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Interview with SPIRITS TO ENFORCE director Gary Jaffe

25 January 2011

Cap T’s artistic director Mark Pickell fired off some questions at SPIRITS TO ENFORCE director Gary Jaffe. Gary is the fourth director Cap T has hired for its New Directions Program that introduces a new directorial voice to Austin every year. The lifetime Austinite and recent Yale grad reveals some of his thoughts on SPIRITS TO ENFORCE, directing, and his cast in the interview. Enjoy!

Buy your tickets to Spirits to Enforce

How did you hear about our New Directions program and what made you interested in the program?

Two dear friends of mine — Pam Friday and Kathleen Fletcher — both frantically forwarded the information to me the moment the call went out for a young director. Since I’d just moved back to Austin and was trying to figure out how to make my way into the professional theater scene, the New Directions program was really ideal for me. I’d been directing up a storm as an undergrad, but suddenly in the professional world, no one would hire me since I’d had no professional experience. And here’s a company looking for directors without professional experience? And they do innovative, gutsy, terrific theater?? And they pay??? Unbelievable.

What was the first thing you ever directed for an audience?

A forty-minute version of The Glass Menagerie in my junior year of high school. Whether or not the production was successful, it taught me that theater can reconstruct reality to make it even more real, more emotionally real. The world of Glass is impossible — but such truth in that impossibility!

What show would you dream about directing?

There’s a Lorca play which always follows me around called Así que pasen cinco años, or Once Five Years Pass. It’s about a young man trying to figure out what to do with his time, his mind and heart all entangled. It’s very rich and mysterious, surrealistic and realistic, funny and tragic. I translated and directed it for my senior thesis at Yale, but I don’t think I cracked it with that production. I probably never will — which is why I’ll hopefully be able to direct it every five years or so. In a house, in a proscenium, online, on film, anywhere. It has that flexibility, that core durability which allows for redefinition. Lorca totally sits at the table with Shakespeare and Chekhov in that regard.

What show would you be scared to direct?

You mean, besides that play with the twelve actors sitting a table speaking simultaneously but not to each other for ninety minutes? “Cool” shows scare me quite a bit. My natural tendency is toward “hot” theater — tension, intimacy, desire, confrontation, loss. Spirits removed a lot of those things, which was terrifying, but it still had this ache to it, this profound desire to regain something lost. That became my access point for the show. So to really terrify me, you’d have to find a play which completely divorced itself from emotional storytelling. Take Brecht and go even more cerebral. Something like Stoppard’s Artist Descending a Staircase or David Hare at his most politically manipulative. Then again, that might be more “don’t like” than “scared”…

I believe you are the youngest person working on the production including the cast and design team. Has that been intimidating? Have you even noticed the age difference?

Haleigh, one of my fabulous understudies, is still in high school! But yes, for all intents and purposes, I am indeed the youngest in the group. I was a little afraid that, because of my age, it’d be easier for me to lose authority in the room, but hey, if that were to happen, it’d be indicative of bigger problems on my part. I’ve actually found the age dynamic to be empowering insofar as it’s allowed me to bring a great sense of PLAY and EXPERIMENTATION into the room. Not to say that older directors can’t play and/or experiment… Overall though, we treated each other as adults and as professionals — and trusted each other.

What do you like more about the show: the Shakespeare or the superheroes?

Well, the Shakespeare is more important to the characters core identities — their superheroic identities are like costumes which don’t fit, imposed on their truer selves. BUT, the superheroism of the play is responsible for so much hilarity…! Ultimately though, it comes down to a line Rebecca/The Ocean (Tiny Robinson) says: “All I have is this play. This play, all I have is this play.” And since you’re forcing me to decide, I guess I have to say I like the Shakespeare better, because it’s more important to the characters. After all, they don’t even really like being superheroes…

If you could have any of the super(or not so super)powers from the characters in the play which would you want?

The Snow Heavy Branch. Useless, but so beautiful. Like theater.

What is it like working with 12 actors?

I found myself trying to be as economical as possible with my direction. With limited time and twelve actors facing a very challenging script, you have to make sure you’re getting as much bang per word as possible when you open your mouth. I tried to direct the group as much as possible, get everybody on the same page.

Who is your favorite actor of the 12? :)

FromStageRightToLeftKarenLaTashaStephenTobyAllisonJennyJayTinyTravisBradenBlakeTyler. No, that’s not a cop-out answer. They are an incredible ensemble, and if you unplug one, you unplug them all, so they are all my favorites.

What has surprised you the most about the process?

The visual component of this play is fascinating. Our natural expectation of theater is that the visuals should shift, and accordingly my initial direction of the play had a much more fluctuating picture. But the more we rehearsed it, the more visual things fell away — the play just didn’t need them. The sound component is so dense and musical that extensive visual business becomes superfluous. And what’s more is that by keeping the visuals to a minimum, a spectacle of blandness emerged. Pencils, phones, paper, actors shifting in chairs — gorgeous stuff we don’t notice unless it’s all we have TO notice. All that took me by surprise, and was really amazing to discover.

What is next up for Gary Jaffe?

I’m directing The Dudleys! an 8-bit video game family dramedy by Leegrid Stevens, which is a co-production of the Blue Theater, Tutto Theatre Company and Tito’s Vodka’s Arts Exchange. Rehearsals begin in March, the show goes up in May at the Blue. Really exciting, dynamic, beautiful play — and this is technically the first full non-workshop production of the play ever, so it is a huge honor and privilege to be directing it. Mark your calendars — The Dudleys! coming to Austin May 2011. Live Gameboy/NES/8-bit symphony, I’m not kidding.

What do you hope people are talking about when they leave SPIRITS TO ENFORCE?

I always have the same feeling at the end of each performance, that something momentous and confusing and meaningful happened while we were sitting with these superheroes, listening to their conversation halves. That somehow something impossible happened out of the most blandly “possible” circumstances. So, if nothing else, I hope people just sort of talk about what happened, about what they heard and saw, and try to parse out the BIG thing created by all those little things. And I hope what they discover means as much to them as it has to me.