Q&A with Director Joel Greenberg
How did Studio 180 decide to bring Kevin Elyot’s renowned British tragi-comedy to Toronto? Artistic Director Joel Greenberg sheds light on what draws him to the play and provides some context for My Night With Reg as the cornerstone of Studio 180’s 14th season.
Q: You felt an immediate connection upon reading My Night With Reg. Can you talk about what draws you to the play and why you wanted to direct the Canadian premiere?
I was immediately struck by Kevin Elyot’s balance of humanity and utter lack of sentimentality – the depth of characters and the blend of humour and sadness, neither one limiting the other. I can’t say that I know or have spent time with these characters, and yet they are immediate, knowable and sympathetic.
At the same time, I amazed at Elyot’s playfulness and subtle manipulation of time. He was a very gifted dramatist, one who understood the demands of writing for the stage and especially writing with actors firmly in mind.
Q: In 2011 and 2012 you directed The Normal Heart for Studio 180. How are these plays different from one another and what interests you about these differences?
The plays are almost antithetical in nature, tone and purpose. Whereas The Normal Heart is agitprop at its finest, My Night With Reg is character-driven. In The Normal Heart, Larry Kramer wrote about a community of people, each of whom represented a larger voice in the fight against indifference to the AIDS crisis. The play is fuelled by anger, outrage and an unapologetic demand for rising up and taking action.
Kevin Elyot, whose play premiered almost 10 years after The Normal Heart and a few years after Tony Kushner’s Angels in America, was determined to write a play where the people were credible individuals who didn’t speak to a particular political agenda. Elyot was adamant that My Night With Reg was not a “political play” in the way that Kramer and Kushner had used the stage as a much larger platform.
Reg is a play about six men who are gay, yes, but whose lives are consumed in issues more universal than the particulars found in both The Normal Heart and Angels in America.
Q: Do you think the contrast between these plays is representative of a difference in style or approach between American and British sensibilities?
It’s hard to say whether Reg would have its shape and tone if the other plays hadn’t come before. It’s important to know that Elyot wrote a number of plays, all of them addressing gay themes and characters. He wasn’t coy or cautious about any subject that he took on.
On the topic of national sensibilities, British writing for stage and film has always been far more willing and able to put tough issues on the stage. American writing, again for stage and film, is slower to be bold and almost always rather puritanical. Political theatre in American hands is rarely direct and stripped to essentials; rather, most efforts at political theatre tend to be both cautious and circuitous. British writing, by contrast, certainly since the mid-1950s, has been more robust and certainly more daring.
Q: Looking back at your experience with The Normal Heart, what stands out to you?
The Normal Heart was a tremendously valuable experience – I think it’s fair to say that applied to everyone involved. The rawness of the writing and the relentless focus on its purpose was energizing from the first reading long before I even began to gather the company. The company of nine actors was always pushing to tell the story in the clearest way possible – Kramer’s writing underlined how to do this.
I was surprised by the degree of humour in a play that one imagines has no room for laughter – but this, too, speaks to Kramer’s strength as a writer – he knew that a play as sad and terrifying as this needed moments to breathe and laugh. We all felt an enormous obligation to tell Kramer’s intensely personal story with truth and without overburdening the darkness that is obvious from the play’s opening line.
Q: Followers of Studio 180 will recognize that more and more you are drawn to working on comedies, or at least plays with significant comedic elements (Clybourne Park, God of Carnage, Cock, NSFW). What is compelling to you about the comedy in Reg?
The laughter in My Night with Reg arises from the characters’ responses to how they see the world, past and present. They are smart and, especially for the three college friends – Guy, John and Daniel – have a shared past that allows them both license and familiarity in the ways they comment on each other and themselves. The laughter (or comedy) in the writing is Elyot’s way of opening the characters’ thoughts and hearts to us so that we, in turn, gain a more personal view of each man.
Q: Speaking of those characters – specifically Guy and Daniel – you’ve cast actors Jonathan Wilson and Jeff Miller. Studio 180 followers will recognize them from numerous past productions and readings, including the lead roles of Ned and Felix in The Normal Heart. How did you make casting decisions for this production of My Night With Reg?
All of the actors in Reg auditioned by reading scenes from the play. None were pre-cast. The value in working with people more than once is that you have already established a working and personal relationship – and when that relationship is fulfilling, as indeed it has been with both Jeff and Jonathan, it’s exciting to extend the opportunity. Of the six actors in this production, I’ve worked with three previously, Martin Happer being the third (he played Bruce in the 2012 remount of The Normal Heart). And it’s also exciting to add three new people to the experience – they are new to me, and Studio 180, at the same time that I/we are new to them.
When I am casting any play, I want to work with people who are well suited to the roles, of course. But as much as that is vital, equally necessary is to create a team of artists who will be greater than their separate contributions. So, I do my best to help shape that kind of ensemble – and this extends to all members of the company, onstage and offstage.
Q: What are you most looking forward to as you prepare to go into rehearsals for My Night With Reg?
I am very, very eager to hear the words aloud after having had the play in my head for more than a year. And I want to be in the room with all the actors, designers, etc. Lead time is a great luxury – time to read and think, to research (as a play demands it), to put the script down and let ideas percolate. But the heart of theatre is working in collaboration, sharing insights, making mistakes as a way of clearing the path, participating in the creation of something that has never before existed.