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Two Directors, Two Directions, One Coffee Break

STC Artistic Director Michael Kahn and director Ethan McSweeny (Ion, Major Barbara, The Persians) sat down during a break between auditions in New York City to discuss their upcoming productions.

Ethan McSweenyEthan McSweeny: So, Old Times. I reread it yesterday, and it was such a pleasure to read it again. I directed it in the George Street Playhouse in 2001.


Michael Kahn: I didn’t know that.

EM: Yeah, Lisa Harrow and Dee Hoty as Anna and Kate respectively, and Sam Tsoutsouvas as Deeley. I don’t know why David Saint let me do it; it was my first year there as his associate artistic director. But the critics loved it. And I had to stay after every show to do a talkback with the audience.


MK: That’s funny. I bet Sam was very good.

EM: Yeah, he was. He has a sort of bulldog quality that I really like. And Deeley is interesting. I mean, he has these jealousies, and his masculinity is challenged by both of those women, isn’t it?


MK: Right. One of Pinter’s largest themes is power in relationships. In this play it’s watching a man who’s completely sure of his position with women, but discovering that not everything is what he thinks it is. I think it’s a wonderful play, the language is amazing, all of the stories and the metaphors that he uses are all absolutely perfect. Plus, it’s very funny. Did you find it funny?

EM: I found it hysterical.


Michael KahnMK: One of the great things about Pinter plays is that they are always a mystery–who means what, and what’s the subtext. In this play, the desire for ownership or possession of somebody is very strong. But the way these characters try to own the other characters is through memories. What you remember, or what you say happened, whether it did or not, is a way of fixing that person as your possession. Memories are weapons. And that fascinates me.

EM: Do you think we ever know which version is true?


MK: I’m very reluctant to say what I think the play means because Harold Pinter was very, very careful never to do so. There’s a reason why playwrights who are actually very smart, like Harold Pinter and Edward Albee, don’t explain ambiguous plays, because they want the audience to figure it out for themselves. I mean, we all have our theories about the play. For me, I find the play very clear. But I don’t want to tell the audience what I think it’s about. I hope they’ll get an idea.

EM: What I found when I directed it was we had to agree to disagree about what actually had happened, because all of us had our own narrative. And the audience, after the play is over, has only its memory to go back and put the pieces together. So you get stuck in the same situation as the characters.


MK: I did the play 30 years ago, and the audience was always intrigued. I mean, this is one of Pinter’s most successful plays. We’re doing it because there’s a responsibility for the Shakespeare Theatre Company to say we believe these modern plays will be classics. And I think this play is definitely a 20th century classic, in the same way that A Streetcar Named Desire is, and Who’s Afraid of Virginia Woolf? I’ve always thought that there’s a direct line from the Shakespeare of Much Ado About Nothing to Oscar Wilde to Noël Coward to Pinter. There is a kind of black comedy and economy of language that runs through these masters.

EM: What’s your strategy for the Pinter pause?


MK: You have to decide what they mean. They can’t be artificial. And Pinter used to always say this is a one pause, this is a two pause, but that’s not how you act it. I think they get filled with a thought or an activity. I don’t think everything stops.

EM: No. [Laughs]


MK: I mean, we have pauses in life and things don’t stop. But I think he’d say there’s rhythm, an emotional rhythm, and once you find what the internal logic is, the pauses are pretty inexorable.

EM: It’s almost a musical notation in a way.


MK: Exactly. And when I do an opera and there’s a pause or a rest, I know it’s there for a reason. Something has happened. It’s totally fun to work it out in rehearsal. For me, it’s 30 years later, I’m a different person, I understand relationships in a more mature way and I’m looking forward to rediscovering a play that I loved then, and that I fell totally in love with again when I reread it.

EM: It’s my favorite play of Pinter’s and I cannot wait to see your production of it.


MK: I can’t wait to go into rehearsal so I can see how it turns out. Now let’s talk about your return to STC. This is months before you go into rehearsal, but I know you’ve been thinking about The Merchant of Venice. What interests you about doing the play now?

EM: That’s a good question, and part of that same question is why is it the most popular Shakespeare play of 2010–2011? Some of it has to do with cycling through the repertory, but there must be something going on, I think, which has to do with property and commerce and business. Everything in this play is commodified. People are reduced to their wealth, and wealth is the measure of all things. There must be something in our

society that wants to consider that. I remember a book that you told me to read that you were interviewed in called On Directing Shakespeare. Do you remember this book?


MK: Well, it’s the only book I’m in, so of course I remember it.

EM: It’s a great book, we should sell it in the lobby. The author said that there are four ways of doing Shakespeare: Do it in Elizabethan period, do it in a period analogy and set it somewhere else, do it in a no-period time, or do it contemporary. What we’ve settled on is the Lower East Side of New York City in the 1920s. I was looking for a place that was analogous to what Venice meant to Shakespeare—which was the most polyglot, cosmopolitan place where cultures were colliding and everyone was trying to figure out currencies to deal with one another—and the currencies they are settling on are all financial.


MK: What is it about the 1920s? Did you set it there because it was an “up” period before the economy fell apart?

EM: Your first question was “Why Merchant now?” and it must have something to do with the collapse of our economy. When there are fewer crumbs for us to fight over, we are more tempted to fight over them in ways that poison us and make us think about ourselves as separate groups. So, I think there’s definitely that element: that the 1920s are on the precipice of something that none of these people know is coming.


MK: For a long time, people didn’t want to go to [Merchant] because they considered it anti-Semitic. Here in 2011, what do you think?

EM: There’s an element of that in there, a part of the play that makes it very dangerous. It’s a world where everyone is a little bit racist or a little bit bigoted or a little bit sexist or a little bit homophobic. Actually, every single character expresses some version of this. I’m convinced that Shakespeare knew what he was doing.


MK: I think that you’re right. I think that Shakespeare is examining prejudices, including anti-Semitism. But that does not make the play anti-Semitic. That extraordinary speech that Shylock has, “hath not a Jew eyes,” cannot have been written by a person who is anti-Semitic.

EM: It cannot be.


MK: It humanizes what was a comic villain. All you have to do is look at Marlowe’s The Jew of Malta.

EM: To Barabas.


MK: He’s a very arch comic villain who kills everybody. You can see the difference when looking at Shakespeare’s writing.

EM: I also think Antonio and Shylock are birds of a feather. And with Derek Smith as Antonio, paired with Mark

Nelson as our Shylock, I consciously wanted them to both be a little bit younger than what is often the case, a little closer to the age that they might actually have been. But I also feel that but for a trick of birth, either one of them could be the other one.


MK: I think that’s a wonderful idea. I think that’s why Shakespeare felt it okay to call the play The Merchant of Venice. That refers to Antonio, but he didn’t call the play Antonio and he didn’t call it Shylock.

EM: Because they’re both merchants.


MK: Since you were at the theatre last we’ve finally gotten rid of the sand from The Persians. You’ve been so busy since you were here, you’re now doing Arms and the Man at Guthrie Theater, and you’re about to do A Time To Kill at Arena Stage, which is a modern play. Do you enjoy going back and forth between the different genres of the theatre?

EM: It’s my favorite thing. The same year I did Ion I did two world premieres and a musical. You taught me this, but I find as a director, doing each kind informs the other. I don’t actually treat a contemporary play all that differently than I treat a Shakespeare play. It’s funny, because the play at Arena is another trial play. So, I’m going to be “trial-scened out”.


MK: Well, I’m looking forward to seeing Merchant.

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