Stage Directions: George C. Wolfe Aims to Achieve Wonder Onstage

Interview   Stage Directions: George C. Wolfe Aims to Achieve Wonder Onstage
The game-changing director of Noise/Funk, the original Angels in America, and this season’s The Iceman Cometh reveals what it’s like inside his rehearsal room, a mistake he made early on, and what’s next.
George C. Wolfe Marc J. Franklin

“Eugene O’Neill’s expression of humanity, and expression of generosity, of seeing and finding yourself inside people who aren’t necessary like you, seemed a worthwhile journey to go on,” two-time Tony Award-winning director George C. Wolfe says, “for the actors, for me, and hopefully in turn for the audience.” Wolfe’s specific journey is through his current Broadway revival of O’Neill’s classic masterpiece The Iceman Cometh, for which Wolfe has been nominated for the ninth time for a Tony Award for his direction.

The revival stars Denzel Washington as the hardware salesman Hickey, who arrives at Harry Hope’s saloon to exhort its hopeless denizens to abandon the pipe dreams on which they rely to survive. O’Neill’s lengthy drama plays the Bernard B. Jacobs Theatre through July 1.

Wolfe, 63, won his Tonys for directing Angels in America: Millennium Approaches in 1993 and Bring in ‘da Noise, Bring in ‘da Funk in 1996. He has received 14 total additional Tony nominations (including this year’s) as writer, director or producer. He began his New York career Off-Broadway as a musical librettist/lyricist, with Paradise (1985), and then as a playwright with The Colored Museum (1986) and Spunk (1989), an adaptation of three Zora Neale Hurston stories that he also directed and for which he won a best director Obie Award. He made his Broadway debut with Jelly’s Last Jam, a musical about Jelly Roll Morton, winning Tony nominations as both librettist and director.

His many other Broadway credits include Angels in America: Perestroika (1993), On the Town (1998), The Wild Party (2000), Topdog/Underdog (2002), Caroline, or Change (2004), The Normal Heart (2011), Lucky Guy (2013), and Shuffle Along (2016). From 1993–2004 he was head of the New York Shakespeare Festival/Joseph Papp Public Theatre. As both a writer and director, Wolfe has innovated the art form through these landmark works and continues to shape the American theatre today.

Here, Wolfe speaks about Iceman, working with Washington, his career, how he directs, and his future plans.

Why he became a director:
“I think there’s an aspect of my soul, of my personality, that’s very suited to directing. I like being in the room with actors, I love creating a safe space and a chaotic space for the discovery to take place. I love creating a sense of community. I love being responsible for everybody going in the same direction on a journey, even though they take different ways to get there. I love the communal aspect of it. I remember, when I was an actor in college, manipulating a scene a certain way because I knew its correct rhythm. That’s not a very good quality as an actor, but it struck me, ‘Oh, if I know the correct way I think the scene should be played, why don’t I do the job that requires that sense of objectivity?’ When I directed in college, I thought, ‘This fits me incredibly well. It’s digging inside my soul.’”

His principles of directing:
“There are fundamentally two schools: You stand where you are and demand that actors come to you, or you go to where they are. It’s not just with actors, it’s designers, too. You go to where they are and you try to cajole, woo, seduce, engage, empower them to go on the journey that you think they should. I generally employ [those methods], because I really believe that if you force an actor to do something, there’s a piece of them you never get back. I think if you create a safe space and then challenge and engage, they will show up eventually inside the space you think they should be in, and they’ll show up with all of themselves, and with the secrets they know from having lived on the planet as long as they’ve lived here.

“You want to create this space where failure is possible, because there’s tremendous freedom in not knowing, and tremendous rigidity in having to be correct. If you create the freedom of not knowing, then what ends up happening is that everybody shows up with surprises and truths that on a subliminal level delight and engage an audience. Ultimately, theatre is about creating a sense of wonder, and I think wonder is achieved not by a kind of wide-eyed silliness but by being available to that which is most unknown, inside the material, and inside yourself. What you end up with is not just a series of scenes but the result of a journey that everyone has gone on that reveals a sense of moment to moment truth.”

In Wolfe’s rehearsal room with an actor:
“It varies. With Iceman there are 19 actors, including the two detectives that come in at the end. While working on Iceman I had to evolve 17 different ways of directing with these 17 [main] actors because they were all so incredibly and totally different. There really isn’t any one way. One thing I tend to do is ask actors tons and tons of questions to try to get at what they’re thinking but also to expose to them whatever box they’ve placed their characters in, to blow up that box, so the journey can begin. As you start to build a foundation, then you become very specific of what each moment is.”

A mistake he made that he learned from:
“I was doing a production of [Brecht’s] Caucasian Chalk Circle at the Public Theatre, and we came in the first day and read through the script sitting around the table. And the next day the actors showed up and there was no table, and we started staging the material. And they all looked at me and said, ‘Where’s the table, where’s the table?’ It was the biggest mistake I ever made because it was a selfish decision, because I was thinking about what I needed to stage, and I wanted a very rigorous, very muscular production, and I instantly started to work, and it skipped over that process of asking and questioning. And I never did that again. When I start rehearsals, I sit around working with the actors, I talk to them and they talk to me and they talk to each other, and we evolve a way of working. And while we’re working around the table—sometimes at the end of the first week, sometimes at the end of the second—the emotional stakes of scenes begin to manifest themselves inside the actors and they begin to get up and start to move around. And since that play (it was many years ago [1990], when Joe Papp was still alive) I realized that you don’t have to force anything, that an actor, a company, will let you know when they’re ready for blocking. It just requires having confidence that I can stage this play in X amount of time and I need not panic. Because if I bring any panic into the room it’s going to be at the expense of somebody else’s process.”

A good decision he made that he learned from:
“It goes back to college. It was a work I had written, a play with music, and we were on break, and I was talking to the composer, and the cast was over in the corner making noise, and they kept on making noise, and I kept on asking them to be quiet. And then I realized, when I was about to get angry with them, that they were over in the corner solving a problem. One of the things I learned very early on was that if you cast the show correctly, and if you’ve created the right energy in the room, the solution is also in the room. The solution doesn’t necessarily come from someone, but if everybody is working in a very steadfast and rigorous way, then everything you’re looking for is in the room.”

About The Iceman Cometh:
“Denzel Washington and I have known each other for some time, and he wanted to do another play on Broadway. After a series of conversations, he ended up wanting to do Iceman. And I went, ‘Oh, okay... It was not number one on my hit parade, but let me see.‘ And I read it, and I was having such an incredibly difficult time finding my way inside Act 1, in part because O’Neill writes this incredibly thorough, detailed explanation of the characters, their behavior, what they look like, how they move, what they’re thinking. And I was wondering: why do I need to show up, and why do the actors need to show up? We just need to obey this. But once I got past the idea of obeying the details of these people, whom he knew and clearly loved and clearly valued, I was struck by the incredibly intricate dance the characters do—finding what is the correct proportion between the lies we tell ourselves and the truths we confront. And if the proportion isn’t correct, if we believe more lies than truth, it sends us in one spiral. But if we confront too much of the truth, it sends us in a different spiral. I was really fascinated by having people who, in theory, are without power yet are wrestling with and trying to resolve these things that I think everybody wrestles with every day of their lives.

“I was also struck by one of the things O’Neill said: that from living at these two bars, the Golden Swan Café and Jimmy the Priest’s [which inspired O’Neill in writing the play] he learned not to judge anyone. I realized that he loved them so much because he found himself inside them.”

On working with Denzel Washington:
“Denzel has astonishing craft, very rigorous craft, digging at the words, digging at the phrases, digging at the thought underneath the words and the phrases. Getting to the rhythm. It was like working with a really great actor. Everybody knows Denzel’s a star, because he has that thing that makes people want to watch him. But I was instantly captivated and consumed by how consumed he was with the material. It became, for lack of better words, this very fun, rigorous journey of searching for what was going on inside the material with someone who was searching just as aggressively. I think all really good actors go on excavations. They reach for the language, they reach inside themselves, and they connect the two, and hopefully come up with something that is surprising and engaging for an audience. And Denzel’s a brilliant excavator.”

The future:
“I don’t know. I’m writing some stuff, thinking about a couple of movies, I have a couple of play offers, a couple of musicals I’ve been working on. [The late writer] Peter Stone had this phrase, that when you do a play the patient lives and the doctors all die. Every single time a play opens, I feel like a piece of me dies. You have this period of recovery, and shortly after that process the thing I really enjoy is that you feel new again, and you look inside yourself and you go, what journey do you need to go on? That’s where I am right now. I need to figure out what land I need to visit. If I’ve lived in one world, the next thing I do I want to be a completely different landscape. So I can keep recharging and work on completely different muscles.”

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