In the months leading up to our 2012 Main Stage season, we are profiling some of the artists shaping our productions. —The Tempest, Spunk, Blithe Spirit, and Hamlet—in our e-newsletters. This month, we’re featuring director Patricia McGregor, who will head up Spunk, three tales by the late, great Harlem Renaissance writer Zora Neale Hurston, adapted by George C. Wolfe. What follows is the transcript of my interview with Patricia. To sign up for our email newsletter, click here.
What is your experience with outdoor theater, and how does that affect your expectations and plans for working in our amphitheater?
My first introduction to performance was outdoor theater. I grew up in the Virgin Islands and the two main places for performance were a big, outdoor island amphitheater, and then Parade. It wasn’t until grad school that I realized the importance of that idea of performance and accessibility, how it spills out into the audience. In graduate school (at Yale) we had a cabaret that I was the artistic director of, and it had an outdoor space. Some of my favorite shows ended up being in that outdoor space, and I loved to perform there because it allowed access for people who were passing by—who weren’t even necessarily there for the show—to see the guts of the making of the show a little bit. Most recently, I assisted Michael Greif on Shakespeare in the Park; when I moved to New York and I was deciding if I wanted to be in theater or not, I saw Shakespeare in the Park and it blew my mind, this idea that there was interaction with the natural elements and the text.
In particular, with this production of Spunk, growing up, having gone to the Zora Neale Hurston Festival (in Eatonville, FL) a lot—that festival is an outdoor festival, and the sunshine and the way the jazz played on the wind, these natural elements are very much a part of my memory of those experiences. In the play Spunk, the natural elements are referenced a lot. There is a very distinct thing about the trees and the look of the lake. So there are two main things that I want to engage with in this production, influenced by my experience with outdoor theater. There is a call-and-response between the audience, the elements, and the performance onstage. And there is the way in which the poetry of Zora Neale Hurston is influenced by the natural world—to be able to say “while we are transforming to Eatonville, we are also acknowledging the natural elements that are really here right now.” When the wind is blowing, we have actual wind to talk about. It’s one of the reasons doing Shakespeare outdoors is so great: Shakespeare so often references the elements, and the elements are just there. So I really want to have that interactive vibrancy with the audience. To elevate the poetry of the everyday; I think Zora is very much about this idea that everyday things, the way people speak, the way they might sew a little flower on their shirt, or the way the sun feels on your face—those everyday things, that poetry of the everyday is art.
You referred to a parade. Do you mean a parade with a big ‘P’ or just parades in general?
Parade with a big “P”. We were off school so often because of so many parades: Three Kings’ Day Parade, Thanksgiving Parade. I’m interested in the way people enter the theater space, bringing people from wherever they are, however they want to interact with whatever is going on. (For Spunk) I think there is a kind of parade going into the amphitheater led by Guitar Man and Blues Speak Woman. And for the first prologue there is a parade of the performers coming through the audiences, so it’s never something that’s just up there. People will feel like they are being spoken to, like the whole space is alive.
What is your history with the work of Zora Neale Hurston?
I went to Middle School and High School in Orlando, Florida. Starting in seventh or eighth grade, we would go every year to Eatonville for the Zora Neale Hurston Festival. My mom was a visual artist and we moved a lot; wherever we moved to, we would plug into the local arts scene as much as possible. The Zora festival was one that we plugged into early on and we would go every year. In your kid mind it’s not like “oh, I’m going to this important Zora Neale Hurston festival”—it just became part of my understanding of art and the work that people often called craft. Being a real artist and listening to stories, listening to the rhythms of people who are not always listened to, is really important to me. It took me a while to understand the importance of it. I just liked going and listening to the music and see art, and I could get popcorn.
I almost did Spunk as my thesis and ended up doing Jelly’s Last Jam instead, also by George C. Wolfe. Zora’s work has energized me for a long time, so it’s a really thrilling thing for me to be a part of something that is a celebration of the theatrical while also celebrating Zora and what her mission was.
How are you connected with Spunk playwright George C. Wolfe?
I followed his work for a long time and admired it. He holds the rights to Jelly’s Last Jam and it’s not staged as often as you would think it was, so he ended up coming to see the production. He gave a bunch of workshops around the production and I got to have conversations with him about it. We most recently saw each other when he came to the opening of The Mountaintop, (Hurt Village playwright) Katori (Hall)’s play on Broadway. We got to speak and I got to tell him I was doing this production and he said “thank you for keeping my rent paid.” We’ve actually been playing a little tag right now, trying to sit down and just talk about Spunk itself. The questions that he has and the theatricality with which he answers those questions are thrilling to me.
Is there anything else you would like to say about his work?
His work is deeply steeped in the examination of politics, of race, of class, of gender conversations. And sometimes he’s very, very overtly political but it is always with a wild humor, theatricality, and tongue-in-cheek wit. I love the provocateur in him. I love the super-smart mischievous kid who is always getting folks into trouble, but with a purpose. I love that spirit. I love the commitment to both: the commitment to playfulness and theatricality. I think he is an artist who loves the art of theater. He could do film, he could do other things. I think he writes directly for what I call “the simple magic of theater.” He loves the simple little transformations. He is actually, in this piece, very reverential to Zora, which is important to me. He plays up the thing that is naturally theatrical in her work but he’s never trying to deflate her. He’s always trying to elevate her. He took what he does and put it in service of what she does.
What is the first piece of theater you saw? What is the first piece you saw that made you think ‘I really want to be a part of this’?
The first piece of theater I saw must have been a Caribbean dance company. My sister was a really beautiful ballet dancer. I was the younger sister that was a clown and I remember watching her and the beauty of what she did and realizing that if I do the dance move one step off I’m actually going to get attention. It’s a little less about what I first saw than what I performed in.
The first real piece of theater was seeing a production of Midsummer in seventh grade. At that point I was a big sports kid. I had asthma so I realized I had to find something to put my energy into and, at the school, there was student production from the Orlando Touring Shakespeare group. That was the thing that told me I wasn’t going to do sports, I was going to do this.
Seeing Shakespeare in the Park was a way of seeing “oh, we can really do this professionally.” This is what it is to do it on a big scale, instead of just in a gymnasium and with a touring group. It was my junior year in high school.
The thing that really made me hone in on what I wanted to do was to see a production of Anna Deavere Smith’s Twilight when I was in undergrad in Houston. Those politics. That attention to language. She records that person said “ah,” not “um.”
Is there anybody that you’d like to mention that inspires you right now that you haven’t mentioned already? Writers, music, current events?
The playwrights I adore: Katori Hall, Tarell McCraney, Marcus Gardley, José Rivera.
The work I adore: Improv Anywhere—they go into Grand Central Station and do “spontaneous” art. Catch people off guard. I am often interested in when people don’t even expect to encounter art, and then it happens.
There is also a playwright named Judith Adong who is from Uganda who inspires me just in terms of relevancy, absolute relevancy. She has this piece, Just Me, You and the Silence, that is about the anti-homosexuality bill in Uganda; it is wildly funny and theatrical and brave. This law has been put on hold but is still up for serious consideration. I feel like it’s her mission to keep the spotlight on it by writing this play
I went to see the Alexander McQueen exhibit Savage Beauty. I thought, “oh wow, the stakes have been raised here.” Here is a person with such an absolute vision, just bold and unflinching and political. Of the things that have influenced me this year Alexander McQueen would definitely be one of them. I don’t wait on line for anything and I waited for this. It was at the Met and I waited in line for two hours. It was so worth it. Such a spectacular thing.
If you could direct any play in history what or where or with whom would it be?
I would want to direct some kind of wild theatrical opening to the Olympics. I’d love it to be to address the ideas of joy and unity in action. Somehow get at the underbelly of the things that frustrate that and arrive at something that is hopeful. Because I think we have a lot of cynicism in our world, and doing intelligent works that fights against cynicism is really important. The Olympics is a place where people try to set that aside for a moment. Yes, I want to have a conversation with the entire world about hope winning against cynicism. It would be in a lot of languages. There would be physical language because you have these physical titans. But it would really be about this idea to set aside entrenched conflicts and cynicism, and be more pure and hopeful. I’m going to start working on it now.
Category: Weekly News | Tags: A Midsummer Night's Dream, Alexander McQueen, Angela's Pulse, cal shakes, California Shakespeare Theater, Eatonville, George C. Wolfe, Hurt Village, Improv Anywhere, Jelly's Last Jam, José Rivera, Judith Adong, Katori Hall, Marcus Gardley, Orinda, outdoor theater, Patricia McGregor, Savage Beauty, Shakespeare in the Park, Spunk, Tarell McCraney, The Mountaintop, U.S. Virgin Islands, Yale Drama, Zora Neale Hurston Comment »