Big Imaginings
December 2, 2016
Big Imaginings

What attracted you to Sarah Waters’ novel Fingersmith and made you want to adapt it for the theater?

That was all Alexa Junge, the playwright, who is an old and dear friend of mine. This is the first time we’ve ever worked together directly. Alexa has such a stunning way with words, and an extraordinary ear for surprising turns of phrase. When she told me that she had a dream of adapting this, her favorite novel, for the stage, I was so moved by her passion that we commissioned the project before I had even read it. And then I read the novel and became even more enthusiastic.

Fingersmith is set in the murky criminal underworld of nineteenth century London, with period slang and costumes. But it is also an extremely modern production, centered on a queer love story that could never have been openly performed in the time that it is set. How do you approach historical projects with a twenty-first century mindset?

I always look at period material through a contemporary lens. One of the things that I love about Sarah Waters’ novel and what Alexa has done with this play is how they reenvision history from a contemporary feminist and queer point of view. It gives this story agency and urgency in terms of why we are telling it right now. Hopefully I’m honoring the reality of people’s lives in that time and place by creating a work of art that is not only accessible, but also vital for contemporary audiences.

This show has a large cast of idiosyncratic characters, from gentleman thieves to heiresses to lunatics. The last production you directed at the A.R.T. also featured a large cast: that was All the Way in 2013, which starred Bryan Cranston as Lyndon B. Johnson during the peak of the Civil Rights Movement. As a director, are you particularly interested in working with large casts?

I often feel that American theater has really shrunk, because of economics. But the stories that I’m personally fascinated by are often epic in scale. It’s one thing to direct a play that takes place in a living room, with a single set and a small cast of characters. That can be very challenging and wonderful work. But as an artist, and especially now that I am the Artistic Director of the Oregon Shakespeare Festival, I often tend to be much more attracted to projects where, between the design choices, the staging, and the acting, we engage with audience imaginations in a big way, telling them wide-ranging stories that visit several locations. Not always, but often.

On that subject, this production, like the novel it is based on, takes place across an array of vivid settings. How does the set bring this diversity of locations to life?

Onstage, there are two abstract building facades opposite each other, which represent our two primary settings: Lant Street, in London, and the Briar Mansion. The dichotomy of these two settings—impoverished and wealthy, urban and rural, Sue and Maud—is the main metaphor at work in the set. Our designer Christopher Acebo is a genius, and he has created a wonderful playground to stage this production on.

Your production of Fingersmith premiered last year at the Oregon Shakespeare Festival. What about this show are you looking forward to working on here at the A.R.T.?

Fingersmith became an enormous success at OSF, which was thrilling. People came back to see it many, many, many times, and that felt wonderful. But it was also still a new and very challenging play. Having the opportunity to dig back in again with any new work is always exciting, and in the case of Fingersmith has really been invaluable. I think we’ve taken everything that was great about the first production at OSF and then just clarified, streamlined, heightened, and tightened it.

This show is a kind of homecoming—you attended Harvard as an undergraduate. How did your experiences here shape your artistic perspective as a theater professional?

I’m so excited to be back in the Loeb. When I first arrived at Harvard, I wanted to be an actor. But then freshman year I directed my first full-length play, Dürrenmatt’s The Visit, and had a complete epiphany. Directing was what I wanted to dedicate my life to, and so I dove in. I directed 26 shows as an undergrad in the Loeb, in the Agassiz, the basement of my dorm— Adams House—and in other site-specific locations all around campus. I learned by doing, and many of the people I made plays with in college went on to become founding members of Cornerstone Theatre Company with me.

Why do you think audiences have responded so positively to Fingersmith?

Fingersmith is such an extraordinary work of art, both the novel and hopefully this production of Alexa’s play, because it is a completely gripping story. Sarah Waters and Alexa have spun a breathtaking tale that allows us to explore some truly dark and hidden recesses of the human heart.

Interview by Leland Frankel, a second-year dramaturgy student at the A.R.T. Institute for Advanced Theater Training at Harvard University. 

 

This article appeared in the A.R.T. Guide, published by the American Repertory Theater.

Also in this guide about Fingersmith:

A Note from Playwright Alexa Junge
by Alexa Junge

Uncovering Secrets
by Judith Rosen

Publication date:
December 2, 2016
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