Sam Gold, Thomas Kail and Alex Timbers: A New Generation Helming Broadway
By Jonathan Mandell
Meet thirtysomethings Sam Gold, Alex Timbers and Thomas Kail, the respective directors of Broadway's Seminar, Peter and the Starcatcher and Magic/Bird.
Sam Gold's Broadway debut was at the age of 20 in The Diary of Anne Frank. He was a replacement understudy. "I pushed Anne Frank down the stairs nightly," he says. "People gave me mean looks." That was when he decided he no longer wanted to be an actor.
At the age of 34, Gold recently had a more auspicious, and no less precocious, Broadway debut — as the director of Seminar.
"Sam's youth is a miracle, but an irrelevance," says Seminar's star, Alan Rickman. "What matters is his openness, his rigor, his taste, and his ability to laugh. I don't think of him as a certain age. I just think of him as Sam."
Gold is not the only miracle on Broadway these days. He joins Thomas Kail and Alex Timbers as the latest members of a select new club: rising young Broadway directors. All three became interested in directing in college, created their own opportunities, and scored early successes. All three wound up on Broadway while still in their early thirties, and are now in great demand, juggling many new projects.
"I hope we're part of a larger trend," says Kail. "It's certainly not just us three."
"There's an adage that you need gray hair to direct," says Timbers. "We're anomalies."
They're also friends.
"I've known Tommy and Alex since all of us started directing about a decade ago," Gold says. "We were influenced by the same work and influenced by each other's work."
"We're all also influenced by television and pop culture and comic books and movies," says Kail, who debuted on Broadway in 2008 at age 31 directing In the Heights (which earned him a Tony nomination) and followed that up two years later with Lombardi. "All three of us share an interest in introducing new audiences to the theatre." Kail will next direct Magic/Bird on Broadway, about the long rivalry and friendship between Magic Johnson and Larry Bird.
There is friendship and competitiveness but no real rivalry among the three young directors. "One of the reasons the three of us are friends is that we're so different; none of us go up for the same jobs," says Timbers, who debuted as a Broadway director in 2010 at age 32 with both Bloody Bloody Andrew Jackson and The Pee-wee Herman Show. This season on Broadway he'll direct Peter and the Starcatcher.
None of the three men pictured themselves as directors when they were growing up. "For people of my generation," Timbers says, "the theatre seems out of whack with the culture."
With Magic/Bird, Kail returns for the second time on Broadway to his childhood obsession: sports (the first time was with the football bio Lombardi). He played soccer from ages four to 18, only stopping when he realized he "had peaked three years earlier and nobody had told" him. In college at Wesleyan, a classmate recruited him to help work on a play, and he saw similarities between the sports community he had just left and the theatre community he was about to join. Like coaching, he says, directing involves "getting together a group of people who have never met and unifying them."
Kail had already graduated when he first saw a work-in-progress by an undergraduate named Lin-Manuel Miranda. He spent the next seven years working on In the Heights. He made a living during that time by working as Audra McDonald's assistant. "The advantage of being young is that expectations are very low," he says. When In the Heights became a hit, "it was if it had come out of nowhere."
Shortly after Heights' opening, Kail hung out with a friend who had become a professional football player. In talking with him, Kail started to see himself as lucky that he had to replace the stadium with the stage: "He said to me, 'We're both 31. I'm just figuring out what to do, and my body can't do it anymore. You're just figuring it out, and you have your whole life to do it.'"
When Peter and the Starcatcher comes to Broadway, it will be the second time that a show Timbers directed Off-Broadway has transferred. The first, Bloody Bloody Andrew Jackson, was developed by the theatre company he created when he was 25 years old, Les Freres Corbusier, which has a downtown sensibility rooted in the experimental. But the plays he did in college included such accessible farces as Lend Me a Tenor. "My interest in doing mainstream theatre never evaporated," he says. Indeed, his first job on Broadway was in 2005, as an assistant director for Jersey Boys.
He began his theatre company, he says, because he didn't think he would get to work as a director otherwise. "People ask, 'Is this person mature enough to handle a large budget, to be a leader?'" Now that he has proven himself as a director, he only spends about a tenth of his time on projects connected to his company, he says, "but it's still important to me."
Gold, inspired by his backstage conversations about directing with Anne Frank cast member Austin Pendleton, worked after college as a dramaturg for The Wooster Group, where he says he learned from artistic director Elizabeth LeCompte to spend time with the cast and be rigorous in the details. The approach paid off when he spent two years of intense work with the cast of Annie Baker's play Circle Mirror Transformation, which became a hit at Playwrights Horizons and got Gold noticed. (Gold's staging of John Osborne's Look Back in Anger is currently playing Off-Broadway in a production by Roundabout Theatre Company.)
"More people should take risks on young artists," Gold says. "Great work is made by young people with passion. They are at a point in their lives when they're willing to take risks, and have less to lose."
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