An Interview with Lila Neugebauer
Director Lila Neugebauer concludes a busy season with the world premiere of Annie Baker’s The Antipodes. This past fall, she helmed the Playwrights Realm production of The Wolves, Sarah DeLappe’s precisely-choreographed portrait of a high school soccer team. She then directed Miles for Mary with her devised group the Mad Ones, bringing to life the absurd tedium of a high school faculty meeting. Most recently, she collaborated with Residency Five playwright Branden Jacobs-Jenkins on the Signature world premiere of Everybody, a modern riff on a medieval morality play. Throughout her career, Neugebauer has established herself as both an astute developer of new plays and a bold interpreter of ensemble pieces. Signature audiences will have recognized these traits in her productions of Everybody, A.R. Gurney’s The Wayside Motor Inn, and Signature Plays, featuring works by Edward Albee, María Irene Fornés, and Adrienne Kennedy. Now, she again brings both to the fore in The Antipodes, a new work by one of America’s most innovative playwrights.
What first drew you to the theatre?
I grew up in New York, seeing plays. My earliest memory of a theatrical experience is an outdoor production of Macbeth I saw in Fort Tryon Park when I was maybe ten or eleven. I remember being viscerally stunned by this production. There was something about the psychological intimacy of the language that I remember feeling intensely overwhelmed by.
How did you become a director?
I went to this idiosyncratic public school called Hunter College High School, where all the theatre was student-directed and student-produced. Like many directors, I started by performing; I acted in my first play in seventh grade, a twenty-minute musical called Seven Minutes in Heaven by a guy named Lin-Manuel Miranda. I played a partygoer. After that I was mostly cast as old ladies and men. I directed for the first time the fall of my senior year, and that was a revelatory experience; I learned something essential about my identity through directing. I was an English major in college, but I took almost every dramatic literature class the school offered, and I spent most of my free time directing in these basement theatres around the Yale campus. Some of my most formative theatrical experiences as a student were at the Yale Playwrights Festival, at which I directed student-written works. Being in the room the first time a new play was read aloud – that was a huge ‘aha’ moment.
What were your first professional theatre experiences after college?
I knew I wanted to direct new plays, but I didn’t know all that much about who was alive and writing plays in America. So I worked briefly in the literary department at Steppenwolf Theatre in Chicago, and then in the literary department at Berkeley Rep. Then I spent a year in residence at the Actors Theatre of Louisville, which produces one of the biggest new play festivals in the country, the Humana Festival. Along the way, I was stumbling into artists and administrators who would prove to be invaluable collaborators and mentors.
How did you end up directing at Signature?
Not long after I moved back to New York, Annie [Baker] introduced me to [Signature Founder] Jim [Houghton]. I directed a production of Circle Mirror Transformation at Juilliard [where Jim was also the Richard Rodgers Director of the Drama Division]. A few years later, Jim brought me here to direct The Wayside Motor Inn. Jim radically changed the trajectory of my life by inviting me into this building. The impact he had on my work and my sense of myself as a director... I can’t overstate it.
Why are you interested in directing new plays?
Directing a new play, for me, can feel like learning a new language, or helping to invent a new language, collaborating in the creation of a map of uncharted territory. I’m drawn to projects that require me to create a new imaginative framework for a world onstage. And I’m attracted to processes that contain unknowns I can’t master in advance; when you work on a new play, the process tends to challenge you in ways you can’t predict. Within that process, the dramaturgical collaboration is paramount for me. There’s a mental athleticism involved in new play development – a heightened agility and elasticity required in navigating a living text as it emerges – that I find particularly stimulating and satisfying.
What draws you to ensemble plays?
That everyone in the room has to be essential. That everyone has to have skin in the game in a meaningful way. I’m most interested in processes in which every collaborator has something massive at stake.
When did you first meet Annie?
I had just moved to the Bay Area to work at Berkeley Rep. It was the summer of 2007, and I saw a reading of an unproduced play, Body Awareness, by a woman named Annie Baker. I was invited to go to some dinner afterwards, and I wound up walking next to this blonde playwright whose reading I had just seen. I had loved her play, and I sensed kinship. This story actually fulfills many tropes of the meet-cute, but I’ll spare you the embarrassing details... in short, we wound up sitting next to each other at this dinner, and I just loved her. Afterwards, we began an ongoing correspondence about our work, about what we cared about and didn’t care about in the theatre. I remember cackling out loud at my desk at Actors Theatre reading an early draft of Circle Mirror she sent me. I eventually came back to New York and directed a production of that play at Juilliard, and then went on to direct two productions of The Aliens.
What were your initial conversations about The Antipodes like?
Early on, Annie had an inkling about the way the play might move structurally. So before I’d read any text from the play, we were beginning to jam on how we wanted time to operate in this production.
What’s been your experience working at Signature?
What greater gift can an artist receive than an artistic home? I don’t know one. Signature’s mission is centered around the intersection of risk and faith – the premise that through supporting an artist’s body of work, not merely the ‘hit,’ that audiences’ experience of the work is deepened, and artists are empowered to take greater risks, to push themselves to be braver. This is an institution in which genuine risk taking is affirmed and supported. Jim was someone who believed the seemingly impossible could be possible with enough will and faith. That premise has been at the heart of every single thing I’ve done in this building.
Have any moments stood out?
How much time do you have? [Laughs]. I remember Jim calling me to talk to me about doing Wayside. I had a hunch that the play needed a delicate, microscopic attention to the details and nuances of hypernaturalism. And I remember having one of those intensely affirming moments – in describing to Jim what I saw in the play, I quickly recognized that we had a deep, shared vision for how the play should be done and why it felt important to revisit. I felt a sense of communion. The meet and greet for Signature Plays, the last show of Jim’s last season, which he had conceived to honor the theatre’s legacy and history, in some sense, by returning to the beginning. The care and nuance with which Jim spoke about his relationships with Adrienne, Irene, and Edward, their trajectory as writers, their Signature seasons, their place in the American avant-garde – it was spectacularly gripping and moving. Everyone in that room had a palpable sense that in revisiting these landmark works from these iconic writers, in being included in something vital to the lifeblood of this institution, that we were being given a powerful gift.
The opening of Signature Plays, [Associate Artistic Director] Beth [Whitaker] had asked [actor] Crystal Dickinson to say something about Jim at curtain call, and Crystal beautifully and graciously did. I was hovering in one of the side voms, a hidden perch from which I had watched the show, and I could see Jim standing in the equivalent spot on the other side of the room. The audience was standing, and I remember everyone in the room turning to Jim to applaud him. He graciously received their love, and then he wordlessly directed them back to the stage. That gesture is a perfect expression of that person, himself such a beaming light – but who was always redirecting the energy towards the work onstage, towards the artists making it.