“I was an actor who didn’t know how to be an actor,” director Sarah Benson says. “I found it torturous. It was a relief when I discovered that acting wasn’t the only way for me to participate in the theatre. There were other things I could do.” Indeed there were.
Benson, artistic director of Soho Rep., has received a Drama Desk nomination as Outstanding Director of a Play for her work on Fairview, Jackie Sibblies Drury’s 2019 Pulitzer Prize–winning play about race in America, the American experience of people of color. Fairview, which premiered to critical raves last year at Soho Rep., will have an encore presentation June 2–30 at Theatre for a New Audience home, Polonsky Shakespeare Center in Brooklyn.
Benson, 41, has been artistic director at Soho Rep. since 2007. A native of Great Britain, she received a Master of Fine Arts degree in directing from Brooklyn College. Her directing credits include Sarah Kane’s Blasted, for which she received a Drama Desk nomination and an Obie Award; Richard Maxwell’s Samara; David Adjmi’s Elective Affinities; Sophocles’ Ajax; Gregory Moss’ House of Gold; and Lucas Hnath’s A Public Reading of an Unproduced Screenplay About the Death of Walt Disney.
The New York Times has called Soho Rep. “one of the city's more prestigious incubators of avant-garde theater.” Hilton Als in The New Yorker praised Benson’s “seemingly never-ending energy and curiosity,” adding that her “writers, actors, designers, dramaturgs, and sound engineers [have] rarely had a more intelligent champion, let alone compassionate architect.”
Here, Benson tells Playbill about Fairview, Soho Rep., her directing career, and her future plans.
Why she became a director:
“I realized that what I’d been doing the whole time I’d been acting in plays was sort of directing them from the inside. It was a huge relief that I didn’t have to keep doing that.”
Her directing principles:
“I feel that the design collaboration is a huge part of where I find the center of a play, so I typically start working with designers nine months ahead of time. That process informs everything about how I think about a play. There’s something about how designers are both very abstract and very specific and concrete at the same time that cracks open a play for me. The dramaturgical work really lives in the design process for me.
“With actors, similarly, I workshop projects. It’s about finding actors who are excited about bringing themselves to a project. I’m interested in character and person co-existing. I’m less interested in character being used as a mask. I’m more interested in character and the actual actor, the person, coexisting in performance. I’m always looking for ways to have those two things be present and feeding each other.
“I tend to work with writers where we’re figuring it out in the rehearsal process. This is a big part of the dramaturgy of the piece, and this was absolutely true with Fairview, in that we learned so much about the play and the text in rehearsal with the actors. Act 2 was in large part written in the room, in response to what we were learning from the actors.”
In the rehearsal room with an actor:
“I feel like I’m less interested in naturalism. It’s an amazing tool that we have in the theatre, but it’s deeply conventional. I’m less equipped to be able to talk about what a character ate for breakfast. Questions like that are not what animates the process for me. We don’t do table work. We tend to stage really, really fast. I learn by seeing scenes on their feet. Later on in the process is often when we’ll sit and talk about what does it mean to be doing this play, what does it mean for us as a group of people. I feel that at the beginning of the process everyone’s just figuring out what it is.
“I often try stuff a million different ways, just as a true experiment—try opposite versions of things. Try the bad ideas as well, things that feel like they won’t work, just because sometimes that can open up unexpected territory. Everyone feels able to fall on their face and flail around. It’s also, in a way, preparing for a giant improvisation. You design the piece, you cast the piece, you research, you ready yourself, and you get in the room, and then it’s so much about being attentive to what’s happening in the room.”
A mistake she made that she learned from:
“There was a short period in my life when I did a lot of shows back to back, and I learned from that process that that’s not how I enjoy making work. So I’m committed to these deep long processes with artists, and that’s where I feel that my work really thrives and where I can contribute.”
“Jackie and I worked on the play closely together. When we started there were just ideas for what Jackie was interested in writing about. We workshopped it for 18 months or so and it was during that time that it started to hone into view. It started out being a piece about surveillance. It was originally called The Untitled Surveillance Project. We started reading material together.
“It was at some point during our research that we read this book by Simone Browne called Dark Matters: On the Surveillance of Blackness, which looks at the intersection of surveillance and race. And that really pivoted the whole direction of the piece, and it became specifically about the way black people and people of color are surveilled is so dangerous.
“The play also deals with the history of blackness in the theatre. It looks a lot at how white people appropriate blackness in performance, in all of the various ways that that shows up in Act 3 of the play. There’s some sort of naturalism in the first act, and then there’s the commentary experiences in Act 2, and then the collision of those acts in Act 3.”
About leading Soho Rep.:
“At Soho Rep. we’re always looking for work that’s destabilizing in some way, and I think about this a lot in my own work as a director too. I’m looking for work that’s destabilizing my own assumptions and hopefully can do the same for others. I have to feel that there’s something in the work, whether it’s unsettling or baffling or embarrassing—I have to feel that the writer is asking questions of themselves that they’re wrestling out through the work. It has to feel active like that—and also that it can only happen in a theatre.
“One of the most important things about the work at Soho Rep. is that it is truly using the medium of theatre. That it’s not a play that can also be a great TV show or exist in another form. It’s really work that demands that it be in a live format and demands that the audience form a relationship as an important part of the whole experience. Those are some of the things we look for at Soho Rep. when we’re finding artists.
“A big part of our philosophy is giving artists a lot of autonomy in the process. Directors and writers and designers—we really try to transmit as much autonomy to them.
Her future plans:
“For the future, we just want to be doing more of the work. We have an austere budget, and we’re working really hard to share our work with more people, which is why Fairview is such a great example. In our theatre we’re seating only 65 people, and it’s very exciting that thousands more people will get to experience Jackie’s play at TFANA.
“That’s emblematic of what we’re trying to do at Soho Rep.—give artists opportunities to create something with a lot of artistic freedom. And then we’re trying to get that work out there and give them the most far-reaching platform we can, sharing it beyond the walls of our theatre.”