“It’s a piece that offers hope,” director Tina Landau says. “And it offers belief in the government and in the power of the individual to effect change in the world.” Landau is discussing Dave, the new musical she is directing at Arena Stage in Washington, D.C. It’s based on the eponymous 1993 movie, a political comedy that starred Kevin Kline and Sigourney Weaver.
The music is by Pulitzer Prize and two-time Tony winner Tom Kitt (Next to Normal, If/Then), with lyrics by two-time Tony nominee Nell Benjamin (Mean Girls, Legally Blonde) with a book by Benjamin and the late three-time Tony Award winner Thomas Meehan (Annie, The Producers, Hairspray). Drew Gehling (Waitress, Jersey Boys) stars as a high school teacher who physically resembles the President of the United States and is hired by the Secret Service as his stand-in. But when the President becomes indisposed, Dave must take on the executive office. Performances begin July 13.
Landau, 56, won the Drama Desk Award and a Tony nomination for her direction of SpongeBob SquarePants: The Musical, which she also conceived. She is an ensemble member of Chicago’s Steppenwolf Theatre Company, where she has frequently directed. Her other New York Broadway and Off-Broadway directing credits include Tracy Letts’ Superior Donuts (2009), the 2001 revival of Bells Are Ringing, and the musical Floyd Collins (1996), for which she also wrote the book and which won the Lucille Lortel Award for best Off-Broadway musical. Here, the out-of-the-box director speaks about her career, how she directs, what to expect from Dave, and her future plans.
Why she became a director:
“There’s a sequence in the movie Annie Hall where little kids who are six or eight come forward and say that they’re an accountant or a lawyer or some other vocation. I was like that as a child. I walked around from the get-go saying I was going to be a director. I’m not sure where that came from except my family was in show business. My parents [Ely and Edie Landau] were film producers and I was exposed to a lot of theatre growing up.
“I think I always had an attraction to the notion of creating worlds onstage. When I was in kindergarten—prekindergarten actually—when I first went to school I sat in the corner and wouldn’t talk to anyone and all I would do was draw for hours. The teachers reached out to my parents and said that they thought I had a problem, that there was something wrong with me and they should take me to a psychiatrist. My parents checked with our GP and he said, ‘No, no, Tina’s absolutely fine. Take her out of school, and when she’s ready to be with others and in school she will tell you.’ Which I guess I did a year or so later. I said I wanted to go back to school. And I always think of that because I think in some ways that’s the space I enter when I’m directing, that same space of being in the corner drawing. Which is an ability to tell stories, foremost, but also create universes that are slightly different than or heightened from our everyday waking world and experience of what we can see and touch and taste.”
Her directing principles:
“I think of my job as literally creating a direction in which the whole will move—as if you have a big ship and you’re setting it off on course. And my first task is to get everyone on the same ship and excited about where we’re heading. There was a director at A.R.T. [American Repertory Theatre in Massachusetts] who said that as a director you come in with a virus. You’re obsessed, you’re feverish with your passion and your ideas and your first task is to spread the disease, if you will, to find out how the contagion can spread. I always think at the beginning of a process that what I’m doing is inviting everyone to enter into that emotional, psychic space I’ve been in preparing the piece and to find their own entry point into it.
“Because ultimately, I believe that we are a many-headed storyteller with one voice, and that my greatest responsibility and advantage is to create a room where everyone can discover their own possibilities and sense of empowerment to help in the project. I’m working best when I’m working most as an editor, when I can create a room where everyone is saying, ‘What if?’ And, ‘Yes, and.’ My task is to sort through it all and choose the best of the best, whatever ideas are strongest or most in support of our mission, and compose it into a whole. I love collaborating, and I treasure what is made from 40 people in the room, rather than what I thought of on my own sitting at a desk somewhere.”
With an actor in the rehearsal room:
“I will tell actors, I’m not going to tell you what to do, or where to go, or when to come downstage, or when to pick up a prop. I will say, ‘Play. Explore.’ It goes back to that idea that I am there to respond to and sift through what comes up. I will also do work early on with Viewpoints training, which is a technique I use in rehearsal. It involves the actors working physically with their bodies, a whole bunch of exercises to have actors connect with not only what they’re thinking or what they’re analyzing in the text but also working from their bodies and their instincts.
“From ‘Viewpoints’ we will often go off and split up into groups where I ask the company to make things that are images or moments from the show, very often playing roles that are not their own. We’ll kind of work not only on the material itself but around and from the material. So that we’re getting rid of the notion of, ‘My character would never do that.’ [I want us to be] thinking or creating from a place of every- and anything is possible, including the opposite.”
WATCH: TINA LANDAU, DAVID CROMER, BARTLETT SHER, MICHAEL ARDEN, AND CASEY NICHOLAW TALK DIRECTING 2018’S TONY-NOMINATED MUSICALS
A mistake she made that she learned from:
“In some ways I feel like my career is a whole string of mistakes and discoveries, all of which I learned from. The thing that comes to mind right away is when I was directing Bells Are Ringing, which was my first Broadway show, in 2001. I was just young enough and just in awe enough of the people I was working with—my producers, and Betty Comden and Adolph Green [the librettists and lyricists], and Margaret Styne, the wife of the late Jule Styne [the composer], and Faith Prince and Marc Kudisch [the stars]. I think I went into that project with a very strong vision, and over the period of working on it, it got watered down some, from me trying too hard to people-please. I felt so indebted to the people I was working with and what they knew and their experiences that I somewhat lost sight or hold of that direction I was describing previously.
“When I finished with Bells Are Ringing and had some time to reflect on it. In retrospect, I know that I came out of that saying to myself, ‘I desperately want to direct on Broadway, and I desperately want to do musicals on Broadway, but I now know that I have to do it in my own way on my own terms.’ Therefore, it took quite a long time for me to find the vehicle and expression for doing that. Surprisingly enough, it came in the form of SpongeBob.”
A good decision she made that she learned from:
“I was directing The Time of Your Life, the William Saroyan play, at Steppenwolf [in 2002]. September 11 had happened, a big project I was working on with Disney [When You Wish, an original musical project using the Disney songbook] fell through. I had just turned 40 and was feeling very ambivalent about directing, and theatre in general. I remember going into The Time of Your Life process and, for the first time really ever, not caring about what people thought or what critics were going to say. I worked with a sense of abandon that I hadn’t had since I was much younger. There was a moment in rehearsal when I was talking to the lead actor, Jeff Perry, downstage, and upstage the whole company were just goofing around and started learning a little tap-dance sequence that one of the actors, Guy Adkins, was just teaching them while they were waiting. And I turned around and I saw it and I said, ‘That’s in! Right here in this moment we’re working on.’
“And I put in this moment where out of the blue, right at the end of the first act, the whole company erupted into tap dance, for 15 seconds, and then it ended. It had no logic except my instinct that it was somehow part of the vocabulary in the world we were creating. And it stayed in the show, it was one of my favorite moments, and I learned that sometimes making the bold, rash, seemingly illogical and out-of-the-box choice can wake up a moment in really unexpected ways. I learned a lot from that. And I kept working that way a lot more ever since.”
“I started working on the musical before 2016. And I remember at the beginning saying that it felt like a wish to me, the musical felt like a wish for something that we could have more of and that was dormant, at least in me. But since 2016 it’s become ever more necessary, and I would say timely, without losing its timelessness. It’s a story of a person who discovers that they can and must be more involved, both in their politics and in their personal relationships.
“And, on top of that, Nell Benjamin, with the original book by Tom Meehan, who passed away, has written a really smart, really funny adaptation. And the score by Tom Kitt and Nell is really gorgeous and lush. And I wanted to work with both of those authors.
“It’s very complicated in that the piece is full of montages and scenes that just keep moving. I think of the talk and walk scenes in [TV series] The West Wing. We’re staging the piece in a very fluid and kinesthetic environment. So it’s proved to be an incredible challenge, and I think a really spectacular and unique design.”
“I am in a moment of change and opportunity. As directors, we work on projects for long periods of time. There’s a natural cycle—when a whole slew of projects you’ve been working on for three or five or eight years come to fruition. I’m at the beginning of a new cycle. I have two or three big projects I’m developing on my own, pieces I’ve conceived and will direct. I’m taking a lot of the immediate future to work on those, one of which I’m writing. I’m also doing next season [May 2019] at Steppenwolf a play called Wig Out! by Tarell Alvin McCraney [an Oscar winner for the movie Moonlight], who will also be acting in it. I’m excited about that because I’ve worked with Tarell a lot and have been canvassing for him to perform in one of his plays because he’s a great actor.
“And I hope there is a future for Dave. There’s nothing set yet. We’re really using this opportunity to learn the piece and learn how audiences respond to the piece, and I think as we open here we’ll start talking about next steps.”