Scott Elliot, the artistic director of Off-Broadway's The New Group, has been responsible for some of the most bracing, striking theatre productions seen on the New York stage over the past five years. His particular style was set with his first great success, a mounting of Mike Leigh's Ecstacy, and repeated in such productions as Curtains and Goose-Pimples. Among its earmarks: a penchant for playwrights examining the grimmer side of life; a talent for finding the rhythms and vitality in realistic dramas; and flawless ensemble acting. (Both Ecstacy and Curtains netted Obies for their casts.) Elliot recently returned from directing his first film, "A Map of the World," to stage Cranes, Dmitry Lipkin's drama about a couple of immigrant families who would have nothing to do with each other -- if they weren't the only two Russian-Jewish clans in all of Baton Rouge.
Playbill On-Line: The New Group's plays come from unlikely sources: little-known British plays or American plays by unknown authors. How do you go about selecting your seasons?
Scott Elliot: I have a literary manager, a guy named Kevin Scott. He kind of weeds through the plays we get. When we read one we like, we do it. We get plays from agents the same way most theatres do; many are the same plays bigger theatres get and have passed on. We're smaller and pay less. Plus, we work with a lot of emerging writers. Mike Leigh wasn't really well known when we started with him; the film "Secrets and Lies" hadn't come out yet.
PBOL: Where did you find Cranes?
SE: [Playwright] Dmitri Lipkin came to us. He's a real Russian immigrant. His family immigrated to Louisiana and then moved here.
PBOL: You are the only director now working in New York who has found a way to make naturalism exciting -- I'm talking about such plays as Ecstacy and Curtains. How do you do it?
SE: I think people like theatricality. I really try to put myself in all the situations of all of the characters in the play. Naturalism is all behavior. People think naturalism means stillness. Even when we're sitting by ourselves, watching TV, we're moving. We're not a still species. We never stand still. I try not to conceive in my mind what a character should be like. I often base a character on what the actor playing it is like. I try not to make the actor's behavior be far away from the character and visa versa. And I work in an ensemble way; I don't distinguish leads from supporting characters. I like the ensemble feel. Theatre is not a big money-making thing, after all. So growth in rehearsal is always helpful to everybody.
PBOL: Many of the plays you direct are populated by unsavory or vulgar people. Do you have a fascination with such characters?
SE: You want to hear something funny -- people say that to me all the time and I don't see it that way. Maybe I just don't see those people as unsavory -- I see them as fantastic. They're complicated. Maybe it's because I'm drawn to plays that are character-driven. I like Cranes because it's fair to all the characters and what drives them. None of them come off as unsympathetic -- they're people. No, I don't see them as unsavory. I'm really basically a positive person. PBOL: After you first gained attention with Ecstasy, you directed two Broadway plays in quick succession, Three Sisters and Present Laughter. How did you find that experience and is there a reason you haven't returned to Broadway?
SE: I really liked that experience. What happened is I did a film and couldn't take on another Broadway play. When you love naturalism, intimacy is a terrific thing. People can see what you do. Broadway is different. When you do it, it has to have a commercial thing about it, because the expenses are higher. You have to be a responsible director, as opposed to an irresponsible director.
PBOL: Is there any theatre artist of any sort you'd love to work with?
SE: I'd pick someone like Arthur Miller, but I've already worked with him. I'd always work with him again. I've been thinking of doing A Streetcar Named Desire with a few actor friends: Patricia Clarkson, Ron Eldard, Amy Ryan. They really want to do it. But, then they did a production of Streetcar this year [at New York Theatre Workshop], so I might have to wait. Or maybe I'd do a musical -- it's a genre I haven't done.
PBOL: Your first film, "Map of the World," comes out this fall. How did that come about?
SE: When I was "discovered" as a theatre director, people thought that I might be able to do film. And I studied film at NYU several years back. The producers of this film came to me and they had this book and asked if I wanted to do it. It was an amazing experience. I was able to work with actors I'd always wanted to -- David Strathairn, Sigourney Weaver. It was great. You sleep three hours a day. I can't imagine doing it if I didn't love it. It occupied every cell of my body. And I found it thrilling having actors and producers who were so behind me and completely trusted everything I did. It was like a party and it was the hardest thing I've ever done.
PBOL: Finally, what's the strangest or most embarrassing thing that's happened on stage in connection with one of your shows?
SE: I'm sure I've withered in my seat many times. It's happened very often. [Pause] Well, one time an actor, in previews -- he was amazing in the play, but he had an impulse to come out in the last scene of the play with his pants off, walking in his underwear. I encourage development throughout the run of a play, to try things and see if things work. The actors have to do the play every day, after all. So, this actor did this and I was in the audience and he didn't know I was there and it was so embarrassing. Afterwards, he explained why he did it and I said, "OK. Don't ever do it again."
--By Robert Simonson