Stage Directions: How Broadway’s Arin Arbus Directs Opera, Audra McDonald, and Prison Inmates

Interview   Stage Directions: How Broadway’s Arin Arbus Directs Opera, Audra McDonald, and Prison Inmates
The Frankie and Johnny in the Claire de Lune director gets real about her directing struggles, successes, and how Shakespeare has helped her with the most contemporary of plays.
Terrence McNally and Arin Arbus Joseph Marzullo/WENN

“For me, the territory of the play is existential,” director Arin Arbus says. “It’s often classified as a romantic comedy, and certainly I understand why. Because of the incredible humor and the playfulness and the wit. But all of that to me sits on top of darker feelings of anxiety, uncertainty, and a sense of meaninglessness.” Arbus is talking about the new Broadway revival of Terrence McNally’s 1987 Frankie and Johnny in the Clair de Lune, starring Michael Shannon and Audra McDonald, which Arbus directs at the Broadhurst Theatre. The two-character play, first done Off-Broadway in 1987 with Kathy Bates and F. Murray Abraham and then Kenneth Welsh, and revived on Broadway in 2002 with Edie Falco and Stanley Tucci, tells of the intimate first date between a waitress and a short order cook. As emotions escalate, the question begs: Is Johnny pushing boundaries that shouldn’t be pushed or is Frankie afraid of vulnerability?

Arbus, who makes her Broadway directorial debut, is resident artist at Theatre for a New Audience, in Brooklyn, where she was associate artistic director for a decade. At TFANA she won a 2017 Obie Award for directing Thornton Wilder’s The Skin of Our Teeth. Her other TFANA directing credits include Shakespeare’s King Lear, Much Ado About Nothing, The Taming of the Shrew, Macbeth, Measure for Measure, and Othello, Strindberg’s The Father, and Ibsen’s A Doll’s House. But Arbus has tackled the spectrum of theatre. In addition to these classics and some opera, she has directed inmates at a medium-security prison in upstate New York, and refugees—in an Arabic production of The Tempest—at a refugee camp in Greece.

READ: Nespresso Presents Coffee Talk With the Cast of Frankie and Johnny in the Clair De Lune

Why she wanted to direct:
“Both of my parents [Allan Arbus and Mariclare Costello] worked in the theatre, so I grew up seeing shows and loving the theatre. When I was in school I acted in plays and I worked as a costume designer. Both my parents were actors and I had watched them struggle for most of their lives to get work. It just seemed like such a brutal life choice that I steered away from it—in addition to the fact that I wasn’t very good.

“In college I majored in studio art and studied painting, which I loved but found isolating. It’s the opposite of theatre in that you spend all your time alone and you’ve got to figure out by yourself any problems you have. After graduating, I really missed being on a team and being able to collaborate. Because of a fluke, I ended up as a directing intern at the Williamstown Theatre Festival. I directed something for the first time, and immediately I knew that that’s what I wanted to do. It was exciting, because I had been restless and really wanting to find a vocation. But I hadn’t up until that point. There was something about being part of a collective and leading people into a story that really excited me.”

Her directing principles:
“For me, I’m serving the play. That’s the obvious thing. And I believe that what we can come up with together is going to be more interesting and more complicated and more truthful than what I could think up on my own.”

In the rehearsal room with an actor:
“It’s so different, depending on who the actor is. A normal thing that happens in a process is that people get stuck. It happens with actors, it happens with directors, it happens with everybody. There could be millions of reasons somebody might get stuck. It’s normal. That’s what the process is. Somehow you have to get past that. And that’s when something exciting happens. When you take that leap. That’s one of the director’s jobs. To find ways to push people or provoke people past those moments of being stuck.It’s different each time, with each actor. I wish there were a simple way to do it. You have to invent it each time. And sometimes you can’t. I’ve directed shows or actors where there’s some kind of major block between the actor and the character or the performance and as hard as I’ve tried I haven’t been able to get them free of it.”

Directing Shakespeare:
“I find Shakespeare so incredibly hard. Not only because the material at first glance feels far away from our contemporary world. Not only because it’s in heightened language. Just because as a director there are so many questions, and you have to conceptualize the whole world in a way you might think you don’t have to with a contemporary play.

“For me it’s been useful to get into that habit because, probably, in truth, you should be doing that with a contemporary play. But that was such a struggle for me for so long, and still is, to figure out: when to set the play, is it set in a literal world, is it set in a specific time period or is it general, what the hell do these people wear, what clothes can you put them in that [are] going to help illuminate the predicament that the characters are going through? All of those are such big, difficult things to answer with Shakespeare. The nice thing about having spent so long doing exclusively Shakespeare is that you can bring those same questions to an Ibsen play or a contemporary play. And you have a rigorous method of conceptualizing the production.”

READ: Which Off-Broadway Theatre Company Has Completed 33 of 38 Shakespeare Plays?

Working with inmates in a prison—and with opera singers:
“I worked with one group of prisoners for about six years on a lot of different projects. It felt like being part of a theatre company. It was an amazing experience. I was really excited by the differences in working with prisoners versus professional actors. I started working with this organization called Rehabilitation Through the Arts. I sought them out because I was feeling really frustrated with the New York theatre scene—frustrated with my own work. I had just done a number of shows that felt like nobody wanted to be there—the audience didn’t really want to be there, the actors weren’t all that excited about being there.

“In real life it’s such a huge struggle to make a living. You’re always reaching for financial security. Even the theatre companies are reaching for financial security. Whether or not it sells tickets is a pressure you feel. So going into a prison is just a totally different circumstance, like it exists outside of capitalism. The men I worked with were volunteering; they were giving up privileges, like watching movies at night, in order to attend rehearsals. They wanted to learn about themselves, they wanted to learn about the world, they wanted to find a way to express their own experience. All those motivators were so raw and pure that it was a fertile, creative environment for me.

“Directing opera, I found that there’s a huge difference between actors and opera singers. They are so different. Actors generally need to feel safe in order to be vulnerable. To expose themselves in a way that is often required for great drama. Opera singers in my experience are totally the opposite. In order to function, they really need and thrive with an unbearable kind of pressure. Actors love to rehearse things over and over again. Opera singers aren’t going to really sing in a rehearsal. They need the whole pressurized situation to be there.”

A mistake she made that she learned from:
“I’ve made casting mistakes because I didn’t trust my own instincts. That was a big lesson. Also, I’ve had productions that have been critical failures, productions that just haven’t worked. I’ve learned a lot from those experiences. I find the business to be tough and brutal. It’s brutal for the artist because you’re exposing yourself and you’re trying to make something work. And it’s quite improbable that all of the elements are going to come together into a kind of harmony that takes flight. It’s totally unlikely. And the critics write about it and it can be very painful. It can be very tough in that sometimes if you have a success you get work and if you have a failure you don’t get work.

“Having failed productions helped me understand how important it is to have solid relationships. That the only thing that’s going to sustain a career is developing solid relationships with artists and theatres and producers who are interested in taking risks and understand that failure is sometimes an inevitable part of the process.”

About Frankie and Johnny:
“These two middle-aged, world-weary people both feel that they’ve failed in their lives, and there’s not much that adds up to anything. Frankie feels that she’s failed as an actress, failed to find a nice place to live, failed in her relationships. Johnny has failed as a husband, failed as a father, gone to prison. They’re struggling in midlife to hold on to anything that has meaning.”

The future:
“I’m interested in television. I think it’s an amazing form. I love the epic scope and the intimate nature of television. And I think there’s so much interesting writing happening these days. People are experimenting in really exciting ways.”

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