The Venue: The Hub Theatre, Fairfax, Virginia
The Play: Big Love, by Charles L. Mee
The Plot (as laid out on the Hub’s website):
“Fifty brides flee their 50 grooms and seek refuge in a villa on the coast of Italy in this modern re-making of one of the western world’s oldest plays, The Danaids by Aeschylus. The 50 grooms catch up with the brides, and mayhem ensues: the grooms arriving by helicopter in their flight suits, women throwing themselves over and over again to the ground, pop songs and romantic dances, and finally, unable to escape their forced marriages, 49 of the brides murder 49 of the grooms, and one bride falls in love—about the same odds as today.”
How could she do it? I know little about how a director pulls a play or film together. (I have a mental vision of a camp chair and a microphone.) So I was glad for the chance to find out—especially when the play at hand was as audaciously quirky, as epically wacky, as Big Love. I asked Kirsten Kelly how she found a way to get all these actors onstage.
Kelly, who just turned 40, has a husband, a toddler son, and a long string of credits for theater and film projects. There is, for instance, The Girl with a Rivet Gun, a new-media animated documentary project based on a unique collection of oral histories from real-life Riveter Rosies. Kelly is producing the film with Elizabeth Hemmerdinger and Anne de Mare for the Real Rosie the Riveter Project, which is housed in the NYU libraries. And there’s The Homestretch, a documentary on homeless teens in Chicago that Kelly and her longtime film partner, de Mare, have been working on for three and a half years. And Big Love. And many other plays, films, and educational projects.
Nice work—and Kelly got it, even though she grew up in a small farming town and attended “schooling that seemed to provide no clear path to making a living in the arts. It was seen as a hobby.”
Kelly is a member of that small but talented tribe, Female Directors. And, happily, tribal legend has it that, since she has toughed this precarious career out for so long, her career is bound to leap upward. “‘Just keep going until you’re 40,’ I keep hearing from female directors I admire,” Kelly says. ‘Keep slugging and don’t give up. Once you turn 40, things shift in this field.’ I don’t know why this was the magic number, but it’s true—there has definitely been a professional shift this year.”
Two signs: This year, Kelly won a coveted Sundance Institute fellowship for The Homestretch. And in January came her nomination, in the Outstanding Director category (for Big Love) for a Helen Hayes Award, which recognizes excellence in the professional theatre in the Washington, D.C., area.
Kelly was honored, but “somewhat taken aback” at being the only woman among eight nominees. Especially since The New York Times had just run an article noting the rise of female directors in New York. “I felt the irony greatly,” she says.
She had, however, the backing of another member of the Female Director tribe, Helen Pafumi, artistic director of the Hub, which produced Big Love last summer. Kelly had just had her first baby; Pafumi went to the Hub’s board of directors and persuaded them to do something unconventional: offer Kelly a contract with daycare covered.
An early look at Big Love in rehearsal.
How to mount this play, with its daunting stage directions? She and Pafumi did research and brainstormed; then the lighting and set designers came in and “jumped off those ideas.” Then the costume and sound designers came in plying their imaginations. “Preparation time and brainstorming time with the designers is a really key even before a rehearsal starts,” Kelly says. “They’re bringing in things you haven’t thought of, or taking your ideas 10 times farther. This helps deepen the director’s vision.”
And how would they represent the script’s challenge of 50 men and 50 women onstage? Kelly can’t say who got the wedding-cake-figure idea—the process was so collaborative, and ideas were floating around from everyone. “We ended up using these huge, beautiful silver trays full of bride-and-groom cake toppers. They end up being little lit-up statuettes on the scene while the main characters are having the wedding.”
And the 49 murders? “There was a bride who came out with a big tray of cake-topper grooms, and she started punching all the grooms and throwing them down and stepping on them; she went through and methodically murdered all of those cake statues, while the 10 live actors around her were having a raucous brawl.”
The playwright, Charles L. Mee, gives directors the freedom to innovate. Kelly got the idea of having the actors break into song now and then (though Big Love is not a musical). So, in auditions, she asked the actors to sing a portion of their favorite love song. Any love song. Then she found places in the script where the actors could break into “a fragment of the perfect song that explains exactly what they were feeling.” Those melodies ranged wildly—from love songs of the forties to modern rock.
Seventy-five percent of directing, Kelly believes, is casting the right actors. “It’s not just that they come in to an audition and read, and then they leave. If you’re interested in someone, you start that work right at the audition, and kind of test how the two of you would work together. If the people are right for the role, directing becomes a conversation, not an authoritarian interaction. You hope the actors are so involved in the character they’re playing that they bring huge amounts of reserve and connection. You want each actor to own that character and own that journey in a way that’s very personal to them.”
Kelly did not receive the Helen Hayes Outstanding Director Award. At the April ceremony, that award went to Christopher McElroen for Invisible Man at the Studio Theatre in D.C. But she’ll return next season to direct in D.C. and at the Hub.
She’s had a rich and satisfying life in the arts—already. “I do feel really grateful and lucky to have this career,” she says. “So much of this work involves passion projects that can’t support you; you’ll be working one job while you’re trying to fit in the creative work to do the project you want to do. There’s no straight road.
“But I feel that shift has started to happen, because all the previous work has prepared me to have opportunities that are bigger and bigger. I have done all the training—in storefront theaters, then a master’s in directing at Juilliard, at the Chicago Shakespeare Theater, at Lincoln Center, at many towns as a filmmaker—that will actually allow me to make a living at what I love to do.”
Read more . . .
. . . on how Kelly shaped Big Love
. . . and about the relative abundance of female directors at this year’s Tribeca Film Festival; 10 interviews with 10 female directors.