Artfully curated by Culturadar
March 14, 2014
Interview with Arin Arbus
INTERVIEW WITH ARIN ARBUS by Shoshana Greenberg
Director Arin Arbus has made her name directing Shakespeare at Theatre for a New Audience, where she also serves as the associate artistic director. Having directed six productions, from 2009’s award-winning hit Othello to last season’s Much Ado About Nothing, she now adds King Lear, often considered one of Shakespeare’s most challenging plays. King Lear begins performances March 14 at Theatre for a New Audience’s new Polonsky Shakespeare Center in Brooklyn. Culturadar blogger Shoshana Greenberg talked to Arbus about learning to love Shakespeare, how she selects which plays to direct, and, with six major productions of Lear this season, why the play resonates.
Culturadar: What do you think the many productions of Lear this season says about the play?
Arin Arbus: King Lear clearly resonates with many people at the moment. It's a play that cuts to the heart of the matter. It's so deep and expansive in its ideas that I can't imagine a time when it would not be relevant.
CR: What are the themes that you’re attracted to in the piece?
AA: The play depicts the simultaneous fracturing of the state, the family and the self. Lear's kingdom is divided in the first scene. One heir gets nothing. The other two get half. They all turn against each other. Chaos descends, and you get a dystopian vision of a country without a strong ruler. There's a great Marx quote: "The family contains in embryo… all the antagonisms which later develop on a wide scale within society and its state." The characters, as we all do, define themselves by their positions within the state and their own families. When the state and the family fracture, the self follows. What's left? For some it’s an awareness of their own errors, their own and other people's humanity, and an awareness of what actually has value in life. In this play, filial love is perhaps the only thing that offers any meaning.
Shoshana Greenberg writes musicals, plays, and prose. Her musicals include Lightning Man (Ars Nova ANT Fest), Sophia Venetia Voyager, and Soon Never, and her work has been featured in concerts at Lincoln Center, The York Theatre Company, the Duplex Cabaret Theater, the TriArts Sharon Playhouse, the Goodspeed Opera House, and The Laurie Beechman Theatre. She earned her MFA from NYU’s Graduate Musical Theater Writing Program after graduating from Barnard College. She also blogs about theater for The Huffington Post. - See more at: http://chicago.culturadar.com/admin/view/blog/#sthash.B1zvvci5.dpuf
Arin Arbus and Riccardo Hernandez (top) and with Michael Pennington.
CR: What do you see as the specific challenges of directing Lear?
AA: Well, it’s a great play. One of the greatest ever written. It’s a Sisyphean challenge to try to make a production that is as good as the text. Also, in a lot of Shakespeare’s plays there are basically two or three, maybe four central characters. But in Lear, there are 11 main characters, 11 stories that are at the center of it, all of whom have intense relationships with one another. That’s a huge challenge, to juggle all of those characters, their relationships, and their arcs.
CR: What has been the process of developing this piece?
AA: Five years ago I mentioned to Jeffrey Horowitz, founding artistic director of Theatre for a New Audience, that I wanted to direct a production of King Lear. He said great, but who is your Lear? And I didn't have an answer for him. In 2010, Theatre for a New Audience was doing a production called Love is My Sin, conceived and directed by Peter Brook. Michael Pennington starred in it. The material was Shakespeare’s sonnets. I was knocked out by Michael’s sensitivity with Shakespeare’s language. It was also clear to me that Michael was able to create complex and vivid relationships on stage. At Jeffrey's suggestion, Michael and I got together on a kind of blind date. We started talking about Lear. He had never played Lear and wanted to. I wanted to direct it, but neither of us knew if we wanted to climb the mountain together. We had several meetings and conversations over the course of a few years. Michael, Jeffrey and I decided to do a workshop exploring the play with other actors. The workshop turned out to be a thrilling experience. It was clear that Michael was able to portray a powerful man losing that power, losing his mind. He embodied the terror of a man who is stripped of everything and was able to sit in that kind of terror. It was electrifying and heartbreaking. We decided to go forward together with a production. I also did workshops of the play in prison and with NYU graduate acting students. It’s been a five year process of prepping for this production.
CR: Do you usually do this much prep for your productions?
AA: No. This is longer. I usually spend about a year preparing for a production.
CR: Do you choose the play you’re going to direct next?
AA: It depends on the company for which I’m working. I’m the Associate Artistic Director at Theatre for a New Audience and while I have to consider the institutional needs of the theatre, Jeffrey always asks me to pick the play about which I'm the most passionate. Occasionally someone will bring a piece to me, but for me to sign on, it has to be something I want to explore. I must have an idea about how to do it. I would never direct a piece unless I have a really strong instinct about the material.
CR: Is that how you choose what Shakespeare play you’ll do next as well?
AA: Yes, it’s all about instinct. Peter Brook calls it a hunch. These plays have been done so many times by so many great artists; there is no reason to do a new production unless one has a deep, guttural connection to the text. I certainly feel that with Lear.
Mark H. Dold and Rachel Pickup
CR: Did you start out as a director wanting to direct Shakespeare?
AA: No, I never studied Shakespeare, never thought I'd direct his plays. I always imagined that Shakespeare was for a certain people, other than me —for scholars, for the learned, for sophisticated people. At a certain point Jeffrey said to me, “Pick a Shakespeare play to direct.” It was a shocking mandate that I couldn’t turn down. It wasn’t until then that I realized how close these plays are to me. I was completely bowled over by the fact that these characters are people that I know and their relationships are out of my own experience. His writing for me is so personal. I think everybody who encounters the plays in a positive way experiences that, the remarkable sensation of, oh, he is writing about us right now.
Photos by: Gerry Goodstein
Shoshana Greenberg writes musicals, plays, and prose. Her musicals include Lightning Man (Ars Nova ANT Fest), Sophia Venetia Voyager, and Soon Never, and her work has been featured in concerts at Lincoln Center, The York Theatre Company, the Duplex Cabaret Theater, the TriArts Sharon Playhouse, the Goodspeed Opera House, and The Laurie Beechman Theatre. She earned her MFA from NYU’s Graduate Musical Theater Writing Program after graduating from Barnard College. She also blogs about theater for The Huffington Post.
Posted at 1:26 PM