PLAYBILL ON-LINE'S BRIEF ENCOUNTER with Christopher Ashley

PLAYBILL ON-LINE'S BRIEF ENCOUNTER with Christopher Ashley Though his credits are certainly varied enough to ward off any kind of blanket statements, director Christopher Ashley certainly has been drawn to wild and crazy material. His early assignments included Buzzsaw Berkeley and Bella, Belle of Byelorussia, while more recent gigs have been the cartoony biography of Gilda Radner, Bunny Bunny, and the cartoon-based Encores! revival of Li'l Abner.
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Photo by Photo by Aubrey Reuben

Though his credits are certainly varied enough to ward off any kind of blanket statements, director Christopher Ashley certainly has been drawn to wild and crazy material. His early assignments included Buzzsaw Berkeley and Bella, Belle of Byelorussia, while more recent gigs have been the cartoony biography of Gilda Radner, Bunny Bunny, and the cartoon-based Encores! revival of Li'l Abner.

His breakthrough was Jeffrey, as it was for playwright Paul Rudnick. The two are currently collaborating on their fourth show together, The Most Fabulous Story Ever Told, recently transferred from New York Theatre Workshop to the Minetta Lane.

PBOL: Since Most Fabulous Story is a new play, how involved are you in the structure of it and its decision-making -- casting, cuts, etc.?
Christopher Ashley: This is the fourth play Paul and I have worked on together. We have a very collaborative process. We developed it together. He's completely open with what he thinks, though he writes every word. There's no word in any script that comes out of my mouth. But where's the plot gonna go and structure and reworking -- that's very collaborative. As is casting. As is what happens on stage. Paul is one of those very rare writers who absolutely can incorporate any idea, whether it comes from me or an usher. He has a very secure ego. The work is very fluid until last minute. Our way of working is he'll write part of it; we'll read it, talk about it. Then we'll do a series of readings in our apartments with actors doing favors for us over the course of 3-8 months, before there's even a developmental production. The final play is almost unrecognizable from the first reading. For example, in Jeffrey, the whole Steve-Darius plotline [with the latter dying from AIDS] came about midway through the WPA production. Huge plot ideas come in very late, which is thrilling but really hard on set designers. When [Paul] came up with that finale at the top of the Empire State Building, they bled from the ears on that one.
In Most Fabulous, we kept changing what bible stories went into Act One. We had a whole Mount Sinai sequence, plus stuff with the Whore of Babylon. The scenes that were cut were really hilarious. But Paul is a rewriting fiend. When Fabulous moved from New York Theatre Workshop to the Minetta Lane, he wrote thirty new pages and also cut fifteen minutes -- which for Paul is about one evening's rewriting work. He's so ruthless with his own material. It's not uncommon for him to do forty or fifty pages of rewrites overnight. Right now I'm back and forth from New Haven directing the musical Working at the Long Wharf. And he still calls to pitch new jokes.

PBOL: Do you read reviews, and what value do they have?
CA: I tend to hold off reading them until they're all in, so I don't get mortified by one. If you read them back to back, you get a general idea. If everybody's saying the same thing, you do pay attention. If not, you can blissfully ignore [the negative comment]. One of the meanest I received I actually treasure. John Simon once didn't say a single word about the production. He listed awards I'd gotten, fellowships, grants. The last sentence was: "If Christopher Ashley put these on stage, it'd be far more interesting than the tripe he served up." There's a pure beauty to that review that I've always treasured. I also remember the worst interview I ever had. It was at Goodspeed for a local paper, and the interview went like:
"You're doing a musical?"
I said, "Yes."'
"So there are songs in it? "
"Yes."
"Is there dancing? "
"Yes."
"So it's a musical with songs and dancing?"
"Yes."
The whole interview was like that.

PBOL: What was the first live theatre event you recall?
CA: When I was five, my uncle played Arthur in Camelot at his high school. I was so enthralled with his throne and his crown. It was the birth of a director -- that looks fun, I thought. I hung around backstage a lot. Then when I was eight, I saw One Flew Over the Cuckoo's Nest. They did it at my dad's college, where he was teaching in Cortland, NY. I was so blown away by it, by the pure intensity of the plot. The lobotomy at the end totally floored me. PBOL: Who is your favorite person in the theatre?
CA: Helen Merrill, my now-deceased agent. A total babe -- and such a fierce protector of her clients. She was so uncompromisingly pro-theatre. She didn't care if you made money (though sometimes we did!). She wanted you to do the best possible work, even if you were turning down a movie or Broadway show. Right after she started representing me, I was 22, and I directed a show. And after the opening night performance, I waited, thinking, `Now my agent will tell me what she thought.' And she said in thick German, with those Barbara Walters soft `R's: "Vell, of course, it's just tewwible..." And she was totally right. But later, when she'd say, "I love it," you were thrilled, because she meant it. She'd call at three in the morning and talk about the work, and you'd say, "Helen, it's 3 AM." And she'd say, "Art never sleeps." She was so influential on so many careers of playwrights, directors and designers. And if I'm having a hard deciding on a project, I go to the "What would Helen think?" question.

PBOL: Has there ever been a rough time where you considered giving up the theatre? What were the circumstances?
CA: I never did. It sounds so pathetic when people say, "I couldn't do anything else but theatre," but if you can do it and work consistently on work that interests you, that's as good as it gets. Of course, if I end up directing second-rate tours of third-rate British sex farces, maybe then. But when I got out of college, I was a systems programmer in Manufacturers Hanover's Foreign Exchange department. When I told them I was quitting to direct Off-Broadway plays, they took me to the trading floor, where hundreds of frantic white men were pulling their hair out. "How can you give this up?" they asked. It was remarkably easy.

-- By David Lefkowitz