InterviewWho Do Tony Award–Winning Directors Like Rachel Chavkin, Casey Nicholaw, and More Depend Upon Most?Seven people at the helm of current Broadway shows share why their associate directors are indispensable.
June 26, 2019
“An associate director is basically your third eye in the rehearsal room, someone you trust to take your vision and carry it through to the cast,” explains nine-time Tony-nominated director Scott Ellis (Tootsie; Kiss Me, Kate). “An associate director is not someone you ask to get coffee, that’s what assistant directors are for. An associate director keeps the understudies up to date and ready to go on. And, after the director is gone, an associate director is the person who monitors the show and makes sure it stays just as you left it.”
As a director's eyes and ears on a production once that show is up and running, associates are invaluable in theatre. And many of today’s most forward-thinking directors came up as associates; which reasons that tomorrow’s directors are today’s associates. Playbill took a look at some of the most prosperous partnerships on Broadway (and Off) this past 2018–2019 season to get inside the relationship between these theatrical leaders and their right hand people.
Rachel Chavkin, the Tony-winning director of Hadestown, has only had two associate directors in her whole career (including up-and-comer Sammi Cannold slated to make her City Center debut this fall). “I never had one until I got to Broadway, and Hadestown is my second Broadway show,” she explains. “I understood better after Great Comet what I need in an associate director. I’m not looking to them to do any of the directing. But I do need someone who is more than just competent as a note-taker and organizer; I need to trust that they can run a room when called upon to do so.
“I interviewed a ton of people before I found Tamilla Woodard. I wrote to about 10 different directors. Part of that, for me, was an opportunity to talk with talented colleagues; I absolutely love and value fellowship with other directors. But, because I am acutely aware of the lack of racial and gender diversity on Broadway, in terms of leadership positions, I was particularly focused on women and artists of color. Tamilla is deeply experienced, she’s deeply funny, Tamilla has a wonderful dramaturgical eye, she develops a lot of new work herself, and she was genuinely curious about the machinery and process of Broadway. I came to really value her opinion. She was a perfect match.”
Hadestown is Woodard’s first job as an associate director. “I’ve enjoyed it immensely,” she says. “I’m the associate artistic director of WP Theater and they let me off to do this; which is crazy! As a director, I do a lot of immersive work; I have my own theatre company, PopUP Theatrics, that asks the audience to participate, which is a lot of what Rachel does too. We work well together.”
“We had been working on Hadestown for some time,” Chavkin points out. “Tamilla walked into that room as the new person. She was a tremendous thinker, in terms of problem-solving. She became a very trusted dramaturgical voice.”
“In the London production, the character of Orpheus was kind of played as this rocker,” Woodard recalls. “But the actor, Reeve Carney, is just the opposite, he’s gentle and open; a curious soul. One of the central questions of Hadestown is: How do we step away from the idea of this white savior guy, who rolls into town and announces, ‘I got all the answers for all you suffering people. Follow me!’ Well, Orpheus has this great song, ‘If It’s True,’ which Reeve was singing as kind of declaration. I thought, rather than make ‘If It’s True’ a declaration, Orpheus should lean into the question. He has to ask, and not know the answer. Rachel really liked that.”
“I think it’s been 16 years we’ve been working together,” Casey Nicholaw begins. “I feel we’ve been finishing each other’s sentences since the first day we met,” Casey Hushion continues.
Nicholaw, the director and choreographer of The Prom as well as currently running The Book of Mormon, Aladdin, and Mean Girls, has long had but one preference as his associate director: Hushion.“I directed a production of My Fair Lady way back when in North Carolina,” he recalls, “and she was my assistant director—not yet my associate director. We had to share a car and that’s when we really bonded.”
“But we first met on a show called Double Trouble that was going to Wichita, and just for a day or two we overlapped on it, “ Hushion adds. “Casey had choreographed this one tap number and I was there to put an eye on it and learn it a bit out of town, so I could maintain it. I remember it was an immediate chemistry between us the second we met, like we’d been working together forever.”
“Eventually, I asked her to do Drowsy Chaperone, which was our first full production,” Nicholaw goes on. “I feel like our process has always been the same, though it’s definitely grown deeper. I know that Casey will take care of the acting room when I’m in the dance room. But I love to have Casey in the dance room, too, because she actually is a kick-ass dancer; she just doesn’t want people to know.”
“It’s even a joke that we have the same name,” notes Hushion. “People will say: ‘Oh look, it’s the Caseys!’”
“We both are kind of the same person,” Nicholaw admits. “The male version and the female version, with the male much, much older than the female.”
“As I’m getting older, my own directing career is more and more coming into focus for me,” Hushion observes, “but I love that I can balance that with these awesome opportunities with Casey. Which also works as an overall lifestyle choice for me because I have three young children.”
Nicholaw, in this sense, is slightly in awe of his associate director. “I’ll ask her, ‘What is your day like today?’ And she’ll say, ‘Well, I’m giving notes at Prom, then I’m running back home for a baseball game and then I’m taking Jane to dance, and then I’m coming back to do Aladdin, and then I’m going to watch Mean Girls because I have a rehearsal during that, and then I’m doing a reading of something new.’ Nicholaw sighs. “She’s actually Superwoman.”
3. Scott Ellis and David Solomon, Tootsie
On Tootsie, Scott Ellis opted for David Solomon as his associate director, having also teamed up on The Mystery of Edwin Drood among other things. “David and I have done many things together over many years; Broadway shows, big benefits, readings. He’s someone I listen to, but I also trust David to talk to an actor on my behalf. That says everything. I’ve had other associate directors with whom I would not do that. Not that they weren’t good. I just didn’t trust them in that way.”
Solomon, as it turns out, is one busy guy. “I’m currently directing a new musical called Pump Up the Volume, based on the 1990 Christian Slater film,” he says. “We’ve done some workshops and are now going to the Canadian Musical Theatre Project this Fall, where Come from Away started. I have a play that I wrote for Mario Cantone that was done at New York Stage and Film. I also have a short film that’s premiering and a screenplay that I’m writing.”
How will he find time to keep an eye on Tootsie? “I drop everything to work with Scott,” Solomon replies. Ellis, for his part, is unconcerned…mostly. “David will make it work. I actually want my associate director to have a career.”
Michael Mayer pursued Nick Corley as his associate director for this season’s revival of Lanford Wilson’s Burn This. “We’ve worked together before, and Nick is a wonderful director himself,” Mayer says, “but with this play I realized I needed someone who shared my personal history. Nick was in New York in the mid-1980s, around the same time that Burn This takes place. I knew he’d be able to articulate what New York was like for a cast that practically wasn’t alive then. Rather than have them read books or watch movies from the period, I thought it would be really enriching to hear our personal stories. I wanted someone beside me who had come through those wars, because those years were really difficult. I actually don’t usually do that—bring in an A.D. who can add context. But for Burn This I wanted one with life experiences to share, rather than just to give the cast my life experience notes. That was Nick. Nick and I are the same age. We’re the two old men, still here, together.”
“We all lost so many people during that time,” Corley acknowledges. “Lanford Wilson’s estate executor, Tanya Berezin, told me that people used to ask Lanford: ‘When are you going to write your AIDS play?’ And Lanford would say, ‘I already wrote it.’ The pain and the loss of that time are in Burn This in a beautiful and metaphoric way. The cast wanted to know what that was like, for real. Michael and I were able to tell them.”
For Jack O’Brien, director of the recent revival of Arthur Miller’s All My Sons, the choice of an associate director has long been vital as a means of passing the baton. “I’ve been very careful over the years to pick people who would benefit from sitting next to me as I direct,” he says, “because that’s the only way you finally learn. It’s not about watching a director succeed, it’s about watching them fail; it’s about watching good directors make mistakes, or it’s about watching them correct things, or watching them uncover things in the actual moment. You don’t study to be a director, you’re taught to be a director by dealing with the problems in front of you.”
O’Brien’s A.D. alumni list is long and distinguished, beginning with his first, a youngster named John Rando. For All My Sons, however, O’Brien chose a rather unexpected and impressively over-qualified A.D.; the four-time-Academy Award-nominated actor Marsha Mason.
“Marsha and I have been friends since the ’70s,” O’Brien explains, “when we were together in San Francisco at American Conservatory Theater—through and past her marriage to Neil Simon. And because Marsha’s an incredibly smart actress and uncommonly honest, I have often brought her in during my final rehearsals or early previews to ask: ‘What do you see? And, is there anything I should be worried about?’”
“I’ve been directing since the 1980s myself, on and off,” Mason adds, “but I’d never worked on a Broadway show. Jack was saying he wanted a woman’s perspective for All My Sons and I just said, ‘Please let me be your associate director.’ He asked Tracy [Letts] and Annette [Bening] if that was OK. And they were cool.
“Jack’s approach is remarkably different than mine,” marvels Mason, “which was so revelatory for me. Jack’s not an actor. And he’s far more patient than I am. He kept saying to me, ‘Let them struggle with things. Don’t try to fix it so quickly.’ He waits until previews start to work on things for the actors. He lets them hang out with difficulties far longer than I would normally do. I learned how really beneficial that can be.”
6. Elena Araoz and Kristin Rion/Amy Palen
Elena Araoz is a director of theatre and opera, who has staged productions at BAM and most recently directed Original Sound, by Adam Seidel, at the Cherry Lane Theatre. She’s worked with multiple associates, including Kristin Rion and Amy Palen, and strongly believes in fostering the next generation. “The reason I’m a director is due to my work as an associate director,” she says simply. “I started as an actor being directed by Sir Jonathan Miller and ended up very quickly becoming his associate director. I was completely amazed by his ability to speak to singers and actors in a way that illuminated a scene or a song for them so that they could make it their own. At the same time, Jonathan Miller does not read music and I have training as an opera singer. He needed somebody with that skill set. We also shared a sensibility, we both have a science background; I’m not a doctor, like he is, but I do speak that language. My work with him led me to associate director positions for Steven Soderbergh, Darko Tresnjak, Sir Richard Eyre. I picked up skills from all of them. They totally shaped how I work, now that the rehearsal room is my own.”
Off-Broadway, associate directors often have a more demanding workload. “My associate directors always have a way bigger role than they would in a Broadway situation,” states Young Jean Lee, whose play Straight White Men successfully moved to Broadway last season under the direction of Anna D. Shapiro but who works heavily Off-Broadway. “I have my own theatre company and it could not survive without an associate director. I’m writing, I’m directing and I am the artistic director. Rather than split off and become two people, I need my A.D. to be me.”
Morgan Gould was Lee’s longest-lasting associate director. “I worked for her from 2008 until 2013. I started out as an intern and then I was assistant director and then I was associate director and finally I was one of the co-creators with her on Untitled Feminist Show. More than any other A.D. job I’ve had, working for Young Jean was truly a conversation between how I saw her work and her own view of it; a real back and forth. She made me feel like I was an artist in the room, applying my craft to her vision, instead of just telling people where to stand, based on what my boss wanted.”
“There is this reversal of roles,” Lee agrees. “I don’t have formal training, other than the playwriting program I went to. I certainly don’t have any training as a director. Morgan does, as did most of my other associate directors. This is actually typical of my process; in the rehearsal room, everyone else usually knows more than I do, and I constantly seek out information from everyone else. They are all the experts, more than I am.”
As a result, observes Gould, “there’s a lot more pressure working for Young Jean as associate director because she actually treats you like an artist and makes you do stuff, which is really a gift but also scary. She would keep giving me tasks that I don’t really believe she even thought I could finish. And I would finish them because, well…I wanted to impress my boss. It made me the director that I am today; always pushing myself and the project to be better. Plus, I now stage really, really fast.”
“Let me really put this into perspective,” Young Jean Lee concludes. “My next book is dedicated to two of my associate directors, Megan Gould and Lee Sunday Evans. Why? Because my shows never would have happened without them.”