Sammi Cannold has directed Violet, a musical about a young woman’s journey on a cross-country bus, on an actual bus, and Ragtime, the musical that includes an immigrant’s landing in New York City at the turn of the century, on Ellis Island. Now Cannold helms the new play Endlings on a traditional stage—but with the immersive setting of a 4,100-gallon aquarium into which actors dive in and out.
The new play by Celine Song follows haenyeos, “sea women” in Korea who work as seafood harvesters on the island of Man-Jae, and a Korean-Canadian playwright grappling with her identity and the perceived obligation to write stories that represent her fractured identity. Song was inspired to write the story when she stumbled upon a short documentary while watching Korean TV with her mother. “The documentarians kept wanting the women to say how beautiful their lives were, how much they loved diving into the ocean, and the haenyeos would be like: We hate doing this. We want to quit. We're so glad our children aren't doing this sh*t,” she says. “They reminded me a little bit of my grandmother, and they got me thinking about the things we leave behind when we immigrate.
“Sammi has been such a champion of this play from the very beginning, and she's incredibly ambitious when it comes to design and staging,” says Song, who thought her play would be impossible to produce. “She’s the one who insisted that we have an ocean onstage. I could just tell that she really understood the play and that she wasn’t afraid of it."
Playbill joined Cannold in conversation about her daring aesthetic, working with Song, what it means to be a woman in theatre, learning from mentors like Rachel Chavkin and Diane Paulus, and how Endlings, which runs through March 17 at A.R.T. in Massachusetts, is just the beginning.
How did you first discover Celine’s play?
Sammi Cannold: The wonderful agent Kevin Lin sent me this play about two years ago. He and I had become friends because we’d both been interns at A.R.T. when we were undergraduates and he’d just signed Celine as a new client, so it’s all rather full circle.
Upon reading the play, I fell deeply in love with haenyeos—fearless Korean female free-divers who swim over 65 feet deep to harvest seafood off the ocean floor. They do so without any equipment—no snorkel, no scuba gear, nothing—and what I find most remarkable is that they never retire. So, the oldest woman known to be diving today is 98 years old.
In that regard, I fell in love with the women, but equally, I fell in love with the raw, bold, and hilarious way in which Celine writes about them as well as the way in which she writes about what it means for her—as a Korean-Canadian-American playwright—to be depicting them in the whitewashed American theatrical landscape.
What in the play made you feel like your sensibilities were suited to directing this story?
On the last page of Celine’s play, there’s a collection of links to mini YouTube documentaries about haenyeo with underwater footage of their work. I was blown away by their virtuosity and athleticism underwater and realized that the primary challenge for any director bringing this piece to life would be to do so in a way that properly honors that experience. So I asked Celine if we could embrace that challenge in all its naturalism via putting an aquarium-style body of water onstage and hiring elderly actors who would swim and dive in it. I knew that would require a deluge of unconventional work and planning, but as a director, I love complexity, I love logistics, and I love stagecraft. I’ve felt most at home creatively when rehearsing theatre in situations that demand a problem-solving-oriented mindset (like exploring how to stage a musical on a bus), so figured rehearsing a show in a pool would be similarly challenging and rewarding.
The physical production of the show is stunning. The pool onstage is wild. You often push boundaries in terms of playing space (with your site-specific work on Violet and Ragtime). Do you ever worry that your vision can’t be done on the stage?
I definitely have a great amount of fear that those sorts of crazy ideas won’t come to fruition, but I think taking those risks in hopes that they do is part of what makes directing so exciting. I’ve been so fortunate to be “raised” by a theatre (A.R.T.) whose mission statement is literally, “Expanding the boundaries of theatre.” So the staff here has instilled in me the need to be constantly asking, “Why does theatre have to be XYZ just because it always has been?” Diane Paulus likes to say: “Success is completely tied to how much you’re willing to risk,” so I’m trying to figure out what that sweet spot of risk is—how to go just crazy enough, but not so crazy that I’m being reckless. Working with similarly crazy risk-loving collaborators—in this case, the amazing [designers] Jason Sherwood, Elisheba Ittoop, Linda Cho, Bradley King, and the staff at A.R.T.—is in my opinion, the most important part of that.
Do you ever think that something can’t be done onstage or is it always about finding the “how”?
It depends on how specific that something is. One of the things I adore about Celine’s writing is that she’s just open enough with her stage directions so as to give you options for how to realize them. For example: “The little clams on the sea floor open their shells up like mouths. They whisper, in a round.” There are so many different ways to realize that stage direction—some of which, I’m sure, are indeed impossible (like trying to get a real clam to whisper in a round). I try to think about it as determining the desired effect or storytelling beat and then working backwards from there to decide how to achieve it.
Generally speaking, I’ve been doing a bit of work with Cirque du Soleil recently and seeing what they make possible onstage has blown my mind about what’s possible in theatre. But equally, A.R.T. has taught me that it then becomes about knowing when to let go at times when those ideas are simply not working.
Women’s Day on Broadway got me thinking about authority in the room. How do you navigate being an authority in the room? I prefer not to make a fuss about age, but being so young I wonder if you’ve come up against more experienced professionals questioning you in the room and how you handle that.
I think about age all the time. For better or worse, I think it’s the single thing that has most defined my career to this point and yet, it has little to do with the work itself, so I try to ignore it when I can. The way I’ve learned to navigate (largely from mentors and wonderful peers in similar positions) is by attempting to make up for what I very clearly lack in time and experience via hard work and prep. If I come into the room with a clear idea of what I’m doing there and an ability to dive head first into the work, it gives my collaborators less time and space to question. But that questioning absolutely exists and probably should, so I’ve tried to turn earning people’s trust into a fun little game that I enjoy, rather than fearing that aspect of the job.
There was a brief mention at Women’s Day of intersectional feminism. This play stars mature Asian characters. What research and work did you do to ensure you were telling an authentic story, but one still guided by your vision?
Because Endlings is deeply about race and deeply about aging, I was very conscious of my whiteness and my youth while working on it. Applying what I was saying about research above, I saw it as my duty to do more research than I’ve ever done to understand the lives of these women, with whom it would be inappropriate for me to identify on the basis of race or age. Part of that was taking a research trip to South Korea this fall, part of that was learning as much as I possibly could, and part of that was listening to Celine and my other collaborators of color as well as my elderly collaborators above all.
I don’t defend my whiteness or my youth as a good thing in this room—I have no doubt that an elderly woman of color would have far more depth to contribute to this play than I did. So, I simply trusted my playwright’s decision to collaborate and am grateful to her for being so generous and welcoming.
How have your relationships with and time with Tony-nominated director Rachel Chavkin and Tony-winning director Diane Paulus influenced your work? Do you feel you are able to carve your own path rather than being “a mentee or protégé of”?
I feel so fortunate to have such life-changing—cliché, but true—mentors. Working for Rachel and Diane as well as Diane Borger, the executive producer at A.R.T., has been the most incredible gift. The three of them share a fearlessness and a tirelessness when it comes to their dedication to their work and telling the stories they feel need to be told. I aspire to follow their example in that regard among many others.
On a practical level, I also learned how to be a director from them. And they’ve given me the opportunities that have allowed me to grow on the job—Rachel entrusted me with maintaining her work on Great Comet after it opened [on Broadway], Diane and Diane entrusted me with Endlings, etc. So I have to say I’d be honored to be called a “mentee” of any of them. And while I, of course, certainly don’t want to be a carbon copy, I would gladly accept that “mentee” label without any concerns about carving out my own space because they’ve taught me that will happen naturally.