‘It’s a love letter to the theater.” That’s how director Adam Immerwahr describes Theresa Rebeck’s comedy “The Understudy,” beginning its run Tuesday, October 14, and continuing through Sunday, November 2, at McCarter Theater in Princeton. The production marks the 32-year-old director’s main stage debut at McCarter Theater.
Set during a rehearsal of an understudy for a role currently played by a movie star with minimum acting skills, the play — which had its world premiere at the Williamstown Theater Festival in 2008 — takes a more than gentle poke at this practice that is often evident on Broadway.
Immerwahr, during a telephone interview, clearly communicates his own love for theater. He says: “This play ultimately celebrates the irrational and sometimes crazed passion that fuels those of us who have devoted our lives to creating something from words, pieces of plywood, and actors on the stage. There’s something very exciting about getting to share that with an audience. And the set designer, the great Eugene Lee, who did ‘Wicked’ and ‘Saturday Night Live’ since it began, has taken a brilliant approach to our wonderful funny play.”
How much Immerwahr wants to share about his staging is a dilemma, so he says, “I’m trying not to reveal too much, but the way we’re doing it is going to open up a lot of opportunities for the audience to see the magic of creating this piece of theater — what makes live theater so magical.”
McCarter press materials advise that the play has more than one comic situation: “The set technician is high, the cocky movie star doesn’t understand the script, and the new understudy is surprised to find that the stage manager is his jilted ex-fiancee.”
Playwright Rebeck has joined the fun and made a few changes in the script to accommodate Immerwahr’s concept, participated in casting sessions, and is even attending some rehearsals.
The current comedy is a departure from playwright’s serious drama “The Bells,” produced at McCarter in the spring of 2005. Yet Rebeck’s two plays for McCarter reflect her varied career: 15 plays produced in New York and television writer/producer credits for such shows as “NYPD Blue” and “L.A. Law.” She also created and produced the first season of the TV series “Smash,” which took us backstage as Broadway types worked and wrangled to mount a musical about Marilyn Monroe (something akin to the current McCarter production).
Immerwahr also has a varied career. Currently, he is the associate artistic director at McCarter, resident director at Trenton’s Passage Theater, and the artistic director of CWW OnStage (now a part of McCarter Theater’s projects), an ensemble of Mercer County senior citizens who collect and perform the stories of their community.
McCarter Theater materials say that OnStage Seniors “creates documentary theater performances that explore the stories and issues of our community. Our ensemble — all over 55 — perform in theaters, libraries, schools, conferences, hospitals, senior centers, and senior communities, generating delight, insight, and affirmation about senior memories and experience.”
Immerwahr says that the project, created in 2007, had developed a number of partnerships with community organizations, including Jewish Family & Children’s Service, Arts Council of Princeton, senior centers, and Passage Theater. “Over time it became clear that we had grown and needed a new home, and McCarter was expanding its education program. Artistic director Emily Mann and Erica Nagel, director of education engagement, had seen the work and welcomed OnStage to McCarter” in 2014.
Immerwahr is also the current artist-in-residence at Nassau Presbyterian Church, where he directs their project in which they collect stories of their congregants to then be performed as part of worship.
“It’s a one-year program, something (the church) initiated to keep art as part of the way that they worship. So they were seeking a theater artist this year and found me. I was thrilled at taking the OnStage model and interviewing people and turning their lives into scripts and using them in the worship context. “They are in their 60s, 70s, and 80s, and come from different paths of life. Now we are making art together. We’re in the midst of gathering our stories and will be performed by the congregation throughout the course of the year at specific services.”
Immerwahr, who started attending Nassau services in his role as artist-in-residence says, “It’s interesting to interact (with this community) as an artist, and to see the work that they can grow and make spiritual connections.”
In addition to being a guest director on various New Jersey stages and at Playwrights Horizon and the Public Theater in Manhattan, Immerwahr has also been active in new play development, including Zimbabwean-American performer/playwright Danai Gurira’s Zimbabwe-set play “The Convert” — which was directed by Emily Mann at McCarter in 2012 and staged by Immerwahr in West Africa in 2013.
About coming to McCarter in 2005, the director says, “When I was graduating college, I was looking at internships in directing and producing and I applied at a number of theaters and got accepted at McCarter. It was wonderful to be immersed in a professional theater environment and see the challenges that a theater faces in creating this art form.”
When he was appointed to his current position, Emily Mann said, “I fiercely believe that Adam stands among the next generation of great American theater leaders.”
Immerwahr’s love of theater goes way back. When he was a young boy, he and his brother were volunteered every time a child actor was needed for productions at Villanova University, where his father was, and still is, chair of the philosophy department. “That’s when I got my first smell of the stage dust,” he says.
He grew up in Swarthmore, Pennsylvania, a suburb of Philadelphia where his dad, beside his teaching duties, is a musician and his mother creates theater pieces with marginalized theater communities around the world. His brother, on the other hand, took the professorial path and is a professor of history at Northwestern University.
To study theater on the level he wanted, Immerwahr convinced his parents to send him to Interlochen Arts Academy, a boarding school in Michigan. It was there he realized that he wanted to be a director. He was playing in a production and discovered logistical challenges. Saying to himself, “Oh, I can solve that,” he found that he was more excited about solving staging problems than being on stage. From Interlochen he went to Brown University where he earned a BA in Renaissance studies and theater arts.
When he came to McCarter he became part of both a theater and a community. “I moved to Trenton when I became part of the artistic staff and decided to stick around. I figured I would own a home and wanted to live somewhere diverse. Trenton seemed to be a place that I wanted to be. That was six years ago. I’m glad that I did. It’s really a cool town to live in, especially for a young person.”
Making the connections between the on and offstage worlds he frequents, Immerwahr says, “You really get to know the community. You have an individual relationship with the audiences and understand what they’re looking for. I’m interested in how communities can be theater makers. It helps people understand the world around them and engages and challenges and pushes in wonderful ways.”
The Understudy, McCarter Theater Center, 91 University Place, Princeton. Tuesdays through Thursdays at 7:30 p.m., Fridays at 8 p.m., Saturdays at 3 and 8 p.m., and Sundays at 2 and 7:30 p.m., from Tuesday, October 14, through Sunday, November 2. $25 to $92.50. 609-258-2787 or www.mccarter.org.
Dan Aubrey contributed to this article.