features + interviews

one-on-one: david cromer and michael halberstam

One-on-One: David Cromer and Michael Halberstam
Presented by the Stage Directors and Choreographers Foundation
Playwrights Horizons’ Peter Jay Sharp Theatre, 416 West 42nd Street
May 7, 2011, 10:15am-noon

Michael Halberstam (left) and David Cromer (right). Image by Mark Campbell Creative.

Two old friends from Chicago who met there as actors and now have careers that span the country and beyond met up in public on the stage of the Peter Sharp Theater at Playwrights Horizons a few days ago. These two creative theatre forces have touched me in my professional life in work behind and in front of the stage, as dramaturg and reviewer. I dramaturged two 2007 productions at Halberstam’s Writers Theatre in Glencoe, Illinois in 2007, one directed by his talented self, and I have been an avid and unabashed fan of Cromer’s work at Writers (e.g. Picnic) — and Shattered Globe (e.g. Come Back Little Sheba) and Barrow Street (the recent revival of Our Town that started its production life on various Chicago stages). As a recent import to Manhattan, I immediately signed up to attend this public conversation adventure when it was announced. And I can’t imagine a better way to spend a beautiful spring Saturday morning. Laughter, wisdom, personal stories, emotional disclosures. In short: quality theatre of the personally reflective kind.

Cromer (or was it Halberstam — interrupting and completing each other’s sentences was common in this chat) described their relationship as intensely supportive — helping each other through the “artistic night sweats” of directing and creating. This outrageously articulate conversational play you feel is based on years of late night coffee and/or cocktail sipping and working through their own voices, their own styles. This conversation could be packaged and sold as inspiration to practicing and future theatre artists. Indeed, we were informed that a podcast of the full proceedings will be published by SDC within the next few weeks and should appear here: http://americantheatrewing.org/sdcfmasters/.

  • On the question of receiving “mixed reviews” and caring about reviews in general.  Both noted that in Chicago the city was lucky for years to have the widely traveling, omnivorous, and deeply supportive Richard Christiansen for years as chief theatre critic of the Chicago Tribune. Christiansen saw everything big and small, and was an early supporter of the work of Writers’ Theatre, when all its productions were in what is now its tiny second space at the back of a bookstore. (Christiansen wrote a terrific history and kind of theatre memoir published in 2004 called A Theatre of Our Own.  Read this. For a bit about him, this book, and a theatre in Chicago recently renamed in his honor, see a piece penned by my pal Kerry Reidhttp://tinyurl.com/6lbn83z.). Halberstam noted that Christiansen’s strong early praise didn’t help prepare him for modulated commentary. Cromer noted of his own behavior in reading and sometimes emotionally challenged by reviews: “If you didn’t care what anyone thought .. you wouldn’t have to do it in front of people.” Why care about reviews?  Cromer noted with his signature humor: “Because your enemies are going to read them. It’s more embarrassing because it’s in public.”
  • On how projects come to them.  Cromer: “I’m asked.” Both directors wanted to clarify to the crowd that this mythology of directors roaming the earth with their perfect list of plays they want to do and finding the venues is not how productions generally happen: they are, quite simply, asked.
  • On boundaries and the artistic director role. Cromer noted that “when it’s all yeses it’s dangerous”, clarifying that he believes that when a production, a company, an actor, a vision, has obstacles, it forces choices. He praised his observations of the environment he feels Halberstam has created at Writers’ Theatre — where they are always in support of the artistic process, where the initial response is not “no” but rather “talk to me about why.” Halberstam reflected that he sees his role of artistic director as considering how to put boundaries around a project, an environment, so that artists have obstacles. “Finding the balance between humility and ego is essential for the profession,” Halberstam concluded.
  • On embracing new assignments as director. Cromer: It can be “high level prostitution  .. I try to play I’m in love with it.” His serious response was that he searches for the way into a play that he didn’t bring to the table, and often it can be through external factors. He discussed the example of the small bookstore Writers’ Theatre space and a production of The Price where his way in was the intimate space, not much larger than the stage on which the two men were seated. Making opportunity through limitations.
  • On their differing directing approaches. Halberstam drew from Cromer’s example of The Price to reflect on their different methods into a production, and space, a creation. Halberstom noted that he seeks his way in through the actors and the text, while Cromer starts with an environment, a set. Halberstam noted that he reversed this process with A Minister’s Wife (that started at Writers’ and is now running at Lincoln Center Theatre) by a focus on the furniture and a room that has a function.
  • On personal cultural education. Cromer on his own, with humor — it was “lazy and sloppy.” “I didn’t receive a good education, and I didn’t go looking for one.”
  • On new work versus classics. Cromer with truth and humor: “I’m scared of new work because I’m lazy and they’re too much work to do.” Halberstam (who directs exquisite Shakespeare as well as developing new work): “When you’re doing new work you’re creating a tradition.” Halberstam also reflects that “I direct from an actor’s perspective” while acknowledging the special challenges of this. “If you always direct from an actor’s perspective, every show is four hours long and each moment is the most important.” Cromer: “Everyone has to be calling each other out on bullshit all the time.”

My favorite line of the session, that inspired perhaps the hugest laugh of a laugh-filled 90 minutes, evoking this need for constant search for honesty among those in the room was by Cromer. For him the director needs continually to ask: “Does this show make my ass look big?”

I am in awe. I miss Chicago. I thrill to the skill on display here, and miss the Chicago theatre easy humor with intelligence, and serious embrace of the theatrical enterprise. All of a piece. Hello boys.

© Martha Wade Steketee (May 9, 2011)

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