PLAYBILL.COM'S BRIEF ENCOUNTER With Neil Pepe

Brief Encounter   PLAYBILL.COM'S BRIEF ENCOUNTER With Neil Pepe
 
Neil Pepe, the artistic director of the Atlantic Theatre Company for the past 16 years, usually keeps a low profile, even as his troupe's productions zoom to Broadway collecting enough Tony Awards to ring a charm bracelet — as was the case with the musical Spring Awakening.
Neil Pepe
Neil Pepe Photo by Aubrey Reuben

This year, however, Pepe's taking a more visible role. In the next month, he will unveil two productions he has directed. Currently in previews is Almost an Evening, the theatrical debut of filmmaker and screenwriter Ethan Coen (the work is comprised of three short plays). Then he will stage Parlour Song, the latest by Jez Butterworth, whose Mojo was a hit for the Atlantic, with performances beginning Feb. 15. Pepe took a break to speak to Playbill.com about his current busy phase.

Playbill.com: How did the Ethan Coen plays come to the Atlantic?
Neil Pepe: They were sent by a literary agent. He sent the three one-acts. Ethan and I had mutual friends in common, so there were connections. I looked at them and thought they were really unique and fun and original. We put together a reading of these three, plus one other. I always find it exciting when I admire someone's work in one medium and you get to see them venture into another medium.

Playbill.com: There was one other play?
NP: When we did the reading, we did another one as well. It was a longer play. It didn't fit as well with these, so we decided to just put these three together.

Playbill.com: Was Coen there during rehearsals?
NP: He's been there. I always welcome that. He's been very closely involved, including the casting sessions and design sessions. He's very collaborative.

Playbill.com: And it's already done well for you. It's sold out.
NP: Yeah. I guess it's a combination of everyone knowing about Ethan, and the cast, and we're doing it in a small house. Playbill.com: In the recent article in the New York Times, Coen said he was curious how you were going to stage some of the violence. Do you want to give away any of your secrets?
NP: (Laughs) It's sort of a non-starter. In the plays, there's some violence. But they're simple and theatrical. They don't really demand a lot in terms of blood and gore. There is violence in the play and it's certainly based in reality, but I wouldn't say it's at all extreme.

Playbill.com: You're directing a lot this season.
NP: It's funny. I was scheduled to direct Jez Butterworth's new play last season. But we didn't feel he had really finished it or didn't feel it was ready, so it turned out the play I was to direct last year was moved to this year. And I hadn't directed much in a couple years. So I figured, what the heck.

Playbill.com: You've kept up a relationship with Butterworth.
NP: He and I became friends after we presented his play Mojo. He had one play called The Winterling that was done at the Royal Court two years ago. We didn't do that play, but we've done all of the others. He's really an extraordinary writer, who hasn't written that many plays, because he's also become a very successful screenwriter.

Playbill.com: Parlour Song is about a man who suspects his wife is stealing from him. Can you tell me anything thing more about the play?
NP: I think it's really about a couple that's reached their early to mid-40s and wake up and realize they don't really know how they've become what they've become. It's really about people trying to claim the life that they thought they were going to have. They wonder, how do I get back to the thing I really wanted? And the two different ideas of that, where the wife and husband don't really meet up, that's where the drama lies.

Playbill.com: You have Spring Awakening on Broadway and it looks like it will be there for some time. Will the money culled from that change the way the Atlantic produces?
NP: It certainly helps a lot. I suppose the grandfather of this type of deal is A Chorus Line [and the Public Theater]. It will be a great security blanket and it will also allow us to put some money into the artistic endowment and capital endowment. I don't know that we'll expand programming, but hopefully we'll have more resources to do what we do better.

Playbill.com: Have you ever thought of going the route of the Manhattan Theatre Club or Roundabout Theatre Company and acquire a theatre to regularly produce on Broadway?
NP: I like occupying an Off-Broadway niche. What we do gives more freedom in choice of plays. I think what the Roundabout and Manhattan Theatre Club do is extraordinary, but their ability to fill that amount of seats, that's such a challenge. I suppose the most we would expand would be to a larger Off-Broadway thing.

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