Stage Directions: Why Moritz von Stuelpnagel Says ‘Certainty Is Dangerous’

Interview   Stage Directions: Why Moritz von Stuelpnagel Says ‘Certainty Is Dangerous’
The Tony-nominated director of Hand to God, Off-Broadway’s Teenage Dick, and the upcoming Bernhardt/Hamlet gets real.
Moritz von Stuelpnagel Joseph Marzullo/WENN

“Often in theatre when we talk about disability it becomes a metaphor for overcoming obstacles, and it’s all from the perspective of a privileged, able-bodied audience, not necessarily the perspective of people with disabilities,” director Moritz von Stuelpnagel says. But the new play he is directing seeks “to examine from the inside what that life experience is like.”

Von Stuelpnagel is talking about Teenage Dick, a comedy by Mike Lew that is being presented by the Ma-Yi Theatre Company at the Public Theatre. The play, loosely based on Shakespeare’s Richard III, tells of an unpopular high school junior who is made fun of because he has cerebral palsy and who plots to seek revenge by taking down everything and everyone in his way on his quest to become president of the senior class.

Teenage Dick was commissioned and developed by The Apothetae, where von Stuelpnagel is an artistic associate. It stars Gregg Mozgala, who has cerebral palsy and who won a 2018 Lucille Lortel Award as Outstanding Featured Actor in a Play for his performance at Manhattan Theatre Club in Martyna Majok’s Pulitzer Prize-winning Cost of Living, which also dealt with the lives of people with disabilities. Mozgala is founder and artistic director of Apothetae, which presents plays dealing with the “disabled experience.”

A graduate of the Boston University College of Fine Arts and the Mason Gross School of the Arts at Rutgers University, he was the artistic director of the theatre group Studio 42 from 2009 to 2015, whose declared goal was to produce “unproducible” plays. Von Stuelpnagel earned a Lucille Lortel Award nomination in 2014 for directing Robert Askins’ Hand to God Off-Broadway and a subsequent Tony nomination when the play transferred to Broadway the following year. Last year, he directed Kevin Kline on Broadway in Present Laughter. The director’s other New York credits include Important Hats of the 20th Century, Verité, Love Song of the Albanian Sous Chef, and Lew’s Bike America. Next up, he’ll work with Janet McTeer on Broadway’s upcoming Bernhardt/Hamlet.

Von Stuelpnagel speaks about his career, his directing principles, Teenage Dick, and his future plans:

Why he became a director:
“I believe in storytelling. I believe that when we look at the world and we search for answers, we hope to have some perspective answered back to us. And I think the theatre does that really beautifully.

I often felt—in some ways—let down by my Catholic upbringing, because I thought that the lessons, at least in my church, focused on how we should behave, not an examination of how people do behave. And I believe that the theatre exists as a wonderful supplement to the church for that very reason. And I think that anytime I’m in the room exploring with actors and trying to figure out how to tell a story and experiencing that with an audience, it’s an opportunity to look at something for one to 1,000 people that lacks clarity. That feels really exciting to me.

“I thought for a long time that I wanted to be a graphic designer. But I also found that actors are much more malleable than Photoshop, because they talk back and you can engage them. Whereas Photoshop just does what you tell it to do. I find that I’m much better at orchestrating or conducting in that way because I have people to collaborate with.”

His directing principles:
“One of the things I believe is that certainty is very dangerous. By which I mean that when one feels obligated throughout the rehearsal process to some ‘given’ or some principle, it only limits. The more important thing is curiosity. Curiosity, by far, is much more valuable than certainty. Of course one has to be connected to one’s impulses and intuition, but also has to be humble and open and willing to change. The process of rehearsal is an exercise in doing that every day. Until one refines something to a point of greater clarity. Never full clarity, but greater clarity.

Steven Boyer in <i>Hand to God</i>
Steven Boyer in the Broadway production of Hand to God Joan Marcus

“I suppose another principle is listening. Trying to remain open, and understanding that within a collaboration each person is hoping for their contribution to be meaningful and to represent themselves at the best of their ability. When everyone feels empowered to do that, the entire production has the potential to become virtuosic. That means that I can’t muscle through my ideas. I have to help facilitate everybody in the room so that they can operate at their best.”

In the rehearsal room with an actor:
“The first thing I like to do is [deliver] whatever it is that they need. So I will often begin every rehearsal by just allowing them to run the lines, because I think if they’re caught in their head by what their lines are, then they can’t be focused on genuinely being fully present in the scene. Then we potentially begin by engaging questions. I’m essentially scanning for any place within the scene, any moment or any beat, that feels like it could use clarity—if the performers seem less confident or less sure. I try to lead an investigation into what’s happening in that beat or that moment or within the event of the scene. So by the time you get to the opening, hopefully the actors feel really excited to engage the events of every scene and aren’t fumbling their way through, secretly hoping that no one discovers they’re a fraud, which I think is a secret dialogue that many actors battle with. My main goal is to help them feel as confident and clear and excited for the game of every scene.”

A mistake he made that he learned from:
“At the beginning of my career my aesthetic probably geared more toward camp. I was drawn to highly choreographed comedy and slapstick as a means of orchestrating specificity. But what I neglected in some of those moments, even if they were genuinely funny, was [that there was] a glossing over of a deeper human experience—of what it is, even in a comedy, to suffer whatever slight, or indignity, or hunger, or act of retribution, or whatever it was that the character was actually experiencing. That now feels much more interesting to me. I’m much more interested in coming from an earnest place that allows the actor flexibility night-to-night as opposed to orchestrating a series of set slapstick moves.”

A good decision he made that he learned from:
“Anytime I trust the actor I feel like I’m making a good decision. Because there’s an impulse that they’re having that they need to listen to. Even if it’s ultimately not what ends up in the show, there’s something important that they need to investigate. If I shut it down, then they never really let go of it. They have it repressed somewhere inside themselves while they are forcing their bodies or hearts to do what I’ve asked them. When they’re having a strong impulse it’s for a reason and it needs to be engaged. Sometimes that’s frustrating because it’s not what I necessarily think the story might be. But sometimes I’m proven wrong. And then we stumble upon an even more interesting choice.”

Gregg Mozgala Marielle Solan

About his current play, Teenage Dick:
“It’s a project initiated by Gregg Mozgala, who’s our lead actor. Gregg’s an old friend of mine and he started The Apothetae to reexamine the narrative around disability. It’s a topic he and I have discussed often, and I feel really humbled, challenged and excited to be able to investigate it with him.

“It’s also a raucous comedy by Mike Lew, and Mike Lew and I are old collaborators, so it’s another opportunity for us to collaborate on a new project.

“Often when you come across narratives about disability you have able-bodied actors playing characters with disabilities. But we have two actors with disabilities in the cast ; in addition to Gregg, there’s Shannon DeVido, who is in a motorized wheelchair. Having those actors I think lends an air of authenticity to the dialogue that we’re trying to poke at. It’s an exciting challenge to work with these actors, to understand the strengths, challenges, limitations, and opportunities that these performers bring to the table. Any director working with any cast is often challenged by the elements of the people they’re collaborating with. This is no exception, and is a wonderful opportunity to listen and to engage and talk openly.

“When we talk about disability, or when we encounter people with disabilities, often able-bodied people are not sure what we’re allowed to ask—what’s appropriate, what’s not appropriate, what people feel comfortable with, what they don’t feel comfortable with. Ultimately, that’s a factor of each individual and their boundaries and limits. But this feels like a very open discussion and process, which I think is really exciting when that’s what the work is about.”

The future:
After Teenage Dick opens, I go up to Williamstown Theatre Festival to do a new play by Theresa Rebeck called Seared [performances begin July 25]. After that, I have another Theresa Rebeck premiere, at the Roundabout, at the American Airlines Theatre [Aug. 30 – Nov. 25]. That’s called Bernhardt/Hamlet, starring Janet McTeer, about Sarah Bernhardt playing Hamlet. And then I go to Playwrights Horizons to do a premiere of a Larissa Fasthorse play, The Thanksgiving Play [beginning Oct. 12]. I’ve also been workshopping a couple of musicals and would love to be doing a few more of them, so I can potentially tell stories on a larger scale, with a different vocabulary.”

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