Tuesday, April 5, 2016

Meet the Director: Stephanie C. Cunningham (KEEP)

Stephanie C. Cunningham received her MFA in Directing from The New School for Drama. As a director, her work focuses on text with heightened language, the re-imagining of classical texts, and the development of new work. As an educator and director of youth programs, she promotes theatre education that can extend beyond production to become an accessible art form and tool for change in a community. She is based in New York City. www.stephanieccunningham.com

You are directing the world-premiere production of Keep, which we are co-producing with Mastodon Theatre Company. What drew you to want to direct this particular play?

This play drew me in hard and fast for a few reasons. When I first read it, I was fascinated and could not imagine the challenges and emotional taxation on the victims and the families of someone with a hoarding disorder. Since researching the condition and interviewing hoarders, my empathy for people with this condition has exploded. The second thing that attracted me was the poetry of Francesca Pazniokas' text, especially toward the end. It is beautiful and so rhythmic. It actually got stuck in my head at one point, worse than a Spice Girl’s song. Third: the characters - these women - are just human. Their gender is not the reason for their existence in a work of art, and that always makes this feminist director a very happy camper. 

How are rehearsals going? Can you tell us a little bit about how you’ve chosen to approach the process? Has it been similar or different to other pieces you have recently worked upon?

Rehearsals for this piece have been quite a challenge in a great way. The space of Naomi’s home is such an important character, and so hard to get a sense of when in an almost blank rehearsal room. Trying to understand the space - and how all of the women interact with it differently - has been an act of imagination gymnastics for the cast and myself to this point, but it has been really fun. My instincts as a director tend towards simplifying action and streamlining storytelling. In this production, those things are not one and the same. The more interactions these characters have with the space, the clearer their stories become. For instance, we had our first rehearsal with pizza yesterday, and let me tell you…that was a wonderful mess that was clarifying for everyone, I think. 

In addition to being the director for this production, you are Wide Eyed’s Associate Artistic Director and recently received your MFA in Directing from The New School. When did you know that you wanted to be a director? How did you get started? 

I wanted to be an actor first but...I was real bad. I couldn’t keep my thoughts on one place or intention. I was thinking about everything; the lights, stage movement, the scene I had just left, what was coming up next. I did not have the skill to stay present and truthful in the moment. 

Luckily, I had some wonderful teachers who not only told me I was a bad actor, but that I might be a good director. When I got home from my classical actor training in London, I dove right into directing, starting with community theatre and teaching high school drama. From there, it was just moving to bigger places - Boston and New York - and finding people that I knew I wanted to make theatre with. 

Where are you drawing some of your creative energy currently? 

If you had asked me this yesterday, I probably would have given a different answer. Right now, I am totally obsessed with the Roman republic and how it mirrors the formation of our own government. My husband is an English teacher, and his students are currently working on Shakespeare’s Julius Caesar. He and I have been talking a great deal about the Roman understanding of power and how that may or may not relate to the current hearts and minds of the American people. It’s hard not to sense the tension this year with elections and looking at what people perceive as “greatness.” Also, iced tea. I get a lot of energy from that stuff. 

We’d love for our audience to get to know your work a little more. Could you tell us a little bit about your last project? 

The last full production I directed was Sam Byron’s Butcher (coincidentally, a finalist year before last in our Wide Eyed WINKS staged reading series) at Stella Adler Studios. It was a beast. We had this giant Greek tragedy of a play in this tiny room. It was gory and raw and intense all the way through. It was a wonderful process, and was very fruitful for me in terms of working a naturalistic style that I had not been exercising recently. It also made it so I couldn’t eat meat for a little while... 

Are you working on any additional projects at the moment? Is it something you can tell us about? 

Once Keep is up and running, I’m set to direct a production of Buyer and Cellar in California with The Mendocino Theatre Company this summer, and will be working on a few development readings and workshops here in the city. It will also be finals time at The New School soon, which means you will most likely find me in my living room trying to shoo my cats off of assignments I need to grade. 

Keep begins previews at The Barrow Group Theatre on April 7 and runs through April 30. Get your tickets here.

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