Like many directors before me, acting was my gateway drug into the theater. I caught the bug very early on, when my mom brought me to an audition at my local Children’s Theater. I remember feeling a thrill as I lied about my age on the audition sheet: you had to be 7 years old to try out and I was just shy at 6 years 10 months. I felt an even bigger thrill when the cast list was posted, and I saw my name on the list. After the first rehearsal, I was hooked.
Later on, the possibility of directing came into my life through my incredible high school drama teacher, Kristen Lo. We all thought Kristen was impossibly cool: 28 years old, she was close enough in age to know what we were going through, but far enough that she could keep boundaries. We adored her, and she inspired us to consider all aspects of theater-making: light board operator, playwright, costume designer, stage manager. We were able to see theater through her eyes: an incredible tool with which to break down social barriers, an artform that demands rigor and mutual respect among its practitioners. Kristen shared her boundless love of plays by dead writers like Ibsen and Shakespeare, but also a devotion to new work by a myriad of voices. Kristen rallied parents from the community to organize field trips to our nearest regional theaters: ACT, Berkeley Rep, Oregon Shakespeare Festival. I didn’t yet recognize the names: Heather Raffo, Dael Orlandersmith, Edward Albee, Mary Zimmerman, August Wilson, Les Waters, Eve Ensler, Caryl Churchill, Nilo Cruz. But I could feel the power of their voices and of the freshness of the work. As I look back now, I can see the profundity of this early exposure. But Kristen didn’t stop at just exposing us to these pieces, if we saw something we loved, she programmed it the next year and let us take a swing at our own interpretations. If we didn’t like the piece, she encouraged fiery and open debates and encouraged us to get specific. By placing our work alongside that of the pros, and validating our disparate points of view, she made us feel like we could do anything. She shared the anthologies of work from the Humana Festival, 10-minute plays that were hot off the press and encouraged us to direct them ourselves. I directed a one-act that year that had premiered only a few years before at the Humana Festival.
Kristen wanted to inspire us further and show that we truly didn’t need anything but ourselves and our imaginations to create theater: She created a new work festival “Speed Limit 25”. All work produced in the festival had to be directed, written, and produced by people under the age of 25. In reality, it was all created by students 18 and under. This was revelatory. We witnessed each other be creative in ways we had not yet dreamed we could be and expanded our perceptions of each other. Whether we went on to pursue theater or not, we all were emboldened by the brilliant audacity of our teacher and her fierce belief in each of us.
Kristen somehow managed to treat us as adults, while not denying our youth. She taught us to respect one another by showing us how it’s done: never favoring the actor over the techie, stage manager over understudy. Kristen taught us that every theater marker is crucial, and it is only through a collective effort that the work can truly sing. When I think of the director who made me feel most inspired, free, collaborative and safe enough to take risks, I still picture Kristen Lo.
Danya Taymor is an Obie-award winning New York based director, writer and translator. Recent direction includes Will Arbery’s HEROES OF THE FOURTH TURNING (Playwrights Horizons) Korde Arrington Tuttle’s GRAVEYARD SHIFT (Goodman Theater), Jeremy O. Harris’ “DADDY” (Almeida London + New Group/Vineyard), Antoinette Nwandu’s PASS OVER (Lincoln Center + Steppenwolf, Lortel Outstanding Play), Danai Gurira’s FAMILIAR (Steppenwolf), Martyna Majok’s QUEENS (Lincoln Center Theater).
Please tune in beginning Thursday, November 19th at 8pm through Monday, November 23rd to see Neil LaBute’s World Premiere adaptation of Anton Chekov’s UNCLE VANYA directed by DANYA TAYMOR (Heroes of the Fourth Turning). Tony Award winner Alan Cumming takes on the titular role joined by Constance Wu, Emmy Award winner Samira Wiley, K. Todd Freeman, Anson Mount, Mia Katigbak, Manik Choksi and Academy Award Winner Ellen Burstyn. Gabriel Ebert narrates the proceedings. Tickets from $5 and are available only on TodayTix. Proceeds go to benefit The Actor’s Fund.