‘I see fairies all the time,” says director Tina Landau. Then she laughs, but adds, “I’m not kidding. I’m playing, but I’m not kidding.” She started a Fairy Club with her nephew, Jamie, when he was three years old. He’s now 17 and about to go to college. Every year in the summer, they meet for a weekend, and go on a fairy hunt. “I’m the Fairy Master and we go into the woods and find all sorts of magical things and clues.” They’ve now been joined by Landau’s niece, Twyla, who is six years old.
As we talk in a dressing room backstage at McCarter Theater, where Landau is directing the upcoming production of Shakespeare’s “A Midsummer Night’s Dream,” I wonder aloud what has taken her so long to get to this perfect-for-her project. “I’ve been too scared to do fairies on stage,” she says.
When Twyla visited the rehearsal a few days earlier, Landau says, though she thought the play was very good, she was disturbed by one thing. “Where are the fairies’ wings?” Twyla asked. Landau had to explain to her niece that “there are all kinds of fairies.” In this production, they not only do not have wings, they are dark in color and are aerialists, wearing harnesses so that they can even hang upside down. These are not the flower fairies on greeting cards or in story books.
“This play incorporates things that are my own personal aesthetic, like dreams, fantasy, a lot of music, and certainly a fantastical element.” This is Landau’s first large-scale foray into Shakespeare. She did two small experimental Shakespeare productions as a student at Yale.
She began meeting with the musical group, GrooveLily, almost a year ago. She says much of the concept for this production rests on their musical shoulders as they are serving as “surrogates for me and the audience. The play is GrooveLily’s dream.”
The design concept for the play grew from her musings about the fairy world. “I’m not thinking as much about what they look like as I am about what they do. I was thinking about vertical space.” This fits with her methodology termed “viewpoints,” which deals with terms and projects that can be used as an actor explores time and space. With noted director Ann Bogart, Landau has written a book, aptly titled “Viewpoints,” recently published by Theatre Communications Group.
When I arrive for the interview, I have a chance to see the rehearsal space, dominated by a bandstand in the center with drum set at the ready, surrounded by a collection of poles, some tree-like and stationary, others hanging or floating from ropes from the ceiling. “One thing I knew from the beginning is that the fairies had to exist above, and yet I didn’t want scaffolding and platforms. The fairies are above, up, and around. Gravity doesn’t apply.” Because the play takes place at night, the set is black. “The fairies then have the ability to be shadows, to appear and disappear.”
Landau grew up in a theatrical family. Her parents were both film producers. Edie and Ely Landau produced all of the movies of the American Film Theater, including Delicate Balance, Man in the Glass Booth, and more, as well as Hopscotch, The Chosen, Long Day’s Journey into Night, The Pawnbroker, and the documentary, King.
As a child growing up in New York City, Landau was taken often to the theatrer and at the age of six, she announced that she was going to be a director. And there has been a rather straight line to achieve this ambition. “In fact, I’m the black sheep in our family; I’m the only one who doesn’t make films.” Her family consists of an older brother, younger sister, and two half brothers. Her brother was the producer of the mega-film Titanic and works with director Jim Cameron. One of her half brothers, Les Landau, directs film and has done a great deal of television. Her sister’s husband, Michael Kantor, is a film documentarian, who wrote and directed the PBS series about Broadway.
She and her family moved to Los Angeles when she was 14, where she attended Beverly Hill High, graduating in 1980. But she says that her heart has always been with the east coast, and attended Yale, receiving a bachelor’s in theater studies in 1984. After a few years in New York, she went back to school as part of the pilot year for the American Repertory Theatre Institute for Advanced Training at Harvard. She worked there for two years.
She was a very serious child, she says. “I know it’s sounds cliche — I’m discovering my ‘inner child.’ I feel I’ve gotten younger as I’ve gotten older.” She admits, “I didn’t believe in fairies when I was little. I was too busy thinking about Rilke.” The transformation happened, she believes, while she was at college, observing deconstructed musicals and thinking “why take something pure and naive and make it an intellectual game? I remember consciously deciding I wanted to work out of love.” With fortunate timing: “Around the same time, I fell in love for the first time and really felt loved. I remember thinking ‘There’s something glacial going on inside of me that is so slow and deep.’ It felt like melting. Now with every passing year, I’ve gotten more engaged in playing.” Smiling, she adds, “I’m such a sentimentalist. I can’t believe I’m saying this stuff.”
When she begins a project, she is wracked with anxiety but feels compelled to leap in with enthusiasm. “Every time I start a show, I begin with such dread. I know what it requires for the six or eight weeks. I feel that if it’s not fun and inspiring and doesn’t bring me some real life force, it’s kinda not worth it.” While at American Repertory Theatre, she met the Macedonian director, Slobodan Unkovski, who gave her a key that she has made part of her lexicon of tricks. He told her that as a director, you’ve lived with your material for weeks or maybe even years, and have developed a “fever” for this work. Landau quotes him: “When you come in to rehearsal on the first day, you must be contagious. Your job is simply to spread the fever.”
As she began rehearsals for “A Midsummer Night’s Dream,” she shared her enthusiasm for the play. “I try to talk from my passion and invite the cast and everyone working on the show to find his or her own entry point.” Her goal is to make the rehearsal fun. Appropriately, the cast talks about their dreams — how their dreams work, what is their dream logic. Landau admits that she had never remembered her dreams. But as she began rehearsal, she did. Alluding to understanding why she had never remembered her dreams before, she says, “I can’t say that I’m having dreams that are lah-di-dah lovely.” She attributes her new connection to her dream life to this play and the openness it has engendered.
An artist of amazing breadth, she not only directs but also has written a number of performance pieces. Making her first major mark on New York theater, she wrote and directed “Floyd Collins,” with music by Adam Guettel (currently represented in New York by “The Light in the Piazza”), which ran at Playwrights Horizons, receiving the 1996 Lucille Lortel Award for Best Musical, as well as other awards and nominations. Her play, “Space,” premiered at the Steppenwolf Theatre Company in Chicago, where it was named one of “The Ten Best” for the year 1997 by Time Magazine. A music-theater piece, “Dream True,” which she wrote with Ricky Ian Gordon, was produced at New York’s Vineyard Theatre in 1999, where it garnered the Richard Rogers Award.
Her Broadway directorial debut was the 2001 revival of “Bells Are Ringing,” nominated for a Tony Award as Best Musical Revival. Incidentally, as a student, she had directed a production of this musical at Yale. She has directed numerous productions at Steppenwolf, where she is an ensemble member, and at major regional theaters nationwide.
In her spare time, she also paints and plays the piano or watches reality TV — she did look like she had just revealed the guiltiest pleasure. But primarily when she leaves rehearsal she wants to be silent, to re-energize for the next step.
This production of “Midsummer” is a co-production with the Paper Mill Playhouse, where it will be performed after the run at McCarter. Landau is taking the next four months off to work on a big commercial theater piece, loosely based on her play, “Beauty,” which was produced in fall, 2003, at the La Jolla Playhouse in San Diego. She is collaborating with composer Jeanine Tesori, whose Broadway credits include “Caroline or Change” and the new music for “Thoroughly Modern Millie.”
Landau says: “I do theater. I’m very committed to that. I want to deepen and master this thing that feels so mysterious and awesome to me. I love theater so much. It is fun. I love what I get to do for my life.”
A Midsummer Night’s Dream, McCarter Theater, 91 University Place. William Shakespeare classic directed by Tina Landau features the music of GrooveLily. Previews begin Tuesday, March 21. Opening night is Friday, March 24. Runs through Sunday, April 9. $25 to $53. 609-258-2787.