Anna D. Shapiro is one of my favorite theater directors. A versatile talent who helmed the Broadway productions of "August: Osage County", "The Motherfucker with the Hat", "This is Our Youth", "Of Mice and Men", and now "Fish in the Dark", Shapiro is exceptionally good at creating a balance onstage between the verbal and physical. I talked to the Tony winner and soon to be Steppenwolf artistic director during rehearsals for "Fish in the Dark" about Larry David's humor, Jewish line readings, and making the tragic funny.
I watched an online presentation that you gave for Chicago Ideas Week in 2013 where you spoke about the playwright as the author of the play, the actor as the author of the night, and the director as the author of the event. Can you talk about finding that relationship to "Fish in the Dark" where Larry David is both writer and actor?
Larry comes in with a whole culture. He’s been really formative in the culture of my humor. You can’t get too enchanted by a culture that you enjoy. You have to be able to step back and look at what is working and what doesn’t work. So you figure out what the writer is trying to do. And the great thing is that because of the depth of my exposure to the guy, we already had a big swath of shared space that he had created inadvertently by what he had made. So we meet at the stuff he’s made before to make the stuff he’s making now.
You can’t venerate him too much because there has to be an equal playing field in the rehearsal room.
That’s exactly right. And you have to be able to say, “You know what I think would be funnier.” And that’s scary the first few times you do it.”
I watched the Times Talk that Larry David did, and I was very amused during the Q and A portion. All of the people who asked questions were eager to show off their knowledge of “Seinfeld” and “Curb”. What’s your reaction to people who expect or want to see “Curb” when they come to “Fish in the Dark”?
I don’t think it’s that different from working with a playwright who’s written other plays. People expect something similar. They know the difference between going to an O’Neill play and going to a Neil Simon play. And if you went to an O’Neill play and all of a sudden it’s a Neil Simon play, you’d be understandably confused and probably disappointed. I think writers work in tropes. He’s not writing outside of his comfort zone – he’s writing right in the sweet spot of it. Just in a long form where the relationship to the viewer is very different. There are things that will be surprising but not in any kind of disorienting way.
There’s a desire to see him. There’s something about what Larry has done. He’s such a complete presence. And he’s framed his character so well that just the sight of him is funny. And it is a character, because separate from that, he’s very elegant, handsome, he’s not the guy that you see on “Curb”, and yet they’re the same guy.
Sort of an unfiltered version of what he’d really say.
Or an unfiltered version of what we’d all say.
You had a similar experience with Chris Rock who had never acted onstage before when he starred in "The Motherfucker with the Hat". Did you have learning experiences from that production that you’re drawing from here?
Chris was coming into a new play that he didn't write, playing a character that he would not normally play (one of the reasons he wanted to do it). So there were many levels of learning, not just what it takes to be on stage in a different way than he’s used to, but also someone whose circumstances are so different than his own. So there was all of that going on. But he also does a lot more stand-up than Larry. So where his learning curve was really steep, another part of his learning curve was not steep. With Larry, it’s the mirror image. He’s playing a character he’s very comfortable playing, even though he is different, (I mean, he’s not the uncontrollable id, but it is a person he’s comfortable with), in language he wrote, in clothes that look like his clothes. And yet, he doesn’t do stand-up anymore. So he’s back in a relationship with the audience that’s very new.
Have there been rewrites during the rehearsal process?
Yeah, huge rewrites. There are the spitball changes, like “cut that out, try this instead.” Or an actor will make a pitch, and say, “I’m gonna try this and see if it works.” Or when I do it, it’s usually a structural thing, so I’ll run it by Larry and then we’ll put it on its feet and try it. So it’s constant motion toward a well-articulated goal. It’s very clear where he wants it to go.
When the writer is in the room and you have difficulty with a certain line, the option is always on the table to change it. In a revival you can’t do that, you have to keep the line and find an access point for the actor to say it.
Right. And that’s a fragile thing because it can seem cruel and arbitrary to an actor to tell them yes, they can change it, or no, they can’t. And your job as a director is to create an environment where they understand the decision.
Do you think of this as an ensemble play?
A hundred percent. I mean, when you think about “Curb” and “Seinfeld”, they are ensembles. And there are great moments when you feel like Larry is this master and he has put his wares around him and he’s standing there and something is unfolding that’s so unbelievably funny that his character is observing. He’s given the best lines to other people, he’s no fool. He’s not the only person you’ll remember when you see the show.
During “Curb’s” best seasons, I thought of the show as dramaturgically perfect. What I mean is that every storyline that is introduced in every episode will have a thru line that also converges with other story lines that had nothing to do with each other at the beginning. Does this play have different threads that converge?
It does. It has a primary story but it has turns. It’s shockingly normal actually. He’s written a well-made play. It doesn’t go, “Don’t look at the story problem here while we make you laugh.” He cares a lot about things resolving. It’s a play about the death of someone and the first image is a bunch of people around a hospital bed, and every run-through we’ve done with an audience, people fall out laughing at the image. Somehow he strikes that balance. He finds that narrow ledge that allows you to look at really painful things and just see how ridiculous and human and shared the experience is. That’s what good plays do, they create shared space.
Is it a Jewish family?
So I imagine there are rituals like shiva.
Yeah. That’s been a fun part of it for me. There are a couple people in the cast who aren’t Jewish but are playing Jews, and Larry and I will have these moments where there will a line that to us is supposed to sound a certain way and then it comes out a different way.
Totally. And we’ll have open conversations like, “Can I give you the Jewish reading of that?”
One thing that I love about the plays you’ve directed is the physicality of them. You seem to know just the moments to make a scene go from verbal to physical. How does physicality play into this show?
It’s very interesting to not have that vocabulary in a play because there’s very little [physicality]. Larry at one point said to me, “I’ve figured out something about my acting: I like leaning and sitting.” So it’s working with Larry and saying “Your caring has to move into your body. Because if you don’t move, you look like you don’t care."
Last question: is adlibbing allowed?
There are several sections that will be improvised. That was a concession of mine. Larry has said, “I just want you to know, if I’m getting big laughs I’m gonna keep going.”
photo credits: Mike Coppola, Joan Marcus