Last season, Scott Ellis toiled away at trafficking a dozen men around the cramped quarters of a jury room in Twelve Angry Men — though he laughs at how some assumed the actors were on auto-pilot.
After recently staging Douglas Carter Beane's critically acclaimed new comedy The Little Dog Laughed Off-Broadway (which is aiming to transfer to Broadway), he's now rehearsing for the upcoming revival of Joe Orton's Entertaining Mr. Sloane before working on the long-in-development John Kander-Fred Ebb musical Curtains (to debut in Los Angeles with hopes of Broadway) and the national tour of his 2005 Twelve Angry Men staging. (His slate is so full, plans for the London Men are "floating" according to the director.)
The busy director spoke about each of his current projects, today's intermission-prohibitive audiences, successes vs. failures and accepting his standing as a "quiet" director.
Playbill.com: With four shows currently on your itinerary, one wonders how you go about choosing which shows to work on.
Scott Ellis: It's funny, it's always just sort of a gut thing. I don't think there's any one way I choose. A lot of it is about people I want to work with. Little Dog Laughed came about because I had a meeting with Doug and I just liked Doug. Twelve Angry Men: I did a reading of it and I just loved it and I thought it still worked. Entertaining Mr. Sloane: Alec [Baldwin, who stars,] approached me and asked me if I would do it with him. I've loved Alec and I've always liked [Joe] Orton. And Curtains is something I've been working on for six years in my relationship with John [Kander] and Fred [Ebb]. So, it's all sort of different, but I guess it boils down to people I want to work with.
Playbill.com: How does directing Twelve Angry Men on Broadway differ from directing it for the upcoming tour?
SE: Specifically with this show, so much of that play was created with those 13 actors and getting into a room and really exploring that. My guess is it will somewhat be different because I'll have 13 different people and different personalities. Every jury is going to be different, I treated them as a jury from the very beginning. We sat around a table, we talked about the case and those personalities started coming out within those actors. So, that's how I'm going to approach it with the tour. Playbill.com: Do you expect much of the staging to change?
SE: The staging is somewhat complicated because it is all really choreographed. You have to with 12 people on stage and five or six of them with their backs to the audience. That will probably, for the most part, stay the same but the core will begin with just 12 actors and creating a jury.
Playbill.com: You mentioned meeting Douglas Carter Beane as being the impetus for your collaboration, how did that come about?
SE: We had been introduced through an agent of ours at CAA and they said I think you two would like each other. We had dinner one night and I really loved him. He asked me to read a couple of his plays and we were just planning in the back of our minds to work at some point down the line.
Playbill.com: Little Dog was not one of the original plays you read.
SE: No, it was not. Little Dog came later. He said would you look at this, it's going to be done at Second Stage. I was a little nervous because I was in Greece at the time they sent it over to me. And I was sitting in Mykonos, having a really wonderful time and I thought 'Oh, I hope I'm not loving this script [only] because I'm in Mykonos. I should read this when I'm in New York under pressure." [Laughs.]
Playbill.com: Do you enjoy working more with an established script or a new one?
SE: I like all of it. Early in my career, I worked very hard to not get put into a category and I really pushed to try to have experiences in all of that. Luckily, I've been able to. Each one has its own challenge. When you're working on a play like Sloane, that play works, you don't have to worry about that. When you're working on a new play like Little Dog, you have no clue if the plays works. You're exploring. So it's wonderful being in a room knowing the play works and you're the one who can really screw it up, but there's also something wonderful about being in a room with a writer who's there and we're working together.
Playbill.com: Orton's Entertaining Mr. Sloane is known for its dark humor. Are you working to find the balance of darkness and humor?
SE: I think, as Orton writes, underneath there's a darkness but because of that there's also the comedy of it. It's a very fine line that you play and you hope that the situation becomes funny — the absurdity of this brother and sister after this young lodger. It's done in three acts and the first is realistic, very natural. The second act becomes more of a comedy almost. Then, the third act is out-and-out farce. There is a growth with that and I do have good actors that I hope we discover this. Like anything else, you're going to concentrate on who these people are, what is the reality of these people in this world and from that I think is where the comedy comes. Because there are some very funny things in it and there are some very disturbing, sad things in it. So, it's finding both of that.
Playbill.com: The play is written in three acts, do you plan on having an intermission?
SE: I'm going to put one intermission in right now. I'd love to put two intermissions in because it was written with that [in mind.] And Orton writes about where he wanted to take that second break, but audiences today just don't want to sit through two intermissions. It's a shame it just has to go too fast. Twelve Angry Men was done with an intermission and I took that out. I really wanted an audience to feel like they had no break just like those jurors and you're not going to get out of that room until you come to a decision. With [Entertaining Mr. Sloane], right now I'm planning to put the second and third act together.
Playbill.com: You've previously worked with Kander and Ebb and now Curtains will finally reach the stage. Tell me about the journey.
SE: Curtains was a show that they had for a long, long time. And I talked to them one time, about five years ago, saying you've never [even] had a reading of it. Let me at least put a reading together for you. So we did an in-house reading at the Roundabout. Peter [Stone, its original librettist] was there. There was something there, but it didn't really quite work. So we went back to the table and worked on it some more. We did another reading of it, it was better, but still didn't quite work. But, I kept thinking there was something here. Then, we were about to do the next reading and Peter Stone passed away. John and Fred really wanted to continue, so we brought [book writer] Rupert Holmes in. He really changed the whole piece, it's based on the original stuff from Peter, the idea. But, the script is 95 percent different; new characters, characters who were cut, new music. Really totally revamped.
Then sadly, Fred died. And John, Rupert and I got together — and I know you hear this all the time — but [thought] Fred really would have wanted the show to go on. Since then, we did two more readings and we'll now go do it at the Ahmanson in L.A. with the hope that it will come in [to New York]. It's become sort of a valentine, a love letter to musical theatre which I love and Fred loved that. It's a little mean, too, which I like. But, the premise of a murder taking place out-of-town in a show that's in big trouble and you have the detective coming in saying "I'm going to solve the murder, but I'm also going to help fix the show," I think is really good. That's funny and that's why I always held on to it.
Playbill.com: And musical theatre audiences love comedies about musical theatre.
SE: Our challenge was to not keep it so inside that it only relates to theatre people, but I think the murder-mystery is what opens it up. Everyone likes a mystery.
Playbill.com: Tell me about your process and/or style as a director.
SE: I'm big on research. I love research so I tend to do a lot of reading. I don't consider myself a flashy director. A lot of times people will look and don't even know what I do. There were some people who thought [in Twelve Angry Men that] all 12 of them just got up and walked around and did it themselves. So when it works, it almost looks like "Well, what did you do?" And that's fine with me, but it doesn't always get the attention that other people can get. Nothing against them, I think it's great, it's just not what I do. I love actors and I love that process. I learned that going to school and studying acting, then studying with Uta Hagen. It's pretty simple, it's really just exploring the characters in the situation and finding the truth within that. I'm a little quieter of a director, but that's good for me. It took me a while to say "You know what, that's what I do and if other people don't appreciate it, there's nothing I can do about it."
Playbill.com: You seem to be getting enough offers for work...
SE: Yes. Here's the thing: I've done shows that have been successful and I've done shows that have been failures. I don't know what failure is because you always are learning something from it, so I don't think anything is really a failure. But, I understand the business part of it and how that all works. As long as I can still play in the game, I feel I'm successful. If someone is willing to say here's a play to look at or a musical, I'm really happy.