Stage Directions: What Makes Bartlett Sher an 8-Time Tony-Nominated Director

Interview   Stage Directions: What Makes Bartlett Sher an 8-Time Tony-Nominated Director
 
Inside the mind of the South Pacific Tony winner and man behind Broadway smashes To Kill a Mockingbird, My Fair Lady, The King and I, and more.
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Bartlett Sher Joseph Marzullo/WENN

“I come from a very large family of seven kids, which was always pretty rough and tumble,” Tony Award-winning director Bartlett Sher says. “And I think the experience of being in a large family is very well-suited to a person who works in large chaotic groups of people sort of trying to make order.”

Sher, a Tony-winning director for his 2008 revival of South Pacific, is currently represented on Broadway directing playwright Aaron Sorkin’s hit adaptation of Harper Lee’s 1960 novel To Kill a Mockingbird. The adaptation of the Pulitzer Prize-winning novel about honor, childhood adventure, and racial hatred in 1930s Alabama stars Jeff Daniels as lawyer Atticus Finch, who defends an African-American man falsely accused of raping a white woman, and Celia Keenan-Bolger as Finch’s young daughter, nicknamed Scout. LaTanya Richardson Jackson portrays Finch’s maid in the drama now playing Broadway’s Shubert Theatre.

Sher, 60, has also received best director Tony nominations for The Light in the Piazza, Awake and Sing!, Joe Turner's Come and Gone, Golden Boy, The King and I, Oslo, and his most recent My Fair Lady. His other Broadway directing credits include Women on the Verge of a Nervous Breakdown, Fiddler on the Roof, and The Bridges of Madison County. Artistic director of the Intiman Theatre in Seattle from 2000 to 2010, he has also directed in New York at Theatre for a New Audience, the Brooklyn Academy of Music, and the Metropolitan Opera prior to his tenure as the resident director at Lincoln Center Theater.

Here he speaks about Mockingbird, his directing career, his penchant for the wow factor—coups de théâtre—how his pieces physically move, and his future plans.

Why he became a director:
“I was never really an actor. When I was in college I wrote plays, and I found I was probably more interested in the authorial voice, trying to put together my own thoughts. But very quickly, when I first directed -— was only 22, so I’ve been doing this an extremely long time—I found that what I loved about it was that I was unifying a lot of collaborators and many different kinds of media. I had to understand about lighting and design and acting and movement, and I liked pulling all those together in a single experience. I honestly find that as a person I’m most happy and frankly most healthy when I’m at work in rehearsal.”

His directing principles:
“When it stops changing, you should start worrying. What I love about directing is it’s always in motion. It’s always unfolding in a new way. You’re always continuing to explore and push deeper and deeper into it. And when you get stuck is when you start to learn.

“Another principle is, ‘What you can’t fix, feature.’ Because you might get to something that seems impossible and no one would ever do it. And then you’re like, we really should explore this. Because it’s creating a huge problem for us, it might be something good.

“I love being with other people making something. I love building the kind of community that goes into a piece of theatre, and I love the long-term collaborations I’ve gotten to have with people like my designers—like Jennifer Tipton—or, say, Kelli O’Hara. It’s an extraordinarily beautiful thing.”

Kelli O'Hara and Bartlett Sher
Kelli O'Hara and Bartlett Sher Paul Kolnik

In the rehearsal room with an actor:
“Everyone’s different. I tend to prefer an actor who has a very strong process of their own. Who really likes to ask questions. I feel like my job for an actor is to keep the work active. In other words: keep asking questions, keep looking for active events that reveal something in the character and get us off the focus of the pure emotion of the event. I like action.

“And if you’re lucky enough to work with people who are as good as Jeff Daniels or as strong as Celia Keenan-Bolger or as wonderful as LaTanya Richardson Jackson, they have completely different approaches to acting, and each will push you in a very different way. I’ve been very blessed to work with some of the greatest—in the theatre, from the film world and in opera.”

A mistake he made he learned from:
“When we did Women on the Verge of a Nervous Breakdown on Broadway we weren’t ready. The show was not ready. We created expectations that were too big for the show at the time. We hadn’t really worked through it well. I did it again two-and-a-half or three years later in London, and somehow the show had settled down a bit, and we found and learned so much more about what we were making the second time than the first time.

“On Broadway, I had the most incredible cast, I had the greatest writers, I had really great material. It just wasn’t quite ready. We were a little bit unsure of our footing, and I think that made it a vulnerable piece. I learned a lot from that experience.”

His penchant for coups de théâtre—the wow factor—like the giant ship that sails in to open The King and I, or the large orchestra rising from the depths to begin South Pacific:
“I don’t think it’s something I plan. Usually, an idea like that comes from the text. If you take the ship, it was much more about the presence of Western imperialism forcing its way into the East. And to come up with a metaphor for that, you realize you need a ship. And you’re lucky enough to work at the Vivian Beaumont Theatre so you realize you don’t need to have a 20-foot ship, you can have a 60-foot ship. There’s enough room.

“It was the same with South Pacific, when, for the opening, we pulled the floor back. It was really that we were doing something very unusual. We were investing a huge amount of our resources in a 30-person orchestra. And it felt to me that it’s always so unfair that you don’t experience the orchestra. So I thought it was good since we had the room upstage to pull the stage back and let the audience celebrate that they could come to this kind of musical at this level of resource and see this extraordinary orchestra together. So the ideas don’t come out of some unknown plan. They arrive as you’re pursuing and searching, and they teach you themselves what the big stroke might be.”

My Fair Lady Set Design

Why he likes to have his actors move the set around:
“It’s not something I do on purpose. [In the old days] you might have had a three-act play on three sets and you’d have an intermission between each act to switch sets. Now people write with as many as 50 or 60 scenes. How are you going to create a machine that operates this? I also think it’s good to feel that the actors participate in the theatricality of the show. That they help create the mise-en-scene along with you.”

About Mockingbird:
“Anytime you take a cherished work, or something that is deep in the consciousness of a group of people, in this case America—which I also found this to be true with South Pacific—there is a deep shared memory of the piece. So when you move into the world of adaptation, and when you take something that is first a novel and then a beloved film, and then you move it to the stage, the largest question was: What is its most satisfying iteration on a stage? What makes it uniquely theatrical and what makes it resonate for people in a new way?

“And whenever I do a classic, I always ask myself the same question, which is what is its immediate significance now in the world? Why do we have to be doing it? What questions is it asking us now? And it always poses the same wonderful challenges.

READ: Bartlett Sher Directs My Fair Lady for Today’s Audiences

“You have to immerse yourself in the period—in this case getting yourself to understand what life might have been like in 1934 in Alabama. And you try to recreate onstage a kind of bridge back to that world and what that means, and yet keep it enough alive in the metaphor and ideas of the book that people feel it’s resonant.

“Those are all the challenges. Because it’s part of their memory, whatever an audience comes to see has to be as satisfying or as resonant to them as their memory of the book or the movie that they so deeply cherish.

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Celia Keenan-Bolger and Jeff Daniels Julieta Cervantes

“I think people believe that a director or writer just sits at home and it springs forth and they just implement it, but that’s not really it. It’s a very slow, additive process, with a lot of great collaborators. If you have those collaborators you begin a process which asks these questions. First of all, that starts with Scott Rudin, who’s the best producer on Broadway, and he set things in motion for us so we did a couple of readings, then a couple of long workshops, so even by the time we started the rehearsal period last fall, we had a lot of information about the work. We’d already made a lot of revisions and versions up to that point. So when we began the rehearsal process I was already prepared to go through and build a set and build a world in which it was all going to come together.

“I found that Harper Lee was a really extraordinary and unique and exceptional voice in American literature. I think I was most impressed by her in the end. She lived in the South and grew up in the South, her best friend being Truman Capote, whom the character of Dill is based on. But she lived half of her life in New York, all on the Upper East Side, and the other half she would go back down to Monroeville [Alabama], and I think having one foot in each world created a unique kind of person who spoke to both sides of the American consciousness.

“I became most impressed with her sense of humanity, her sense of balance, her sense of compassion for all her characters, and her early and deep insights into the real stain and problem of racism in America and how it affected us. And how it led us to a really strong sense that moral education and learning about what justice is matters greatly in a young life. All of these kids who’ve come along and grown up on Harper Lee, they’re growing up on a person who understands race, and region, [the differences between] North and South. She has a good insight into gender and sexuality, she has a great insight into conflict, she has a deeply poetic voice.

“[Aaron Sorkin has a] remarkable capacity to absorb and respond to notes. You can always tell [you’re] with a truly great artist, because when you give a note they always come back with something completely surprising—something that addresses your concern perfectly but isn’t at all what you expected. He’s original. He has a musician’s understanding of language, and inspires actors with a deep sense of rhythm inside the magic and poetry of his prose. And this all sits upon a subtext that always has a deep sense of justice, and what’s right, just under the surface of every word. He’s like a Talmudic scholar from the second century carving out the best interpretations of the holy texts.”

The future:
“Immediately next I will be going to the Staatsopera in Berlin to direct Rigoletto this May. Following that we’re in the middle of developing a film for Oslo. I had been working on a piece with [composer] Ricky Ian Gordon and Lynn Nottage turning her play Intimate Apparel into an opera/musical, which hopefully we’ll be able to do at Lincoln Center soon.

“I always wanted to do Hamlet and Golden Boy in rep. I always [loved] the idea that somehow we could bring back in American life a great repertory company. We have so many extraordinary actors in America, and wouldn’t it be great to have a place where even if you did it only once a year you could do some rep with say a Molière with a new play by Lynn Nottage and you could see them in some relation to each other? People undervalue how versatile the American theatre is, with so many different kinds of work. We don’t have a national theatre or national repertory company where you experience that. But to keep enhancing that idea would be a beautiful thing to accomplish.”

Hear more from Sher in Playbill’s Directors’ Roundtable:

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