“It’s my kind of story,” director David Cromer says. “It’s told in a small way about very big things.” Cromer is talking about The Band’s Visit, which he has directed and which has been nominated for 11 Tony Awards, including Best musical and Best Direction of a Musical. The musical, starring Katrina Lenk and Tony Shalhoub, with music and lyrics by David Yazbek and book by Itamar Moses, is based on the 2007 Israeli movie of the same name and tells of what happens when an Egyptian band visits Israel to perform and arrives in the wrong town. Its original Off-Broadway incarnation won the 2017 Obie, Lucille Lortel and New York Drama Critics Circle Awards as Best Musical.
Cromer, 53, won the 2017 Drama Desk and Obie Awards for directing The Band’s Visit. He first came to directing prominence in Chicago, in his home state. He’s found success Off-Broadway with Orson’s Shadow (2005), the musical The Adding Machine (2008) and Thornton Wilder’s Our Town, in which he also starred as the Stage Manager and won both the Lucille Lortel and Obie Awards for directing. After a rocky Broadway debut with the short-lived Brighton Beach Memoirs (and its companion play Broadway Bound that never opened), he directed The House of Blue Leaves (2011) starring Edie Faclo and Ben Stiller and performed in the 2014 revival of A Raisin in the Sun with Denzel Washington.
Here Cromer talks about his career, how he directs, The Band’s Visit, and his future plans.
Why he became a director:
“I believe art forms exist because there are people who have inherent behavioral traits that make those art forms necessary—that for example pictures exist because there are some people whose hands can just draw. They don’t have to learn, they don’t have to be taught. I’m not saying I have a gift or I have talent. It’s just that I’m drawn to the idea of saying, hey, everybody, you say this, and you say that, and then you come in here. I like to put something together that I would like everyone to see. I was just drawn to it, in the same way that people are drawn to performing or to math. There was never a conscious choice.
“I didn’t know what a director was or what they did, so I didn’t know I wanted to do it until I was in college. But everything I did prior to that, every game I played as a child, every toy I was drawn to, every interaction I had, had to do with discussing narrative, creating narrative, overseeing narrative, overseeing how things were affected. And definitely wanting the attention of everyone around me. I’m not saying it’s the healthiest thing in the world, I’m saying that’s how I behaved. In college I found out it was a thing you could do. I tried it, had some trouble with it and gave up right away. And then eventually came back to it. I think about directing all day, all the time.”
His directing principles:
“I have many. They’re not particularly profound. They’re intended to be relatively practical. I believe my job overall is to make it seem like it’s really happening. Every choice I make and every meeting I go to, every interaction I get into with an actor, with a designer, with the audience, with the space, is always about that idea. Not just that the show went up, but that this might actually be really happening. You trick the audience into thinking that this is really happening. Now that’s very obvious, but it’s very easy to forget.
“I used to say that another aspect of my job was to stand between the actors and the play and coax them toward one another and supervise their intermingling, and then get out of the way. And then to stand between that creature which is the production and the audience and coax them toward one another and supervise that intermingling. And then hopefully at the right moment get the hell out of the way.
“I try very hard to allow the play to tell me, for the piece to make known, what it wants to be, as opposed to what I would like it to be. I’m not always successful at that, but I always urge people who ask my opinion about it to put what the work wants to be ahead of what the director would like it to be. I suppose it’s a little bit like what I imagine raising or nurturing other humans, raising children, might be, which is you can have your plan for them all you want but you have to work with what emerges.”
In the rehearsal room with an actor:
“I used to prepare in such a way that I knew what I wanted them to do, and I would start talking at them about what I wanted it to be. And I think that’s definitely a young director’s mistake; I did that as a young man out of fear, perhaps out of not understanding what actors do—although I was an actor, which is a shame.
“I have learned that when an actor is going to give you better than what you’re going to come up with by yourself, when it’s an actor who is bringing things, then you listen first and pay attention to what they’re doing and try to integrate it with what you want and discuss it with them. I try to say, here’s something I think may be important about this person, I see you doing thing X and I think those relate to each other, or I see you doing thing X and I realize that it conflicts with what I was thinking. So let’s discuss that.”
A mistake he made that he learned from:
“The mistakes have been to not let the collaborators in. You want to lead. To a certain extent the director is going to make the first and last decisions. But the biggest mistake is not listening, not letting the other artists in. The mistakes have been dictating the set to the set designer, dictating the moment to the actor. It causes everyone to shut down and stop. Out of sheer professionalism they bring you 70 percent of what you’ve asked for, but it isn’t good enough, because they’re not being allowed to do anything.”
A good decision that he learned from:
“I was terrified of new work. I had no idea how to talk to a playwright, I had no idea what a playwright was supposed to do, I had never worked on new plays. So I avoided new work. Then, a new play came my way [Orson’s Shadow, by Austin Pendleton]. I had never worked with a brilliant, major playwright, and I threw myself into it. It was really, really exhilarating. I made a million mistakes on that show, and it’s me taken years to figure out, if at all, how to collaborate with a writer. But it was allowing myself to do the thing that scared me the most.”
About The Band’s Visit:
“I didn’t know it existed. I knew nothing about it, and I’d never seen the film, and then my friend Itamar Moses called me to ask if I’d heard of it and to say they might be looking for a director. I’m lucky enough to get calls like that every now and again. He said that it was his book and that the score was by David Yazbek. So it was a no-brainer. I wanted in. I love working with Itamar [Cromer directed Moses’ Celebrity Row at Chicago’s American Theatre Company in 2008]. And I wanted in on whatever the new David Yazbek musical was. While I didn’t have as much knowledge about David’s first two musicals, The Full Monty and Dirty Rotten Scoundrels, I was just in love with the score of Women on the Verge of a Nervous Breakdown. Your director’s brain says, ‘You might get to direct the new David Yazbek musical.’ So I started saying yes to everything. I watched The Band’s Visit movie and loved it. I wanted it because of the people involved. When Itamar described it to me, he basically said, “The plot is the thing—they come there, and there’s nothing they can do, and they just stay with the locals.’ It was so evocative that my imagination went racing forward. He said it was going to be a very small event, but it sounded like it could be quite beautiful.
“This [quietude] is where the big things happen in our lives. Generally, if we’re lucky we don’t live a life of enormous, crazy dramatic events. Hopefully we don’t have to spend a lot of time on a catastrophic disease. Mostly we just go about our day, chugging through. And that’s where the big things happen. We just often don’t realize it. And that’s the kind of work I like to do. I was raised doing Chekhov, so I’m always looking for everything that’s like Chekhov.
“One of the biggest things that happens is that the character Tewfiq, who has effectively shut himself off from any human interaction that is not involved with work, having suffered unimaginable family tragedy, finds himself essentially on a date out of the clear blue sky with someone broken in different ways and shut off in different ways, and they have an incredibly productive and moving conversation. If you’ve ever made a friend or fallen in love with a stranger, that’s pretty big.”
“I am directing a new play by Adam Rapp called The Sound Inside at the Williamstown Theatre Festival. It opens in late June and it stars Mary Louise Parker [as an Ivy League professor] and a young man named Will Hochman [as a brilliant student]. It’s a really beautiful piece of writing. Adam was known to me as a playwright. I did not realize he was also an accomplished novelist. There’s a massively blurred line between a play and a novella in this work, so it is aggressively not a play—but not in a negative way where you say, well, it shouldn’t be in a theatre. It’s a form I’m really drawn to. It’s going to be like the experience of beautiful prose while still in a theatre—of having a private relationship with prose with an author’s voice. It’s challenging. It’s terrifying. It’s an adventure. It’s a new work. It’s all the things that for me are scary.”