First, he reaped accolades with his staging of Austin Pendleton's play Orson's Shadow, which became a hit Off-Broadway. Then, he won plaudits and awards for his work on the musical Adding Machine. Now he's back with the Chicago transfer of an acclaimed production of Thornton Wilder's Our Town, which he directs and stars in as the Stage Manager, at the Barrow Street Theatre. This won't be the last we hear of Cromer, either. In 2009, he will direct the upcoming Broadway revivals of Neil Simon's Brighton Beach Memoirs and Broadway Bound, which will play in rep. Cromer talked to Playbill.com about stage-managing his suddenly very successful career.
Playbill.com: So what made you want to cast yourself as the Stage Manager in your own production of Our Town?
David Cromer: You mean, besides raging egomania?
Playbill.com: Yeah, besides that. Have you ever cast yourself in your own productions before?
DC: Yes, I've done that twice. I played Michael in a production of Dancing at Lughnasa that I did at the Bog Theatre in 1995 and in 1998, in Chicago, I directed and played Louis in Angels in America.
Playbill.com: Did you start out as an actor?
DC: Yes. I wanted to be an actor since fourth grade. I was an acting major. I took a single directing class that was required when I was a student and it was such a disaster that I didn't consider directing for several years after that. Then I kind of went back to school for directing.
Playbill.com: So when you did this Our Town, being the Stage Manager was one of your first decisions.
DC: It was one of the first decisions. There were sort of two things that converged. Twice over the past 10 or 12 years, I was about to play the Stage Manager in different productions of Our Town. Neither of those worked out. So I always had it in my head that I was interested in the part. Then, I was meeting with Sean Graney, who is the artistic director of the Hypocrites Theatre Company, and as we started thinking about the play, we had to decide who the Stage Manager was and why he was there, and how we took the things that Our Town does, the meta-theatrical aspects of the play. All that meta stuff has become kind of quaint vocabulary associated with Our Town. So when you do any play, you've got to go back and pretend it's the first time. You've got to say, "Why is this happening?" We spent a lot of time on the idea that if this man is going to keep interrupting the play and stopping it and restarting it and saying things about it, then you've got to know who this guy is. Our sense of the play is there are three layers of reality: there is the world of the play; there is the real life of the audience in the theatre, which keeps being referred to; and then there's the Stage Manager in between. I've always had the theory that a director is supposed to stand in between two parties and coax them toward one another. First it's the actors meeting the script, then it's the production meeting the audience. And then at the last minute you have to get out of the way. If the play is supposed to be without artifice — no scenery, no curtains — you have to strip away artifice everywhere you can. And it seemed really artificial to me to hire someone to pretend they were instigating the proceedings. So we said, well, I'll play the Stage Manager. If you're talking about someone in high influence in the way the evening is playing, that kind of helps the play. Playbill.com: Do you think the stripping away of as much artifice as possible would work on any other plays?
DC: Well, no. It depends on the play. "The gesture to the word," as they say. Every play requires that you ask, "What is it? What are its conventions? What does it want to be?" I don't think that we're applying anything too terribly revolutionary to the play. We were thinking what the intent was, of the spirit of the law, as it were. I think it's not a bad idea to have less fake stuff on stage. (Laughs)
Playbill.com: There's one big exception to the stripping away of the artifice. That's the big reveal in the third act, which I'm going to try to not give away in this article. What was the thinking behind that?
DC: Well, I would say that, in your average production of Our Town, you have period costumes, sound effects, lots of light cues, and a really expensive set of ladders — tall wooden ladders that rattle and are built by the shop. And then a fake theatre wall built at the back of the theatre, and a bunch of ropes hung that aren't really there, and oldy-timey lighting instruments, and perhaps a ghost light. So any production of Our Town has physical design. Wilder keeps changing the rules as the play goes along. We had to manifest that. You can't pick one thing and do it all night, because life doesn't pick one thing and do it your whole life. Early on, Wilder has characters addressing the audiences and then they never do it again. Then there's a flashback, which I didn't realize was relatively unusual theatrically at the time. Then you get into act three and the rules change completely. Up until then, the play obeyed basic rules of reality. They lived in a town, they lived on Earth.
Playbill.com: It becomes an abstract world in which dead people sit in chairs and talk with each other, and the character Emily revisits a day in her past.
DC: Yes. We thought a lot about: Does that scene want to be different than everything else? If the rules are going to change, how does that scene want to be elevated and supported? And then you think about something that never happened to anyone ever. Everyone's wanted to go back to their kitchen when they were 12, and nobody has ever done it in the history of life. It seemed like we wanted to make a gesture about what that would be like.
Playbill.com: Last November, you had a very nice profile in the New York Times. What do you do when the Times asks, "Is David Cromer the most talented theatre director that Americans have never heard of?" Is that overwhelming?
DC: It was "whelming." You spend a lot of time thinking what you just asked, which is "What do you do? What do I do now? Should I do something?" I got a lot of meetings. Probably, I got jobs out of it.
Playbill.com: It was the kind of article your mother would like.
DC: Yes, my mother was very excited. It was nice. Look: I'm thrilled that it happened. I'm wildly honored. I'm absolutely reaping the benefits. But it's like anything else. I've done enough feature articles to know you have to write about something. (Laughs.) Right? You have to keep the ads from bumping into each other.
Playbill.com: Is it fair to say the article got you the job directing the new Broadway productions of Neil Simon's Brighton Beach Memoirs and Broadway Bound?
DC: I think it's fair to say that. I think it put me on [producers] Manny Azenberg's and Ira Pittelman's radar. It's terrifying. Because a person's underdog status is all they have. It saves you from a lot of things. If you don't do well, you have a lot of excuses for why. "Well, we had no money! I have no power!" When you get big chances, you're kind of screwed, you know.
Playbill.com: With the Simon plays, should we expect something as innovative as what you've done with Our Town?
DC: You should expect the purest manifestation of what those plays want to be that we can think of. Does that sound pretentious enough?