Photo by Johnny Knight
Stage Left Artistic Director Vance Smith is pumped to be directing Pygmalion, in partnership with BoHo Theatre. An actor himself, Smith says he depended on his cast to use their creativity to shape the show. The result? an exciting new take on a classic. Smith spoke with Our Town about his directing style, rehearsal highlights, and what he’s up to next.
Our Town Stage Left’s mission is to produce and develop plays that raise debate on political and social issues. How does Pygmalion fit?
Vance Smith We have dedicated this entire season to plays which examine societal perceptions and expectations of women, so Pygmalion is a slam dunk. A rich man takes in a poor woman and attempts to transform her in a way that will elevate her position in society. Shaw, of course, is one of the fathers of political theater and while this is certainly one of his most accessible works, the gender and class issues inherent in the premise are at the forefront of the conflict. But in a funny way! It's a comedy!
OT When tackling a classic like Pygmalion, do you look to other productions for inspiration?
VC I looked at some pictures from other productions. I read a couple of reviews of recent revivals that informed my approach. I watched the 1938 film and have of course seen My Fair Lady, which was adapted from this play and features a lot of the same dialogue. But what struck me when I first read this script over a year ago was how contemporary it felt. Our production commemorates the 100th anniversary of the first production. And while I wanted to be familiar with and honor the great history of this script, it was very important that I not come into the process with too many preconceived notions. I wanted to make sure we had the flexibility to create our own interpretation and I feel like that is what we have done.
OT What’s your directing style?
VS I have a general approach and an aesthetic in mind which guides the hiring and casting processes. Once I get all of the right people together, I want their ideas to shape the piece. I think of the rehearsal process as a conversation about the script with a room full of really talented people. The best ideas won't always come from me and sometimes I won't even have an answer to the question at all. It's my job to hire the right artists and then synthesize their work into a cohesive whole. I am also working this time with an Associate Director, Peter Robel from BoHo and his voice has been very valuable.
OT You’re an actor as well as a director. How do the two inform each other?
VS I was an actor first so I tend to approach the script initially as an actor, focusing on the words, characters and relationships. I think my experience onstage helps me talk to actors and get excellent performances out of them. I think they trust me because they can tell I know where they're coming from. Directing has given me a lot of perspective as an actor. It has demystified the processes of casting and rehearsal. I have a better understanding of what a director wants and expects than I did before. Also, before I directed, I had a lot of curiosity about it and would become distracted by parts of the process that had nothing to do with me or my character. Now when I get a chance to act it's like a vacation to be able to focus intently on only one piece of the puzzle.
OT What’s your favorite part of the rehearsal process?
VS Tech week is where you incorporate set, lights, sound, props and costumes and it is enormously thrilling, working in the performance space and watching the various elements come together. I also enjoy the final week leading up to tech week -- you've got the show up and running, the big questions have (hopefully) been answered and I get to focus on the details that make the character relationships feel real and complex and keep the dramatic momentum moving forward.
OT Are there any moments from the show you never get tired of watching?
VS When a show I directed is working, I never get tired of watching it, even if I am still critiquing little things in my head. This one in particular is very funny and these characters are extremely likeable. I enjoy spending time with them even though I know exactly what they are about to say.
OT What are you working on next?
VS I am understudying Harold Pinter's The Birthday Party at Steppenwolf. Not only do I love the play, but now I get to sit in a room and watch Austin Pendleton direct this amazing cast, which is going to be like a master class. Can't wait!
The show opens January 5th. For tickets visit www.theaterwit.org
A writer with an MFA in Creative Writing from The School of the Art Institute of Chicago, Sarah Terez Rosenblum freelances for sites like Pop Matters and
afterellen.com Her debut novel, “Herself When She’s Missing," was called “poetic and heartrending” by ALA Booklist. Sarah is also a figure model, Spinning instructor and teacher at Chicago’s StoryStudio. Inevitably one day she will find herself lecturing naked on a spinning bike. She's kind of looking forward to it actually.
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