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HomeTheatreAMERICAN THEATRE | Les Waters: Theatre Areas and Skinny Locations

AMERICAN THEATRE | Les Waters: Theatre Areas and Skinny Locations

Les Waters. (Photograph by Zach Dezon)

When the lights went out in March 2020, theatre folks had no thought how a lot time was being dumped of their laps. The preliminary uncertainty round COVID was paralyzing, however regularly, lengthy earlier than the loss of life toll received scary and the financial hardships received critical, an increasing number of of us got here up with pandemic initiatives giant and small that may solely have ever occurred throughout life below lockdown. Les Waters and I made a decision to make a ebook.

For the previous 25 years, Les Waters has performed a directing profession on the coronary heart of the American theatre. He has staged Shakespeare, Sheridan, and Shaw in addition to American classics by O’Neill, Wilder, Williams, and Shepard, however he’s greatest recognized for his work with a few of the nation’s extra adventurous up to date playwrights, together with Sarah Ruhl, Charles Mee, Naomi Iizuka, Will Eno, Anne Washburn, and in recent times Lucas Hnath. That work helped to earn him an Obie Award in 2020 for Sustained Excellence in Path that acknowledged “his ease with each the fragile and the spectacular,” “his mastery of the borderlands the place emotion and actuality are equally slippery,” and “his vital collaborations with actors and designers and his advocacy for brand spanking new writers and younger administrators.”

Routledge, 340 pp., $39.95.

Waters has been head of the MFA directing program at UCSD, affiliate inventive director at Berkeley Repertory Theatre, and inventive director of Actors Theatre of Louisville, a place he left after six years in 2018 to pursue freelance initiatives. One of many extra profitable of these is Dana H., Lucas Hnath’s one-character play, during which veteran actor Deirdre O’Connell lipsyncs a prolonged verbatim textual content based mostly on interviews with Hnath’s mom Dana Higginbotham a few harrowing kidnapping expertise. After runs at Middle Theatre Group’s Kirk Douglas Theatre in Los Angeles and the Goodman in Chicago, Dana H. had simply opened on the Winery Theatre in New York when COVID shut down theatres nationwide. However, thanks partially to Waters’s delicate course and O’Connell’s beautiful efficiency, the manufacturing had not run its course. It was one of many first exhibits to be revived as theatres regularly reopened within the fall of 2021, working on Broadway on the Lyceum Theatre for six weeks in rep with Tina Satter’s Is This A Room. Waters was later nominated for a Tony Award for his course, and O’Connell and sound designer Mikhail Fiksel each obtained Tonys for his or her work.

Waters has remained comparatively busy since theatres got here again on-line. He directed two productions at Berkeley Rep: Charles Mee’s Wintertime and a brand new manufacturing of Dana H. with Jordan Baker within the difficult title function. He conceived and directed Out of Time, a set of 5 30-minute monologues written by 5 Asian American playwrights for 5 Asian American actors over the age of 60, produced by NAATCO on the Public Theater earlier this yr. Extra work lies forward. There are developmental workshops with David Cale, Lucas Hnath, and Naomi Iizuka, and Martha Redbone. Subsequent summer time, he’ll direct Pinter’s No Man’s Land at Steppenwolf with Austin Pendleton and Jeff Perry. And if all goes in response to plan, Waters could have a chic full-circle second early in 2024 when he directs Dana H. on the Royal Courtroom Theatre, proper the place his profession began in 1979 as inventive director of the Royal Courtroom’s experimental studio, the Theatre Upstairs.

Waters was a couple of weeks previous his 68th birthday in April 2020 when he reached out to me about an concept that I had first broached with him years earlier. Over that first pandemic summer time, between Berkeley and Boston, we spoke on the telephone a number of occasions per week about his life, profession, and perspective as a director. These recorded conversations supplied the uncooked materials for what grew to become The Theatre of Les Waters: Extra Just like the Climate, a mosaic of brief writings (together with a dozen lists) that goal to seize what makes Waters the theatre artist that he’s, and by extension what makes a great director. Collaboration, in fact, is central to a director’s observe, so to seize that dimension we recruited two dozen of Waters’s colleagues over the many years—playwrights, designers, dramaturgs, stage managers, and former college students—to jot down essays describing their work collectively.

Listed here are a couple of excerpts from the ebook, all composed by Waters and edited by me, that recommend one thing about who Waters is and our impressionistic technique for creating the ebook’s portrait of him and directing itself.

Early Theatre Expertise

I don’t keep in mind any HA!! second once I thought, That is it, I do know what I’m going to be, I’m going to be a theatre director. I can keep in mind precisely the place I used to be once I determined I used to be an atheist however not a director. Each decisions concerned lengthy walks by means of native woods on Sunday afternoons as a brooding teenager. The choice to reject God and Christianity was a type of shattering. With directing I began strolling and plenty of miles later I arrived again house a director.

I don’t keep in mind any HA!! second once I thought that is it, I do know what I’m going to be, I’m going to be a theatre director. I can keep in mind precisely the place I used to be once I determined I used to be an atheist however not a director. Each decisions concerned lengthy walks by means of native woods on Sunday afternoons as a brooding teenager. The choice to reject God and Christianity was a type of shattering. With directing I  began strolling and plenty of miles later I arrived again house, a director. 

The primary present I ever noticed was the panto Dick Whittington and His Cat on the theatre in Cleethorpes (I used to be born there) one Christmas. Going to the theatre was a significant occasion. We couldn’t afford the theatre. We couldn’t afford a lot of something. I keep in mind cats dancing on the roofs of London at midnight and it was snowing. I used to be 3, perhaps 4, and barely afraid of the entire thing, and was sitting on my grandpa’s lap and I assumed the cats have been actual and I assumed I need to make issues like that. It was that clear. However I used to be 3. Then it’s a clean until my final two years at grammar college, and by then I knew that I wanted to be within the theatre and I didn’t need to be an actor. Being checked out will be tough for me and that tends to be a significant stumbling block for any performer. I used to be very influenced by two academics: Enid Pittwood, who taught historical past and directed the varsity play, and Jim Hawkins, who taught English and made occasions with the scholars. He launched me to John Arden and the work of the Royal Courtroom. So by my junior yr at highschool I used to be often disappearing to London to see performs.

I used to be an adolescent within the Sixties. All people knew one thing large was happening and it wasn’t happening within the city the place I used to be rising up. I grew to become concerned with the Scunthorpe Youth Theatre. Mike Bradwell—who began the theatre group Hull Truck and was shut buddies with the movie director Mike Leigh and went on to run the Bush Theatre—was from the identical space as me. And he directed a manufacturing of John Whiting’s The Devils in Scunthorpe one summer time. Fairly a radical selection for a youth theatre. However it was the ’60s. I performed Cardinal Richelieu. I believe I had one scene and I don’t keep in mind something that I mentioned. I will need to have been 15 or 16. It was superb. We have been a bunch of arty, snotty, deeply opinionated youngsters, and Mike would say, it is best to take heed to this music, or it is best to learn this, or there’s a play by so-and-so, or you must see the work of this director. I keep in mind mendacity in a medieval sarcophagus in Thornton Abbey graveyard at midnight and believing, this was improvisation. I keep in mind listening to Pink Floyd’s A Saucerful of Secrets and techniques in any respect hours of the day and evening, ready for revelation. My world out of the blue grew to become extra expansive and extra fascinating. A way of connection to an imaginative universe.

Theatres I Have Recognized

The Royal Courtroom Theatre, London. Proscenium. A beautiful relationship between the stage and the auditorium. Epic in an intimate method. So many memorable productions: Max Stafford-Clark’s Prime Women, The Glad Hand, Invoice Gaskill’s The Sea, Nancy Meckler’s Curse of the Ravenous Class, Peter Gill’s Small Change, Ian Rickson’s Mojo.

The Almeida, London. What was the unique perform of the area? A gathering corridor? A warehouse? Its curved brick again wall. Its top. Its intimacy. The sense of being contained in the manufacturing with the performers. Joint Inventory’s manufacturing of Fen opened right here in February of 1983. A frigid winter. No heating. Seeing the actor’s breath on stage.

The Traverse Theatre, Edinburgh. I’m pondering of the previous Traverse within the Grassmarket. I’m unsure I even keep in mind the area with any readability. I do keep in mind interviewing on two events for the place of inventive director and being rejected. A numbing heartbreak on the time. I really feel that my profession would have been very completely different if I had been accepted. “Profession” makes me cringe. Seems like one thing deliberate, one thing properly thought out. Now, I did need to work on the Royal Courtroom. And I did need to work within the States. And I achieved each issues. I’ve had a life. I’m having a life. I don’t need to say “a life within the theatre” as a result of that’s so luvvie. And in addition a David Mamet play.

(The problem in scripting this checklist is that it’s about reminiscence. I meant to jot down about bodily area. Or largely about that. However it’s turn out to be in a short time about my emotional connection to the area/theatre. I directed one present on the previous Traverse. Rona Munro’s Fugue. I keep in mind so little concerning the play. I don’t keep in mind the design in any respect. I don’t assume it was a “unhealthy” manufacturing. However the expertise of being there engaged on that present is firmly lodged in my thoughts. Traverse/Fugue/Edinburgh/inventive director interviews/disappointment. Proust and his madeleine.)

The Public Theater, New York Metropolis. I’ve seen exhibits in all the areas there and labored within the Newman, the Anspacher, the LuEster, and the Shiva. My American profession (that phrase once more!) began right here with Fen in 1983. I didn’t actually know the way vital the establishment was. Joe Papp, his generosity, his cruelty. My youth, my self-importance. I can’t actually describe the precise areas and the way they work. Like being inside a monument, a monument referred to as the Public Theater.

The Roda Stage, Berkeley Rep, California. The bigger of the 2 levels. The proscenium. I perceive prosceniums. The disconnect between the seats downstairs and the seats upstairs. Too separate experiences. No wing area. Broad sufficient to really feel epic. And but two folks standing on that stage in its vacancy can really feel intimate. I like working there: Fetes de la Nuit, Within the Subsequent Room, The Lieutenant of Inishmore, Regarding Unusual Units from the Distant West. I consider this place as a house.

Soho Rep, New York Metropolis. I’ve most likely seen extra productions right here than another theatre in New York. I like what they do. Sarah Benson. Hero. It’s small, it’s cramped, it shouldn’t work but it surely does. It transforms. I’ve seen nice performs right here—Branden Jacobs-Jenkins’s An Octoroon, Fairview by Jackie Sibblies Drury, Is God Is by Aleshea Harris—in nice productions, however the place sings design to me. I consider Soho Rep as design. The transformation of area. Assume Louisa Thompson for Blasted, David Zinn for 10 Out of 12, Mimi Lien for each An Octoroon and Fairview. Geniuses. Heroes.

From left, Sue Jean Kim, Leigh Wade (again to viewers), Gibson Frazier, Nina Hellman in “10 Out of 12” by Anne Washburn at Soho Rep. (Photograph by Julieta Cervantes)

The Lyceum Theatre, Broadway, NYC. The place the nice folks at Lincoln Middle produced The Vibrator Play. Good alignment of play, design by Annie Good, and theatre. A play set within the Victorian period dwelling in a Victorian theatre. I don’t like watching my very own work—I do know that may be a downside—however I used to be glad sitting in these cramped seats amongst a puzzled viewers watching this. In the course of the many weeks of previews I received to know the area properly. I watched from up prime and liked the layers of velvet mud on the sculptures. I watched from the wings, and once I couldn’t watch anymore I listened to the present from the dressing room inside the proscenium arch itself. A magical place.

Brooklyn Academy of Music. Stunning. Essential. Honored to have had two exhibits within the Harvey. Each by Chuck Mee. Each originating from ATL. Large Love and Glory of the World. That area carries the spectacle of the work as if it’s a head on a silver platter. I’ve watched superb productions there: Ivo’s Opening Evening, the dance items of Pina Bausch and Susanne Linke. Joe Melillo. Hero.

Actors Theatre of Louisville. I’ve labored in all three areas—the Pamela Brown, the Bingham, and the Victor Jory—and in an deserted warehouse in Butchertown. My involvement with ATL started with Large Love in 2000 and ended with The Skinny Place in 2019. I used to be AD from 2012 to 2018. Not a lot the efficiency areas because the rehearsal room, the Humana Room on the fifth flooring of the executive places of work on Market Road—that claims Actors Theatre to me. It’s not run-down and seedy like so many rehearsal rooms. It’s crisp with somewhat little bit of battered. It’s not giant sufficient to accommodate the width of the Pamela Brown. It’s not deep sufficient both. The AC system is quixotic. It has fluorescent lighting and it has home windows. It may be quiet. And it doesn’t really feel remoted. For six and a half years I each made theatre and watched others make theatre in that area. I’ve watched discoveries and meltdowns and revelations about performs and efficiency that may by no means be recreated. I’ve had seizures in that room. It’s a excellent area. An area of limitless potentialities.

La Fenice, Venice, Italy. I’ve by no means been to Venice, I’ve by no means been to Italy. To be trustworthy, I’m not likely certain what the area is like. The title calls out, although. La Fenice.

A Good Rehearsal Room

Les Waters in rehearsal.

Someplace that’s a part of the theatre and never miles away.

Someplace quiet.

Someplace the place folks can enter quietly.

Someplace with good lighting. 

(Sitting below fluorescent gentle all day will not be good.)

(Staring by means of a window on the solar all day will not be good.)

Someplace above floor. 

(I don’t need to have to affix the Miner’s Union as a way to work.)

Someplace the identical dimension because the enjoying space of the stage. 

Someplace I belief all people I’m working with.

Someplace the place all people has an urge for food for the venture.

Someplace with an limitless provide of espresso. 

Someplace we are able to fail and no one will snicker or titter or roll their eyes.

Someplace I really feel protected and there’s a sense of chance within the room.

Skinny Locations

My mom’s household in Lincolnshire have been farm laborers, typically servants within the large home, very Methodist, and deeply superstitious. You couldn’t deliver sure flowers into the home at sure occasions of yr. You couldn’t lower your toenails on a Sunday or the satan would get you. A spirit of some kind referred to as Uncooked Head and Bloody Bones lived below the steps in my grandparents’ home. The Wesley brothers, who based British Methodism, have been from Epworth close to Scunthorpe the place I used to be introduced up. Methodism was very robust in my household. I spent quite a lot of time with my maternal grandparents rising up. I keep in mind them as storytellers. They have been first technology city dwellers and would inform tales of what it was like within the village the place they have been born. I assumed they have been dwelling historical past.

My Grandma Carrie would discuss skinny locations. I’m an solely youngster however I’m the youngest and the smallest—I stand at 6′ 2″ now—of 4 male cousins. I used to be the baby, the newborn. We by no means actually knew what the time period meant and it was most likely her method of retaining us in line, however there have been these skinny locations and she or he would warn, “Leslie, in the event you go there, you’re going to be in hassle.” A skinny place is the place the membrane or boundary between this world and another world—I’ve usually mistakenly mentioned between this world and the subsequent world, but it surely undoubtedly wasn’t the subsequent world—could be very skinny. And you can slip between one and the opposite. There was a skinny place in a subject near the village the place my grandparents have been born. Kirmington, Lincolnshire. It has a inhabitants of about 300. We have been instructed to avoid there as a result of it was harmful. And why it was, I don’t know. Perhaps any individual disappeared there 100 years in the past. I don’t know. I’ve no data.

I lived the primary 18 years of my life at 30 Lincoln Gardens in Scunthorpe. And on the nook of Lincoln Gardens and Laburnum Grove, there’s a tree. Not an enormous tree. A medium-sized, reasonably scrappy-looking tree. And that tree, for years I believed, walks at evening. I sound like a Thomas Hardy novel once I discuss this. However that tree walks at evening and it’s not clever to stroll by that tree late at evening.

It made an impression on me as a baby. These locations the place you can stroll by means of and be in another world. However what horrified me as a baby is that one thing from that different world may go by means of into this one and seize me and take me again. What the opposite world was, I don’t know. At one level I imagined it as a thick moist fog. I used to be frightened by skinny locations as a child after which I forgot about it, or it was yet one more unusual story about my mom’s household’s rural life.

After we have been workshopping Dana H. on the Goodman, Lucas mentioned he needed the play to vary gears very out of the blue, for one thing to occur that was surprising that shifted the play into completely different territory. And I mentioned, “Oh, it feels like a skinny place.” I defined it to him. And he thought it was an fascinating title for a play, after which there was a play referred to as The Skinny Place.

Kelly McAndrew, Robin Bartlett, Triney Sandoval, and Emily Cass McDonnell in “The Skinny Place” at Actors Theatre of Louisville in 2019. (Photograph by Jonathan Roberts)

Do I expertise it personally? Skinny locations? I don’t know. Ultimately it could be tied to my epilepsy. Or is it a method for me to visualise my epilepsy? I don’t know what occurs to me throughout a seizure. I’ve no reminiscence of the occasion. Or when I’ve a reminiscence of it, is it as a result of I’m reconstructing one thing that different folks have instructed me? Am I unconscious throughout a seizure, or am I in another consciousness? I’ve a notion that I’ve gone some place else. However I’ve no data of the place that some place else is. I’ve gaps in my reminiscence which can be greater than the precise occasion. The seizure may very well be solely two or three minutes lengthy, however it could eradicate a number of hours of reminiscence. So there may very well be a three-hour hole after which I discover myself sitting in a chair having a cup of tea speaking to folks telling them I’m all proper, asking can they get me house and I’ve a horrible headache and have they got one thing for it.

And all the pieces else has been erased. Or reasonably there’s a really, very faint blur of the expertise someplace. As if I had drawn or written out the expertise on a sheet of paper after which I or my rogue neurology had erased it. Perhaps that is what attracts me to Rauschenberg’s “Erased de Kooning Drawing” within the San Francisco Museum of Fashionable Artwork. Rauschenberg requested the Summary Expressionist painter Willem de Kooning—close to the peak of his fame—for a drawing after which he erased it and put it in a gilded body. I may have a look at it for hours. For hours. I’m fascinated by the traces of issues. I discover the thought of destroying one thing—the concept that the destruction of 1 factor is the act of constructing one thing else—profoundly fascinating. Its blankness is compelling.


I’m hooked on opposites. To be exact, I’m hooked on the area between opposites. It’s vital to look between the opposites, on the area between two issues. I’ve an acute sense of contradiction. I like contradiction in a manufacturing. I like queasy floor. I like issues which can be porous and journey backwards and forwards between two poles. That intrigues me. I’ve all the time thought that all the pieces was double-sided. That all the pieces comprises its reverse. And since I don’t recognize being instructed what to assume, I must hold the other spinning all the time.

My maternal grandparents, Carey and Charles, have been working-class socialists. I don’t assume they ever sat me down as a baby and mentioned, “It’s essential perceive the rules of Hegelian dialectics.” However once I did, I assumed, “Thesis? Sure! Antithesis? Completely! Synthesis? Actually? I’m not satisfied.” I don’t imagine that issues resolve. Ever. I simply don’t imagine it. I like change. I like the opportunity of change. Cozy concepts of decision and closure make me loopy. Change is the one fixed. Productions ought to finish with an enormous sequence of query marks. Shouldn’t they?

Right here’s a favourite quote:

I hate endings. Simply detest them. Beginnings are undoubtedly probably the most thrilling, middles are perplexing, and endings are a catastrophe. The temptation in direction of decision, in direction of wrapping up the bundle, appears to me a horrible entice. Why not be extra trustworthy with the second? Essentially the most genuine endings are those that are already revolving in direction of one other starting. That’s genius.

                                                                                                —Sam Shepard, The Paris Assessment

Launched in April, The Theatre of Les Waters: Extra Just like the Climate is on the market from Routledge/Taylor & Francis group.

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