David Cromer is one of the most in-demand directors in American theatre today thanks to his acclaimed off-Broadway revival of Thornton Wilder's "Our Town". Cromer has upcoming productions in Chicago (a revival of “A Streetcar Named Desire” this spring) and New York (a revival of “Picnic” for Lincoln Centre Theatre is scheduled to open next autumn). His Broadway debut in “The Neil Simon Plays” was halted abruptly last week, but his off-Broadway "Our Town" continues to move audiences at the Barrow Street Theatre.
Before he left Grover's Corners for the great white way, Cromer spoke with James C. Taylor on the set. He talked about why he took on the task of injecting new life into this old play, what makes it timely (or timeless) and how Spalding Gray explained the role of the Stage Manager to him.
More Intelligent Life: What was the genesis of this "Our Town"?
David Cromer: I was simply offered the job and I took it. I’m a freelance director. I’m not associated with any companies. So, you sort of have to look for work where it comes up. This production is based on a production we did in Chicago for a company called the Hypocrites. It’s this really interesting sort of avant-garde company run by a man Shawn Grany. And he just said one day, "Would you like to direct a show for us?" And I said "Oh, wow." That felt good, because I’ve worked a lot of places around Chicago, but I feel like I don’t work at super-hip places, the cool, avant-garde theatres—I don’t get asked to direct those things. I wanted to direct "Summer and Smoke" and he wanted to do "Our Town". He just said, "We’re doing 'Our Town'. If you want to direct it – you can."
MIL: Were you unhappy about this?
DC: Look, it’s a fantastic play. I’ve known it, I’ve always appreciated it. I’ve definitely had ideas about the role of the Stage Manager over the years. But I don’t really think I ever saw myself directing it. That’s a long way of saying this was not a production where I said "I have this plan for a production of 'Our Town', would someone produce it for me?"
MIL: You certainly have created this illusion–it feels like a production that came from a singular vision.
DC: Because my job as the director is to come up with something that looks like you had to do it. You have to fall in love with it and make it look like your life’s work, even though it actually isn’t.
MIL: Was there something during rehearsal—an epiphany—that helped put the fire in your belly?
DC: I will say that it was not false, the passion we did develop for the play. It was very real. It’s always surprising what you’re going to fall in love with, right? In your career you’re like: "I want to direct whatever? I want to direct 'The Three Sisters'. I want to direct 'Hamlet'. I want to direct whatever people want to direct, whatever that show is." Then sometimes jobs come your way and a big surprise happens. The more we worked on it, the more profound our understanding of how great it was became.
MIL: Do you feel that audiences have responded to your stripped down, modern-day production because of what is going on in America today?
DC: You ask about the timing of it. People have said "Oh, the timing of it is good", but I’m not 100% sure I understand why. These are our concerns: "I puttered around the house all day; I hope that I will fall in love and get married, and I don’t want to die. And I’m terribly confused and scared about death." Those are constants. So any time you are dealing with a very well written examination of those three things—your daily life, your healthy emotional survival and your sudden lack of survival—those are pretty immediate.
A friend of someone in the cast came last night and said the play "made him think a lot about being an American." So I guess you could say the timing of it is that now the part of society that I am a part of, which is the social left, is finally getting to feel strongly about our country again, or at least feel like we’re a part of it again. What do you see as the timeliness of it?
MIL: The play speaks to the sparseness of American needs and a way of living that used to be synonymous with American life. People are being reminded of that now, and can see with new eyes just how far we’ve come from Grover’s Corners at the turn of the last century.
DC: I can see that. One of the jobs I had for a long time was teaching directing. I would say that if you are a society that has the time or money or inclination to have someone teach you about directing, this is a society that has too much free time, way too much money. Do you know what I mean? I’m not trying to be coy about it....I can’t remember who said this, but you have to look out for the difference between "relevant" and "applicable". When someone wants to do "Born Yesterday" in an election year because the guy's a lobbyist or whatever, then that’s not actually relevant—it’s applicable, but not relevant. What I think is relevant are those constants of what we’re doing [eg, living within a community, trying to find love]. So if we're in a belt-tightening time now, maybe as a country we had to go "Oh wow, we can’t study directing any more. We lost our jobs so we’re going to be home all day." So yeah, I guess that’s there too.
MIL: The play is also a reminder that people’s lives used revolve around their neighbours and family. Now many more people move away from where they grow up. But your production isn't nostalgic. It makes it clear that the inner American life isn’t that different.
DC: Well, [Wilder] wrote it that way. As a director, I’m always trying to avoid pointing. I don’t like what I call "See Plays", where you go “See, see, don’t you see!” by underlining everything. By putting us in modern dress, am I saying “See, it's just like now?" No, what I am trying to say is: "I’m going to remove the distancing technique of period costumes." Period costumes just don’t look like clothes to us. With period dress, I don’t know who anyone is; I barely know what anyone’s class is; I definitely don’t know what they’re job is—unless they’re wearing a bloody apron and carrying a cleaver, then I can tell maybe they’re a butcher. Or if he’s a doctor, he has the big mirror thing on his head. So we just wanted to get rid of distancing things, and that’s tricky, because that’s a fine line. We were always in danger of saying "See, see they’re just like us.”
MIL: I’m struck by how fast your production moves—its running time is just over two hours. How much did you tweak or edit the text of the play to fit your concept?
DC: There’s a line in the speech [the Stage Manager gives] at the beginning of Act III where he says: “wherever you come near the human race there are layers and layers of nonsense.” And I can’t tell you how many times I’ve been asked “Did we add that line?” Once a week I meet an audience member in the lobby who says: “Did you change the script a lot because I don’t remember a lot of that.” And we did not—at all. We have one sanctioned edition from the Wilder estate, and one sanctioned and very small three-line cut, just to facilitate a staging thing. And that’s the only edit.
MIL: You also act in this "Our Town", and your turn as the Stage Manager is also different and noteworthy. You said you had some ideas about the character in a way that you didn’t have as a director.
DC: Yes, and that’s why when I got offered the job [to direct "Our Town"] I said, "Okay, but can I play the Stage Manager?” And instead of saying what he should have said—“No” or “let’s talk about it”—he said: “Okay!” And here we are. But I have to admit, it’s all stolen. I had seen on television the Spalding Gray, Lincoln Centre production [directed by Gregory Moser in 1989], which is—and I mean this in the best way—a wonderful traditional production of "Our Town". Big empty proscenium theatre, appropriate period costumes, no props, no phoney sound effects. Every thing was just right.
I watched it quite a bit—I haven’t seen it since. Spalding Gray explained the play to me. The casting of him was brilliant, because he was an actor, but he wasn’t quite an actor. He was known to us culturally as a monologist. He was a New Englander and there was nothing folksy about him, and he has these line readings that really shook me. He did a piece about how savaged he was critically in that show. But I just thought the performance was completely spectacular. It explained to me that the Stage Manager has an emotional distance from the story that I didn’t know was there.
Then you have the problem of hiring an actor to pretend that they’re the stage manager. If we’re stripping away artifice, one of things that is artificial is to have an actor pretend he’s running the proceedings. So I wanted to do that—I wanted to be a bridge between the audience and the play. And I wanted to acknowledge the deceptive warmth or pleasantness or wit of the Stage Manager who is eventually going to ignore the guy falling on his wife’s grave—which is in the stage directions. He’s going to say: “Huh? We might be the only ones in the universe,” while this guy's bawling. That’s the end of the play. You have to work backwards from that.
I was always afraid it would be difficult to talk an actor into being as plain as I was going for. So I always thought that if I seemed like a bad actor, that would be fine. I had the position as the director of the show that would allow it to be fine. That was part of the idea—I was trying to not make it a “show off” performance. I didn’t want to be the centre of it.
MIL: So you’d rather be known as a great director than a great actor?
DC: A playwright named Itamar Moses told me this: a genius is the person who places himself in the path of the highest number of fortuitous accidents. We may not have been geniuses with "Our Town", but we did have some fortuitous accidents—and we didn’t ignore them.
"Our Town" is running at the Barrow Street Theatre through January 31st 2010
Picture credit: Carol Rosegg