Stage Directions: Why Lileana Blain-Cruz Believes in Making Theatre an Epic Event

Interview   Stage Directions: Why Lileana Blain-Cruz Believes in Making Theatre an Epic Event
The Obie-winning director of Pipeline, Red Speedo, and more reveals her directing philosophy, early career missteps, and her pitch to the Park Avenue Armory.
Lileana Blain-Cruz Joseph Marzullo/WENN

“I’m attracted to the epic-ness of theatre,” director Lileana Blain-Cruz says. “Because it’s the thing that makes theatre feel unique amid a lot of different forms and a lot of different distractions. If we’re all alive inside of a life-giving event, it’s thrilling.”

Lileana Blain-Cruz and Dominique Morisseau Jeremy Daniel

Blain-Cruz, an Off-Broadway Obie Award winner for her direction, currently helms The House That Will Not Stand at New York Theatre Workshop, now playing through August 12. The play by Marcus Gardley is inspired by Federico García Lorca’s The House of Bernarda Alba and is set in early 19th-century Louisiana, after the Louisiana Purchase. It deals with the lives of four women of color: a widow and her three daughters.

Blain-Cruz has directed in New York City and at theatres across the United States. She won her Obie in 2017 for directing Suzan-Lori Parks’s The Death of the Last Black Man in the Whole Entire World. Other New York credits include Pipeline, Red Speedo, and War. She spoke about her career, her directing techniques, The House That Will Not Stand, and her future plans.

Why she became a director:
“It goes back to who are you as a human being. I was in college, and I didn’t really know that much about theatre, and I had gotten swept up in it and had taken a few acting classes. And in taking those classes I was fascinated that I always wanted to be on the outside and set up the scene—to be outside my own scene, and create the scene it was happening in.

“My senior thesis was Ntozake Shange’s For Colored Girls Who Have Considered Suicide/When the Rainbow is Enuf. Seven women, black women, onstage together, building a community. We had painted the floor with this incredible mural, we had a live band, we had the people in a circle. It was like activating a conversation on campus; what appealed to me was the ability to make an event and unite all the different art forms and gather people as humans in a space.

“For me, it was like, ‘People do this for a living? This is what I can do?’ Nobody had the heart to tell me that nobody makes a living for the first ten to 15 years. But that sense of creating a space where an event can happen and people can unite felt really powerful to me, and it’s kind of been the go-to reason for why I love making theatre and why I love to direct it.”

Her directing principles:
“I’m always engaged with the why and the why now. What does it mean to make the event now, for the here and now? It’s the starting point. If I were to work on a piece of Shakespeare, the question would be why? What about this story feels essential for this particular moment in time? Because ultimately it’s for the people who are living in this immediate moment, and it should feel connected in some way to that. It doesn’t mean that it has to be set in the contemporary time. But for me, theatre is so time-based that it has to feel urgent, because time is so precious.

Lileana Blain-Cruz Joseph Marzullo/WENN

“I find I love actors and I love designers and I love language and I love the ways in which those things intersect. When you ask that question [about directing principles] I get all muddled up because I think all these things have become synthesized into the creation of the event for me. I tend to work organically, and I start with the text and piecing out who the characters are from that and piecing out what the universe looks like from that and then trying to find the most organic and alive event for that in the immediate moment in time.”

In the rehearsal room with an actor:
“Casting is a crazy process but I learn a lot from the casting process and I learn a lot from seeing people work and what they bring into the room. So casting is really important to me. I try to find folks whose souls essentially resonate or reverberate with something that’s happening inside the character. And then when we get into the room together, there’s a lot of conversation and a lot of playing. I deeply believe in: let’s try it, let’s try it again, let’s try it this way, let’s try it that way, let’s explore all the different variations, and then find what feels most true.

“I went to the Yale School of Drama, and that also informed the way I think about what’s happening inside the scene, the super-intention. What does this character want, what does this character need in this moment, and how does this character attempt to achieve it? What are the stakes for each particular moment, why are they here in this moment right now, and what do they need for their life to move forward?”

A mistake she made that she learned from:
“It was relatively early in my career, but I used to equate my angst and anxiety and self-flagellation with caring about the arts. You can care deeply, deeply about the art and still have joy inside of it. You can be rigorous and have joy. That was a huge discovery for me. I would literally—privately of course, nobody would see this in the rehearsal room, but privately at home—go through torturous nights of sleeplessness, bemoaning everything, and I thought, ‘This is what it means, this shows that I care.’ And actually no, that’s just wasting a lot of time beating myself up for no reason when I can embrace the joy that I have in this process. This is why I came into this field in the first place, because it brought me happiness to be in a room with people. And so I learned that I didn’t have to figure it all out all by myself and come in with all of the answers. That I could embrace the joy of knowing where I wanted to go and knowing that finding it with a team of people can make that vision happen. And to do that with joy and excitement in the rigor as opposed to anxiety at home by myself.”

A good decision she made that she learned from:
“Somebody said that sometimes the folks you choose to collaborate with become your friends. That essentially you’re working with people who share [your vision or] who might also not share but can add tension to the dynamic in the room. Before I went to graduate school I assisted [director] Bart Sher often, and I noticed that he had a group of design buddies that he worked with a lot. And I was really fascinated by the camaraderie; I remember sitting in his office and watching them have this long history together. And thinking that that’s really beautiful, they kind of collectively created something for themselves.

“And I think that with the group of designers I’m working with on House and that I’ve worked with on various projects in New York and regionally, I’ve developed a kind of design family that I really love and care for. I’ve created a design group of family that has made the work really beautiful and rich and deep and that has been able to grow over time.”

About The House That Will Not Stand:

Harriett D. Foy, Lileana Blain-Cruz, Juliana Canfield, Marcus Gardley, Joniece Abbott-Pratt, Marie Thomas, Lynda Gravátt, Michelle Wilson, and Nedra McClyde from The House That Will Not Stand
Harriett D. Foy, Lileana Blain-Cruz, Juliana Canfield, Marcus Gardley, Joniece Abbott-Pratt, Marie Thomas, Lynda Gravátt, Michelle Wilson, and Nedra McClyde from The House That Will Not Stand Marielle Solan

“It’s a loose adaptation of The House of Bernarda Alba, which I’m obsessed with. I’ve always loved that work, and I think Marcus’ setting it in New Orleans in the early 19th-century is incredible. He’s got this wonderful sense of epic-ness and also humor, and he creates the most amazing female characters. It was wonderful to have Southern women of color on the page, popping out in all their majestic glory. I’m also always drawn to pieces that have a high sense of theatricality, and Marcus’ work embraces that.

“And thinking about what we learn in our history, and who exists in it and who doesn’t, I didn’t know about free women of color living in New Orleans and Louisiana. I didn’t grow up learning about that in terms of the Louisiana Purchase. You learn that Louisiana was sold and that the United States got all that land, but you don’t know that much about the people who were occupying that land. So this play gave me an entryway into that universe and those women that existed.

“The play is about this matriarch, Beartrice, who has three daughters, and we see her right after her husband has just passed and the Louisiana Purchase has just happened, and you see her essentially having to figure out what to do in the midst of this transition. Everything is on the brink of collapse, and you see her trying to protect her daughters. But at what cost?”

About her research trip to New Orleans for the play:
“I do research for every play. Every director has to do research. So much of the character of this play is about New Orleans, and Marcus talked to me so much about what it feels like in the heat, and the food, and the energy. And it seemed very important to me to get a sense of that, to find a way to imbue that in the play itself. You can talk about things, you can read about things, you can watch movies, but there’s nothing like getting to be and exist inside the place, even if it’s just for a few days.

“You’re only just scratching the surface, but just being able to be there was amazing. Congo Square, for example, is something that’s mentioned over and over again in the play, and getting a chance to stand on that square—it’s real. There’s a difference between something that’s an imagined square and something that actually exists, where former slaves actually gathered, where it was the sacred ground of the Houma tribe. And being able to stand there and feel that energy was very powerful for me.”

Her future plans:
“I’ve got a few shows coming up. I’m going to do Lynn Nottage’s Fabulation, or the Re-Education of Undine at Signature Theatre [Off-Broadway, November 20–December 30]. For the first time I’m doing an opera, Gounod’s Faust, at Opera Omaha [April 2019], which I’m very excited about. It’s a massive opera, on a large stage, one of those old, big opera houses. Faust is a big, complicated piece. As a director, I think sometimes it’s nice to open up into different forms, to have a chance to work your director muscles, but also to find new ways of expressing the universe.

“The one space I keep putting out into the universe that I want to take over is the Park Avenue Armory. So I’ll just say it again. I’m here. I can do it. I want to do it. I’m just putting it out there. I’m interested in doing everything, really.”

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