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Creative Interviews

Sarna Lapine On Directing “Watch On The Rhine” for Spotlight on Plays

Sarna Lapine (Sofia Colvin)

You are probably familiar with the name Sarna Lapine, you know, the director of “Sunday In The Park With George,” “Madame Butterfly,” “Little Women,” “War Horse” and “Dirty Dancing,” just to name a few. Well, Lapine has decided to turn her focus to a new production and is doing a livestream of Lillian Hellman’s, “Watch On The Rhine”, as part of the “Spotlight on Plays” series to benefit The Actors Fund, Thursday, May 13th at 8pm, livestreaming on Stellar. Yes, this Thursday, Lapine and a global cast will mount this production after only a three-day period of reflection and rehearsal and give a riveting performance of the classic antifascism, Nazi-Germany drama, set in a wealthy home in the United States.

Lapine, discussing this project, explained that “it’s the first thing I’ve done in this particular way, with the livestream.” The original Broadway production, which won a New York Drama Critics Circle Award in 1941, showed audiences 80 years ago, the depth of storytelling that Hellman was capable of. Reflecting on why she chose this play Lapine shared, “I think part of the reason I’ve had a diverse career is that my first love is reading and literature. I gravitate towards writers and stories that grab me by the throat. I had never seen or read this play and I was grabbed by it. It’s chilling because of how it resonates in this moment and time. One of the little handbooks I keep in my pocket is ‘On Tyranny Twenty lessons for the Twentieth Century’ by Timothy Snyder. I’m Jewish, so I have a close relationship to the history of WWII as a Jewish person. Because of my education in that, some of the things that Donald Trump and his party have stood for have frightened me, because there are echoes of Hitler and Nazism. Timothy Snyder’s book lays out lessons from history that can alert us to the rise of tyranny now. The last lesson is to be as courageous as you can. ‘If known of us is prepared to die for freedom, then all of us will die under tyranny,’ page 115. What was also a discovery in thinking about this book in relationship to this play is he echoes Hamlet, ‘the time is out of joint’. In Lillian’s play, Kurt (the main character) says, ‘the world is out of shape.’ Hellman was living this history, traveling the world, she had a front row seat to see fascism. I was struck by the fact that it opened on stage in 1941. She’s writing in the crucible of this moment and watching how it’s taking shape in the minds and hearts of ordinary citizens. It’s not a piece about heroes and villains, it’s about ordinary citizens in Europe and American and the decisions we make every single day that tip the hand of history…The piece gets to the heart of the moral, ethical and modern realities of what happens to citizens who are faced with the threat of tyranny. 80 years later it’s a continuum.”

The message of this play could not possibly resonate more than it does today. “At it’s core it’s a conversation. In this country, whether or not we stand and choice democracy, this is a conversation that I want to be in, even with people who don’t see the world the way I do.”

Staying true to the original 1940s based play, without the benefit of sets, costumes and a physical theatre, Lapine focused on the bottomline, “Plays are language based. The language of the play is routed in the period in which it was written. One esthetic choice I made was editing all the footage in Black and White, which gives a nod to the 1940s period in which the film was made. There are very few stage directions presented as title cards.

Pondering the challenges of doing a livestream, Lapine remarked, “The challenge is the lack of physical interpersonal connection. The energy that comes from being in a room with an amazing group of artists. Time is out of joint when we can’t live through that moment together and have the luxury of time to do a deep dive into the material.” Considering audiences consumption of the production, Lapine suggests watching with friends, so that you can discuss it afterwards.

Lapine will be directing an outstanding cast including Ellen Burstyn; Alan Cox; Sasha Diamond; Alfred Enoch; Carla Gugino; Luca Padovan; Mary Beth Peil; Gabriella Pizzolo; Neel Sethi and Jeremy Shamos. “This pandemic has been so devastating to our theater community. I almost have no words and still feel very much in that space. It’s a lot that has been lost and I think to make any contribution to this community is the least I can do. I want to work towards not only healing, but reimagining how we can rebuild ourselves in a healthier form, more sustainable and reflective of the world so many of us want to live in.”

Spotlight on Plays is presented by Broadway’s Best Shows. You can purchase individual tickets to Watch on the Rhine (May 13-17) at Stellar Tickets. All proceeds go to benefit The Actors Fund.


Linda Armstrong is a theatre critic with the New York Amsterdam News, Theatre Editor for Neworldreview.net, A&E Editor for Harlem News Group and has written for Playbill Online, had a Theatre column “On The Aisle” for Our Time Press, Network Journal Magazine, Show Business Weekly Newspaper, Headline Magazine, Theatre Week Magazine, Black Masks Magazine, and the New York Daily News. Lincoln Center Performing Arts Library interviewed her for their “Critical Perspectives” series, and she was cited on the Jeanne Parnell Radio Show in March 2021 as a Woman Making History.

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Interviews

The Thanksgiving Play

By: Larissa FastHorse

Larissa FastHorse

I’ve been fortunate to do a lot of press about The Thanksgiving Play over the past few years as it became one of the most produced plays in America. So, if you want to know the origin story of the play, please google it. There are many radio, TV and printed interviews where I have answered those questions. This production is different. 

Larissa FastHorse

I have barely done any theater since Covid shut down our field. I’m fortunate that I also have a career in film and TV that, although significantly slowed, kept me employed over the past year. As the theater field put things online, I happily gave permission for folks to do this play on zoom and other virtual venues. I showed up at a few rehearsals and the talk backs were supportive and enthusiastic. But the truth is, I didn’t watch any of those productions. Not one.  I have not admitted that before now. The truth is, I was too heartbroken to watch.  

Bobby Cannavale stars in “The Thanksgiving Play”

Although I didn’t start in theater, I did start on stage. I love performing, I love watching  performances, I love being in a room with people working to touch hearts and change minds. I am a social introvert but put me on a stage, no matter how large or small, and it immediately feels like home. When I tried to do theater work on zoom, I would leave the session more  depressed than before I started. I deiced I just wasn’t going to do it. I would do my privileged  writing work and wait out the pandemic until my field returned. 

Keanu Reeves stars in “The Thanksgiving Play”

Then I got a call from Jeffrey Richards with the opportunity to support one of my favorite organizations, The Actors Fund. I said yes, but I planned to keep my distance and protect my broken heart. However, Jeffrey isn’t a guy who lets you sit on the sidelines. He was calling me for ideas of directors, actors, collaborators. We landed on Leigh Silverman, a director I had only met briefly but admired for a long time. I then tried to pass all decisions on to her, but Leigh is exactly my kind of director, collaborative and fun. Before I knew it I was sucked further in.  

Leigh Silverman, Director

Then a Covid miracle happened, Leigh and I zoomed with the delightful Keanu Reeves and he agreed to play Caden. (My teen self was more star struck than I knew I could be, while my  professional self tried desperately to keep it together.) Keanu asked me if I’d consider re-setting the entire play on zoom. He immediately started playing zoom ideas for Caden. I burst  out laughing and suddenly I was completely on board.  

Heidi Schreck stars in “The Thanksgiving Play”

Before I knew it my assistant and I were going word by word through the script, coming up  with small but significant changes to place these four familiar characters in a whole new world, so that the audience could be immersed with them instead of having to pretend we weren’t on screen.

Alia Shawkat stars in “The Thanksgiving Play”

The rest of the dream cast fell into place quickly and once again, I was in love. In love with the process, in love with the raw bravery of actors, in love with how designers make everything from nothing, in love with directors’ ability to see everything at once, in love with the awkwardness of zoom (When Heidi lost her internet I got to rehearse a scene with Keanu and  Bobby!), in love with theater and the way it can make us laugh and cry and rage and change all  in a few moments of time.  

Larissa FastHorse

I didn’t know it could happen so fast, but this process began to heal my broken heart. Like  always, when you watch this play I hope you laugh and enjoy yourself and question everything  you thought you knew. I also know that in the past year, lives were lost and changed and we will never be the same, but now that we are on the cusp of recovery for our field, I hope that  this wild zoom play at this moment in time will help you start to heal too. I’ll see you online,  and then, soon, I’ll see you back in the theater.  

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Interviews

Dessie Moynihan

By: Linda Armstrong

March is Women’s History Month and it is a time when women who paved the way are recognized for their accomplishments. Dessie Moynihan is the perfect person to recognize as she changed the face of senior management at the Shubert Organization in 2006 when she became the first woman to be named a vice president. “I’ve seen Shubert grow from a very private company that had been family run to a multifaceted corporate organization. As time went on there was another female vice president appointed–in Human Resources–and in the past 5 years a number of women have risen to the director level, which is really great. I see a change in the world and I see a change at the company. Leadership has embraced it, so it’s not as singular as it once was,” Moynihan explained. 

Reflecting on her responsibilities as Vice President of Creative Projects, Moynihan stated, “My department looks for material for Shubert to produce, invest in and book into our theatres. Part of that is putting money into plays and musicals that other people are producing. Part is thinking about what should go into our Broadway houses. Part of it—the really fun part—is being in a project from the very beginning and seeing it through to opening. Right now with Neil Meron we’re developing the new musical ‘Some Like It Hot’ by Matthew López, Amber Ruffin, Marc Shaiman & Scott Wittman, directed & choregraphed by Casey Nicholaw. It’s been a delight. And I’m lucky enough to work with Bob Wankel, our Chairman and CEO, on both bookings and productions.”

Breaking down the booking process, Moynihan explained, “We keep up with what is going on in theatre in New York, across the country and around the world. We go to London to have meetings and see shows. Most of my interaction is with the producer. He or she will say, ‘I have this new musical, I’m doing a reading and I’d love for you to come see it and give us a theatre.’ There’s a long list of productions that want to play Broadway but the list of available theatres is short and has been for several years. It’s complicated by the fact that some shows have been quite successful and they take their theatre ‘off the market’ for a long time: ‘Phantom of the Opera’ has been playing for over 30 years, ‘Chicago’ over 20, and there are several other long-runners. In our smaller theatres we tend to book limited-engagement plays. If we know a show will run for 16 weeks, we can book a second show for the same season. Overall it’s a complicated puzzle with many factors, including making sure we have our houses lit, that we give new producers a chance and that we host a diverse range of material and voices.”

Dessie Moynihan

The Shubert Organization owns and operates 17 Broadway theatres, but its profits go the Shubert Foundation, a charitable organization. Since its establishment in 1977, the Foundation has awarded over $505 million to not-for-profit theatres, dance companies, educational institutions and arts-related organizations throughout the United States. Last year, $32 million was awarded to 560 performing arts organizations. “One of our priorities at the Shubert Organization is to ensure that we can contribute to the fantastic work the Foundation is doing, especially in this time when so many non-profit companies will be in such dire straits.” 

The pandemic has definitely affected Moynihan’s work. “Every company, every person in the industry has been impacted by this. Shubert’s income was drastically reduced. We own Telecharge, but for the past year very few people have been buying tickets. We had to make severe cuts. My routine is very different. Not being able to go to readings, workshops and productions has been difficult. I watch things online, but it’s just not the same experience. I check in with producers to see if their plans have changed and how their shows are progressing. With our own projects, like ‘Some Like It Hot,’ we are proceeding with the development process. 

The focus for everyone right now is the future,” Moynihan remarked. “Communication with our audience is going to be even more important. New Yorkers will be there right at the start, then domestic tourists and then international travelers. It’s impossible to predict exactly what people will want to see when this is over. But I think it will need to make a statement, to speak to the truth of being a human being or to be terrific entertainment. Hopefully there are shows that do all those things! I think that’s what people are craving–to be moved, to laugh, to be brought to tears.” 

“The thing that’s great about Broadway is that it really is a community. Even though there is competition among producers and creatives, there is a feeling, especially with the Broadway League, that we’re all in this together. I’m hoping that when we relaunch, there is going to be a burst of excitement and we can get back onto the regular Broadway season with the Tony Awards in June. Having been through this weird year, everyone is feeling, yes, there is a way forward,” Moynihan declared. 

Moynihan’s path to where she is today was an interesting one. While growing up in Manchester, New Hampshire she didn’t get bitten by the theatre bug until she was a member of the Drama Club in High School. Her theatre teacher told her if she wanted to do theatre, she needed to go to Hunter College in New York City. She only applied to Hunter, got in, headed for New York City without knowing anyone. “It was 1973. I got a room at a YWCA on the East Side,” she recalled. She left New York the next year, but came back for graduate school, receiving her M.A. in Drama and Dance and a Ph.D. in Performance Studies from NYU. “They were academic degrees, as opposed to acting and directing. But they gave me a knowledge of the history of the craft. I learned how the discipline evolved. If someone said ‘I want to do a Brecht play,’ I knew who Brecht was and his theories,” Moynihan explained. “I was also an Assistant Editor at ‘The Drama Review,’ a quarterly publication, and that trained me in the ways to think about performance and write about it.”

While at NYU she worked at Circle Repertory Company in the PR/Marketing department, headed by Richard Frankel, who would go on to be a Broadway producer and general manager. “PR is a very high pressure environment and I learned an incredible amount about the process. Because of that I was then able to get a job at Ensemble Studio Theatre, again in marketing. It was a smaller organization; there weren’t walls between departments. I was able to move from Marketing to Literary, where I felt most comfortable. As Literary Manager I worked with member artists who were creating projects and assisted Artistic Director Curt Dempster with developing shows for the main stage. That was one more piece of the puzzle that was helpful when I got to Shubert,” Moynihan said.

From 1988 to 1995 Moynihan worked at The Shubert Foundation, starting as the Program Assistant processing applications and eventually moving up to Program Director, where her responsibilities included meeting with applicants, seeing productions, and preparing material for Executive Director Vicki Reiss. Being a multi-tasker, Moynihan also taught theatre history and dramaturgy for the first five years of her time with the Shubert Foundation.

The Shubert Foundation proved to be vital groundwork for Moynihan to move forward. “It was from the Foundation, getting to know all of those theatres across the country and what they were doing, that made for a natural transition to the creative side. In 1988, the landscape of the American theatre was very different from what it is today. Non-profits usually didn’t take their work to Broadway themselves. If a show was successful, a commercial producer would come by and move it. ‘A Chorus Line’ changed all that. It originated at The Public Theatre; but instead of giving it to someone else, the Public raised the money and moved it to Broadway. It was a risk but it turned out to be a giant hit. And it demonstrated a theatre could produce a show commercially, retain artistic control and have money flow back to nurture the core mission. So suddenly there was a ton of new work being generated by theatres across the country. At Shubert, there wasn’t a department dedicated to tracking that or looking for material for us to produce ourselves. I was in the right place at the right time. Because I was at the Foundation, worked in non-profit theatre and had the educational background, I was the person who was selected to start Creative Projects department in 1996,” Moynihan recalled.

Moynihan commented, “I had no idea what my future would be. I didn’t have a strategy. I am amazed that my path has been such a wonderful journey. I’m just one of the luckiest people in the world. I am incredibly grateful to the people who helped me and pushed me and gave me opportunities: Richard, Vicki, Bob, Curt, Jerry Schoenfeld, Bernie Jacobs, Phil Smith. I owe them–and many more–a great deal.”

Speaking to young women who want to be a part of the theatre industry, she said, “There are places for you. The most important thing is to seize every single opportunity. Every networking event—do it. Contact someone and say, ‘I heard you speak on a panel, can we have coffee or can I talk to you for 10 minutes?’ Find a company, a production, a play that speaks to you and try to meet the people behind it. I’ve found that people are usually very generous about sharing their advice and experience because someone helped them. Be prepared. Put your best foot forward. Connect in any way you can. Because you never know where that connection is going to lead.” 

Linda Armstrong is a theatre critic with the New York Amsterdam News, Theatre Editor for Neworldreview.net, A&E Editor for Harlem News Group and has written for Playbill Online, had a Theatre column “On The Aisle” for Our Time Press, Network Journal Magazine, Show Business Weekly Newspaper, Headliner Magazine, Theatre Week Magazine, Black Masks Magazine, and The New York Daily News.

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Interviews

The Clothes Are Always Talking

By Mark Blankenship

Dede Ayite

Before she became a costume designer, Dede Ayite studied behavioral neuroscience, and the two disciplines aren’t as different as they might sound. 

“Part of my training [in college] was focused on understanding psychology, and the process of research and uncovering gave me skill sets that come into costume design,” she says. “I’m trying to go past what you’re seeing on stage to add depth and layering to the character. What makes them come alive? What moves them? What breaks their heart? I love finding ways to express that, and to my mind, it all translates to costumes.”

The breadth of Ayite’s expressive power is reflected in the current race for the Tony Awards, where she has two nominations for Best Costume Design of a Play. On one end of the aesthetic spectrum, she’s been recognized for her work on Slave Play, Jeremy O. Harris’ formally audacious satire about interracial couples who enact plantation fantasies to work through their sexual and personal baggage. On the other, she’s also been nominated for the revival of A Soldier’s Play, Charles Fuller’s drama about the murder of a Black soldier in he 1940s. 

Production Still from “Slave Play”

With Slave Play, she knew her clothes had to match the heightened world of the script. In the first scene, for instance, the audience doesn’t know that the characters are modern people pretending to live in the antebellum South. “I wanted to drop little hints, so that we didn’t get ahead of the satire,” Ayite says. 

Production Still from “Slave Play”

That’s why, when the character Kaneisha entered wearing a slave costume, it read as “traditional” from the neck down: a dirty blouse, a cloth skirt, and a well-worn apron. “But I also threw a head scarf on her that was a bold blue color,” Ayite notes. “During that time, a slave wouldn’t be wearing such a vibrant head wrap, so that shifted it enough to make us aware that something was a little off.” Similarly, she added lacy black gloves to another character’s plantation mistress outfit, hinting at the sexual fetishes she would reveal later. 

With a more realistic show like A Soldier’s Play or David Mamet’s American Buffalo, which Ayite will design for its upcoming Broadway revival, the costumes have to do just as much storytelling, but it has to be almost invisible. “Those are the hardest kinds of shows!” Ayite says, laughing. “A pair of jeans is never just a pair of jeans. You’re sorting through potentially 50 pairs of jeans to find the one that moves the right away and has the right tone and color.”

Production Still from “A Soldier’s Play”

In A Soldier’s Play, all the characters wore similar military uniforms, but Ayite was still able to reflect their individuality. “I personalized their uniforms through several distressing techniques:  sweat, wear and tear, the degree to which a uniform has been cared for,” she says. “Did a particular uniform have a crease because that soldier was adamant about always looking sharp? Or did it fit a tad looser based on that soldier’s relationship to their role in the military?” 

Dede Ayite

Currently her preparations for the American Buffalo revival have her thinking about how Donny, a junk shop owner in 1970s Chicago who will be played by Laurence Fishburne, might present himself. “I want to honor where he is and what survival means to him,” she says. “He might not be dressed in something from the time period of the play. He might be dressed in a garment from a slightly earlier time period — a time when he was at the height of who he thought he was. He might be dressing as the person he used to be.”

This deep thinking is crucial to Ayite’s work. She explains, “The first read of the script is the most important to me, because after I read a play for the first time, I give myself a moment to tap into my immediate emotional reactions. I make a point to hold that somewhere in my mental space. I’m always hearkening back to it to make sure I then can capture that for an audience member.”

Dede Ayite’s work in “American Son”

In some ways, that first read of the play is the closest Ayite will ever come to being an audience member for the production herself. Acknowledging her own first reactions helps ensure that her designs keep the audience in mind. “I want to remind myself about what happened to me when I read it,” she says. “If there was wonder, how do I create wonder? I want to take audiences on that type of journey through specific choices with the clothes.” 

Mark Blankenship is the founder and editor of The Flashpaper and the co-host of Mark and Sarah Talk About Songs

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Interviews

David Cromer: The Sound Inside

By Harry Haun

Tony Award Winning Director David Cromer

‘Even though I know how to write a play, I want a novella in the theatre.’ I was excited by that. You couldn’t put the story down. It was so evocative. It was like diving into a beautiful novel.

Because director David Cromer more or less specializes in drama—much more than less but not exclusively—he was surprised to get his 2018 Tony for a musical. Granted, “The Band’s Visit” was a character-rich musical and he fortified it with three Tony-winning performances from the cast (Tony Shalhoub, Katrina Lenk and Ari’el Stachel), the turf was still unfamiliar to him. It was to be Hal Prince’s last show, and, when he couldn’t make it, its producers scouted around for a likely replacement, their sites finally settling on Cromer because of the care and craft he showed drama.

Production Still of “The Band’s Visit”

Currently, Cromer is contending for his second Tony more comfortably with something right down his alley. “The Sound Inside” is a play that theatrically pushes the envelope. 

Its author is the prolific Adam Rapp. Like Cromer, he is a Chicago native who started his invasion of New York’s theatre scene in 2000 by transplanting his Steppenwolf productions Off-Broadway. In 21 years, he has turned out 26 plays, one of which (“Red Light Winter”) was a Pulitzer Prize finalist in 2006. “The Sound Inside” marks his first time on Broadway and his first shot at a Tony. 

Adam Rapp with David Cromer

“I’ve known Adam forever, in Chicago and here,” Cromer says. “We actually have the same agent. When this play came up, I was given it to read. Usually if I get a new play, I procrastinate, fearing the worst. This, I whip through in one sitting and said yes.”

Mary-Louise Parker and Will Hochman in “The Sound Inside”

At first glance, the director found much to admire about the piece. “It was just so rich. I love that it challenged the theatre form. Adam is a very gifted playwright who wrote a play which he was aggressively turning back into prose. He said, ‘Even though I know how to write a play, I want a novella in the theatre.’ I was excited by that. You couldn’t put the story down. It was so evocative. It was like diving into a beautiful novel.

“I was drawn to trying to explore the feeling of reading prose by yourself, reading a great novel on a cold night, with only one light on, at home—but in the communal experience.”

David Cromer in “Our Town”

 “The Sound Inside” had its shakedown-cruise premiere in June of 2018 at Mandy Greenfield’s Williamstown Theatre Festival and opened on Broadway in October of 2019 at Studio 54. Mary-Louise Parker, who’s performance is Tony-nominated, carries a star’s load of the show alone, playing a seriously ill Yale creative-writer professor who narrates the play verbally but constantly scribbles in her notebook as if she’s writing the story she’s living. A Broadway-bowing Will Hochman plays the only other character in the play, a wannabe young writer she takes under her wing to mentor, hoping he can come to her aid. 

Parker, one of our most articulate and persuasive actresses, was already attached to the project when Cromer came aboard. “I don’t know what Adam was thinking when he wrote it, but he may have done what he always does, which is to write and then he finds an actor later,” figures Cromer. “Mandy and Adam and Mary-Louise had already decided that they wanted to do that play at Williamstown, and I was the last piece of the puzzle and I think she and I were a good team. I would love to take credit for that performance, but I can’t. She’s one of the best there is.

Mary-Louise Parker in “The Sound Inside”

The amount of memory work Parker’s part requires was pretty staggering. “It was, I’m sure, very difficult for her to do. It was a problem because it also kept changing. It evolved. Mary-Louise has great instinct about the progress of a play, and Adam was doing beautiful work rewriting while we rehearsed. It was hard, and we all just kept making it harder—but to the betterment of the play.”

Mary-Louise Parker

“Mary-Louise must manifest so much of it and not have anything but her voice to do it. She was alone a lot of the time. We were happy when Will came on, but she had to spend most of it alone.”

David Cromer with Will Hochman

Hochman was a find the director is particularly proud of. “Will was the last guy who came in. He heard about the play, got to read it and really hustled. He came in and said—not literally, of course—‘No one will work harder on this than me. No one will give you everything they’ve got like me.’ So that was exciting. When he left the room, Mary-Louise said ‘Yup, that’s the one.’

“What’s interesting about Will is that he wanted to be an actor all his life, and he wouldn’t admit it. He went to college and studied finance, and finally, late in college—it was like coming out of the closet—he said, ‘Goddammit, I want to be an actor.’ And, a couple of years later, he’s starring in this play on Broadway. He had not spent his life preparing to do it, and then, through grit and determination, got it there. You hope The Guy is going to come in and appear. You hope you can solve this terrible problem, which is we don’t have anyone for the play. He came in and won it.”

Production Still from “The Band’s Visit”

The drama at hand comes at you in a kind of theatrical freefall where you’re offered a variety of interpretations, not the least of which is that the whole story might have happened in the head of Parker’s character. Cromer believes it’s a matter of sorting out what’s real and what’s not.

David Cromer acting in “The Waverly Gallery”

“Mary-Louise’s character wrote a piece about a kid who ran through a wall. She called the kid Billy Baird, and her name is Bella Baird. In the play she tells us her mother had neurofibromatosis, that terrible illness that creates tumors and becomes cancerous. Then later, when she finds out she has cancer, she doesn’t want to go through what her mother went through. She says, ‘I don’t have neurofibromatosis. I just have good old-fashioned cancer.’

“That’s what Adam’s mother died of. First of all, none of it is real. It’s all created. Bella’s a teacher at Yale, and Adam was a teacher at Yale. Every life is made up of a bunch of little details. It’s all constructed out of other things. Everything we look at is made out of other things. It’s all real, it’s all happening, and then none of it is happening. I change my mind about what is true in this play all the time. 

“Adam lived it–so it’s all real, and, simultaneously, none of it is real–which is the pure nature of art. It can be interpreted many ways. I interpret it many ways depending on the day, and actors will interpret it different ways on different days.”

David Cromer in “Our Town”

Harry Haun has covered theater and film in New York for over 40 years. His writing has appeared in outlets such as Playbill Magazine (“On the Aisle” and “Theatregoer’s Notebook”), New York Daily News (where he wrote a weekly Q&A column (“Ask Mr. Entertainment”), New York Observer, New York Sun, Broadway World and Film Journal International.

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Interviews

The Sound Inside: Heather Gilbert

By: Heather Gilbert

In the before times, we used Zoom to design “The Sound Inside”. Scattered around the world, we came together on a morning in March 2018 for the first time, some in person and some virtual, for our first meeting for the show. This is always my favorite moment–to hear David Cromer’s words, to listen deeply and hear what is important, what we want to explore and where the weight is.

These are the notes I took that morning. 

So sad 

So cold

Time of year when it is dark too early

Bleak but woodsy 

Is color still a thing 

And you are 

Fast simple spare

Things appear

She stands right of center a little US and on a diagonal 

Things only appear when we need them

Trees in the common appear

Christopher invades the show

Us carving our way through the dark

My old friend, the brilliant director, is also quite the poet.

Production Still from “Our Town” with David Cromer (center).

Carving our way through the dark, things appearing when we need them.

And that is the job of the lighting designer—to combine poetry with physics and make the play shine.

Production Still from “The Sound Inside”.

The puzzle in the job is figuring out where to put each light, figure out the angle and the direction that will catch the edge of the desk just so, but not hit the huge black serge walls behind the office, that scenery so perfectly designed to hide itself until we wanted another element revealed.  What are the exact lights to shift Bella and Christopher in a mere breath to a new afternoon—and is that a fade of 6 seconds or a blink of 0?

Mary-Louise Parker and Will Hochman in “The Sound Inside”.

Does the shape of the window change as we move from afternoon to evening? Is a 15th light with shutter cuts just to the upper body of Mary-Louise Parker sitting at her desk to make her float slightly differently in the third scene in the office really necessary? (The answer is yes, it totally was) 

Mary-Louise Parker and Will Hochman in “The Sound Inside”.

Creating worlds like Bella’s kitchen and transforming it into the hotel room in Christopher’s novel was a huge part of designing the show, but I really loved the part of the design where Mary-Louise Parker would tell her story to the audience, standing in the empty void—just her and Adam’s words and my light. For me, that felt like a dance, starting from the super slow fade up at the top of the show, with Mary-Louise standing right of center, a little US and on a diagonal. Just like David said the first meeting.


Heather Gilbert
 is an award-winning lighting designer based in Chicago. Recently Heather designed Ms Blakk For President with Tina Landau and Dance Nation with Lee Sunday Evans at Steppenwolf Theatre. She was nominated for a 2020 Tony Award for her work on The Sound Inside directed by David Cromer, for which she also won the Drama Desk Award and was an honoree for the Outer Critics Circle. Other productions with David Cromer include Our Town in London, Chicago, New York, LA, Boston, and Kansas City, and BUG at Steppenwolf Theatre for which she won a Jeff Award for Best Lighting Design.

Categories
Interviews

Making His Mark

By: Linda Armstrong

Robert O’Hara, the Tony nominated director of “Slave Play”–a play that made Broadway history by being nominated for 12 Tony nominations–is a perfect example of someone who is doing what he loves, doing what he believes in and acknowledges that he is part of a legacy that includes his mentor George C. Wolfe, Lorraine Hansberry and Douglas Turner Ward. O’Hara knew he wanted to be in theatre from a young age, as he used to perform plays in his grandmother backyard, then he performed plays in elementary and high school. When he first enrolled in Tufts University he thought about studying law and had theatre as a minor. But he recalled, “In college you find out who you are. I came out of the closet in college. I discovered ‘The Colored Museum’ by George Wolfe. I and another student formed the Tufts Black Theatre Company. Being in college, where I could concentrate on theatre as not just being something you do after class, being able to concentrate on it as a real major, was important to me. College allowed me the space and the time to discover who I was. My last couple in years in college is when I decided this was going to be my major.”  

Acting, playwright and directing in college through Tufts Black Theatre Company was something that just seemed natural to O’Hara. “It wasn’t difficult for me because I enjoyed it so much and looked at it as a hobby. I didn’t think of it as difficult, I thought of it as something I liked to do. I didn’t know that writing and directing were supposed to be difficult. In college I decided to go directly to graduate school and become a director. I knew I loved theatre and I knew I needed to get professional training as soon as possible. I wanted to be able to compete on the same level as other people in the profession. There was an arts community in college that made me feel comfortable, everybody is a bit of an odd ball searching for something,” O’Hara shared.

Robert O’Hara

Attending Columbia University where he received his masters in theatre was life changing. He was fortunate enough to intern at the Joseph Papp Public Theatre and not only meet his idol, George C. Wolfe, but be mentored by him. Here was O’Hara, a gay, Black man, who was now in the presence of another gay, Black man who was a genius and successful in the field that he loved. “The Public Theatre was seminal in my development as an artist mentored by George C. Wolfe. Being mentored by another Black, queer director who was running the institution was very empowering. The mentorship was not easy, it was tough love and it taught me and gave me a very thick skin. It was very visceral and volatile at times and challenging and rewarding. It also gave me a respect for how to work with other artists. It wasn’t just following someone as a writer/director, but the leader of an institution. He dealt with staff, maintenance, and the day-to-day operations. He was also directing one of the most important plays in history, ‘Angels in America.’ I went on to assistant him in ‘Bring in Da Noise/Bring In Da Funk’. He assisted in my first play being mounted (Insurrection: Holding History) and allowed me to direct it. So, I would not have started if it wasn’t for George Wolfe and the Public Theatre.”

Wolfe influenced O’Hara a great deal. “George always lived authentically as himself and showed all the flaws and blemishes of being a human being. He didn’t try to be a superhero. When you are around a genius you find the human being ain’t cute–he allowed me to see all his humanity. George was never pretending, when he was upset, he was upset, when he was outraged, he was outraged, when he was happy, he was happy. He knew he was in a position where people looked at him differently. We didn’t talk about being Black and gay, we just did the work. It was the example that he led by his talent and artistry that allowed me to be proud of who I am. My relationship with a Black gay mentor is that I am enough and who I am matters.”

Through his career O’Hara has written and directed several plays and received accolades for his work. Works that often dealt with unconventional subjects. His play “Insurrection: Holding History” was about a young gay, Black man at Columbia getting his masters and at the time O’Hara was doing just that. The play received the 1996 Newsday Oppenheimer Award for Best New American Play. This same play Wolfe opened at The Public Theatre on Oct. 11. 1996. “Brave Blood” talked about a psychiatrist trying to help female prostitutes with their lives. “14: An American Maul,” talked about reinstating slavery to harvest cotton by hand. “Antebellum”, focused on social injustice and won the 2010 Helen Hayes Award for Outstanding New Play. “The Etiquette of Vigilance”, continued where Lorraine Hansberry’s play “A Raisin In The Sun” left off, following Travis, the boy in the play, daughter Lorraine’s life and hopes to go to college.

Production still from “Bootycandy”.

“Bootycandy” that used vignettes to share comedic and satirical themes on what it means to be a gay Black man in America won the Lambda Literary Award for LGBT Drama. “Barbecue”, looked at a family coming together to do an intervention for a drug abusing female member.

Production Still from “Barbecue”.

Considering what he wants audiences to come away with when they experience his work, O’Hara said, “What I ask an audience to take away is the diversity of voices and experiences. My work is unique because of the way I walk through the world. I’m not allowed to work in a superior manner. No one makes me comfortable as a gay Black man. Why am I here to make you comfortable when I live an uncomfortable life? I think my job is to take you on an adventure. I don’t’ think of myself as trying to provoke or make people upset, I just tell interesting stories that are interesting to me. Others who don’t look at the world through my eyes might think it risky. All my life I’ve been different, different is a good thing. My sexuality and race as a gay Black man doesn’t lead me out the door, the world tells me that every day. I don’t think about it in my work, it just shows up. For my survival I have to be aware of who I am as Black and gay and more importantly who other people are.”

Danai Gurira and Robert O’Hara.

In Los Angeles, O’Hara received the NAACP Award for Best Director for “Eclipsed.” Discussing his vision for that poignant drama he shared, “It is a very powerful play. I had already worked with Danai {Gurira} and I was lucky enough to have her there to guide me and the cast. I wanted to give it the weight that it needed and that these were real people and that this behavior existed, though it’s set in a foreign land. I’m aware of the imagery we present about Africa. My job in directing it was to allow the women to lead and to make space for them. I did the research that was necessary to participate in directing them. I think Danai is such an amazing talent that I was just there for the ride. I had to make sure that the play didn’t come so harsh that one can’t watch it or so light that one didn’t know the weight.”

Jeremy O. Harris, playwright and Robert O’Hara, director.

Considering all the productions he participated in either as playwright or director and him getting to direct “Slave Play” at the New York Theatre Workshop, O’Hara humbly said, “I think that everything in life sort of prepares you for the next thing and Jeremy {O’Harris-playwright of ‘Slave Play’} was a fan of my work and a student of mine after he wrote ‘Slave Play’. He has admired my work and I see a lot of myself in him. To me this was just an extension of the work that I had already been doing. My career prepared me to deal with a play that dealt with sexuality, race, humor and society. Jeremy and I can acknowledge to each other that there’s a legacy that links us to George Wolfe, Lorraine Hansberry, Douglas Turner Ward, no one operates in a vacuum.”

Production Still from “Slave Play”.

Talking about what stands out for him with “Slave Play”, O’Hara explained, “The race and sexuality are secondary, what’s most important is the human condition of each character and that was colored by whether it was gay men or a white woman. We start with–what is the play saying at this moment? The 2nd act of the play is an hour of people sitting and talking. How do you make that active? You do that by giving each of them humanity. You have to know what everybody’s journey is so that you don’t step on it. Everybody has to be telling their story. To the audience it feels natural and seamless, but everything is orchestrated.”

“I didn’t believe it,” O’Hara shared as he talked about when “Slave Play” was being moved to Broadway. “I told the producer I don’t believe a word coming out of your mouth. I was too skeptical, I have seen Broadway, I know what’s been on Broadway, I didn’t believe it. The general managers called my agent and he said ‘believe it’. I had never seen anything like ‘Slave Play’ on Broadway and that was both glorious and terrifying,” O’Hara admitted.

On the morning of the Tony nominations O’Hara recalled doing a zoom call with the full cast, toasting each other and giving each other love. Feeling that they weren’t going to be nominated at all. O’Hara’s feeling of disbelief continued, though a couple of hours later everything changed. “It was the most nomination of a play in Broadway history, we thought they made a mistake. That’s how I protect my heart,” he shared.

O’Hara is proving himself a force to be reckoned with.

Linda Armstrong is a theatre critic with the New York Amsterdam News, Theatre Editor for Neworldreview.net, A&E Editor for Harlem News Group and has written for Playbill Online, had a Theatre column “On The Aisle” for Our Time Press, Network Journal Magazine, Show Business Weekly Newspaper, Headliner Magazine, Theatre Week Magazine, Black Masks Magazine, and The New York Daily News.

Categories
Interviews

The Sound Inside: Adam Rapp

By Will Hochman

But I knew deep in my bones that I was the right person for the job and I did everything I knew how to make that a reality.

“I think there’s something about the life force of making a play that is sort of the antithesis of cynicism,” Adam Rapp tells me on the phone. “You know, we don’t get paid very much money. We don’t get our lunches paid for. We show up and we do this absurd thing where we’re making a story up and we’re hurting each other and we’re loving each other and we’re creating actions onstage for an audience to witness and to digest and then we go drink together and then we talk about it and then we fall in love together and then we do another one.” 

Adam has been “doing another one” for almost thirty years. He’s the opposite of a cynic. He’s an inspiring, caring, hilarious man utterly committed to his work and to the people with whom he brings that work to life. He’s written an astonishing twenty-eight plays. His work has been produced all over New York, the country, and the world. He is a bonafide theater legend. He’s a Pulitzer Prize Finalist with his play Red Light Winter. He’s published eleven novels and two graphic novels and written two films and directed three. The man is prolific. And, at last, in 2019, he arrived on The Great White Way with The Sound Inside. He finally made his Broadway debut. And, somehow, with only a few years of experience, so did I. 

Production Still from Red LIght Winter

By the time I auditioned for The Sound Inside, which would first run for two weeks at the 2018 Williamstown Theatre Festival, I had only a small handful of professional acting credits. I graduated from college in 2014 with a degree in economics and only three semesters of acting experience. I never did theater in high school. The first time I properly gave it a go was halfway through college. I probably had some amount of natural skill. But I had infinite curiosity and an insatiable hunger to make it all, somehow, happen. And with this play, somehow, it happened. Maybe I was in the right place at the right time. Maybe it was luck. Maybe it was preordained. I don’t know. But I knew deep in my bones that I was the right person for the job and I did everything I knew how to make that a reality. It felt then, and continues to feel now, even a year after the show closed, like catching a bolt of lightning. I’m endlessly grateful. I’m in awe of the entire experience.

Will Hochman and Mary-Louise Parker

Adam says that with each play you make a crazy little family. I think he’s right. There’s a unique place in my heart for Mary-Louise Parker and David Cromer and the rest of our masterful team. Since I came on board back in 2018, Adam has become a dear friend. I admire his work and am inspired by his approach. I’m thrilled that he finally arrived on Broadway and that he did it with such a bang and, my goodness, that I got be a part of it. The Sound Inside was a hit, a critic’s pick, and is now nominated for six Tony awards. It’s quite the accomplishment. So, at the request of our fearless producer, Jeffrey Richards, I called Adam in February to talk about his extraordinary, and long, journey as a playwright.

Will Hochman, Mary-Louise Parker, Adam Rapp & David Cromer (from left to right)

“I just didn’t think it would ever happen,” he tells me when I ask him about making it to Broadway. Adam wrote his first play in 1993. He had just arrived in New York. I was, admittedly, an infant. The play was called Prosthetics and the Twenty-Five Thousand Dollar Pyramid. “It was a crazy, crazy, crazy play where a hand grenade was onstage and someone had a fake penis and someone professed their love to someone else under gunpoint,” he says. (As is often the case when talking with Adam, I find that I’m laughing.) It was his first hands-on experience with theater. He was, like I was twenty years later when I moved home to the city, totally new to it. He was hooked. “I loved what a play did to the audience,” he tells me. “I loved the social event of it.” 

Will Hochman and Mary-Louise Parker

Adam found himself in the theater. “In terms of writing plays, writing fiction, telling stories, being a storyteller, directing, working with people, it’s something that I really, really love to do. And I feel so lucky that I get to do it. I love making things with people. So it kind of became just a practical, vocational thing.” He committed himself to making it happen. This would be his life.

“You know, there’s something about creation that feels incredibly powerful,” he tells me. “You’re making something and it’s out of nothing and people are gonna come witness it and then you might talk about it and they might even be moved by it. They might even be changed by it in some small way. They might, like, go call their kid or they might call an old friend or they might reach out to somebody that they haven’t before. There’s something about that and about being able to attempt that that made me feel worthy.” I know exactly how he feels. It made me feel worthy, too. He goes on, “It made me feel like I had a place in the world, because I didn’t before that. I was just a, kind of, I was kind of lost. I was obsessed with basketball and reading and books and trying to write novels and you know that can be very, very, very lonely. I didn’t have a social life. I couldn’t find my place in the world. So the theater and making plays, it gave me incredible purpose. I feel so lucky.”

Adam had purpose. He had work. And he poured everything he had into it. I ask him about that, about his commitment and his drive. He tells me, “One of the great things that Marsha Norman used to say,” she was one of his mentors when he attended Juilliard for playwriting, “is that all of the ups and downs and the successes and the failures, they mean something. But the thing that means most is getting your body of work out there. Getting a body of work in the world and having it be witnessed and having it be digested and having it be published. That is the true mark of excellence.”

Adam Rapp

Adam became a staple theater maker in the city. His plays appeared everywhere off-Broadway and off-off-Broadway. He wrote. He directed. He directed what he wrote. He collaborated with everyone. But despite the decades and the steadily growing body of work, Broadway wouldn’t come. “I just couldn’t figure out the right way to – you know, I just didn’t have the luck or I didn’t have a good enough play or I didn’t have the right combination of things. And the few times that it almost happened, it just sort of fell short. So I was resigned to the idea that Off-Broadway is an incredibly sophisticated audience and a great way to continue to make art and make my work and I was totally fine with that. It wasn’t going to discourage me. I was going to continue to write the plays that I was going to write.”

So he put his head down and he made his work. He asked hard questions. He challenged his audiences. He, in his words, freaked people out. He churned out play after play after play and, finally, in 2019, something clicked into place and he arrived on Broadway. He made it. 

I ask him how it felt. He takes a breath. “It was definitely vindicating.” And the Tonys? “It was really exciting to be nominated,” he says. “I was really happy. It’s always nice to be recognized. I don’t know what artist doesn’t want to be recognized. It’s really hard what we do. It’s really hard to arrive at that level and to succeed at that level.” No kidding. How many people dream of working as a theater maker or making it to Broadway or getting nominated for a Tony Award? How many people are nominated for six?

Adam has been succeeding and failing and succeeding again for about as long as I’ve had a pulse. He’s well aware that as wonderful as it was to make it to Broadway and then to be recognized for it, the successes can be, frankly, hard to predict. “It’s all so weirdly random. That’s one of the things that theater has taught me. Just when you think you have the Rolls Royce, it’s not. It’s the Volkswagen Bug. And just when you think you have the Volkswagen Bug, it becomes the Rolls Royce. You just can’t predict it.” 

Brothers, Anthony and Adam Rapp

So, what does a person do in the face of so much uncertainty? How does a person navigate the unpredictable world of theater? For Adam, you control the only thing that you can. You go back to the reason you did it in the first place. You work. If you’re a writer, you write. If you’re an actor, you act. You keep showing up. You keep doing the work. “Just knowing that the play got produced and that the play is having a life and that the theater supported you and your body of work is expanding. That’s always kept me, you know, hopeful.”

“A lot of people come to NY and are trying to make work and can struggle to get the first thing done. It’s hard. It’s hard to maintain your confidence. It’s hard to feel vital. It’s hard to feel like you matter. But I’ve always said, my whole career, whenever anyone asks, “What piece of advice can you give somebody?” Don’t wait for anybody to anoint you. Just make something in your living room. Make something in a garage. Make something in a basement. And then invite your friends and your family. Don’t wait. Make work. Because that’s how you learn and get better.” 

And then, maybe one day, after the uncountable hours of learning and growth and success and failure and the years of rejection and acceptance and doing it all again, maybe you pick your head up and you raise your eyes to the entrance of a theater, and maybe there’s your name, maybe it’s glowing in the lights, and maybe there’s the audience vibrating with anticipation, heading inside to see something new and to be amazed and to be all together, and maybe, just maybe, smack in the middle of New York City, there you are, taking it all in, a person who makes theater, a person on Broadway.

Will Hochman is an actor and, on occasion, writer, photographer, director, and filmmaker. He was born and raised in Brooklyn. Recent theater credits include: “The Sound Inside” original cast at the Williamstown Theater Festival and on Broadway at Studio 54, “Dead Poets Society” original cast at Classic Stage Company, “Sweat” at CTG Mark Taper Forum. Recent films: “Let Him Go” (Focus Features), “Critical Thinking” (directed by John Leguizamo). Recent TV: “Blue Bloods.” Upcoming: “Master” (Amazon Studios)

Categories
Interviews

The Sound Inside- Mandy Greenfield

By: Mandy Greenfield

The first time I read Adam Rapp’s The Sound Inside, I felt like I’d been given access to the inner thoughts and feelings of someone I’d never met but, somehow, knew and wanted to know for the rest of my life; the characters came off the page with such arresting specificity, nuance, complexity and humanity.

Mary-Louise Parker in “The Sound Inside” at Williamstown Theatre Festival

Reading Adam’s dramatic incantation was deeply intimate—the day of that first read, alone, at home, only I got to delight in the humor, pain, brilliance and pathos of Bella Lee Baird’s relationship with her student, with her own writing, with her student’s writing, with reading, with her body, with the bracing snow that falls each winter on the New Haven Green. I loved this play instantly, and, like Bella herself says about reading a novel, “Loving a book is kind of like having an affair, after all.”

Will Hochman and Mary-Louise Parker

I marveled as Mary-Louise Parker and Will Hochman, under the exquisite direction of David Cromer and in the hands of a gifted team of designers, including the brilliant Heather Gilbert and astonishing Daniel Kluger, translated the intimacy and intensity of Adam’s words on the page into three dimensional, theatrical life on our Nikos Stage in the summer of 2018. It was with a mix of elation and jealousy that I listened to one hundred and seventy people exit the theatre after the curtain call of our world premiere production: I was elated that the audience responded so demonstrably, leaping to their feet for the curtain call. I was jealous that I had to let those one hundred and seventy people share in my affair with the play..

Mary-Louise Parker, Adam Rapp, David Cromer and Will Hochman (from left to right)

In the fall of 2019, nearly one thousand people listened and watched nightly as Mary-Louise and Will spun this most personal, detailed and surprising tale on a platform we, frankly, feared would be too large for so quiet a story:  the stage of Studio 54, part of the Roundabout Theatre Company’s campus of midtown theatres.  Joined by the devoted audiences of Lincoln Center Theatre, the organization which originally commissioned Adam to write the play, and led by the fearless and kind commercial producer Jeffrey Richards, audiences left mesmerized by Mary-Louise’s virtuosic, endlessly gripping and inventive performance; the actors, the design, the production, the words filled that glorious Broadway theatre seemingly effortlessly; David Cromer is, after all, as skilled a magician as directors come. I was, once again, thrilled and inexplicably crushed to share this play — one of the most intimate and beautiful works of theatre I’ve encountered. 

For, the play belonged to the vast audience of Broadway now.  Since then, Audible, with whom Williamstown Theatre Festival collaborated on the entirety of our 2020 season, has released The Sound Inside on its platform.  What began as a secret love affair in my apartment, as I read Adam’s haunting, dramatic words, was now as out in the open – and in the ears of audiences world-wide — as a thing can be.

Williamstown Theatre Festival Historic Building

Writing this, I am put in touch with how far away all of these feelings are; I can recall them but, honestly, I no longer feel them:  the global health pandemic, the year-long shut down of theatres in this country, a renewed movement for social and racial justice, a political insurrection in Washington, focus on vaccine dissemination and endless planning for the reopening of theatres all collude to make The Sound Inside – its critical acclaim, its Broadway life, its Tony accolades — seem irrelevant, meaningless. 

Mary-Louise Parker and Will Hochman in “The Sound Inside

And then, I think again – and I listen to the sound inside – and I am reminded by this long-lost lover that a truly great play reminds us that we are alive,  that we’re complexly human, that to live an unexamined life is not to live at all.  The Sound Inside is testament to the ancient power of theatre to provoke, move and transform us.  Just Listen, you’ll remember, too.

Mandy Greenfield is the Artistic Director of Williamstown Theatre Festival.  Prior to joining WTF, Ms. Greenfield served as Artistic Producer of Manhattan Theatre Club where she produced more than seventy-five world and American premiere plays and musicals both on and off Broadway.

Categories
Interviews

The Sound Inside: Daniel Kluger

By: Harry Haun

“What I think is so mysterious about this play is that it has the feeling of memory,” proffers Kluger. “The feeling it always gave me was that I don’t know when the text that I’m reading has been written and by whom. It creates a kind of inversion of the vanishing point of memory.” 

Given the abrupt brevity of the 2019-2020 Broadway season and the fact that not one new musical note made it to that marketplace before the pandemic rang the curtain resolutely down on all things theatrical, it’s rather surprising to find a Tony nominee contending for three awards.

No one is more surprised (and a bit embarrassed) by that fact than the guilty party himself: 36-year-old Daniel Kluger. In case it matters, he brought off this near-impossible feat as a hyphenate “These days, most human beings are,” asides the guy who designed the sound and wrote the original music for Adam Rapp’s riveting drama, “The Sound Inside.” He was nominated for both. 

With no Broadway musicals around this semi-season that are brand-new and nominatable, their usually neglected stepchild–incidental scores for plays–stepped up to the plate for consideration. 

Though pleased with the recognition his music has garnered, Kluger counts it a mixed-blessing. “Obviously, it’s sad that we didn’t get to experience all the musicals in the storefront last year,” he readily allows. “Most of the work that I do is on scores for straight plays. It’s actually a very different craft and art form, so I’m glad that some of that will be able to be discussed this year.”

His third Tony bid is for designing the sound for “Sea Wall/A Life,” a double bill of two one-man plays.  Reflecting his skill at this, all three stars–Tom Sturridge and Jake Gyllenhaal in “Sea Wall/A Life” and Mary-Louise Parker in “The Sound Inside”–came across loud, clear and nominated.

Kluger had his work cut out for him the minute “The Sound Inside” hit town from the Williamstown Theatre Festival, where it lifted off June 27, 2018. It settled in New York Oct. 16, 2019, in that vast barn of a theatre, Studio 54, where two characters command the audience’s attention for 90 minutes. As the show’s composer-sound designer, Kluger’s job was to create and maintain an intensely intimate ambience amid a nonstop torrent of words and literary illusions.

“We worked to amplify the voices in a natural aesthetic so it was really important that we stayed connected to the actor at all times. You need to believe that the resonance of the voice and the clarity of the words are coming directly from the human body. I believe we were able to distribute the amplification evenly around the room and calibrate it so you feel like it’s natural but you’re able to hear all the words. It’s a technique refined by Scott Lehrer. He essentially developed this method of natural amplification a whole generation of sound designers has benefitted from.”

Mary-Louise Parker

Words are a kind of life force for Parker’s character, Bella Baird–an isolated, tenured, 53-year-old prof who teaches creative writing at Yale, trying to open young minds while coping with a cancer diagnosis. Except for when she addresses the audience, she records her activities in a notebook, as if she’s updating the story of her life. Into that life enters a troubled freshman (Will Hockman) with his own piece of fiction for her to critique and mentor. Their lives tangle tragically. Or not: Author Rapp leaves on the table the possibility we’re at the mercy of Bella’s fevered imagination.

“What I think is so mysterious about this play is that it has the feeling of memory,” proffers Kluger. “The feeling it always gave me was that I don’t know when the text that I’m reading has been written and by whom. It creates a kind of inversion of the vanishing point of memory.” 

Regardless of whether he’s providing the sound or the music for a piece of theatre, Kluger admits that his most important relationship on any show is always with the director. With “The Sound Inside,” his guide is a favorite collaborator, David Cromer. “He really is best. You can follow him wherever he will lead you. He is, fundamentally, an inspiring director who doesn’t tell you what to make. He leads you toward the deepest human level of feeling in the story that you are telling,”

They first teamed in 2012 on “Tribes,” Nina Raine’s play, which had a deaf character and another who was going deaf. There were beaucoup options for sound design. “It doesn’t always happen, but you’re lucky when you form a collaboration of trust the first time out. That was a formative experience for me because it taught me how to take certain risks in exploring as a designer.”

Will Hochman and Mary-Louise Parker in “The Sound Inside”

Discovering the sound inside for this project was not easy for Kluger. “The piece that we wound up using—let’s just say that it wasn’t the first thing that I wrote. The best collaborations with directors—and David is an excellent example of this—is when everything comes out of a need in the story, when the aesthetic impulses are coming from the writer or the character– depending on the values of the production. A good director will make those needs clear.

“Sometimes, the most successful things we make feel like surprises, like accidents. David always leaves space for experimentation. I think we tried 12 different placements of where the music should go. It’s not always premeditated if you’re trying to capture the feeling of the unconscious. In music, you must allow accidents to happen so you can find how the music relates to the text.”

Daniel Kluger received three Tony nominations this year in two different categories: two for Best Sound Design for The Sound Inside and Sea Wall/A Life, and one for Best Original Score (music) Written for the Theatre for The Sound Inside.  Other Broadway credits include Marvin’s Room, Significant Other and the 2019 revival of Oklahoma! for which he earned a Tony nomination, 2020 Grammy nomination, Drama Desk Award, and Outer Critics Circle Award.


Harry Haun has covered theater and film in New York for over 40 years. His writing has appeared in outlets such as Playbill Magazine (“On the Aisle” and “Theatregoer’s Notebook”), New York Daily News (where he wrote a weekly Q&A column (“Ask Mr. Entertainment”), New York Observer, New York Sun, Broadway World and Film Journal International.