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Broadway Bullet Interview: Director Leigh Silverman
Broadway Bullet: Anybody who remembers the opening of Miss Saigon in the early â€˜90s should remember a lot of hullabaloo surrounding the casting issues. Playwright David Henry Hwang led the protests and now, in a turn of events that should appeal not only to fans of musical theater but straight plays and, I think, all sorts of artists, the Public Theater is presenting David Henry Hwangâ€™s new work Yellow Face and we have director Leigh Silverman here in the studio with us. How are you doing, Leigh?
Leigh Silverman: Hi! Great, thanks.
BB: So I just gave the very soft encapsulation of this whole event, but thereâ€™s a lot to talk about here, with all the casting and colorblind issues leading into this play. And maybe itâ€™s best to start at the beginning, with the catalyst of the whole event, with Miss Saigon.
LS: Sure. I think that something that Davidâ€™s been interested in exploring since the Miss Saigon issue is what would make a race farce? You have gender farces, you know, in Shakespeare â€“ thereâ€™s many of them. But what would be a race farce? How could you do that? And so, he uses throughout the whole play of Yellow Face, a series of very personal, autobiographical events, starting with the Miss Saigon protest that he led, as a catalyst and a way to explore all these different issues: what is race? What is colorblind casting? What is identity? What does it mean to say â€“ as the character of David Henry Hwang says throughout the play â€“ â€œIâ€™m an Asian-American role modelâ€? And then he spends the whole play just skewering himself. Part of the thing that makes this play so radical and so fun to work on is that he really takes everything that has become synonymous with his name â€“ you know, political correctness, the idea of beingâ€¦he calls himself â€œCaptain Asian-Americaâ€ in the play â€“ and he continually skewers it and has terrific fun with our idea of political correctness. And in a certain way, the play is a radical departure for him, in terms of things heâ€™s written before, and I think a very profound, ultimately personal, meaningful search for what makes us the best person that we are. Is it, in fact, what we look like on the outside, or who we may be on the inside?
MG: Now, for those of our listeners who may not remember, maybe you can let us know exactly what the issues were surrounding Miss Saigon.
LS: Sure. The lead character in Miss Saigon is an Asian engineer. Itâ€™s actually a Eurasian engineer â€“ thatâ€™s sort of how itâ€™s defined. And Jonathan Pryce isâ€¦ exactly. And thatâ€™s a part that was played to great acclaim in London, and when Cameron Mackintosh was going to bring the production here to New York, there was an outcry: how could Jonathan Pryce play that part? There was a real sense ofâ€¦ he was taping his eyes up during the production, he was wearing yellowface, and thereâ€™s a long tradition of that happening here. And it came right on the heels of David winning the Tony Award for M. Butterfly, and there was a hope or a sense from the Asian community that the times would be different here. At least thatâ€™s what the play kind of posits. And so, the play starts with David winning the Tony Award and then receiving a phone call from B.D. Wong â€“ â€œDavid, did you know that Jonathan Pryce is coming here, and is going to be playing this part?â€ And the character of David Henry Hwang says, â€œNo, no, no, that would never happen here. Yellowface? In this day and age? Thatâ€™s crazy!â€ And then we just sort of go from there. What happened, of course, is that David petitioned Equity, and then Equity said that they didnâ€™t want to let Jonathan Pryce come and play the part, and it became an issue of artistic freedom, and then the factions of Equity â€“ people turned on each other, in a certain way â€“ there was a huge number of people who felt that he should be allowed to play the part, and there was a huge number of people in the theatrical community that felt that we should protest him playing the part, and it was just wildfire. Before you knew it, people like George F. Will, Frank Rich, Ed Koch, the sensation of this issue and should Jonathan Pryce be allowed to play this part became an of-the-moment kind of thing. Everyone was talking about it, it was everywhere, people were taking sides â€“ and David, as the forefront of the protest, ended up looking, in his mind, a little silly. He felt that the artistic freedom issue was an important one and of course Jonathan Pryce was allowed to come and play the part and it was a huge hit and ran for years and made a ton of money.
BB: And a lot of Asians did get to play the part.
LS: Of course. And the thing is, itâ€™s the issue of should white peopleâ€¦in a certain way, all things being equal, we believe that people who are best for the role should play the role. And we canâ€™t assume thatâ€¦at the time, part of what people were objecting to was that there hadnâ€™t been an effort to find an Asian male lead for that role, that there were, perhaps, many, or a few, or a couple, or some actors who could have played that part who were, in fact, Asian.
BB: How early on were you involved in this production and what brought you into Yellow Face as a director?
LS: Well, Oskar Eustis, the artistic director at The Public, called me and said that he had the perfect play for me to direct. And I was like, â€œWow, what does that mean? What is it about this play? Why me?â€ I was so curious. And then I read it, and I was like, oh, I get it, because itâ€™s this autobiographical, meta-theatrical play about race and identity, and I think because of the success of Lisa Kronâ€™s play Well that I directed, I think because of a play called Blue Door that Tanya Barfield wrote that I directed last year, I mean, in a certain way Iâ€™ve been very lucky in that Iâ€™ve gotten stylistically adventurous plays that deal in a very personal way â€“and also kind of a universal way â€“ that deal with race and identity. And there are similarities between Yellow Face and Well that I think are both fascinating and alsoâ€¦ at the beginning of Well, the real Lisa Kron came out and said, â€œHi, my name is Lisa Kron and this is my play.â€ And at the beginning of this play, an actor playing David Henry Hwang comes out and says, you know, â€œMy name is David Henry Hwang and this is my play.â€ And itâ€™s interesting, the wayâ€¦and I thought, â€œOh, thatâ€™s become my niche,â€ and I donâ€™t know what that niche is, but I feel so lucky. So Oskar gave me the play to read and I read the play, David and I had an initial conversation about it, and then we â€“ with the help of The Lark Play Development Center â€“ we did a bunch of workshops and worked on the play â€“ and then we went to Stanford and did a workshop in collaboration with The Public, and then we did a first production at Center Theatre Group in L.A., earlier this year.
BB: So is this your first time working with The Public?
LS: Well, we did Well there, which was three â€“ four years ago now.
BB: Whatâ€™s it like working with The Public? Itâ€™s an institution that has a lot ofâ€¦Iâ€™ve been dying to get something with The Public on the show, and Iâ€™m pleased that youâ€™re our first interview with them.
LS: You know, The Public, itâ€™s The Public, and you walk in there and itâ€™s like, you know, this is â€“ I think when youâ€™re â€“ it is, for me, so full of history. When you go into the Anspacher, which is the theater thatâ€™s in the round, that used to be the public reading room when it was the library. And thereâ€™s this sense that thereâ€™s so much history, and I love that when you walk in there at 7:30, and thereâ€™s three shows going on, and you have an audience for each â€“ and everyone, and itâ€™s so mixed â€“ right now, Brothers Size is down there, Yellow Face is down there, Hamletâ€™s down there, and you couldnâ€™t ask for a more diverse group. You couldnâ€™t ask for a groovier audience. You couldnâ€™t ask for â€“ in a certain way, I think it is the most vibrant kind of scene that there is. And I think part of what Oskarâ€™s trying to do is get every theater running every night with something. And then of course you have Joeâ€™s Pub, and you know, so I think that when youâ€™re aspiring to do interesting work that feels like it could reach a large number of people, The Public is really the best place to be.
BB: It seems like recently, The Public has forged a nice identity shift, where theyâ€™re like, halfway between the stoic classicism of Lincoln Center and the complete eclecticism of La MaMa. Where it is this blend of experimental work, but also work thatâ€™s more accessible. Like, I know Passing Strange is a Public presentation thatâ€™s actually moving to Broadway.
LS: Yeah, itâ€™s really – and I think like Well, Passing Strange is also, was a very adventurous project for them, with people who had never done theater before and it was kind of a new thing, and theyâ€™re actually being moved to Broadway by the same producers who moved us to Broadway, so thatâ€™s kind of great, and I think itâ€™s a very â€“ it was amazing, earlier this season I was on a panel with some of the other people who are going to be producing work at The Public this year, and it was me and David Hwang and Richard Nelson and Tarell McCraney, who wrote Brothers Size, and it was just the most interesting conversation and I think it is â€“ when youâ€™re trying to do this with your life, I think the thing you hope most for is to end up in a room like that, just trying to be part of it.
BB: Flashing back a couple years, what was the hardest part as a new director, trying to break into the scene and make a name for yourself?
LS: What wasnâ€™t hard? I think that directing isâ€¦unusual, because, really, the job is to synthesize the information thatâ€™s coming to you all the time from many different places, and then to communicate it in a way that feels articulate and open and that is productive and creative, and to keep a room feeling pressure-free and exciting, adventurousâ€¦and I think that the only way as a director to get that experience is to do it. And so, when you donâ€™t have a ton of experience under your belt, when you donâ€™t have work of yours that people have seen, getting people to trust you, to respect you, to listen to you in the way you want to be listened to, the degree that you really have to work to earn it before you can even really start to get the work done, is hard. And certainly Iâ€™m still dealing with that all the time; I think that every process is like, oh my God, youâ€™re starting all over again, itâ€™s like the first day of school, but I also think that I have very luckily amassed enough work that people have seen or know about that those first few days are just a little bit easier.
BB: Now theater is, of course, an art form that lives onstage. A certain amount of people can see it. So Iâ€™m just curious â€“ in your history, when you get roles, how much of that is people who have seen your work, and how many is that expanded network of people who have experienced your work by working with you?
LS: Well, for better or for worse, it is the most nepotistic business on the planet. So you just hope you keep the good reputation going because really, in a certain way, thatâ€™s all you have. You have that, you have reviews, you haveâ€¦I mean, thatâ€™s it. Itâ€™s not like anyoneâ€™s making money, or, you know, lives in a good apartment. Itâ€™s all just about what people say about you, in a certain way, or if you get hired back places.
BB: Last question on these career lines: how often do you lobby for a job? You said they approached you on this, but do you ever find a show, or see a play, and do you ever lobby to try to get in on a project? You see something that youâ€™ve just got to direct, and youâ€¦
LS: Well, it doesnâ€™t so much work like that because I do mostly new work, really, all I do is new work. So when I see something, itâ€™s mostly that there are writers that Iâ€™m dying to work with, more than that they wrote that play and Iâ€™m dying to direct it, often the playâ€™s not written yet. Like, I had this amazing thing happen, which was that Stephen Merritt, whoâ€™s in the band the Magnetic Fields and is this amazing singer/songwriter composer/musician, and David Greenspan, who is a fantastic actor and writer, joining together to write a book for this musical, and it was a project that, like, I just felt like Iâ€™m nowhere near cool enough to work on this. Theyâ€™re doing a musical of this book called Coraline, which is a book written by this guy Neil Gaiman who wrote the Sandman series, and he wrote Beowulf, and he wrote Stardust, and heâ€™s sort of in the world right now in such a huge way, and he has this book Coraline about a little girl who sort of opens the door in her flat and goes into the other side, and all of a sudden everyone whoâ€™s in her regular world is in this other world and itâ€™s all this sort of creepy, weird, strange terrifying thing, and I was just dying to work on it. And I had this strange sort of first meeting with them about the project and a year went by and I never heard anything, and I thought, â€œI should have lobbied so much harder for that! I really, really, really, really didnâ€™t tell them how much I loved it.â€ I was just really intimidated in a certain way. And now itâ€™s come back around and weâ€™re working on it, so that makes me really happy. That was, like, a really good story. For me itâ€™s all about who â€“ I feel so lucky that the collaborators I have, that Iâ€™ve worked with, that Iâ€™m sort of working on stuff with, thatâ€™s the thing that I want the most is to have an interesting group of projects with writers who have a lot to say and are creative and outrageous.
BB: Well, Leigh Silverman, I thank you so much for coming in. The show is Yellow Face at The Public Theater.
You can listen to this interview and many other great features for free on Broadway Bullet Vol. 137 Subscribe for free so you don’t miss an episode.