In the days leading up to the first rehearsal, Ron OJ Parson, Director of Writers’ upcoming production of The Caretaker, sat down with Associate Artistic Director Stuart Carden to talk about play selection, the “Pinter Pause” and the color divide in American Theatre.
Since directing The Old Settler, you and artistic director Michael Halberstam have been talking about the next project you would direct at Writers’ Theatre. The Caretaker is a wildly different play than the first you directed with us. How did you decide on this classic Pinter play?
Michael and I had actually been talking even before The Old Settler was chosen. We really did have an open mind about what we wanted to do together and The Old Settler just seemed to fit at that time. As far as this choice—(Harold) Pinter was actually talked about before as well as (August) Strindberg. I wanted to choose authors that aren’t thought about a lot. Pinter and Strindberg are done but not nearly enough in my opinion.
When I was at the University of Michigan, we explored these authors to learn the craft of acting and directing, which is the foundation of my training but not my professional experience, which was in New York, visiting The Negro Ensemble Company and assisting Von Washington at the University of Michigan with the Black Theatre Project.
But any director worth a grain is itching to try different things to challenge himself and find the new and exciting ways to bring theatre to life—especially in Chicago, which I feel is the greatest city on the planet for theatre. So Michael and I talked about doing something new and fresh for the Theatre as well as something new and fresh for me.
Pinter is considered one of the most influential playwrights of the 20th century and his work comes with loads of assumptions. So much so that the adjective, “Pinteresque” has gained popular usage and any undergraduate worth his/her salt has an opinion about the “Pinter pause.” How useful are these popular notions of his work? How do you embrace them or move past them in rehearsal?
Well, I never make any assumptions approaching a play. It is hard not to be “Pinteresque” when doing Pinter, however. He is known for the silences and pauses that are built in. One thing about silence for me, in any play I direct, is that the moments of silence can speak the loudest in the story. Most plays are told between the lines. No exception here. Because we have taken a slightly different twist to the piece I think it will allow us to bring a fresh approach to it without “changing” the story.
The play, which had its West End transfer in 1962, was originally written for three Caucasian actors. You have chosen to cast two actors of South Asian descent in the roles of the brothers, Mick and Aston, while the role of Davies will be played by a Caucasian actor. What was the impulse behind this?
Well, oddly enough I did not have that pre-conceived notion to do anything different with it, necessarily. It was a pretty open audition and I was open in my thinking and the idea came to me during the audition process. I had acted in Pinter in college and just looked at what might be interesting to add to the story, sort of updating the story without updating the time or place of it. My assistant (Jim Manganello) found out some interesting information about the period the play takes place—London in the 1960s—and I wanted to explore the world of the play. And then these actors came in with great auditions and I went from there. I am glad more theatres in Chicago are being more open-minded about casting, especially with the classics.
There is a persistent (and rarely spoken) prejudice in the American theatre that white directors should not direct plays by black playwrights and black directors should only direct plays by white playwrights if the play is about racial issues. That is a bit of a generalization and there are plenty of exceptions but for the most part this holds true—why do you think this is?
This is the subject of many forums at many theatre conferences and probably will continue to be. It is a bit of a generalization as you say, but there aren’t plenty of exceptions. For the most part Black directors are pigeonholed and are usually called upon to direct “Black” plays even though the training goes far beyond that. I think the same holds true in other mediums as well—such as television and film—directors find the same barriers to overcome.
You used a word in the previous question that I believe applies here, “assumptions.” Assumptions are made that prevent risk taking. Of course, some theatres have reached out for change and that is encouraging, but there is still work to be done to break down the barriers. A good director is a good director and good directors can bring life to a good script, but out in the professional world, the director of color is limited, unfortunately. But why do I think this is? I would say it is the same as in any field in American society—fear, prejudice and ignorance. But hopefully things are changing and the playing field is leveling.
What excites you the most about directing THE CARETAKER in the Books on Vernon space?
Well, I would have to say I am excited most about the challenge of bringing the bookstore space to life. The audience is right there with us so we have to be real and true in our approach. I love intimate theatre. I have seen many plays in the bookstore space and have often wanted to see what it would be like to convert the entire space to the world of a play. This play in particular lends itself to that conversion very well, there is no escape. Pinter in particular is great for intimate theatre, to explore and discover the many nuances of his work. I look forward to the challenge.