Cap T: Thirteen Years in Austin
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Interview with Dying City Director Derek Kolluri

11 January 2010

We are very proud to introduce Derek Kolluri to the Austin theatre scene. As our finalist for the New Directions program he will be directing DYING CITY by Christopher Shinn which opens January 19th at the Blue Theatre.  Derek holds an MFA in acting from the University of Arkansas and a Bachelor of Integrated Studies from Emporia State University and is currently developing his own theatre company Sustainable Theatre Project.  He also recently worked as Stage Manager for SICK for Capital T and appeared in Cambiare’s production of ORESTES.   Mark Pickell, artistic director for Capital T, shares this interview he had with Derek.

MP: How did you hear about New Directions and what made you interested in the program?
Derek: I had just moved to Austin and was scouring the web looking for different theatre companies in town. So was my fiancee, Molly. She became interested in the company when auditions for I Heart Wal-Mart was auditioning. She actually read about the position and thought I should apply. I had never thought I would break in to directing if I didn’t do it on my own, just producing shows myself, and with friends. But the program (New Directions) offered me an opportunity that I just couldn’t pass up.

MP: Where did you move from and why did you make Austin your new home?
Derek: I finished Graduate School on May 29th or 30th – one day… I went to commencement and two days later I moved to Austin. That was 7 months ago. Why Austin? The weather. Really, though, I wanted to move to a city that had all the makings of a great theatre hub and potential for strong community support for the arts. For most artists L.A., New York, and Chicago are highest on list for places to move. For me, the more I thought about it, the further down the list those three cities moved. I wanted to be in a place where I could start my own theatre company, and not be drowned by the saturation of companies in those three.  Also, Austin is a great city. It was an easy choice to move here. Glad I did.
MP: Who was the very first “theatre person” you met in Austin?
Derek: Hmmm… that’s a tough one. I can’t say I remember too well. It all happened so fast. I met Travis Bedard, Will Snider and Liz Fisher at my first audition. Then I met some of the UT grads, um, Sma Cicieuand La Tasha Stephens. I met Gabe Luna at the same time. Working on Orestes. I met Ken Webster within two weeks of being here. Adam Hilton within a month of that. I know so many theatre folks in Austin…
MP: What was the first thing you ever directed?
Derek: first thing I directed was a terribly written play called “Association.” I can say it was terrible because I wrote it. I canalso say I was awful as a director. But, I learned not to directsomething you’ve written unless you’re willing to “cut the fat” as it were. Tough lesson.
MP: When and where did “Association” get produced?
Derek: Goddard High School. my senior year. 1999.
MP: When did you discover that you wanted to direct?
Derek: When I had proven to myself I was capable of it.  As an actor I had always admired directors. I was convinced, after the afore mentioned production and other ill-conceived attempts, I was just NOT a director. I studied directors, with those with whom I was working and the theories of those with whom I would never work. Suddenly, one night, in undergrad I decided to direct again. And I loved it. It was terrifying and I loved it.
MP: What show followed “Association”?
Derek: Well between 1999 and 2005, I directed only scenes… as I said I thought directing was outside my reach. The next full length play I directed was “The Pillowman” by Martin McDonagh. That was in undergrad. I read that play and said, “I have to direct this.” So I did – despite knowing I was not a good director. But a good friend of mine (after Pillowman ) pushed me to believe I was good enough. And directing was never an overt aspiration I spoke about, so I knew he was being genuine. That type of encouragement is… priceless.
MP: Why did you chose to direct Dying City by Christopher Shinn?
Derek: It spoke to me. I liked the characters and I liked the relationships. I was drawn to the story. I like telling a story. Dying City is a great story (it’s painful and awful) but it’s a great story. Short answer: Story, story, story.
MP: What play are you afraid to direct?
Derek: The play I long to direct most… Waiting for Godot.
MP: What play would you never want to see or read again?
Derek: “Association”
MP: What are you plans after New Directions?
Derek: In March, Sustainable Theatre Project opens a full-length production called “Jack & Jill” by Jane Martin. I’m acting in it. Which I love doing. After that… just working with my friends and fiancee to run our theatre. We have a deep list of plays that we want to produce so that’s what we’re doing.
MP: Tell me about sustainable theatre project. How is it different from other producing companies?
Derek: The most obvious difference between STP and other companies in the theatre community at large is the initiative to create theatre without producing an excess of waste. Our goal is to be “zero waste.” We are working from the ground up to build a theatre company that leaves no trace, no imprint on the earth, but strives to make lasting impressions on audience members. Sustainability doesn’t just mean that we recycle and re-use and reduce… it means we plan ahead and make our practices more efficient. We also believe sustainability applies to the theatre we do in an artistic way. Sustainable practice enriches our world and theatre enriches our lives… the two ideas work really well together.
MP: When did this idea strike you as a concept for a theatre company?
Derek: I was talking to a friend of mine, Will Grayson, the night I moved to Austin. We were going on and on about how to make theatre more effective artistically and more efficient. Not because we felt other companies weren’t artistically valid or inefficient, (remember, it was my first night in Austin) rather it was a way to make all of my aspirations come true. On paper it made sense. So, I started doing research and it made sense as a business model. Sustainability is all about efficiency, the more efficient our practices the more time we have  to be artists. Once the first domino fell the rest followed quickly.  Another thing about Sustainability is that operating in a space that runs on solar power and wind, that uses water recycling etc. is that the overhead for production is significantly reduced. That space doesn’t exist, so our long view is to be the company that pushes for and opens that space. When that becomes a reality then all the funding we will get that would, in the past, go to rent or bills could be used to pay artists more and lower ticket prices. It just makes theatre more vital. If artists are paid more, they can devote more time to the work. If audiences can pay less, they’ll come out more often.
MP: You have already cast the show and are working on Dying City, anything surprise you this far into the process?
Derek: Honestly, no… everything is just as it should be at this point. I knew the production team were all talented and driven people, so, there’s no surprise that everyone is doing great work.
MP: What is it like to work with Mark Scheibmeir and Liz Fisher?
Derek: A treat. I feel that I push them too hard at times, but when I try to back off they are always ready to be pushed further. I couldn’t ask for more from them. I appreciate their commitment, and the trust they have put in me.
MP:What do you hope that the audience is talking about when they leave the theatre after Dying City?
Derek: I have no idea. When I think about an audience watching the show I only think about how to make Christopher Shinn’s story as clear as possible. I hope they are moved by the story and find the play hits close to home. It’s a play about so many things, violence, love, grief, war, identity… there is one thing the story is about to me, but I don’t want to say what it is. I guess I’ll know the show was a success if people take away the thing I won’t mention.
MP: Why are you guarding that thought?
Derek: I don’t want to give anything away…