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By Anna Alison Brenner, Artistic Fellow
I first met Liesl Tommy last June—only, I didn’t meet her, I saw her—at a talkback for Eclipsed on Broadway. She instantly commanded the audience’s attention, answering questions with intelligence, specificity and a deep awareness of how to make a play about the Second Liberian Civil War feel relevant to a group of mostly upper-middle-class New Yorkers. Her cast spoke about her with reverence and everyone in the room couldn’t help but regard her with awe.
Two weeks later, I began my fellowship at STC and discovered that I would be in the same room with none other than this innovative Tony-nominated director. I was tasked with helping run her auditions. In the months that followed, I had the privilege of joining her rehearsal room as the Dramaturgical Assistant on Macbeth. Liesl works intricately, questioning the text’s function and meaning then connecting it to our current sociopolitical context. She is a one-woman theatrical revolution: a visionary artist with an uncanny ability to erase the distance between the audience and the story, igniting urgency and action.
Anna Alison Brenner: What originally got you involved in theatre? How did you fall in love with it?
Liesl Tommy: When I was a teenager, my family emigrated here from South Africa. It was a very difficult transition—culturally and politically—to come from Apartheidera South Africa to a suburb of Boston where people didn’t even really know what Apartheid was.
And then a teacher, Beverly Logan, asked if I wanted to be in the Black History Month production of for colored girls who have considered suicide / when the rainbow is enuf. There were only five people of color in the school…I think she just went up to all of the people of color and asked if they wanted to be in it. And I said yes.
I went on to perform pretty much every one of the ladies in that play by the time I graduated, all during those Black History Month performances. And then I started directing as well.
And that was when I realized it was a passion. Because I found a community immediately—people who thought the way I did, people who read the same weird things that I read, that lived in their imaginations the way that I did. That was how I made my first friends, that’s how I found my first community. So I always say that theatre saved my life.
AAB: How do you shift from directing new works like Eclipsed and Kid Victory to a classic play like Macbeth?
LT: Well, you know, since I work on musicals, and I work on classics, and I work on new plays, I don’t think of them as very different. My process is exactly the same: investigate the text with rigor, find my personal connections to the storytelling and lean in to the events of the play or the musical. That’s it. That’s really all there is.
But when you work on a classic like Macbeth—and it’s similar to when I did Hamlet [at California Shakespeare Theatre] or Les Mis [at Dallas Theatre Center]—the machine of the play is so well constructed that you can play around with concepts and ideas and the story can withstand it. So even though I think I have a pretty cool concept, what I keep on referring to as the “literal play” is fascinating, regardless of what someone puts on top of it.
AAB: When directing a classic, do you start with a concept and then find a classic that works with your concept, or do you start with the play and then find your concept?
LT: I start with the play. There are specific classics that I have a passion for, that I’ve always wanted to do. I’ve known I was going to direct Macbeth from early on; it’s on my bucket list.
When Michael Kahn and I talked about doing Macbeth specifically at STC, in Washington, I thought, “You know what would be a really exciting way to get inside that play in the 21st century?”
When I work on a play, I think about where I’m doing it and figure out what the pulse of that city is. In this case, it’s D.C., it’s politics—and it’s also structural politics. They’d understand this idea I’d have. So I identify the place and then I figure out how to get the play into the laps of the audience, so it’s not an intellectual thing that they can just sit back and let wash over them—it feels visceral. It feels like it’s a play for them.
And that’s why I don’t know if I would’ve had the same idea if I wasn’t in D.C. This is a production for a D.C. audience.
AAB: That’s pretty Brechtian—really breaking it down for the audience and not letting them just kick back and relax.
LT: One hundred percent.
AAB: You’ve talked a lot about wanting to create theatre that is relevant to what’s happening right now. What about today’s political climate makes this production of Macbeth urgent and important?
LT: This particular production matters because we are exploring what happens when a foreign country intervenes in the governing of another country. What does that looks like? What is the human cost?
AAB: Did your concept change after the election?
LT: It did and it didn’t. I think that the initial concept is relevant regardless of who’s president—regardless of whether Democrats or Republicans are in power.
But the role of Hecate has been changed because of our current administration. That’s all I’ll say.
AAB: You had a very specific vision in casting this play—how did you approach that process?
LT: I thought about who my favorite actors in the American theatre were and that’s who I brought on board. It’s not a new play—we don’t have to help the playwright realize the vision so they can polish it up. So I had more freedom in the casting. I wanted people who I think are incredibly talented and creative to be generative artists in the rehearsal room.
Jesse Perez and I have worked together a great deal. And I have just so much admiration for his skills, his artistry, his humanity and his rigor. It’s an extension of how I work. And Nikkole Salter is an actor who I’ve admired for so long. I’ve always known I was going to work with her on something perfect—and to me this is the perfect thing.
There are so many actors in this company that I’ve worked with before. They’re the army that you want when you’re trying to conquer the world. When you work on a classic, that’s what you want. You want an army of hyper-talented, hyper-creative people.
AAB: So you mentioned that Macbeth was on the bucket list of plays you want to do—are there any other classics on there? Specifically, any others that you feel connect to the current political climate?
LT: For me, The Seagull [by Anton Chekhov], because it’s a play about art. And [Chekhov’s] Uncle Vanya, because it’s a play about change. Another one would be A Midsummer Night’s Dream, because it’s about magic. And—one last one—The Amen Corner by James Baldwin, because I think that is about our lives today.
AAB: Do you have any advice that you would give other young, female directors of color trying to make it in theatre?
LT: People are going to try and tell you “no” from the first moment you decide that this is going to be your career. And people are going to try to limit your vision from the first moment—and you’re not even going to realize they’re doing it, but they’re doing it. And you’re not even going to realize you’re internalizing it—but you’re internalizing it. And the thing I would say is to guard against that with everything you have. And trust yourself. Because nobody knows the power of what you know about yourself.