PLAYBILL BRIEF ENCOUNTER With Sam Gold, Director of Seminar and Look Back in Anger

By Kenneth Jones
26 Feb 2012

Alan Rickman in Seminar.
Photo by Jeremy Daniel
The physical staging of your production brings everything to the lip of the stage. I just love the threat of it that it pushes them toward the brink. Can you talk a little bit about that?
SG: Yeah. You know, a sort of major decision for me was sort of trying to connect to some of the original spirit of the play. When the play was first produced, it was very shocking to the audience the physical production. In England, at the time, there really wasn't the portrayal of working-class people on stage, and Osborne was really angry about that and really wrote this play as a way to try to put working-class people on stage and to see his class be represented on stage. With America, we had had Clifford Odets and Arthur Miller and Tennessee Williams we had had a history of the working class being represented in the theatre, but England hadn't made that change yet. It was very shocking when Osborne wrote this play and the lights came up on an upper-class woman and an ironing board in a working-class flat. It was very shocking to people, and people got very angry. I thought, "Well, how can I complicate that event?" And, one way is to not do kitchen-sink realism. We're very used to, right now, seeing plays in working-class apartments. Most plays that are written in America in 2012 take place in somebody's crappy apartment, and I decided it would actually be more shocking to not show the apartment at all. We don't really use any of the theatre [stage] space in this production. I thought that would be a good way to let the audience know that we're going to have an experience with this play that was supposed to be a different way of looking at a play that history was very interested in that kind of difference.

I'm familiar with your work on new American plays such as Kin, We Live Here and Circle Mirror Transformation. Do you like juggling new and classic titles? Do you want to do it all?
SG: Yeah, I really do. But, I think, you know, my career has been very focused on brand-new plays for a while. But, always, the reason I got into the theatre was because I was inspired by these classics. I was an English major and I loved the plays, so I think my work with new writers has always been based on my information from these old plays, and I've always wanted to get to do productions of them. I find it very exciting to approach these old plays having spent so much time on brand-new productions. It makes me a little less, I think, worried about faithfulness to the original production because I've done original productions. I find it very easy to relinquish my sort of respect or need to listen to the original productions of older plays because I understand that the original productions were responding to the audience directly in front of them, and I'm so used to responding to the audience directly in front of me. I'm very interested in making things for a contemporary audience and not particularly interested in museum pieces or looking at old plays in the context they were originally done. So, I really like the challenge of bringing old plays to new audiences.

Reed Birney and Deirdre O'Connell in Circle Mirror Transformation.
photo by Joan Marcus
When you work on new plays, are you the kind of director who most likes to have a conversation? Do you give notes about the writing? Are you a literary kind of director or do you do what's on the page? Or does it vary from production to production?
SG: It very much depends on the writer. I mean, really what I'm there to do is help bring the writer's vision to the stage, so if the writer seems like it helps them to have another voice very vocal in the room, I tend to be very vocal. I like very much working on plays from their infancy, where I can sort of shepherd them to production because I think I do better the more involved I am. I am just able to do a more specific, more detailed job the earlier I get involved, so I pretty much like being a dramaturg. I like being involved in the writer's process, but I also am very respectful of the writer's process and like to take it on a case-by-case scenario what will be most useful to them.

I assume sometimes you just take an assignment, as well? You have to put a show up.
SG: Yeah, I rarely take a job like that. I want to be intrinsic to it, and I want to be needed, and I like to take risks and work on things where I'm needed. I don't tend to take a job where I just put up a finished script. The closest I'd ever say I came to that was doing Annie Baker's play The Aliens, which she wrote and didn't show anyone until it was in really great shape, and I got a draft that basically didn't change from the draft I read to production. But Annie and I have a very close collaboration and worked together a lot, so I still felt like we were really making something together, and I felt very inside the organic process it just happened to be a process where the words didn't really change very much because she had really done such a beautiful job on the draft that there was no work that needed to be done.

Can you give an example of a play that you were with from the ground floor?
SG: Annie's other play that I did, Circle Mirror Transformation, she handed that play to me when there were 30 pages, and we worked on that play from then until there was a first draft, and then we did four workshops of it over two years before we were even in production, so I was very involved in all stages of it.

You were part of the Juilliard directing program.
SG: I was the last director in that program before it, unfortunately, shut down. I very much hope that they'll be able to bring that program back because it was a great program.

What was the most important thing you got out of it?
SG: The relationships I made. I met so many great young actors, who were so hungry and so talented and who I've worked with so much since then. And, also, wonderful writers who I've collaborated with since our time at Juilliard. My role in the program was mostly classical work. There was a wonderful playwriting program at Juilliard, so I met a lot of writers just through the cross-pollination of our program and I went on to working with a lot of those writers, mostly just based on seeing each other's work and admiring each other's work and getting to know each other.

(Kenneth Jones is managing editor of Follow him on Twitter @PlaybillKenneth.)