“The reason directing feels like the right path for me,” director Tyne Rafaeli says, “is because I get to be a perpetual student. Every project allows me a keyhole into a different world, a different ecosystem, that I am allowed to learn about and become as much of an expert as I can about. And that for me feels incredibly important—that I am constantly being exposed to new ideas and worlds and human experiences.”
You may not recognize her name, but Rafaeli has been behind some of the most buzzed about recent plays in New York, as well as the right hand woman to Tony-winning director Bartlett Sher. Her many New York City credits include twice-extended sold-out run of Ming Peiffer’s Usual Girls at Roundabout Theatre Company, Craig Lucas’ I Was Most Alive with You at Playwrights Horizons, Lauren Yee’s In a Word at the Cherry Lane Theatre, and Michael Yates Crowley’s The Rape of the Sabine Women, by Grace B. Matthias, at The Playwrights Realm. At the Geffen Playhouse in Los Angeles, she has directed Amanda Peet’s Our Very Own Carlin McCullough, Martyna Majok’s Ironbound, and Anna Ziegler’s Actually. On Broadway, she was associate director for the 2015 revivals of The King and I and Fiddler on the Roof. She spoke about her career, how she directs, and what’s up next.
Why she became a director:
“My route to directing was not direct. I actually started as a child not in the theatre, but I was a very serious gymnast. So I was a sports kid for most of my childhood, in the world of very, very serious competitive sports. When I got injured from gymnastics, theatre came into my life, through very physical practitioners like Ariane Mnouchkine, Complicite—I grew up in London—and Peter Brook. So I really entered the theatre as an athlete, and that naturally pushed me into performance. I went to a drama school in London called the Guildhall School of Music & Drama, which is very serious and rigorous classical British acting training.
“When I was in my first or second semester, I realized that I was a fine but very miserable actor. I loved the rehearsal process and the conception and creation of a piece of theatre, but not the execution. And because gymnastics is so much about performing and about being front and center, I think I was burned out from that and looking for a different kind of creative experience. So it was at Guildhall that I really identified a directorial instinct within myself.”
The road to directing, and Bartlett Sher’s influence:
“I got a very generous scholarship to Columbia University graduate school—Anne Bogart runs that program—and I came to Columbia after a couple of years of working in London, with this classical British acting training. Columbia’s program is very much about deconstruction and very intense experimentation, so my training was a perfect cocktail. In my first year, Bart came in and spoke to us. I hadn’t spent enough time in New York to understand who he was in the American theatre, so I remember very clearly googling his name on my way to class and thinking, who is this guy that’s coming in to talk to us? He spoke for two hours with my class, and the way he spoke about his work, his process, what it is to do the thing that we do, was like he was in my brain taking thoughts out of my brain. We were so aligned, I thought, and our frame of reference was so similar. So I said to Anne I really would like to meet him and talk to him.
“And we did, and he brought me on as an assistant for Golden Boy, and we did six or seven shows together in four years. I joked that it was my post-doctorate. It was extraordinary on many levels. He really is the great teacher of my creative life. And remains so.
“His thoughts about our craft, and being an American artist in this moment, he was my entry point into the American theatre—I’m half American and half British, I come from both cultures. I found it very moving and very powerful to understand theatre in this country and that history. I learned about that lineage. He was also my entry point into musical theatre, which was a genre I had assumptions about, and he totally blew apart those assumptions. I come from a background of Shakespeare and poetry and great heightened expression, and suddenly my early physical years with those kinds of practitioners, like Simon McBurney, plus my love of Shakespeare and my love of that kind of poetry came together in musical theatre in a really surprising way. I was not expecting that, and now it makes total sense, and I feel very interested and dedicated to that kind of heightened poetic expression.”
Her directing principles:
“My basic directing principle is that every piece of writing, every piece of theatre, demands its own process and has its own mood and regulations inside of it that you have to find in some way. Every piece demands its own basic directing principle. To come back to Bart, that was something he and I talked about a lot. Every piece of art is an autonomous piece of art. It has its own ecosystem and its own special vibrations and rhythms and rules that you have to expedite.”
In the rehearsal room with an actor:
“Acting was a big part of my life for many years, so that is the foundation of my training. I feel that many actors I have worked with will probably attest to the fact that I very much get into the trenches with them, figuring it out. I’m a very physical person. I like to be on the front lines with them. I get very close and intimate. I have a very visceral, for lack of a better word, relationship with the actors I work with.”
A mistake she made that she learned from:
“In the last couple of years I have made a couple of mistakes I have been pretty rigorous with myself in diagnosing. There was definitely a design in the last couple of years I did not totally crack, and that drives me crazy, when the space doesn’t serve the play as much. It was a very new play, so that was part of the challenge: how do you design something that is evolving at a very rapid speed? The operating mechanism at the center of the design did not serve the speed at which the story moved, and that was the result of the play not being ready enough, not knowing what it was at the beginning. That is something I think about a lot, how I would redesign that space now.
“If you really want to talk about mistakes in what we do: In gymnastics, especially when I was doing it, there was the culture of the perfect 10. Perfection was attainable for me as a gymnast. My journey as a theatre artist has been dismantling the idea of perfection. When you talk about mistakes, it’s like in every show there’s a mistake, and you have to learn how to live with that and how to learn from that and how to move on from that and understand that it is absolutely going to be the case with everything you do, to some degree. I can go into specific details, but I think that what’s most interesting in my trajectory is the dismantling of the idea of perfection.”
A good decision that paid off:
“When I have found writers I truly believe in. The best decisions I’ve made are about the collaborators I commit to and commit to me. That is really one of the greatest gifts of what we do—these long-term relationships and these repeated relationships. You build a body of work with another artist. When you find someone who is like-minded and has a shared value system, you don’t let go of them.
“I’m sure I’m not the first person to tell you that directing is an innately solitary experience. So the people you surround yourself with, and doing many pieces of work with those people, [is very important]. Of course with new collaborators it’s always fun to have fresh blood. But building a body of work with another theatre artist over time has been immensely rewarding.”
What’s up next?
“I’m in a very intense incubation period for a handful of new plays I’m doing this year. Some have been announced and some have not. Among the many, I’m developing a play with Sylvia Khoury that we’re doing at Williamstown [Theatre Festival, in Massachusetts] this summer [Selling Kabul, July 10-21, set in Afghanistan in these dangerous times and involving a former interpreter for the U.S. military and his brother-in-law], and we are doing another at the end of the year. She’s an extraordinary writer, and we’ve been developing some of these plays together from very, very early days. Sylvia and I have a very committed and long collaboration that we get to celebrate this year with multiple productions. And I’m doing a Keith Bunin play [Coast Starlight] at La Jolla Playhouse [in California, beginning in August]. So I feel very fortunate to be involved with such extraordinary new plays.