A quick word from Sam’s Town before our headline article:
“Shades of Sinatra” at Sam’s Town Hotel & Gambling Hall
Notice: Shades of Sinatra showing at Sam’s Town Hotel & Gambling Hall on Friday, January 9th at 7:30pm has been cancelled.
Director. Teacher. Martial Artist. Spiritual Quester.
This reporter has interviewed a lot of important people over the years. Some of them turned out good, and some not so good. And, when I see an interview as complete as the following I like to let other’s read it too. Also, because Giovanna’s papa is a good friend of mine—Nelson Sardelli. So readers enjoy learning a little bit more about Nelson’s little girl as done by a New York interviewer.
– Norm Johnson
Part I of a II part series: Part II
Text by Victoria Myers
Images by Michelle Tse
Director Giovanna Sardelli was heading to a martial arts class after chatting with us, which seemed incredibly apropos given her well thought-out and fascinating views on women and power—especially in the theatre. Ok, her views on pretty much everything were interesting, but after reading her interview we think you’ll get why we started with the martial arts thing. Giovanna is an accomplished director of new work and has worked on world premieres by Rajiv Joseph, Matthew Lopez, Theresa Rebeck, Lynn Rosen, and Zoe Kazan. Starting on October 10th you’ll be able to see her work on display in The God Game at Hudson Stage Company and this spring she’ll be directing Little Children Dream of God, for Roundabout Underground. We talked to her about everything from the development of new work to Fred Astaire (and, yep, a little martial arts). She’s a really exciting director—and she can chop a block of wood in half with her hand.
(i.) New Work
You’ve worked on a lot of new plays. What do you feel is the director’s role in developing new work?
I feel like, primarily, you have to be on board with the story. You have to love the story you’re going to tell. I think, when you do a new play, you do a disservice to the play if you’re looking to put your stamp on it; if you’re looking to influence it beyond what the playwright wants to say. So when I read a new play the first thing I think is: how did it affect me? Did it move me? What are my questions? I want to make sure the writer and I share the same questions and agree on the journey.
When you’re choosing projects to direct do you pick things that you feel like fit with your aesthetic or do you go towards things that are very different?
I feel like I have to understand the story and believe there’s value in the story. I actually like to be challenged, so I do projects that tend to scare me. A couple of times a year I like to do projects that I feel are in my wheelhouse, but I like a challenge. When I read a play, I track my journey through it—so if I laughed out loud I’ll put a little check, if I got emotional I’ll make a mark—so that when I read through it I see what happened.
Recently you were director of new works at TheatreWorks in Palo Alto. What was your process like for curating new work for that festival?
I was actually hired really late; past the date you would have wanted to name your plays. So I think I was very lucky in that [in my life] I read all of these plays and meet all of these playwrights, and I had this arsenal of people I could draw upon. I had other directors who I could call and say, “What is your favorite play right now? If I asked you for three plays what would you send me?” So this year the process was a little more insular then I would like it to be in the future. It was important to me that the festival celebrate diversity. It was important to me that the festival had a strong female presence. I needed to test the boundaries of the theatre company and make sure that we are excited by the same type of theatre. So I took some risks. I colored outside the lines with plays that I knew we may never produce, but I knew we could get away with in a festival. So that’s really how I curated it this year; it was more playwrights I knew or had been following.
So much development of new work takes place outside of New York City. How do you think that affects the development process?
One of the great things about being outside of the city is that you can really experiment. Your friends, peers, theatres, and producers usually aren’t going to come see it. Part of the reason I love working in development around the country is you’re away from the pressure and pace of the city. I think it’s nice to be able to leave, and it’s nice to be able to present your plays for people who aren’t as jaded as New Yorkers are. I mean New Yorkers have seen it and done it, you know? So it’s nice to be reminded that the rest of the country doesn’t think the way we think. I’ve been really lucky to work with a lot of different play development centers and a lot of them actually are not producing organizations. So that also takes a burden off, since you know you’re not auditioning; you’re just developing. I think the hardest thing for an artist to do is find a space where you can fail. And you have to do that. Unless you end up just working in a narrow set of parameters for yourself, you have to have space to fail.
Was there anything surprising about audiences outside of New York?
One of the things that shocked me was really having to watch swearing. It didn’t even occur to me to track that. I’m pretty good—and I think most playwrights I know are pretty good—at looking at the use of swearing and keeping it character specific. But it was amazing to me, as you move outside the city, how that is really an issue and how people are offended by language in a way that I don’t even hear. So that was very interesting for me to learn. I wondered about that—these are people who have raised children and lived rich and full lives—why does that matter so much? Why is this an issue outside of the city? I’m actually still trying to figure that out. And I wonder if part of that is when you go to theatre outside of New York, you get in your car, you choose where to eat dinner—you can really select the path you take to everything—so are you insolated? I don’t know, but I’m curious. And yet, the same audience who will complain about language will watch Water by the Spoonful. It is something that I wonder about. I think an antiquated idea of theatre is maybe what it stems from.
And an antiquated idea of theatre is not good for new work.
No. I think we live in such an exceptional time for new work because nothing is off the table, and I find that fascinating. I find the entire question about gender identity fascinating—that we live in a time where you can ask a question about gender identity and have it answered in a multitude of ways.
We’ve been talking a lot about physical spaces. The theatre spaces for new plays can be a lot of black boxes. How do you think that affects your work?
I think a lot of people write for the black box. I think it’s hard when you get a highly theatrical play. I haven’t done a play in a black box in a long time. I’ve been lucky that a lot of the new work has been in larger theatres. But, as I’m saying that, I’m laughing because the next two plays I’m doing in New York are both humongous plays in tiny theatres. It requires a level of imagination and a commitment to theatricality. You don’t want to define a new play outside of what the play is; to throw a concept on top of a new play before the writer has had a chance to meet their play. So finding a language that serves the space—you can’t lie about the space you’re in—and that serves the play you’re doing. So you’re marrying those worlds. Designers are invaluable.
You’re directing Little Children Dream of God for Roundabout Underground in the spring. Can you tell us a little about the play?
It’s a really amazing and beautiful play about our future and our ability to escape our past and dream beyond. And this idea that, to do that, you need a community and your community needs a home. It’s a legacy play—what world do we leave our children, what strengths do we gather from our children, and what do we give to them? [Playwright] Jeff Augustin is a Haitian American, and there’s a size to the play. There’s a character who is 115 years old and he just is and that’s just that. One of the characters may or may not have children by God. And that just is. There’s voodoo and all kinds of exciting things. So it’s highly theatrical and yet very personal and intimate
So that’s an interesting play to put in the Roundabout Underground space.
This is what I love about Robyn Goodman [artistic producer of Roundabout Underground] and Jill Rafson [literary manager] and Josh Fiedler [literary associate] and the Roundabout: their belief in theatricality and that we will find a way to do it. And I think they were smart in selecting this play because you’re going to have to find a highly theatrical way of doing it, but in the end it is personal. So, it should succeed in the space, although the space is undeniably a challenge.
You have a couple of other things before that, right?
I’m working on a new play by Rajiv Joseph. It’s a workshop at NYU and I think one of his most ambitious plays. And I’m doing Suzanne Bradbeer’s play, The God Game, at Hudson Stage Company starting on October 10th.
Writers get asked a lot about themes in their work, but as a director do you find that you have any themes?
I do. I think one of the things I’m drawn to is the everyday heroic. I’m drawn to stories where, against all odds, our humanity and our better angels shine through. I’m very excited by playwrights who walk that line and who are not afraid to examine the ugly in humanity, but then the hope that exists, as well. So I love plays that celebrate the fact that a man who goes to work and comes home and takes all of his dreams and hopes and sets them aside for his family is actually a hero. Or a woman who redefines herself, who looks at her family and goes, “I’m going to ask for more” even if makes no sense. Those plays I love.
You were an actress before moving into directing. How do you think that affects your work as a director?
I think it makes me a good liaison between the person who wrote the story and those people who will tell it. I’m pretty good at seeing the how of telling a story. I’m pretty good at encouraging actors to be brave and to work faster than they may be comfortable working. Part of that is that I understand their process, and my training isn’t limited to one method of acting. I really was lucky in that I went to a school [NYU] where whatever worked, worked, so I can work with a lot of different styles.
Do you think it affects the pieces you choose to direct?
Yes, definitely. That’s why I look at the story and who’s telling. The style can excite me, but I can never choose style over substance because that’s not my specialty—there are better directors for that. Since people are telling the story, I need to follow the story through them.
What was the transition like going from acting to directing?
It was, oddly, really easy. I’m incredibly lucky. I grew up in Las Vegas, Nevada so my understanding of culture and opportunity within the arts was very limited. I wanted to be a performer because that’s what it was that I saw. And it wasn’t until I actually started to be a performer that I was like, “Oh, wait, you imagine what I’m wearing? Someone does that…?” All of those things that I never pieced together. I was standing center stage at the Public Theater and, while all of my friends were acting, every time a light cue would go on I’d think, “Oh that’s interesting.” And I got lucky that Zelda Fichandler, who ran NYU at the time, was doing a directing program where they invited three students back every year, and you essentially went to school for free for one year to be a director. And so I was crying in her office and I said, “I don’t know what to do. I love this business, but I can’t act. It’s actually hurting me not helping me.” And she said, “Well, you’re a director.” And there was just something in the way she said it—and that she could not only say, “You’re a director” but, “And I want to invite you into this program”—that was really life changing because it was what I was meant to do. All that training was to tell stories—and not just a piece of a story.
You grew up in Las Vegas. That is one of those places that has a mythology in American culture. How do you it effected your artistic sensibilities?
There’s a positive and a negative to it. It actually truly was a cultural wasteland. I really did not have an artistic sensibility growing up. I mean what saved me was the fact that my family traveled—my father was in entertainment so we traveled—and Saturday movies. The world had to become larger than what it is because Las Vegas is dazzling, but it was also a mafia town and then a Mormon town. I mean just growing up the tension between the mafia, the Mormons, the desert rats who are all through Sam Shepard plays, and then you have showgirls. The characters I met… I realized it prepared me for everything. However, I will, on top of all of that, I will take all of that humanity and add glitter. So I need someone to say, “Maybe not so much glitter.”
There’s always room for glitter.
I think so too. I really do. If it sparkles, I watch it
Do you think that had a big effect on your idea of theatricality?
Completely. As much as there is no culture, Las Vegas is the land of yes. So, if you want 37 showgirls to come out of a volcano that’s going to spew lava, someone is going to figure out how to do that. I had high standards of what could happen on stage. And what NYU did was go, “You don’t have to build the volcano, but you can tell the story of the volcano and figure out how to do that.” But I had no sense of no or you can’t do this.