Excuse me while I shift my focus from film for a moment. I recently interviewed theatre director Michelle Tattenbaum, who’s staging an Off-Broadway revival of John Patrick Shanley’s Danny and the Deep Blue Sea. The show opens on October 7 at New York City’s Nuyorican Poets Café.
(Re-posted from LimitéMagazine.com)
by Daniel Quitério
Notable theatre director Michelle Tattenbaum has made her presence felt in New York and regional theatre for the past several years. Most recently, she helmed the world and New York premieres of Nobody Loves You, a large-scale, comic musical about a reality dating show, which ran Off-Broadway last year at Manhattan’s Second Stage Theater. Proving her adeptness at directing larger productions as well as smaller, character-focused pieces, Tattenbaum now turns her attention to an Off-Broadway revival of the more intimate Danny and the Deep Blue Sea.
Written by Pulitzer Prize-, Tony Award-, and Oscar-winning scribe John Patrick Shanley (Doubt: A Parable), Danny and the Deep Blue Seatells the story of Danny and Roberta, living on the fringe of society. The two outcasts meet in a Bronx bar and engage in a topsy-turvy conversation that is poised to result in an unexpected connection.
I recently had the opportunity to communicate via e-mail with Tattenbaum, as she’s prepping her next production.
We know the show is about two New York rejects who meet in a bar. Without giving anything away, what more can you tell us about the story?
The play is about two folks whom we’d normally just overlook, or even avoid, who figure out a way to connect with one another despite their powerful emotional defenses. It’s not a plot-heavy play, so describing the “story” doesn’t do an effective job at communicating what is so beautiful about this story. But it’s ultimately about both the difficulty and the necessity of achieving true connection with another person.
How did you come to be attached to this production?
Nairoby Otero (who is producing and playing Roberta) and I have been friends and collaborators for many years. I directed her playTil Sunday and also directed a production of Theresa Rebeck’sSunday on the Rocks, which Nairoby produced. So when she asked me if I was interested in directing Danny and the Deep Blue Sea I was delighted to have the chance to work with her again.
How closely are you working with John Patrick Shanley in bringing his play to the stage?
I’m not working with him at all. This is one of his earliest plays, and it’s quite complete as a script. We certainly hope he’ll come see the production, though!
Shanley’s an extremely accomplished writer. Are you finding room to deviate from his text at all?
Not at all, and I wouldn’t even consider it. This is a perfect gem of a play, and if we’re struggling with making any of its moments come alive, I know that it’s our job to find a different approach to unlocking the moment, because the script is so strong.
You’re an experienced theatre director, but is there anything that’s surprised you about this particular experience working withDanny and the Deep Blue Sea?
Lately, I’ve been directing a lot of larger-scale productions, in which my focus has had to be on moving large casts around the stage and handling complex technical elements. It’s been a long time since I’ve worked on a piece that is so much about the acting and not the staging or the tech. I’ve been yearning to get back to this kind of work, but it’s still a real mental shift for me. And so that has been a surprise—to feel the shifting that needed to happen in my own imagination.
What have been some of your biggest challenges in bringing this play to life?
The characters in Danny and the Deep Blue Sea lack self-awareness. They are completely cut off from their own feelings. But, of course, as artists bringing the characters to life, our process is to analyze what makes these characters tick. So, there’s a challenge in figuring these people out while also being true to the fact that they haven’t figured themselves out. We’re often pointing something out in rehearsal about one of the characters and then adding, “but he doesn’t know that.” We’ve been spending a lot of time figuring out ways in which the characters can reveal themselves to the audience through their physicality, without the characters consciously realizing the thing that they are revealing. It’s a delicate balance to strike.
Have you found a personal connection to any part of the text?
I couldn’t direct anything that I didn’t feel a personal connection to. That personal connection is at the heart of every production I direct. For Danny and the Deep Blue Sea, I am struck by the fear that both characters have that they are only a source of destruction in the world, that they have no capacity to change anything for the better. I think that is a universal fear that all people have from time to time. Even though Danny and Roberta (the two characters in the play) can be edgy and off-putting at times, it’s important that the audience ultimately be able to identify with their plight and root for them.
What are you hoping audience members will take from this show?
I hope people will have the impulse to connect with others, and to be a source of positivity and healing toward the people they come in contact with in their day-to-day lives.
You’ve worked with actors Michael Micalizzi and Nairoby before. What’s that collaboration like?
We have a lot of trust in the room. I know they will both be brilliant in this play, and they know that when I’m pushing them to take a leap in their acting work, it’s because I believe in them and know that they can do it.
Can you give us some insights into the casting process? How did Michael and Nairoby ultimately stand out?
Well, we didn’t have auditions for this production. Nairoby brought the project to me, and I knew she would make a great Roberta. And I worked with Mike several years ago and have always been looking for opportunities to work with him again, so when this project came up, I thought of him immediately and was thrilled that he was available. In terms of what makes these two actors stand out to me, it’s partly that they are vivid, interesting artists who don’t feel like cookie-cutter copies of some type or other. And it’s also that we all just connect as collaborators and work really well together.
We’re a New York-based site, and the city is swimming with actors looking for a break. Are there any qualities you’re consistently finding in young up-and-comers that either impress you or that you find off-putting?
I have a lot of admiration for actors. This is a really tough business, and anyone who is taking the plunge is pretty amazing in my book. When I see folks audition, I’m always looking for people who are prepared, who have done their homework and have smart questions and ideas about the material. I am also drawn to actors who find a way to show the opposite side of each character. A lot of folks can come in to an audition and bring the predominant traits of a character to life, but I am always looking for the actor who can find a way to bring in the character’s opposite, as well. So, if a character is a really tough and confident person, then I want to see the actor who finds a moment of true fear and vulnerability for that character, as well. Also, if I’m interested in an actor’s audition, I will always give an adjustment, to see if the actor has flexibility and also if the way I communicate works for that particular actor. Being able to take a note and really make something of it in an audition is important.
What’s your advice to those actors?
I think maintaining relationships is the most important thing in this business. And not just by inviting business contacts to see your work (although that’s important), but by finding other ways and excuses to stay connected with folks you’ve worked with. Also, I’m a big believer in paying it forward. People will come through for you if you’ve come through for them.
Danny and the Deep Blue Sea is produced by YOLO! Productions and opens at New York’s Nuyorican Poets Café on October 7. The production runs October 7 – 10, 20, 22 – 24 at 7pm. Tickets cost $20 and can be purchased now here.
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