Amy Kotkin recently had a chance to interview Michael Bloom about his upcoming production of Lisa Kron’s Well at 1st Stage.
Amy: What initially attracted you to this play? Have you directed it previously, and what excites you about the opportunity to direct it now?
Michael: Well is one of my favorite plays because it combines real heart and an adventurous structure. That’s very rare. I also love how much humor Lisa Kron has managed to mine from the relationship between herself and her mother. I directed the play when I was at Cleveland Play House, and it was a joy because it was so easy for audiences to relate to, despite the unique structure. But I actually think, with its emphasis on the value of integrated communities and health and wellness in the individual, it is even more of the moment now.
In your book, Thinking Like a Director, you note that the director functions as the production’s primary storyteller and animator. What themes do you hope to convey in this production?
A key theme for me is how we struggle to find compassion for those who have chronic illnesses. We think if they just do what we do to stay healthy, they’ll be fine. Ultimately what makes the play so moving is that it’s about the need for empathy. Understanding the differences between ourselves and others is what theatre can help explore better than any other art form.
As a director, do you find there are differences between working with contemporary material by a living playwright than one by an author who is no longer alive?
There are. If the play is a premiere, or if it is a recent revival, I tend to try to find what the playwright intends, what she has in mind, even if she’s not in rehearsals. With the work of a writer who is no longer alive, there is a greater freedom to connect a production concept with the zeitgeist, in effect to give the play a new voice.
Lisa Kron’s autobiographical work continually breaks through the fourth wall. The actors in this play their roles straight up, comment on those roles to the main character, and at times, address the audience. Does its structure pose unique challenges? Unique opportunities?
Plays in which characters address the audience directly are always more challenging for actors. There’s the need to connect directly and honestly with audiences and to clearly delineate which reality we are in. Skillful actors can usually navigate that change of focus.
There is an art to speaking directly to an audience: it involves connecting with individuals rather than simply focusing on a group. The sense of truth in these scenes depends on the actors working as if they are improvising. When they comment on the play, it only works if the audience feels it’s completely unscripted.
The play is exciting for audiences because of the surprise and the flux between different realities. What is great about doing the play at the intimate 1st Stage is how easy it will be for actors to connect to the audience.
Well has more than a couple of layers of reality, what’s called meta-theatricality. There is also the added complication that Lisa Kron, the author, is a character in the play. And she’s brought her mother onstage with her! She’s kind of a stage manager of her own play as well as a participant. I love the fact that Well harkens back to Lisa’s earlier work as a solo performance artist and standup comedienne. It’s as if we’re seeing two plays in one, or as Lisa writes, “it’s a solo play—with other people in it.”
Well was premiered in 2004 and mounted on Broadway in 2006 where it received excellent reviews. Lisa Kron followed that with the blockbuster hit, Fun Home, a touring version of which will also be staged in the DC area this spring. Looking at Lisa Kron’s body of work, which also includes 5 Minute Ride and 101 Humiliating Stories, what do you see as her primary contributions to America’s theater scene today?
Fun Home is very different than Well. It’s a wonderful musical that is a bit more conventional. Lisa’s work is adventurous formally, but it also brings a sharp-edged humor to social issues. There’s also a self-critical perspective in her writing that probably comes out of her standup work. It’s daring and refreshing and a great deal of fun for audiences.