Monday, February 21, 2011

Resident Director Mia Walker talks American Sexy

"I procrastinate looking at it and thinking about it until it is so painfully repressed inside me that I have to read it again."

How did you get into directing?

I grew up acting. When I was about seven years old, my mom came home from work to find me standing with my face touching the television screen and crying. She asked me what was wrong and I pointed to one of the Olsen twins in Full House, which was on at the time, and said "I want to be like that." I went on to perform on Broadway and did a little bit of film work. Then, in high school, my drama teacher totally inspired me by assigning us a project to pretend we were directing Neil Labute's play The Shape of Things. I went all out; I imagined setting the play at the Burning Man festival. That project set something off in me - I could feel it.

Then, I went to Harvard for college and a friend of mine, Jack Cutmore-Scott, called me during tech week of his show our freshman year. He wanted another eye, and so I came in and took notes. I ended up helping to make some directorial decisions that week and I felt like my body and mind had been possessed by something so incredibly exciting, I couldn't even process it. All I knew was that I had figured out my place in the artistic world, that I am driven by images and vision.

Jack encouraged me to apply to direct the following year, which I did. I then directed four shows during my time at Harvard, and began directing short films, too. So, in a way, being part of the creative process has always been something I wanted to do. I shifted gears, and am thankful to have found my calling in directing.

What do you like about it? What drew you to that as opposed to other art forms?

It's tough to say I "like" directing. It's more like, I have to be directing. It consumes me - in a good way - it makes me feel alive and makes me deeply compassionate. I aim to move people. I want to tell stories and to make people shiver and shake and smile and think about their lives and show them beautiful images, piercing and strange and familiar all at once. I am drawn to directing because I envision an entire world, rather than just my place in it. Directing is all art forms combined. I am a writer, actor, musician, painter, dancer, photographer all at once when I direct.

How did you get involved in the director's residency program at The Flea.

During spring break of my senior year at Harvard, I went down to spend the week in NYC. It was one of those weeks where you hear about something multiple times, randomly, and you think "I gotta go check this out." For some reason, I kept hearing about The Flea and a show playing there at the time - Girls in Trouble, directed by the artistic director, Jim Simpson. Well, I went to go see it and basically sat in the theater after the show was over for a good fifteen minutes and pretty much decided that I was going to work there some day. I loved the show, the vibe, the space.

I remember thinking to myself that something about The Flea and Jim's direction got to a very essential human element I hadn't felt from a piece of theater in a while. I got on their mailing list and a few weeks later they sent around information about this new residency program. It sounded perfect - my goal after graduating was to meet young artists in the city, form a group of collaborators, and just get right into directing. I interviewed for the residency and was thrilled to find out over the summer that I was chosen as one of the four.

What's the experience been like?

The experience of being a Resident Director at The Flea has been simultaneously challenging, exhilarating, terrifying, and fun. I cannot even begin to tell you how much I have learned and grown as a director (and person). The residency began with us (the four directors) serving as stage managers for the mainstage season, directed by Jim. We stage managed, as a team, both A.R. Gurney's Office Hours and Steven Banks' Looking at Christmas.

I have to say, running a show from a tiny booth, with only a television screen monitor and a headset to watch the show from, is incredibly scary and wonderful. Having worked closely with the technical director at The Flea, I now feel more confident in my knowledge of tech. It's empowering, really. Now, when someone says "we can't do that," I can challenge them and be like, "well, actually, we can, and here's how I'd suggest it..." Then, as we were stage managing, we were also seeking plays to direct. Once I was given American Sexy, I started rolling with that project in mind.

How did American Sexy come to you?

Jim Simpson sent around a ton of scripts last summer to the Resident Directors. He is continually on the lookout for new work, fit for the Bats (the resident acting company at The Flea). The Bats are young and hip - so the work at The Flea tends to be bold and controversial. It's actually a funny story how I came to American Sexy. When Jim sent around the scripts, we were asked to print them and read them all. I went to The Flea to print, and the printer jammed. The only script that printed properly was American Sexy. I had to run to a meeting or something, so I put American Sexy in my bag and decided I'd come back another time to print the others. I didn't end up printing the others.

I went to the Adirondacks with Jim and the Bats for rehearsals for Office Hours and we did a casual reading of American Sexy there, in the wilderness. Something about hearing it out loud struck me, and I told Jim I was interested in it. And I realized it was the script I had been carrying around for a while. And I came across a passage in a Jewish service about birds flying in a canyon (birds and canyons are important symbols in the play). Something about that felt serendipitous. Jim called the playwright, Trista Baldwin, and pitched to her. Trista came down for a more formal reading. She approved casting, and we moved forward.

I am very grateful to Jim, as well as the rest of the staff at The Flea, for believing in me and giving me a chance to direct such a bold, exciting new play. And I am grateful to Trista for writing it and being so intimately part of the process.

While American Sexy had been performed in Minneapolis prior to our production, this version involved some pretty substantial script changes that Trista made throughout the process. That was one of the most exciting things about the process - seeing how our collaboration, and the instincts of the actors and The Flea staff, could inspire a unique version of American Sexy. It's got us written all over it; of course, it is still very much Trista's.

Trista came to early production meetings, and then for a week of rehearsal before tech week. She also came during previews, which was wonderful because she is incredibly important to have in the room. Trista is not only a gifted writer, but a visionary and deeply in touch with the many layers of her script. We needed her to guide us, to lend her vision to the physical world of the play as it unfolded. Together, she and I made changes to the script and blocking up until the day of opening. It was kind of terrifying, but thrilling.

We rehearsed for five weeks and had two weeks of previews. Since the actors and stage manager have day jobs, we worked around everyone's schedules; and, since space at The Flea is limited, we were often rehearsing in an empty office building that The Flea recently acquired. We called it "the dungeon," though it actually ended up being the perfect place to rehearse. The play itself is complicated because it involves a ton of emotional layers - the contradictions of modern humanity, distracted and over-stimulated - so our rehearsal process was intense and often frustrating, but in a good way. We dug really, really deep. And, now, we are all incredibly proud of the show. It has definitely been a labor of love.

What do you find compelling about the play?

American Sexy is about four college students, en route to Vegas, who set up camp at the Grand Canyon. Through the night, they get stoned, they drink, they rage, they sexualize. At the core, though, are intense feelings of love and betrayal, and the paralyzing effects of modern technology on these characters' abilities to humanly connect with each other.

When I first heard the play read aloud, I felt sick. But not sick, like disturbed sick. My emotions weren't processed. I just felt, in my gut, something totally jolted. Jim and Carol Ostrow, the Producing Director at The Flea, have said from the beginning that they felt drawn to American Sexy because it portrays my generation in a way that isn't shown onstage. The language, the pot smoking, the drinking, the "whatever"s and "fuck you"s, the cattiness and the cruelty, the numbness and hypersexualization--all are very real, very present, and yet somehow skirted in contemporary theater. American Sexy is hot, funny, scary, sad all at once. It's tragic, but not Shakespeare tragic. It's my generation tragic. This is our youth now. I'm 22 and I can't critique my generation because I'm part of it, but I can say that Trista is channeling something very real, very honest and pointed about us.

Last night I was on a bus and two girls were sitting in front of me, chatting (loudly) the entire four hours of the ride. I really should have moved, but I didn't because their conversation reflected exactly what American Sexy captures. One of the girls said, "I'm such a terrible friend. I have no interest in anyone's emotional wants or needs." Her friend responded, "Whatevs."

How do you like to work with your writers? (i.e. conversations before hand, how do you like them in the rehearsal room etc)

American Sexy was only my second time working directly with a writer. The first time, I worked with Benj Pasek and Justin Paul on a workshop of their song cycle Edges. So, with American Sexy, I was pretty much figuring out my system as I went. And, of course, this changes with every writer. I felt early on that American Sexy would require the writer's involvement. The script is challenging, and I wanted Trista on board and part of the process. She lives in Minneapolis, so in preparation for her visits we would talk on the phone and touch base. As the process progressed, we grew to be more and more in touch.

In the room, I am very collaborative. Trista and I were so totally on the same page, and her notes were often very helpful for the actors, so when she was in town we were a team, working side by side in rehearsals. She had input in staging, beats, costumes, etc. I loved this and felt it was necessary for this show and this process. I believe very much that theater, or any artistic process, is about collaboration. Wherever the best idea in the room comes from - whether it's the writer, director, actor, or someone's dog - I'm open to it and I believe we build on each other's ideas to arrive at our destination.

How do prepare to work on a new play?

I prepare to work on a new play as I would with any piece of material: I procrastinate looking at it and thinking about it until it is so painfully repressed inside me that I have to read it again and then I pretty much block it out in my head (even though all of it will change later) and then I start listening to music that I feel connects with the piece. I talk with the writer, I keep a journal. For American Sexy, Jim gave me an exercise to try: he asked me to come up with the "who, what, where, when, and how" of the play, to distill the play into two sentences, and to figure out the "bone" of the play - what all the characters are fighting for. At first, I totally resisted this exercise because I didn't want to try to have the answers before going into the process. However, being forced to clarify the text for myself was incredibly crucial and I'm glad I did it.
What excites or challenges you right now about the state of theater? What's on your mind etc?

It's time for my generation to do their thing onstage. And in film. We need a new kind of theater, and a new kind of a movie. A modern kind. Restless, distracted, distant and fucked up. I am so not interested in old voices. I want to write and direct stories that feel all around us. I am excited and challenged by modern language, text messaging, computer screens, hipsters, saying "like" and "oh my god," not being able to fall in love without thinking about the last sex scene you saw in a movie. I'm interested in playing Katy Perry on Pandora out loud on your iPhone while you walk down the street. Katy Perry is on my mind, for some reason. I mentioned that, recently, and the music director of a show I'm working on right now thinks I might be "half-dyke" (her words, not mine). That's also something very much on my mind. It seems like my generation is more prone toward sexual confusion or ambiguity. Something in the air, maybe?

What are you working on now?

I'm assistant directing for Diane Paulus on Prometheus Bound, a rock musical with book/lyrics by Steven Sater (Spring Awakening) and music by System of a Down's Serj Tankian. It's completely awesome.

Who are some theater peeps (or work) that inspire you or have inspired you in the past?

Prometheus Bound is inspiring me right now - on a basic level, I'm usually inspired by what I'm doing in the moment. The story is about Prometheus, the world's first mythic prisoner-of-conscience, so I'm thinking a lot about being bold and courageous. And about rock stars. I'm inspired by Alex Timbers, Sofia Coppola, devised work (haven't done it - would love to).

Recently, I went to see an Italian adaptation of Antigone at the Under the Radar festival at The Public, and was very inspired by the company's aesthetic. It was a man and a woman, and they totally held me captive for seventy minutes. At the end, the actress put a little radio in her sock and ran around, the sad drone of Akon's "Mr. Lonely" sweeping through the space until the end of the play. I thought it was playing out of the radio and was amazed at how clear the sound was, and yet so localized to her constantly moving sock. Then, I realized at the end that there were speakers set up every few feet, standing behind the audience, that were actually projecting the sound. When I saw this show, I was about to be in tech for American Sexy, and, inspired by this radio-sock-tricky-speakers thing, I completely re-envisioned one of the major sound effect moments in the play.

What's your favorite guilty pleasure?

The British TV show Skins (for clarification - I don't mean the MTV version, which is lame). The British original is genius. My brother got me into it (anything cool that I like has been introduced to me by my brother). There's no looking back. Skins is top-grade guilt and pure pleasure.

For more information about Mia Walker, you can go here. American Sexy has been extended thru March 6th at The Flea Theatre.

American Sexy photo credit: Dan Applegate.

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