You are currently processing an exchange. Remove Code Cancel Order

In late 2019, now-retired Education Dramaturg Ted Sod spoke with Vivienne Benesch about her work on Birthday Candles in anticipation of the planned 2020 production of the show. Benesch edited her responses in early 2022.

TED SOD: Why did you choose to direct Noah Haidle’s play Birthday Candles? I find it both funny and poignant.

VIVIENNE BENESCH: What’s so wonderful about Noah’s play is that when you read it in the context of all the noise in the world today, it’s a moment of suspension—a “rest” in which a lifetime occurs. And it’s so human. Truthfully, I feel the play chose me to direct it. The universe aligned for me to collaborate with Noah and develop the play with him and now, after a two year literal suspension, it feels like such a gift to finally share it with an audience again. 

TS: So you’ve been on board as director since its very inception? How did Debra Messing get involved?

VB: I agreed to direct this play in its infancy before I had read a word of it because Noah and I have a long history. We first met during a production of his play Mr. Marmalade at South Coast Rep in 2004. Soon after, I ran Chautauqua Theater Company for the next 12 seasons and in 2016, our managing director became one of the three women founding Artistic Directors of Detroit Public Theatre (DPT). DPT commissioned Noah with a commitment to produce, which is very rare. They did that because he told them directly that that’s truly what playwrights need. So, we did Birthday Candles as a workshop reading at Chautauqua, and then the following year, we did the premiere at the DPT, and then after that, we were invited to the Goodman Theatre’s new play festival. That is where Jill Rafson, the Associate Artistic Director of Roundabout, saw it. Then we were invited to do a reading for Roundabout, and it went from there to this run on Broadway. 

It was actually Noah who said, “You know who’d be great as Ernestine in this play? Debra Messing.” I couldn’t believe that he had this brilliant thought before I did. Debra was my classmate in graduate school at NYU. I brought her the script and I thought she was going to take months to read it, but she read it just a couple of days later. I got this text from her saying, “Wow! What a beautiful, powerful play.” Then she very humbly added, “I would love to do the reading if they’ll have me!”  And that was the start of a wonderful journey.

TS: What do you think the play is about? What is challenging about directing this piece?

VB: Inside the play is life, death, joy, love and sickness, but also cooking, and doing your nails, prom dates, school plays and goldfish—all the atoms that make up our lives. For me, there is a delicacy about this play—a very particular buoyancy to discover. There’s whimsy, there’s lyricism, there’s tragedy and there’s also so much humor. As a director, the challenge is finding the right buoyancy, the mix of the humor, whimsy, and sentimentality—it’s like a complex recipe. Just like the ingredients of the cake that is getting baked on stage in front of us over the course of the play, we must get the balance of the play’s ingredients right so that it rises the way it should. 

TS: Why did you want to become an actor, teacher and a director? Where were you born and educated? When did you realize this was your life’s work? Can you talk about the teachers who had a profound influence on you? 

VB: I am going to start off by saying that I am one of those incredibly lucky people that comes from a family of artists on both sides and I’ve also had great mentors in my life. My mother and grandmother were both modern dancers, my grandfather was an interior designer. On the European side of my family – my father is Belgian – my grandfather was a museum curator, and my grandmother a pianist. Music, art and dance are in my genes. I started down the road of being a dancer—but I have flat feet and kept injuring myself, so that was not to be. I got involved in the theatre. I was always an actor, a director and a teacher as well. From sixth grade on, I was the girl putting together the parties and giving my friends notes. I say this ultimately, I’m a producer—the amalgamation of all these. For me, my career in the theatre has been about the alchemy of bringing people together and creating inspiring spaces for them to do their best work.

After my senior year at Brown, I spent the summer as a student at Chautauqua Theater Company, where my great mentor and high school acting teacher Rebecca Guy had taken over leadership from Michael Kahn. Becky, who is also an actor turned director and educator, told me then that “the best training for both acting and directing is actor training.” I feel blessed that I went on to NYU’s graduate acting program and that it was indeed the best decision for me—primarily because of the incredible artists and humans that I worked with there, many of whom would become life-long collaborators. 

For the first several years after graduating from NYU, I was lucky to be getting acting work both regionally and here in NYC (making my Broadway debut at the Roundabout with The Deep Blue Sea in 1998!)  Then Becky called me up and said, “you need to start directing again.” In the summer of 2001, she hired me to direct The Skin of Our Teeth at Chautauqua and I never looked back. Four years later, when Becky retired from CTC, I became Artistic Director.

Becky got me to Chautauqua, where I spent 12 incredible seasons directing, producing, and occasionally acting; She also introduced me to everyone at Juilliard, where I directed and served on the faculty for nine years. I seriously feel that she opened every professional door for me until my current position as producing artistic director here at Playmakers Repertory Company. But the great full circle has been being able to hire and direct her! The gift of this ever-evolving relationship reminds me so much of Birthday Candles—that ultimately our life adds up to the sum of the people we love. Also, I just directed The Skin of Our Teeth again twenty years later… Noah Haidle and Thornton Wilder occupy themselves with a lot of common themes that are as timeless as they are resonant to a given moment.

TS: What were you looking for in casting Birthday Candles? What traits do you need from your actors for this play? 

VB: You may be surprised when I say I was looking for authentically good human beings. By that I mean that they of course have to have great acting chops to do the subtle, deep work that goes on throughout the play. For instance, Debra’s character ages from 17 to 107, and many of the other actors go through great transformations. And they have to be funny too. But the actors also need an acute sense of wonder. That’s not about technique. Noah’s style of writing is very specific—so I was looking for that same balanced buoyancy in the actors that I see in the play. I could not be more excited about this cast. They all have this gift for risk-taking as well as a generosity of spirit.  

TS: This play has a lot of challenges design-wise. Can you give us a sense of how you’re working with Christine Jones, the set designer, and the others on your design team? 

VB: The way I described the setting to Christine is that when we’re in the kitchen, there should be a feeling of nostalgia because we recognize it as timeless. But everything that is used in the kitchen is real. There will be a real contemporary oven and the making of the cake is in real time. But this kitchen also exists within the cosmos; its boundaries are porous with a universe that Noah has cracked open. In the set design, I was after a balance between the real and the abstract “atoms of the universe.”

Kate Hopgood did the music composition in Detroit. I used her beautiful music when we did the reading for Roundabout and it became a part of the play’s melody and its leitmotifs. It is a connective tissue of sorts. Kate is joining us for this go-round too and is getting to work with the remarkable John Gromada, who is our sound designer. We have over 30 time jumps in the script. Some are one year, and others are ten or more years. We have tried many different things in previous versions of the play to mark these jumps and now John is investigating new options. We need the sound to signify a passage of time, but in some instances, it has to be quite sharp for comedic and rhythmic reasons, and other times you want that sound to resonate and shimmer. 

It’s also thrilling to me to have my first experience working with Toni-Leslie James, who is designing the costumes and who asks totally fabulous dramaturgical questions. 

TS: How does the alchemy of building relationships with playwrights, actors and designers manifest in your capacities as an artistic director and producer?

VB: It is everything when you are an artistic director. You aim to be the connective tissue in an organization as well as a visionary. You can’t envision the future unless you understand the people and the artists who make up the organization. There is an amazing Oscar Hammerstein quote about a producer being “tender in the face of something tough, and tough in the face of tenderness.” You have to learn to fall in love with and make love to the many different people you work with. It’s all about listening so that you instinctively know how to do that. It’s about having a real sense of knowing when to push, when to lead from the front and when to let others lead you. You may have a huge desire and a will and a vision for something, but if your community doesn’t want to go on that ride, you have to listen and find out how best to invite them on your journey—or let them take you somewhere they really want and maybe need to go. 

UPSTAGE GUIDE: How has the COVID-19 pandemic and all the changes that have occurred as a result changed how you see or approach Birthday Candles

VB: It’s not that my approach to directing the play has changed— but I think our audience will have changed. There’s a freshly acute awareness of our own vulnerability—of the passage of the years, hours, minutes of our lives and how we spend them. How we respect each other, love each other, hurt each other. Even more than pre-pandemic, I believe this play can be a gift—a balm. There is a simultaneous compression and expansion of time in Birthday Candles that will feel very poignant given our experiences of the last two years. 

Over the two year hiatus since we were first in rehearsal together our cultural and political landscape has shifted as has the level of responsibility with which theatre makers are trying to make their stories. What’s fascinating is that, while the world is in a moment of sharp attention to cultural, racial and political specificity, Noah’s play actively resists that specificity and instead meditates on what we do and don’t share as humans across time. You’re not going to find an iPhone used or a political party referred to—you are going to see birth, love, work, sickness, goldfish and a cake that holds all the atoms of the universe as we search for meaning.

Back to top