“What appealed to me is that it is really about the boundless love that a parent has for a child,” director Matthew Penn says of his latest project, Mother of the Maid, now playing at the Public Theater. “[The idea] that no matter what becomes of them, who they are, what their aspiration is, do they grow beyond you, do they live a mile from home or thousands of miles from home, your love for your child has no limitations.” Written by Jane Anderson, the play stars Glenn Close. In the play, Close portrays Isabelle Arc, the mother of Joan of Arc, who must cope with her rebellious teenage saint-to-be daughter.
Penn has theatre in his blood; his father was the famed film director Arthur Penn (Bonnie and Clyde, The Miracle Worker). And Penn grew up to become the co-artistic director of the Berkshire Playwrights Lab in Massachusetts, but his New York directorial credits include work at the George Street Playhouse and Ensemble Studio Theatre. He is known primarily as an Emmy-nominated TV director for more than 200 dramatic shows, among them Orange Is the New Black, Blue Bloods, The Sopranos, NYPD Blue, and Law and Order, where he was executive producer for four years and was Emmy-nominated for an episode that starred Julia Roberts.
Here, Penn speaks about why he became a director, his career, his directing principles, Mother of the Maid, and the future.
Why he became a director:
“I love the theatre and I love the notion of telling stories that mean something. Some are delightful comedies and some are more serious dramas, but hopefully every story you tell means something to the people who have the opportunity to see it. In this day and age, but it’s been true in every day and age, I think telling stories of consequence really matters. I suppose if I could paint beautifully maybe I would have done that, but I knew that my particular talents lay more in working with actors and writers and telling stories and structuring scripts.
“What really inspires me is to have an audience member come and feel touched in a particular way. Maybe they go home after Mother of the Maid and squeeze their child just a little harder, or they don’t take for granted that their child is there across the dinner table for them, because it’s not going to last. That it has some positive consequence in people’s lives. I think that’s what I’m trying to do, which, in a world that’s plenty complicated and difficult, if you can move it one millimeter of a millimeter in the right direction by telling stories of consequence, it’s worthwhile.”
His directing principles:
“Be good to people, love your actors, listen to everybody—they all have their due—but follow your own intuition.”
In the rehearsal room with an actor:
“It always starts by talking about the scene and what its function is. For me, the question of narrative function of a scene is critical. In other words, what’s the playwright trying to say here at this moment? And how does it matter in the overall story we’re telling? If we all understand that the narrative function of the scene is this, then you start to break it down to the human. [For example], let’s say you’re dealing with a two-character scene: what are these two people dealing with in this particular circumstance, what are they doing, what do they want from each other, what’s in the way? You start to break the scene down into very clear actions and obstacles, about what needs to be accomplished by character A, what needs to be accomplished by character B, and hopefully in some fashion they’re in the way of each other, but not always.
“And I tend to like to get it up on its feet rather quickly and give the actors the opportunity to begin to live in the scene. I think there’s a limitation as to how long you can sit around a table and analyze a scene. After an appropriate amount of time, I feel like it’s time to get the actors moving through it. And then suddenly you discover, those lines that when I was sitting at the table I wasn’t sure worked, they do kind of work. Or they don’t. The next level of the challenge of fully inhabiting the scene becomes apparent once it’s up.
“And then, depending on the rehearsal process, like in the middle of a three-week rehearsal, sometimes I’ll just rehearse a scene up to a point and leave it be and work on another scene. We’ll come back to it in a day or two or three and work on it a little more. Not to work it through and then set it. But let it grow, and let the actors know they’re not obliged to repeat what we just discovered today. We’ll come back to this. And so it grows over the period of time.”
A mistake he made that he learned from:
“My career is bifurcated. I began in the theatre and have worked in the theatre consistently, but there have been long periods in television, dramatic television, The Sopranos and Law & Order, and those sorts of shows. I was doing Law & Order, and it was run by Ed Sherin. In addition to being a superb director in film and television, Ed directed many plays – The Great White Hope on Broadway, for example. Ed was really an extraordinary man and he gave me the opportunity to direct in television partly because of my experience in film and partly because of my experience in theatre. He was looking directors who knew how to talk to actors and who had a sense of drama and dramaturgy.
“During [Law & Order] there was one scene that I rushed through—the schedule for TV is very difficult—but I didn’t give the actors their due. I was a very young director. Ed pulled me aside afterward and said, ‘Never do that again. Your best resource is what you hear from that actor. Never, ever rush them through. You can spend the extra two minutes. It’s only two minutes. But if they feel like they have been heard, and if you feel like you have heard them, it’s always worth it.’ So never rush. I was trying to be the dutiful young director and make the rehearsal schedule. But he was right. Those two minutes frequently save you five or ten or more. So I never made that mistake again.”
A good decision he made that he learned from:
“A long time ago I was directing a play called Streamers [by David Rabe]. It was in a particular space. And an older director said to me, ‘Don’t stage it. You have a long time.’ (It wasn’t a huge commercial production.) And so I really didn’t stage it, which is to say I let the actors stage it. At a certain point late in the rehearsal process, three-and-a-half weeks in, I started to fine tune the staging. I really did discover that there was kind of an organic movement to the ultimate staging of the play that really came out of allowing actors to get 90 percent of the way there. They’ll take you very far. You’d be surprised. A tweak and a tuck and an extra cross and suddenly you have a piece of staging that hopefully is organic and consistent with the internal and external of the scene. That has a real value.”
About Mother of the Maid:
“Jane Anderson, the playwright, and I were introduced by a mutual friend. I run a playwrights lab, and I was in the midst of reading many, many scripts. I read Mother of the Maid and it stood out immediately to me as a superb piece of work. I called Jane and I said we have to do this play. That began a long journey of a workshop that began in the Berkshires and moved forward, finally getting to the Public Theatre.
“We tell the story of Joan of Arc through her mother’s eyes, where in this very simple peasant woman’s life comes this extraordinary event, through her child. It challenges the mother-daughter relationship, to be sure. With the consequence at the end, when Joan ultimately leaves this Earth, both the historical Isabelle and the dramatic Isabelle remained absolutely devoted to her daughter. The story characterizes that kind of parental love that never ends, no matter what.”
“The future in a freelance world is always uncertain. I’m at a time in my life when the opportunity to do more theatre is something that I would really welcome. I’m at the end of four plays in a row, of which by far and away the most important is Mother of the Maid. Like I’ve said, I’ve had this interesting bifurcated career where I don’t think of a piece of drama either as a play or as a piece of film. I’m able to go back and forth—it’s just the way my particular brain works. So I am eager to continue to do more work in both mediums. I would love to make a film, but my emphasis right now is on the theatre. Working for Oskar Eustis [the Public’s artistic director] and working at the Public and working with an actress like Glenn and the entire rest of the cast has been a real blessing, an extraordinary experience.’”