Interview with Director Michael John Garcés - Part Two
Michael John Garcés is the director for Danai Gurira's The Convert. He originally directed the play this spring for Woolly Mammoth Theater Company in Washington, DC, in a production featuring the same design team and three of the leading actors who are appearing at the Wilma. A week before beginning rehearsals in Philadelphia, he spoke on the phone with Walter Bilderback about The Convert, his career, directing, and other topics.
WB: And what are you looking forward to in getting a second crack at the play here at the Wilma?
MG: The richness of it and the size of it. I just re-read it recently in preparation for coming down to Philadelphia, and already I was like “ohhh I never…,” there were things in the play that I just never even saw before. You know, you’re kind of overwhelmed sometimes the first time reading a play, you’re just trying to catch up with it. And then the second time sort of feels like, you haven’t really mastered it necessarily, but at least you’re more in it, you’re able to be more present in it. Essentially, I’m oriented in the context of the play and now I can really start to see the trees and not just the forest. And that can be a very exciting part of the creative journey. And this is one of the handful of plays that I would say, in my experience, I am particularly excited about re-addressing because it just feels so rich. And I don’t think we had time or space - I was really proud of the Woolly production I’m not criticizing it - but I think it’s just a big play. So to be able to re-come into it and start from where we are now it will go much deeper and I’m excited about that.
WB: That American challenge of having usually four weeks or something to address a play.
MG: Yeah, yeah. And you know I reflect on it a lot because I think the American context, at its best, gives the plays a certain kind of drive and edge and excitement. You don’t have a lot of time to sort of relax into the play, you’re just going. And I think that provides a kind of muscularity, propulsion to American productions that, at the best, is really exciting and artistically vivid and authentic to American experience. But what it doesn’t do is provide for deep reflection and deep knowledge of the work you’re doing and so getting to come back to it sort of provides that.
WB: And there are some small changes for the Wilma production, in transferring the production here. Could you talk a little bit about that, the changes for the production?
MG: Sure, well the big change for me is certainly in the cast. We have four people who are new to me in the cast. One of the new actors has done the play before in the other production so I’m really intrigued and interested to see what she brings to the table in terms of her deep experience of having performed the play in one production at three different venues. I’m excited to see her pushing against the actress who did at Woolly, what that energy is and what that evokes. And then we have three actors who are relatively new to the text who are doing it for the first time and bringing those different energies. So I think what’s really gonna be strong about that, is nobody is gonna be able to be complacent. People are going to have to be very alive in the moment and not just assume anybody’s gonna do what they’ve been doing. Which I hope will make this production really alive, intensely in the present. And also for me, I’m gonna get challenged in different ways by different actors. The actors who have done it with me before are gonna challenge me to keep them, you know, how are we gonna keep this vibrant and alive, and actor who’s done it before she’s gonna say, “Well if I’m gonna do it different, why? What is the value in that?” And the new actors are gonna be like, “What’re we doing here?” (laughs) And to make sure everybody in those three contexts, and of course each individual is gonna be extremely different from each other, and make it the same production and bring everybody to the same place, is gonna be one of the fun challenges of this production. But I’m looking forward to it because it will keep me on my toes and I think give this production itself a particular life, which any production really should have.
And then there’s the space. At Woolly we had a very, what I would consider to be a vertical space in the sense that when you were looking at it the set was very deep and the set actually came out into the audience so it was this sort of three-dimensional experience in that way and certainly a lot of the angles and a lot of how we created stage tension and stage pictures was through verticality. You know, so someone would be standing on a platform four or five rows out into the audience and someone who was all the way in the back and those kinds of things. And we won’t have that kind of stage relationship at The Wilma it will be a more horizontal picture. So for me the challenge will be how to keep it very dynamic in terms of its stage pictures and so how to preserve that dynamism without simply trying to make it what it was. And so we have essentially kept the same aesthetic of the set, but really changed the dynamic so what was a platform that came out into the audience is now something that actually slashes through the set, and so the hallway and when people are standing there versus when they’re standing in the room is a very different relationship than they had at Woolly and will create a very different dynamic. But still preserves the sort of Christian iconography that the other set had. It’s not overt but it’s very present in the set. So I’m interested in how that’s going to work and I’m excited about that challenge as well.