Are there images or ideas in the script of CUL-DE-SAC that compelled you, right from the start?
The idea in the play that I really loved from the very beginning was how people smile without meaning it – how we all feel obligated to smile in public, and the way you smile when you don’t really mean it, the fake smile at the neighbors, at your job, at the store. We all hide our true feelings in those moments. . .and to me this play is in part about the importance of living a more authentic life.
In the play, all three of these couples are in marriages with people they actually love. All of them struggle with the idea of authentic feelings; they can’t seem to find their way to true happiness. For example, all three couples all have kiss moments in the play – some are fake, for the neighbors to see, they don’t mean anything. But when those kisses are real, on impulse, and their feelings are authentic, that kiss snaps them back to the reality of their lives, instead of the façade. And that’s interesting to me.
"...the fake smile at the neighbors, at your job, at the store. We all hide our true feelings in those moments. . .and to me this play is in part about the importance of living a more authentic life."
Initially I thought the play was more about America living on credit, about people living beyond their means. But after spending more time with the play and in rehearsal, I discovered it was much more about the search for happiness. All of the things the characters say they want -- it’s not all about impressing the neighbors, it’s also about convincing themselves that they are happy.
And that made me think a lot about how so many of us acquire things to fill a void or a hole in ourselves and our lives. We’re a nation of consumers. We’re trained to be consumers. Even after 9/11 we were told to “go out and shop,” as though consuming goods would cure everything and make us whole again. And, of course, it didn’t. It never does. But we’ve got millions of compulsive shoppers, overeaters, sex addicts – all of these people who are trying to fill that void inside, instead of dealing with the issues that trouble them. They don’t stop to ask themselves: “What am I really hungry for?” The characters in this play are dealing with that hunger, too.
Audiences love the music you chose and the choreography you created. Tell us about your inspiration and your process.
An important scene in the play culminates in this big dance number. John chose a specific song for the scene, “Sentimental Journey,” and he chose a specific version of that song recorded in the 1960s by an artist who developed a very specific style. It’s Latin, it’s jazz, it’s disco, and by the 1970s, it’s early techno music, too. The music is all mid-century Americana – the Top 40 songs of the day – but it also has this slightly warped quality to it. It’s a strangely unsettling and sometimes almost bizarre take on classic “white-bread” popular American music.
The more I listened to this music, the more I liked it, and I thought it would be great to use it in other parts of the production, too. I think the audiences are enjoying it because the music gives those scenes a kind of buoyancy. It cleanses the palette in a way. It supports the action of the play, but it’s also in contrast to the action. I think the chirpy bounciness of it underscores how everyone in the play is trying so desperately to be normal, chasing the American dream – but they’re all slightly off-kilter, too. The idea for me was to score the play like you would score a film, so the music is never in the way, but it’s giving us a sense of forward motion and urgency that feels organic to the story.
That’s my approach to choreography, too. I always do my own choreography because I like to have it emerge organically from the storytelling. I think this is especially important in John’s play, because the rhythm in his writing is so precise – the characters are talking while they’re dancing and the timing has to be perfect. So: I looked at this big dance scene and I thought about the song that John chose for it, “Sentimental Journey,” and I wondered, “What would their form of dance be? Maybe they took a class in swing dancing. Maybe they took lots of classes. Maybe it’s important to them to be really good at swing dancing.” I began to think of the dance in that scene as a real show-stopper, that maybe they learned this whole dance number just to impress the neighbors.
"I think this is especially important in John’s play, because the rhythm in his writing is so precise – the characters are talking while they’re dancing and the timing has to be perfect."
My own parents were big “Lindy” dancers. They loved music, and when I was growing up in Brooklyn, we always had music playing in the house. . . My parents could be in the kitchen having a big old fight, but if a good song came on the radio, they’d stop arguing and start dancing, just like that. They loved it!
What excites you about working on contemporary plays by living writers? What do you find most challenging about that process?
It’s always exciting to work on a new piece, to discover what the play is about, to bring out the core message, the heart of the story, to bring out the beauty of a person’s work for the first time for an audience. I have really enjoyed working with John on cul-de-sac. We’ve had some great conversations where we both discovered things about the piece. So, I love to collaborate with the writer.
The real challenge for me as a director of a new play is that I don’t want to do things on approval – to do what the playwright wants and that’s it. I need to be able to follow my creative impulses about the work. This puts me in conflict with myself sometimes -- maybe it’s my Catholic upbringing, that I don’t want to let people down, I don’t want to fail the work, I want to make people happy. But one thing I’ve learned over the years is that the only way to succeed is to follow my strong impulses about the text. Because then I know I’m serving the play.
Tell us about your artistic journey with Half Moon Theatre.
The first project I did with Half Moon was in 2009. My good friend Geoff Tarson was working with the company and he asked me to come up here and direct their gala, “Dutchess Divas,” which a lot of Half Moon fans will remember. That was the first time I met Molly (Katz, Executive Director) and Kristy (Grimes, Managing Director). Next year they asked me to direct the gala again. The “Dutchess Divas” became locally famous, maybe even a little infamous! We staged it like a mini-Vegas show with lots of fun medleys, songs to celebrate the donors -- it became this annual treat for people in the area. After that, I directed the gala every year, and in 2011, after I directed workshops of two new plays, Kristy and Molly asked me to direct the premier of a piece that Half Moon had commissioned called The Magic Fish, which was a children’s opera. That turned out to be a pretty big hit, and we all realized how much we loved working with each other. Half Moon was moving into their first theater space, the black box [now Half Moon’s Studio Theatre]. They asked me to direct musicals for them in the new space. . .I had the idea of doing Side by Side by Sondheim. . .I knew the show, I love the music, and I thought it would work really well in the black box . . . We had a terrific cast for that show. Everyone had a great time, our audiences loved it. Dr. Tim Ryan, the President of the CIA [Culinary Institute of America] saw it twice, and I think he really understood what we were trying to do for the community by bringing this kind of production to the Hudson Valley. And then Dr. Ryan said, “I have a beautiful new theater on campus, I think you should come and perform shows in the space.” So that show, Side by Side by Sondheim, ultimately propelled us into our big beautiful new venue at the CIA. . .
After that, I officially became Half Moon’s Artistic Director. Now I direct the annual gala, which is a big event, plus all of the shows on the mainstage at the CIA. I’ve directed workshops of new plays and the Ten-Minute Play Festival. I also worked with Kristy and Molly to develop our new cabaret series. We’ve featured a lot of the amazing and talented people that I work with in New York City. I think it’s been a great thing for the Hudson Valley to be able to enjoy some of the city’s top cabaret artists, right here. . .
And that brings us to cul-de-sac! For years, I had heard about this amazing connection that Half Moon had with the playwright John Cariani -- but I hadn’t actually directed any of John’s plays or workshops myself, until now! And I couldn’t be happier.
"I’ve found a true home away from home. I’ve found a beautiful and creative world up here that I never expected to find. . .At Half Moon I feel that people support my work and trust my talent."
You asked about my journey to Half Moon. . .as I said, I’m from New York City, and I still live there, but with Half Moon, I’ve found a true home away from home. I’ve found a beautiful and creative world up here that I never expected to find. . .At Half Moon I feel that people support my work and trust my talent. It gives me the chance to leave the city, to live and work in a beautiful place, and to create with people who are here to enjoy the creative experience, and that’s it. Their only motive is to make something wonderful for their community. That’s rare. It’s pretty special. . .I feel like I’ve found lifelong friends here. From the very beginning, Molly and Kristy invited me into their homes and welcomed me into their families. I actually live with them, so I know their husbands and their children and their pets, and I love them all! I really appreciate working with creative people who also have full lives going on, 24/7 – with their families, their neighbors, and their community. So: I’m in love with the Hudson Valley, I really am! I feel very lucky every time I get to work with these incredibly talented people. It’s a gift.