth’s interior desires, disorder, claustrophobia, anxiety—but the viewer’s conviction about the ‘reality’ of what they witness is periodically subverted: the space and the objects (and even the actors!) within it are mutable and can assume different functions/contexts…I could go on and on, but all this boils down to the notion that we want to create a surprising, psychological thriller/horror show, and not a history pageant/morality play.

For our readers who saw your Pericles here in 2008, what commonalities do you think the two productions will have? (Besides the backdrop of the hills, of course.)
Pericles was a relatively unknown play, and so had the capacity to surprise an audience with a story they didn’t know. Macbeth, conversely, is one of the most well-known plays of Shakespeare—but my hope is that our production will still be packed with surprises and feel fresh, new and immediate. One of the reasons I enjoy working at Cal Shakes is because they are committed to doing “boldly imagined classics”…so, like the Pericles I did in 2008, our new Macbeth will also be performed by only 8 speaking actors, supported by a small four-person ensemble. I am always challenged and invigorated by the task of doing an epic play with a small cast. The exercise invites—actually demands—that the director and the actors commit to making strong imaginative and theatrical choices.

What’s the first piece of theater you ever saw? Alternately (or in addition), what was the first piece you saw that really made you think, “I want to be a part of this”?
The first professional play I saw was A Christmas Carol at the Guthrie Theater when I was in third grade…. I was enthralled by the stagecraft and the story, but it didn’t occur to me I should actually be doing theater until college. At the time, I was a visual arts major specializing in painting and sculpture—and getting a lot of criticism for doing work which was “too narrative.” I’d be told “Stop trying to tell a story! Just make a picture!” And I thought: then what the hell is the point? I figured I could take these visual interests out of the painting studio and into the theater and have a lot more fun….

Who are your all-time favorite directors? Theater and film?
I have a fairly large pantheon of favorite and influential directors…I change theology depending on my mood or what I’m working on at the moment…For today: as a young director, I was very influenced by Dominique Serrand of Theatre de la Jeune Lune, and several of the artists who founded the Minneapolis Children’s Theater. Seeing productions by Joann Akalitis and Peter Brook were hugely inspiring. In film, I am always inspired by Pedro Almodóvar’s gift for crafting narrative, Quentin Tarantino for his comic-book pop-culture panache, and the early films of Jane Campion for their gorgeous mood and composition.

What inspires you right now? Any particular music, current events, people, et cetera?
I’m hypnotized by the phenomenon of Lady Gaga….I don’t know if that is a good or a bad thing for our Macbeth

And finally, if you could have directed any play in history, what (and/or where, and/or with who) would it be?
My sensibilities lean toward the lurid, lusty and bloodthirsty Jacobeans….I’m a big fan of revenge tragedy, so I’d have loved to have directed The White Devil, Women Beware Women, or Titus Andronicus (hint, hint, Jon Moscone!) for a throng of long-ago roaring Londoners who had to walk past a bear-baiting den to reach the theater….

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