“It was my primal first instinct when I read this script,” director Ivo van Hove says, “[that] this could be a meaningful work to bring to the stage. I was amazed by how much the play resonated with the time we live in. It seems like science fiction from the 1970s, but we live in this science fiction at this moment.”
Van Hove is talking about Network, the hit Broadway play that he is directing at the Belasco Theatre. Based on the 1976 film written by Paddy Chayefsky and directed by Sidney Lumet, the drama, a critical and audience success in its initial production at the National Theatre in London, stars Bryan Cranston, who won a Tony on Broadway as Lyndon Baines Johnson in All the Way, four Emmys on TV as Walter White in Breaking Bad, and the 2018 Olivier Award in London as TV newscaster Howard Beale in Network. Lee Hall (Billy Elliot) adapts the movie for the stage.
Chayefsky wrote Network as a satirical take on TV network news’ battle for ratings, and what they’ll do to achieve dominance. The movie won four Oscars, including ones for Chayefsky’s screenplay and Peter Finch’s portrayal of Beale. It is widely viewed as predictive of today’s world of cable news madness, crazed competition, rigidity of belief systems, “alternative” facts, and the elusiveness of truth.
The Belgian-born van Hove, 60, is the artistic director of the Toneelgroep Amsterdam, the biggest repertory theatre company in the Netherlands, and world-renowned for his modern, experimental and oft-categorized avant-garde direction. His Broadway credits include revivals of Arthur Miller’s The Crucible and A View From the Bridge, the latter of which won the 2016 Tony for Best Revival of a Play, and for which he won the Tony for Best Direction of a Play.
Off-Broadway he has won two Obies, for Hedda Gabler and More Stately Mansions, at New York Theatre Workshop. His other Off-Broadway credits include David Bowie’s Lazarus, Scenes From a Marriage, The Little Foxes, The Misanthrope, and A Streetcar Named Desire—all the way back in 1999—all at New York Theatre Workshop.
Next year, he is scheduled direct a Broadway revival of West Side Story, with all new choreography by Anne Teresa De Keersmaeker replacing the much lauded Jerome Robbins original, which has been part of every production since the 1957 Broadway premiere. The revival is scheduled to arrive in New York next December.
Van Hove spoke about Network, his directing career, and his future plans.
Why he became a director:
“It was a process. I am the son of a pharmacist in a very small town, 2,000 inhabitants. Culturally, there was nothing. There was a little cinema that had one movie every three weeks. And then it changed into another movie for the next three weeks.
“It was not that I was brought up by going to the theatre or the movies, or to ballet, or dance. It was when I went to boarding school when I was 11 that I got in touch with the theatre, coincidentally. On a Wednesday afternoon there was a choice we had to make, because there was no teaching going on. We could do sports, or we could go into the town and meet the girls, or you could join a theatre group. And I joined the theatre group. I don’t know why. It was just an impulse. An impulsive choice.
“So very early in my life I discovered the warmth of the theatre. Rehearsing together for a whole year, every Wednesday afternoon, and at the end showing it to your fellow students and also to your parents. It was in a little theatre, 800 seats, quite beautiful. I felt the warmth. The feeling of being a family, and making something in total secrecy, and then suddenly come out with it and get applause if it was good, or criticism when it was not that good.
“Then I was on a search. I finished boarding school when I was 17. I knew I wanted something in the arts or being a journalist. I didn’t know exactly. It’s very hard when you’re 17 to know what you want with your life. It really was, before I decided that being a director was going to be my mission in my life, and I must say since then I never regretted that decision for one second.
“Afterward, when I think back, everybody that knew me when I was very young tells me you were always a director, you were always telling us what to do, how to do it and things like that. This leadership, leading a group toward something, seems to have been with me for a long time before I was aware of it.”
His directing principles:
“Be yourself. That’s really the one and only. Be yourself. Don’t fake. A few years ago I had to meet David Bowie for this project he wanted me for [Lazarus]. David Bowie was my idol when I was a young man. I was a real fan. I came to New York to see him in The Elephant Man. I had no money at all. I went to work to get a little bit of money to just see The Elephant Man.
“I was flying here for the meeting and I said to myself, ‘Ivo, you have to be just Ivo tomorrow. Not idolizing him.’ I went into the meeting and had to convince myself, ‘Just be yourself, don’t try to please him.’ So if I could do it with David Bowie I could do it with everybody.
“When you’re in front of an actor, if you think you don’t want something, just say ‘I have to think about it’ or just ‘I don’t know.’ Be open. Be transparent. Be yourself. That’s the main thing as a director you have to do. And the other thing is keep listening. Don’t think you’re always right yourself. Even when you think you’re right, keep listening to what the people around you are saying. Make your own decisions at the end of the day, but keep listening. It’s very hard in previews to keep listening, but you can always improve your production. And everything that improves your production, you should accept. And not think, ‘Oh, I didn’t come up with the idea, so I’ll put it away.’ ”
An actor in his rehearsal room – an example of how he directs:
“I’m not a director with a system that everybody has to fit in. I have a set of organizational rules, how I like to rehearse, but basically in my relationship with actors, I deal with every actor on an individual level. I try to understand how she or he wants me to direct her, what he or she needs.
“Bryan Cranston loves to talk about a scene before he does it. He doesn’t only go on his impulses. He has great impulses, but he wants to discuss why and how before he starts exploring it for himself. So that’s what I do with him. But there are actors in my own company, for instance, that I know want no talking, just doing. Just entering, saying a line, somebody else with lines. And you have a more emotional way of meeting the characters. So I try to be open to every way an actor wants to develop the role.
“What I don’t like too much is psychologizing endlessly about a character, or when an actor says, ‘I don’t think my character would do that.’ And then I always say, ‘Did you meet him or her?’ And then it’s always silent. Because a character is just an illusion. We create it. The actor has to create it, in as much a personal way as possible. It’s not an existing character. There’s Bryan Cranston playing Howard Beale. If somebody else plays Howard Beale, with the same stage directions, it would turn out a little bit different. That’s normal.
“That’s the way I behave in my relationship with actresses and actors.”
A mistake he made that he learned from:
“There have been a lot of them. My worst productions have been the ones I’ve learned the most from. Some productions are on the way to developing something that turns out to be great afterwards. It’s a creative process. It’s not a product. It’s a creation. It’s not like making Coca-Cola and we reproduce it all the time, or we give it a little bit different marketing. The taste of Coca-Cola is always the same. That’s why people buy it. But in theatre, every production is different. New actors, new people around you. The idea of creation is the core of what we do. Therefore, it’s scary sometimes. If you made a good production two months ago that doesn’t mean you’ll make a great one in two months’ time. That means you have to find tools for yourself for how to prevent a production from being a disaster. But from a disaster sometimes you learn the most.
“A few years ago, I’m not going to say which one, I had a production in which I clearly made a wrong choice on the material. The material was not strong enough. There were wonderful actors on stage, and it played as well as it could, but it didn’t really work deep down.
“So I worship the moment of choice of material. From that mistake I learned even more to take seriously that the first moment, the decision of the material, is crucial for the creation that will follow.”
A decision he made that paid off:
“Also many. I’m the artistic director of a big company in Holland, it’s called the National Theatre Amsterdam. I have a huge career outside of it, not only in New York but also in London and Paris and Germany sometimes. It’s very hard work, but the best decision I’ve ever made was to combine these two worlds. Because every time I come back to Amsterdam I’m refreshed again, and every time when I go outside I’m loving to have new actors in front of me. In Amsterdam, I work with an ensemble of actors, which is great because you can develop over the years. But it’s also great to meet new people.”
About his production of Network:
“This production doesn’t only talk about the media – it is the media. You see the machinery of the media at work, how it works, how it shifts. You see the shift from just giving you the facts toward an entertainment show and what we call now ‘fake news.’ It’s not so easy to distinguish them from each other. Everyone says they’re right. You look at Fox, they say they are right, you look at CNN, they are also right, about the same issue, which is not possible because they are saying the opposite things.
“I thought it was important that we see the machinery of how a live television show is made, the pressure of it. I have been on a lot of live television shows, and there is this clock ticking, and when it’s seven o’clock it just starts, even if you are not ready. You have to be ready. There’s this pressure cooker that people live in, and I want the audience to have a visual, emotional feeling about it. That was my main goal.
“Having live cameras, as we do onstage, gives you a very dynamic production. It’s almost like choreography, because every detail is staged, every camera movement is staged, every look into the camera or away from the camera is staged. It’s not coincidental. And this is really important to bring across the real message of Network.”
About West Side Story, and the new choreography:
“The idea came from me. I went to [producer] Scott Rudin and he said ‘Oh, yes, West Side Story, let’s do that.’ Then he said yes but one condition – new choreography. Because if you want to make or try to make a West Side Story for the 21st century it needs another take on it. I don’t want there to be a misunderstanding, because the original Broadway production had fabulous Jerome Robbins choreography. And the movie, which I know better because that’s what we saw in Europe, was a masterpiece with Robbins’ choreography. I’m not challenging that, but I think it deserves a new take now, 60 years later, generations later.
“It needs another vision, another possibility. And all the [creators and creators’] estates supported this because they could have said no, but I think they all feel that it’s time to do this.”
Hear more from van Hove on the specific choices he made for Network during Playbill’s live interview with the director on opening night: