Giovanna Sardelli Interview – Part II

Giovanna Sardelli

Director. Teacher. Martial Artist. Spiritual Quester.

Part II of a II part series: Part I

Text by Victoria Myers


(vii.) Past

What is the first piece of storytelling that had a major impact on you?

Giovanna Sardelli
Giovanna Sardelli

I’m thinking of it now because of Robin Williams passing, but I think Dead Poets Society. I didn’t see any theatre until I was about to graduate from college, but I remember watching the movie Dead Poets Society and sitting in the movie theatre sobbing hysterically because I realized that I would leave Las Vegas—that in order to be who I wanted to be and do what I wanted to do, I would have to leave my family, my home, my friends. So that was such a profound moment; sitting in that theatre and thinking my world had to be larger than Las Vegas and I had to leave. It was actually devastatingly sad and poignant.

It’s interesting that you went into theatre without growing up with it.
When I was in high school and college, I was in music videos and flown to LA and stuff like that. I probably would have done that [track] except, when I graduate with a degree in theatre and realized that I had never seen any, I came home crying saying, “I have to see plays.” So my parents sent me to London. I went on one of those theatre tours and saw Vanessa Redgrave, Jonathan Pryce, and Natasha Richardson in The Seagull and that’s why I went to grad school. That changed everything.

Who were your heroes growing up?
Fred Astaire. Honestly, I have to say my parents. My mom was a dirt-poor daughter of an Oklahoma cotton farmer who raised children in Las Vegas who were aware of the world. She encouraged us to go to every church. Both my sister and I had half-Japanese best friends growing up, so we went to Buddhist temples. She made sure I took at transcendental meditation class when I was a senior in high school. She made sure I read. My mom passed away two years ago. She was for me Atticus Finch; someone with such an innate sense of fairness and human dignity. I just feel blessed that amidst all of that chaos of Las Vegas—all that sex and I mean you grow up as a little girl in Las Vegas with an understanding of “if you show these, you get this much”—and it’s amazing that my mom and dad protected me from that. It’s really phenomenal. Then my father because he’s one of those great characters in life. Because of my father I understand Chekhov and Sam Shepherd. My dad is just this amazing personality. Fred Astaire was my artistic hero. Every Saturday I watched Fred Astaire. Fred Astaire was elegant and he was supremely confident. I think about Fred Astaire but I also think about all of his partners. For me it was incredible, as a young girl, to see women who were sexual, but the antithesis of Las Vegas sexuality; it was genuinely powerful and respected. I think I also responded to that.

Growing up someplace so hyper-sexualized had to be an interesting experience. Does it affect your work?
I think I had an awareness of how to use sexuality. And I did a lot of therapy to be able to understand this in a healthy way. I think women underestimate their power. When I was first starting out as a director and wanted to control a room, I wanted to be the alpha male, which is just ridiculous. You cannot be the alpha male. But you can still control the room. I worked on really aggressive, male-dominated plays, so I didn’t know how to be in the room. So I think I had awareness through all my studies—growing up in Las Vegas, martial arts—that how you dress and how you present yourself in the room changes the tone of the room. I think women have to be conscientious of how they enter a room in a way that men do not, and I think you have to understand what a powerful tool it can be: how you show up in a room.

It’s not something male directors have to think about.
No, not at all.

When did you first feel like a grown up?
Sometimes I still don’t. I still live the life of “summer is a special time” and I’m an adult woman, so that should not be the case. Part of me felt like a grownup when I graduated. I was done with NYU, moved out of the apartment with my boyfriend, and got my own apartment. And the first night that I put together my futon and locked the door and realized, “Oh my God, I live alone in New York City. I have achieved a dream.” That was a moment I went I’m an adult.


(viii.) Culture

What other areas of culture effect your work?
Well, because I grew up in a cultural wasteland, when I’m working on a play I try to read as much as I can. I live near the Met so I’m often at the Met. I like to fill myself up with other ways of looking. I like to take advantage of everything so there’s no one thing. And people watching. Sitting on a bench and watching all of these people whose lives are so different than mine. Travel—whether it’s out of the country or just a different neighborhood.

What are the top five travel destinations you want to go to?
1. New Zealand
2. Moscow and all through Russia
3. Jerusalem
4. Italy (I’d go back anytime)
5. Machu Picchu

(ix.) Representation

We think it’s important for people– and probably especially girls– to see women directing and writing and so on. You mentioned a female mentor. How important do you think it is for women to have female mentors?
I think you have to have that. I think it’s hard to find. Again, I think I was lucky that there are five women that are very responsible for my career. That’s rare. Most of my female friends don’t have that. I think it’s imperative that women see other women in those positions. My role models growing up were women who kind of desexualized themselves—you know, pant suits—and now you have directors like May Adrales who is sexy and she’s who she is and she went to Yale. I think it’s important that there are mentors out there who can help you find your path—like if you want to be a director and a mother, you can find someone who took that path. I don’t remember having that choice. I got lucky that I got into NYU. If I’d gone to any other grad school, I would not have had Zelda.

Who are the five women? Zelda. Theresa Rebeck. Theresa Rebeck introduced me to Angelina Flordellisi and Rajiv Joseph, and that is a moment my career changed. Carole Rothman at Second Stage (and Chris Burney). Then, through Theresa Rebeck, Dina Janis (and Cusi Cram!). Julianne Boyd. Wendy Goldberg at the O’Neill. There are women who have my back and say, “We’ll put our money behind you again and again so people know it wasn’t a fluke and wasn’t because of the playwright. “

Does your acting background make you more cognizant of having good female roles?
Yes and no. I would call myself a feminist, and yet I’ve worked a lot with Rajiv Joseph and Matthew Lopez and the female roles have not been as pivotal as the male roles. But those are two writers who if they call me and say, “I have a terrible idea on a napkin, will you do it?” I’ll say yes, regardless of the story, because those are two artists I want to support and whatever they do I’m excited to be in the room with it. I am conscious of trying to put together female designers. If there are no women in the play, I want to make sure there are women on the team. But it’s amazing how you have to check yourself—I mean I have to check myself and I’m a woman who is concerned with these issues. I make lists and it’s not until we’re starting to hire that I go, “Oh my God there’s no woman on this list,” which is a crime because there’s always a woman who is as good as everybody else on the list.

Giovanna SardelliPeople sometimes can be surprised when a woman directs a male-driven play. Yet they’re never surprised by a man directing a show with a female protagonist.
That comment drives me bananas, and thank God that in my career there are people who don’t believe that or I never would have done The Whipping Man. I have no business directing The Whipping Man if these are your guidelines—I’m not Jewish, I’m not black—what do I bring to the table except an incredible ability to tell that story, understand those dynamics, and understand how to create fear and tension and hope on stage. Men have been directing women’s plays for years and no one has ever asked that question. Like I just loved The Hurt Locker— thank you, Kathryn Bigelow. I’m a martial artist and when it comes to violence on stage I have more skill than most male directors. Yet people don’t see that because I don’t present myself to the world as someone who is violent or fascinated with power, violence, and manipulation.

Do you feel like there’s more discussion about your manner in the rehearsal room?
Completely. I think power, as a woman, is a really interesting thing. I study it. I’m fascinated by it. And I studied it partly because I was failing. I’m a strong woman, and it was important to me that everyone knew that. So the way I entered a room was actually antagonistic in a way I did not mean it to be. I just wanted everyone to know I could run the room. So I think, for women, understanding power and what that looks like, I think we have to be more attentive to it. A few years ago my agent got feedback that I was too nice. I called him back and asked him to call that person back and ask what the hell that meant. It bothered me so much. And he said, “It’s not the first time you’ve been called nice.” What does nice actually mean? And I don’t know any man who would be called nice. You’re either too nice or too bitchy. It’s rare you get called confident.

We don’t have discussions about confidence with men.
Exactly. It’s like, “You’re in the room so you must be confident.”

Do you feel like you have less room for failure?
Oh God, yes. Even our successes are not lauded in the same way. I think men get to have an arc to their career that women don’t. Sam Gold—who is an artist I respect—got a bad review in The New York Times for something, and in the bad review Isherwood or Brantley made a point of reminding us how wonderful he was, “That while he didn’t succeed in this play let us remember…” and then they listed four of his successes. And I thought to myself, “I don’t know any female that has ever had that experience.” I also can’t think of any artist that’s more hearty than Sam Gold. He can fail—he’ll be fine. It was stunning to see.


(x.) Future

What’s something you think people can do to improve gender parity in theatre?
I think the first thing is a consciousness towards it. If you have a season and have seven plays and only one is by a woman, you need to look at that. And you need to look at how many women are in leadership positions. And audiences help. There was a theatre years ago that did an all-female season and it was the lowest attended season they had ever had—that’s an audiences’ fault. I think there’s an idea that if a playwright is female than a play is gender specific. Everyone has to be smarter about it and make sure you’re not marketing it as a “female play” because, sadly, audiences shy away from that.

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