Tuesday, August 29, 2017

Chatting with Jenn Thompson, Director of Oklahoma! at Goodspeed

A New Look at an Old Favorite
By Lauren Yarger
Rodgers and Hammerstein's Oklahoma! is one of America's treasures of musical theater, so it's intriguing that it is just now getting its first treatment at Goodspeed, where it runs through Sept. 27. It is also the first time Director Jenn Thompson has worked with the musical.

Thompson returns to Goodspeed where she directed last year's acclaimed production of Bye Bye Birdie. Formerly with River Rep in Ivoryton (19 years), Thompson has been nominated for two Lucille Lortel Awards, the Off-Broadway Alliance Award and five Drama Desk Awards including Outstanding Director and Revival. She was a 2012 finalist for SDC’s Joe A. Callaway award for Excellence in Directing.

CT Arts Connection recently asked Thompson to reflect on the production. Information about the production follows.

Is Oklahoma! an old favorite or was this something new for you to tackle?

I've actually never seen a production of OK! before - which seems kind of crazy to me. I grew up on the music and the movie - but not the actual show. So in some ways, it was both an old favorite and completely new to me.

Speak about how Oklahoma is a contemporary story for today.

I always think the mark of really great work is how it evolves over time, how it changes with different generations viewing and performing it. When I got this job we were still in the election and by the time I was working on it in earnest, the world had turned upside down. My view of the show had changed before I'd even hired a single actor. For me, this show speaks about so many contemporary topics; tribalism, gender roles, gun violence...there's so much in there. And, of course, depending on when you're seeing it/working on it different aspects emerge. I've seen a lot of people become very emotional watching that flag come down at the end of the show. I think people are desperate to feel good about being American and feeling connected to each other as Americans. It's complicated now...but I think when you see that beautiful, diverse cast singing their guts out about coming together and wanting to be a part of something bigger and bolder it feels very visceral and real - and the audience is moved and thrilled by that. Me too.

You have had a nostalgic theme going with some of your last shows: Women Without Men, Bye Bye Birdie, Oklahoma! (you have a pretty even mix of old and new works among your credits). Do you prefer working with older classics or new works? Tell us about some of the differences in approaching the two different types from the creative point of view. What is the dynamic of working with younger casts who might not be familiar with older works and older audiences, who might be the opposite?

I really approach old and new work the same. Or, at least, I try to. I used to read reviews and critical responses to the older stuff I've worked on - as part of my research - and I've stopped doing that. It wasn't helpful. The view needs to be fresh and unobscured. With new material, there's this great opportunity to help shape it with the author(s). It's a wonderful challenge and quite a privilege to be invited into that process. With older shows, the discovery process is a little more solitary. It's just you and the words - until it's time to bring the design team in it can feel a bit hermitic. But there's also something wonderful about decoding the material for yourself and figuring out how it will speak to a contemporary audience. I feel very fortunate to be able to do both and also to be able to work in so many genres and styles. At the end of the day all of it - is about storytelling. What is the best, most effective way, to tell the story? Actors, of course, are a huge part of that. Casting, for me, is the most important aspect of the equation - and I always do a lot of research and dramaturgical work to provide a cast with context and info and, of course, invite and encourage them to share and engage. When the storytelling is clear and detailed it transcends peoples backgrounds and ages. Everyone responds to a story passionately well told.

Speak about your decisions to make updates in shows. Sometimes it is noticeable, sometimes, not so much:

I actually did do quite a bit of updating in OK! For starters, it's trimmed down considerably and there's a lot of reshuffling of text, especially in the first act. The action is moved off of the farm (we meet Will Parker at the train depot, Ado Annie in a corn field) that's not in the original text. The violence in the show is now by gun - also new. I used more text from Green Grows the Lilacs in some places. And, of course, the ballet is completely new, including the arrangement. But I'm glad if you didn't notice. Honestly, that's always the aim. That work should be invisible.

Talk about the differences in directing in New York and regionally. What are some of the advantages or disadvantages?
Very often it's the resources. Many regional theatres just have more space and more money to put into a show than most theatres in NYC - unless you're on Broadway. So that is fun. It's also nice to gather a group of people out of town for the sole purpose of putting on a show. It becomes an instant family. Being in NY - is home for me so it's always great to get to work and then sleep in my own bed. And there's nothing like the theatre community in NYC. That support is amazing.

You helped launch the state Chapter for the League of Professional Theatre Women last year. What are some significant changes you are seeing with regard to opportunities and equity when it comes to women and theater in say the last three years? What are some of the biggest hurdles we have to overcome?

I've often struggled with the label of "female director" preferring to just be seen as a director but the election woke me up to some very harsh realities. It's easy to feel like we're in a progressive bubble in the arts but truth be told there are still a lot of out-dated and pre-conceived notions in the theater. I think representation is really important onstage and off. We need more women and more people of color telling stories, period. If the theater cannot lead in inclusion how can we expect to see it in corporate America? Or in elected office? It's getting better but we still have a long way to go. It feels good to have agency and purpose.

Talk about your decision to pursue directing. How have you changed since heading in that direction? What are some of the biggest lessons you have learned? How do you balance family with the demands of work and travel? Your husband is an actor, so he gets it, but there must be a lot of juggling. Any interest in the theater yet from your daughter?

Directing just immediately felt like a better fit for me - kind of across the board. I felt more engaged and challenged and I prefer sitting in the dark in the back. LOL. It took me awhile to be able to move away from my identity as an actor (I'd been doing it professionally since I was 7) but I kind of knew from the first time out that directing was where I needed to be. It's very strange because it hasn't even been 10 years yet but I can't imagine being onstage now - that feels like a different person...a different life. The work/life balance is a struggle as it is for all working moms/families. Stephen and I try not to be working at the same time but sometimes it's unavoidable. There is also quite a bit of travel and that can be tough. But it's wonderful (and lucky) that I can bring Naomi with me to rehearsal and the theater and she can see and experience what I'm working on. I recognize how unusual that is. She's quite the savvy theater-goer now and her insight is always welcome and actually very helpful. Kids have a great nose for bull*#@!. It's also amazing to be raising her surrounded by generous, talented, dynamic people. I'm always humbled by the way a company embraces and includes her.\

What's the one show you haven't directed yet, but would love to?

Eeek! One show?! There are tons. Dying to do 1776 or All My Sons. Uncle Vanya, Orpheus Descending, Tobacco Road...West Side Story!

Do you have aspirations to be an artistic director in one spot again or do you enjoy going where the opportunities are?

This is the first time in my adult life that I'm not responsible for some aspect of running a theater and I'm really enjoying it. It feels so luxurious to just be focused on the art part. That said, I can see that happening somewhere down the line. For now, I am happy and grateful to be a gun-for-hire. And honored to get to return to some really wonderful theaters and be part of that family.

What's next?

Well, I am happily on vacation at the beach right now! Post-Labor Day I've got some workshops of a couple of new musicals in town and then I head back to St. Louis Rep to do a new play in November. Then out to Chicago Shakes to direct Mary Stuart. Should be a lot of fun!

Visit the director's website at jennthompsondirector.com.

Full disclosure: Thompson has worked with Lauren Yarger to promote the CT Chapter of the League of Professional Theatre Women and Yarger will appear in a reading directed by Thompson next month at Symphony Space in New York. 

The cast of Goodspeed Musicals’ Oklahoma!. Photo: Diane Sobolewski

Music by: Richard Rodgers
Book and Lyrics by: Oscar Hammerstein II,  based on the play Green Grow the Lilacs by Lynn Riggs

Curly is played by Rhett Guter who played Conrad Birdie in last summer’s hit Bye Bye Birdie at Goodspeed. Laurey is played by Samantha Bruce. Also in the principal cast: 

Aunt Eller: Terry Burrell
Will Parker: Jake Swain
Ado Annie Gizel Jimenez
Andrew Carnes: C. Mingo Long
Ali Hakim: Matthew Curiano
Jud Fry: Matt Faucher 

Scenic Designer: Wilson Chin
Costumer Designer: Tracy Christensen
Lighting Designer: Philip Rosenberg
Sound Designer: Jay Hilton
Wig and Hair Designer: Mark Adam Rampmeyer
Orchestrations: Dan DeLange
Music Director: Michael O’Flaherty

Performances: Wednesday at 2 and 7:30 pm, Thursday at 7:30 pm, (with select performances at 2 pm), Friday at 8 pm., Saturday at 3 and 8 pm and Sunday at 2 pm (with select performances at 6:30 pm.). Tickets start at $29: goodspeed.org; 860-873-8668.

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Lauren Yarger with playwright Alfred Uhry at the Mark Twain House. Photo: Jacques Lamarre)
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