Stage Directions: Two-Time Tony Winner Marianne Elliott On How She Made Angels in America Happen

Interview   Stage Directions: Two-Time Tony Winner Marianne Elliott On How She Made Angels in America Happen
The 2018 Tony-nominated director explains how she chooses her work and what to expect from her female-driven Company.
Angels_in_America_London_Rehearsal_Photo_2017_Marianne Elliott director of AngelsinAmerica050 (c) Helen Maybanks_HR.jpg
Marianne Elliott Helen Maybanks

“It’s about the difference between being isolated and being a community,” British director Marianne Elliott says, “and how one can accept and love people for who they are and be truthful about who you are.” Elliott is talking about her critically hailed Broadway revival of Tony Kushner’s Angels in America, starring Nathan Lane and Andrew Garfield. Kushner’s two-part drama, subtitled A Gay Fantasia on National Themes, deals with homosexuality and AIDS in the United States in the 1980s—The New York Times has called it a “masterwork about death and destruction in Ronald Reagan’s America”—but also politics, race relations, grief, the list goes on. The original production won Tony Awards as Best Play for each part individually, in 1993 and 1994.

Marianne Elliott and Chris Harper Joseph Marzullo/WENN

The 25th anniversary production, combining part one Millennium Approaches and part two Perestroika, recently extended its run to July 15 at the Neil Simon Theatre. The play broke a record and now stands as the most Tony-nominated play in history, earning 11 Tony nominations, including Best Revival of a Play and Best Direction of a Play for Elliott.

Elliott, 51, has won two Tonys for her direction: for War Horse (2011) and The Curious Incident of the Dog in the Night-Time (2015), both of which also won Best Play Tonys. She was, for a decade, an associate director of London’s National Theatre, where she first directed War Horse, Curious Incident, and Angels. She left last year to form an independent production company and will be directing Stephen Sondheim and George Furth’s Company—with a woman in the lead role of Bobby (now re-spelled Bobbi) and co-starring Patti LuPone as Bobbi’s married friend Joanne—opening in September in London. Here, Elliott speaks about her career and her decision to be a director, her directing principles, how she works with actors, Angels, and her future.

Why she became a director:
“It was a long time ago now. Three hundred years ago. I was quite old. I was 28. I had done drama at university but I never thought I could be a director. There were so few female directors then. I just assumed you had to be a man to be a director. I also assumed you had to be extremely authoritarian, and extremely intellectual, none of which I was. A boyfriend at the time was a playwright, and he just suggested that I direct one of his plays on the fringe. I didn’t really plan it, I just enjoyed doing it. So I would take holidays off from my office job, and I would put shows on on the fringe. I did that, and it grew in momentum, and I was really lucky.

“Directing was in my family, but in a way that made it worse. My father was a director [Michael Elliott, co-founder of the Royal Exchange Theatre in Manchester, her mother, Rosalind Knight, was an actor] and he was a man, and he was intellectual, all of the things I thought you had to be. So I had a direct comparison, and I thought obviously that’s not for me. It never crossed my mind to do it. But I saw a lot of theatre, and I worked in television casting for years, and I got more used to theatre people, I suppose. And enjoying doing it on my holidays. And it just took off.”

Her directing principles:
“You have to lead by example. You have to be the calmest person in the room. You have to be very open. I think the qualities of a director are to enable and to find the best in everybody. It’s a tremendous asset if you have a visual eye because you can make huge visual statements in a very theatrical way and play to the strength of theatre. But the high end of directing is working with actors and making the acting the best it can be. And that is often invisible. In fact, the better the acting is, the less visible the director and the less visible the actor.”

In the rehearsal room with an actor:
“I talk to the actor about the scene or a chunk of the scene. We keep talking about it and then we try it on its feet, and I add things that are new, to try different things, and they add things that are new, to try different things. It’s a constant finessing. It’s a bit like sculpting. You have a stone and you chip away and chip away and chip away and eventually you end up with this beautiful sculpture, this amazing being. You keep going, keep going, keep going. It’s a process of togetherness, because you are contributing and they are contributing to create this character.”

A mistake she made that she learned from:
“I did a play that I really did not like very much and I found it very difficult to work on. I had agreed to do it, and the show was not very good. And from that I learned that I can only ever work on shows I feel absolutely passionately about. I don’t need to know exactly in what way or why I’m doing it. I just need to know that I have a very strong connection to the material. Otherwise it will come out in the end result.”

A good decision that she learned from:
“I’ve made decisions in the past to be an associate in various buildings—the Royal Exchange, the Royal Court, the National Theatre. I’ve spent a long time in each building. I would say that was an incredibly strong training ground because I was watching how everything came together and how every department worked and the symbiosis of how these hundreds of people, for example at the National, worked together, and what’s important about everything they do. I acquired quite a good knowledge of how a building runs and how a theatre is and what makes it tick—and why I would not want to be an artistic director.”

About Angels:

“It’s a seminal play. It was a groundbreaker in London and I’ve always admired it. I had never seen a production, but I had read it when it first was printed.
I heard that the Old Vic had the rights, and I was literally banging on the door to let me direct it. And when they decided that they weren’t going to do it, they very graciously let me know that they would let the rights go. I made the National Theatre snatch up the rights before anyone else could. And I made them let me direct it.

“I don’t think that anybody would have given me the job. I’m not the first, most obvious choice to direct that piece. I’m not American, I’m not Mormon, I’m not Jewish, I’m not a man. Yet I feel like it’s a very personal piece for me, and I only do things that are very personal. I think probably people were a bit surprised that that’s what I wanted to do, but I really wanted to do it. And they were kind enough to say, go ahead.

“Finding a vision for it was really a surprisingly slow process. I think it’s also a kind of secret process. It took me about a year-and-a-half of preparing before we went into rehearsal. That is a very slow working through of what I feel about the play, how I could design it, what was happening in each scene, how it was relevant to now. It was a very slow growing of ideas. We did much research on the period. We steeped ourselves in everything that we saw [happening] in America.

“The play became even more relevant once we started rehearsing it, because our first day of rehearsal was [President] Trump’s first day in office. And the Sunday before had been a big Women’s March in London protesting against Trump. We started realizing that a lot of the things that were going on in terms of governmental policy were also true for the play and vice versa. A lot of things that the characters talk about politically were becoming very pertinent because there was a parallel of what was going on in the White House.

“The play is about being part of a community that looks after each other as opposed to being ostracized and isolated and being thrown away because you’re a vulnerable member of society. I think that was always going to be relevant right now, but it just became more relevant, very acutely relevant, because the Republican Party or President Reagan or President Trump or how to ‘make American great again’ were all things that were being bandied about a lot as we rehearsed.”

How her earlier work connects to Angels:

“The creative team that worked on Angels are a team I’ve worked with before, many, many times—so we have a shorthand. Every time you do a show you learn. I suppose, therefore, we were at a place where we felt quite experienced about puppetry so we decided that we would do the angel in a very particular way. I didn’t want her hanging from a wire, because I think that’s quite limited after a few seconds. Initially it’s interesting and then you just see somebody stuck on a wire. It’s limiting in how they can articulate themselves. I had already had done a show called The Light Princess [National Theatre, 2013] which was about a princess who had no gravity, and we had puppeteered her as if she was a puppet through the air in lots of circus ways and we brought those skills to the way that we manipulated the Angel. So it’s all, I suppose, just being a part of the progression of work.”

Her future:
“I started a theatre company of my own with Chris Harper, my business partner, because I had been at the National for ten years. I had a wonderful time there, but I wanted more autonomy and more say in what I was I doing and how it was produced and the kind of audience that saw it and where it went. It felt like the next logical step for me. We knew it was a risky thing to do, and we had to find the money, and it’s been really hard work, but it feels really exciting because we each do projects that we really want do to.

Company is something I’ve always wanted to do but haven’t been able to. In the past I’ve tried, but whatever theatre I was in at that time didn’t want me to do it. I feel like it’s a beautiful score, and if [the lead character is] transferred into a female Bobbi it feels very relevant. Because I know a lot of 35-year-old women—I remember being there myself—who are thinking, the clock’s ticking and I need to be thinking about settling down. Because if I’m going to settle down I need to do it soon. And what does that mean about my identity, my career, and everything I’ve worked so hard to build up? Does all of that have to be compromised? That’s the vision for this production.”

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