Mark Armstrong on Directing, Producing & Love with Trista Baldwin
Trista Baldwin (Rail): So there are a lot of theater companies in New York. It’s a question you have to ask yourself no matter where you are, but especially in NYC where there are so many small companies vying for an audience and for press: Why do this? Why do you have your own theater company?
Mark Armstrong: One of the reasons companies get started by directors is that the nature of our creative impulse requires the use of time, space, and other people. I can’t just sit in my room and direct plays—I have to have a framework to operate within. I was in New York for about three years before I started the Production Company and I wasn’t getting the sort of projects I wanted. And when I did get work, it was tough to feel those opportunities made my work thrive or best reflected what I felt was my artistic identity. Marshall Mason used to say that one should direct “the play I would write if I could write.” I can honestly say that about the plays we do. I’m that passionate about them. More expansively, I think that our mission to exchange new plays between Australia and the United States was something that was unique about us as a company and specific to me as an individual artist.
Incidentally, I’m not one of those people who think it’s terrible or embarrassing that New York has 500 theater companies. There’s a lot of people to serve here! And the breadth of work and the eccentricity is what I like about living in New York. I go to Lincoln Center and I go to Radiohole and everything in-between. I’m a real small-c catholic about the theater.
Rail: So, tell me about the “play that you would write if you could write”—What pulls you in? What triggers things in you? What hooks you?
Armstrong: The playwrights I like are people who I feel like I know after reading or seeing their work. They’ve revealed something that’s completely personal and subjective about their experience that happens to somehow resonate with something in my personal experience. I like work that has both psychological and political elements. I think it’s a shame that American playwrights sometimes get categorized in an either/or way. Individual lives contain political resonances, while social themes can be explored incredibly through examinations of personal life. The American writers I like the most are able to incorporate both. That duality is also one of the first things I noticed about Australian playwriting, which is what drew me to it. I like things that are truthful and have a sense of humor. One of the first writers I admired was Tennessee Williams. His vision was ultimately tragic, but he had a wicked sense of humor that seemed to come directly from his experience of the world.
Rail: Speaking of the “completely personal,”—I always want to ask directors about this. Playwrights and actors bring different aspects of themselves to their work, in a personal and vulnerable way. In what way do you think that you, as a director, are vulnerable? In what ways must you draw from yourself to make good art?
Armstrong: My best work as a director is incredibly personal. And that manifests itself in moment-to-moment details, in the thousands of small choices that go into the interpretation of a play. Since I work on new plays, my overarching goal is to realize the intent of the playwright through my work, but along the way I find that the choices I make reflect my personality in a way that’s much more meaningful to me than the imposition of a large directorial conceit.
When I started dating my wife, she came to the opening of a play that I’d directed. I was focused in a superficial sense on whether she’d “like” it, but she had a more specific reaction—she felt that I’d drawn elements of behavior from our romance and used them in this play about new lovers getting to know one another. That wasn’t something I’d consciously done. During rehearsals, I’ll suddenly find myself revealing incredibly personal things to the actors, things I’ve never told anyone else. But it’s always in the context of making some aspect of the work deeper. I have an incredibly good memory. It’s something that haunts me personally, constantly rehashing who said what to who years ago and how they reacted, but I’ve found that it’s very useful in creating work on stage.
Rail: Your production of Love is currently running for the Production Company. Why did you choose that script, what do you connect to in that play?
Armstrong: There was an emotional truth in the play that really affected me, despite the fact that the characters were superficially different from anything in my life. All of us have the capacity both to love deeply and to be unbearably cruel to one another. That was what drew me to Patricia Cornelius’ play Love. I’ve become fond of saying recently that, if my last show The Most Damaging Wound was the first album—that you listen to in the car and at parties—then Love is the slightly more understated and esoteric second album, that you listen to in your room by yourself. One is a communal, ritualistic experience and one is a solitary, personal experience. As a director, it’s nice to feel I can provide both different experiences for audiences; but also, actually having both experiences myself is important to me personally. I seek each of them out at different times and for different reasons.
Rail: I’ve known you for a while, and I’ve really enjoyed seeing your work change, grow taller and wider—more expansive. I know for myself, there’s periods of artistic stasis, or just pure labor, and there are periods of incubation, and revelation. I’d like to ask you about “revelations.” Have you had a “click,” a “light bulb” moment where you come to a greater understand about what you want to achieve artistically?
Armstrong: I’ve been directing plays for 15 years now and somewhere in the middle of that, my greatest asset—my fascination with and appetite for the real world—became something that embarrassed me. When I made peace with my interest in psychology and realism, it actually opened me up to react to dramatic structure and visual composition in ways that, rather than limiting my work, really expanded it.
Rail: Outside of your theater company, you’ve also had a blog, with some spicy statements about the state of New Play Development in America. Pretty political stuff.
Armstrong: What I said was mild compared to what playwrights will say in private! I once heard a very successful playwright, someone nice as the day is long, say that new play development destroyed a generation of American playwrights. I blogged regularly for about two years and then got too busy with work and life to keep it going, but I don’t regret my critique of new play development in the least. Producing theaters that are taking funding for new plays that they’ll never produce, or moving playwrights through an endless cycle of readings (where the in-house staff makes a living wage while the playwright makes little to nothing)—they’re the ones that might entertain some regret. I actually think that this point has been made well enough, by so many people, that things may finally change.
Rail: I’ve got a funny question for you: what do you think American playwrights can learn from Australian playwrights (and vice versa)?
Armstrong: As I mentioned earlier, I admire the ability of the Australian writers I like to infuse their work with both psychological elements and social and political resonances. You can have both. I think what American playwrights can offer is a nuanced take on what it means to be an American at this time in history, to reach out with something deeper than a cable news sound bite to communicate the complexity of our experience. There’s a unique opportunity for dialogue between these communities and that’s something I’m trying to foster.
Rail: What do you hope for American theater as a whole?
Armstrong: I hope we find some way to provide sustainable employment for artists. I don’t accept that the artistic life needs to be nomadic and financially insecure. I read an interview with Sarah Schulman where she talked about this myth that suffering makes people better, when in fact suffering actually makes people worse.
Rail: If you could ask something of new American playwrights, what would it be? What do you hope for from us writers?
Armstrong: Stay true to your own vision. It’s easy to get caught up in whatever current trend you think will make people take notice of your work—and that’s very true for directors also. It’s a natural impulse to work in a way you think will generate productions and attention and there’s certainly something to be said for pragmatism, especially when you’re trying to earn a decent living. However, within whatever constraints playwrights feel—and I imagine they’re many—I like to see and read work that communicates the author’s singular perspective, something truthful that could only have been written by that person. And, if you think conditions in the American theater could be improved for playwrights in some way, speak up.
The Production Company’s production of Love, written by Patricia Cornelius, directed by Mark Armstrong, runs March 20-April 12 at Center Stage Theatre, 48 W. 21st Street, 4th Floor, NYC. Wednesdays-Saturdays @ 8pm; Sundays @ 3pm. For tickets and further details, visit www.productioncompany.org.
Trista Baldwin is a playwright and two-time Jerome Fellowship recipient (04-05 and 05-06).