Long a force in Chicago theatre, as a member of the Steppenwolf Theatre Company, director Anna D. Shapiro smashed her way into the New York theatre scene with her volcanic production of the epic Tracy Letts family drama August: Osage County. (She had directed a few New York production before that 2007 staging, but August is the one that caught everyone's attention.) She has since kept the energy at a high level, serving up convulsive new works by Stephen Adly Guirgis (The Motherf**ker With the Hat) and Bruce Norris (Domesticated).
Now she's back with what could be viewed as a change of pace. John Steinbeck's Of Mice and Men is her first Broadway revival and a quieter work than audiences are used to seeing from her. Not quiet, though, is the lead actor: James Franco, one of the most written-about film actors of his generation.
Shapiro talked with Playbill.com about being "interviewed" by Franco, the "maleness" of Mice and working in a field that "is based on people watching events whose results are already known."
How did you get involved with this production?
Anna D. Shapiro: I got involved with the production when our producer, David Binder, reached out to me. I had been involved several years ago — with different producers — and was heartbroken when it fell apart at the last minute, so I was a bit hesitant to try again. But I just can't shake this play, so that, and David's commitment and excitement, convinced me to try again. Did you join the project before or after Franco was cast?
ADS: I joined, this time, after James was cast. In fact, I'm pretty sure he was interviewing me. The funny thing about it is that James was literally the first person I spoke to the first time around. I don't even know if he remembers that conversation — it was four years ago, and he wasn't available — but I just adored him then and I adore him now. I'm glad he wanted to do this with me.
What has been your relationship to Steinbeck prior to this production? Are you a fan of his books? Had you seen any of the movies made of Of Mice and Men?
ADS: My relationship to Steinbeck started when I was in my early teens and I saw Of Mice and Men at Steppenwolf. Strangely — and I know it's not possible that I had read it before — but even then it felt so familiar to me, so inevitable. It's a story and a cast of characters that I think lives in the collective unconscious of Americans my age and a bit older. And now, as an adult, I've read him and been completely transported by his work. It's misleading when your way into Steinbeck is Of Mice and Men, which is so clean and contained. His novels are breathtaking in their scope, and I remember thinking, how could one man cover so much soaring literary ground and yet be able to write such a perfect, undeniable play? Pretty awe-inspiring.
How do you find a fresh approach to a story that is so familiar to the public?
ADS: The approach question is always funny to me. I guess I believe that all great plays are essentially about one thing — how do we live? — and within that there are several different ways one can interpret just how the play asks that question. For me, I determine that based on my own reading of the character's given circumstances and what they say they want vs. how they actually behave — and while for me this feels like an objective reading of the play, my answers are extremely subjective and based on my own given circumstances and my own wants. And because I want the thing that's happening on stage to feel real, for lack of a better word, I use my own measure to determine that realness. So I guess the short answer is that I'm taking the approach the story seems to be asking me for — which feels like it should feel like it's really happening. Are you taking a strictly naturalistic approach? Or something else?
ADS: The other night my husband came home and we had TiVo'd a certain sporting event. We knew how it ended, and yet he was deeply involved in the watching — even shouting and, at times, wringing his hands. I said to him, "Why are you so anxious when you know how it's going to end?" And he just looked at me with this funny smile and said, "Honey, your whole career is based on people watching events whose results are already known."
And he was right. Drama isn't where people think it is — of course you need plot and story — but time and time again I'm learning that, in theatre, it's when there's this meaningful collision between the audience and the human event on stage. It's not about what happens. It's about what "what happens" means to them.
It's a very male-oriented story. Do you think a female director can bring a special perspective to the story? Or does it not matter?
ADS: As far as it being a male-oriented story and whether or not my being a woman is helpful or not, I can only say that my interest is in the maleness of the story. I'm fascinated by how the promise of the American Dream plays itself out in (and on) the men in my life and have been for a long time. And I'm particularly occupied by their obsession with this idea of usefulness and worthiness — how they determine their own value and by what measure — because I think there is a kind of cruelty they perpetrate on themselves in this conversation that is heartbreaking to me. Hopefully I'll bring an outsider's compassion, but other than that, I'm not sure it really matters that I'm a woman, per se. I think it mostly matters that I'm fascinated.
What can a production of Of Mice and Men tell today's audiences?
ADS: I'm not sure plays tell people anything. I think plays include an audience in an experience that is happening in that moment and that's the specialness. What people take away has almost as much to do with what they bring as what we do.
Do you see this as falling in line with the work you've doing in the past, material-wise, or is Of Mice and Men a departure of sort?
ADS: I think Mice is in many ways quieter than much of my previous work. In my work with Tracy and Bruce, the inhabitants of those worlds use language — and a lot of it — to manage their situations. This is not that kind of world — this is a practical, pragmatic and, in some ways, more natural environment and so the rules are different. I guess the similarities lie somewhere in the wants and needs of the characters, because really, no matter what kind of room you're in or what kind of landscape you look out over, we are all really longing for and stumped by the same things.