In early 2020, now-retired Education Dramaturg Ted Sod spoke with Miranda Haymon about their work on Exception to the Rule in anticipation of the planned 2020 production of the show. Haymon edited their responses in early 2022.
TED SOD: Tell us about yourself. Why did you want to become a director? When did you realize this was your life’s work?
MIRANDA HAYMON: I was born and raised in Boston, Massachusetts. Growing up, I was very into sports and language classes. I played field hockey, basketball, tennis, and ran track, but also always volunteered to read aloud a passage of text in English or Spanish or German class. I loved the values in sports: teamwork, diligence, craft, and patience. A lot of my interest and stakes in theatre stems from this: the ephemeral event that takes place with live bodies in a shared space. Then there’s also my obsession with language, text, and narrative structure that I found in my language classes. After I tore my ACL during my sophomore year in high school, I decided to try more theatre because it was the space where my interests could converge. I became very involved in the student-run theatre scene, producing, stage managing, directing, and performing in dozens of one-act plays by the time I graduated. I was serious about pursuing theatre in college but wanted the flexibility to explore and deepen my other interests as well. I graduated with a double major in Theater and German Studies from Wesleyan University but spent a lot of time involved in the arts community beyond theatre. At Wesleyan I choreographed, sang in gospel choir, hosted a radio show, and also wrote, directed, and produced plays. After studying abroad in Berlin, I realized that focusing on directing was the most interesting way to house my constantly increasing ways of making and creating. I really do believe theatre can be a total work of art, that is, where multiple forms of art can be put to use. I’m excited by the fact that as I continue to grow as an artist, my directing craft and interests can, too. It’s limitless.
TS: Why did you choose to direct Dave Harris’s Exception to the Rule? What would you say the play is about?
MH: Dave is a highly skilled storyteller—an absolute master of language, humor, and poetry. I am honored to bring his words to life with our ensemble of collaborators. And it’s not just because the poetry of the piece is so hearty, something I am an absolute sucker for, but also because we don’t get to see characters like these represented on stage. We rarely have the opportunity to see young Black and Brown folks being themselves and what that authenticity means in an institutional setting. In the case of Exception to the Rule, the institution is school. The play is about how we remain authentic to what we think we know to be true. The assumptions we make about ourselves, each other, and our collective power in a structure that was not built with us in mind. Exception to the Rule is about autonomy and if that autonomy is enough to break us free from the surrounding walls.
TS: How have you collaborated with Dave on his play? What is it like having the playwright in the rehearsal room when working on a new play?
MH: I like to ask a lot of questions. Not because I am looking for answers, but because questions for me are a place of starting a dialogue. Sometimes those questions have turned into revisions, because Dave and I want to make sure we are offering a nuanced story that doesn’t pull listeners out of the world when we offer twists and turns. Dave and I are similar in that neither of us is interested in the easiest or most straightforward answer, so our questions are frequently encouraging each other toward the most interesting choice. That’s why having Dave in the room is essential—I want to make sure that as we build and construct the physical world of this piece, that nothing is lost, and that we are mining everything we can.
TS: How would you describe your process as a director?
MH: For Exception to the Rule I’ve been doing a lot of research on educational policy as it relates to race and systemic inequality in America. I’m really interested in spending time with as much critical race theory as possible, which will deepen my understanding of the given circumstances of the world of the play. Additionally, this research also interrogates my own stakes in the work as a Black first-generation college student. I want to be prepared to have conversations with the company about privileges of all kinds, especially educational. Table work is an important chance to introduce a company to the work, but also for the director to begin the process of getting to know the learning and communication styles of the actors in the room. It’s the first layer of storytelling and building an ensemble, us sharing space around a table observing and asking questions. Table work, in that way, continues throughout the process because we are constantly going back to the text to glean what we can learn and launch from. My priority is to establish a room where all collaborators can experiment, ask questions, try and try again, and feel empowered to explore the spectrum of their creative potential.
TS: What did you look for in casting the actors? What specific traits did you need?
MH: I’m excited by actors who are passionate about the exploration of a play. I don’t gravitate towards actors who are interested in “getting it right” because there is no “right.” We are about to embark on a process of discovery and investigation of a text, characters, and the world these characters inhabit, which could or could not be different from the world we live in now. While auditioning, I look for the eagerness and ability to try a new activity or pursue a new objective or tactic. Actors who are so highly skilled in their craft that they are able to be diligent and flexible in their process. During auditions and callbacks, I’m looking for how an actor discourses with themself, with the play, and with me. It’s an opportunity to see which questions are brewing in their heads. I am not looking to see if they have the same questions that I have, but rather if the actor’s questions about—and dialogue with—the work is varied, nuanced, and exciting for me and the playwright. “I understood that line in a whole new way,” is something I’ve said after Exception to the Rule auditions. That was someone I wanted to cast.
TS: How do you collaborate with your design team? How will the play manifest itself visually?
MH: I’m incredibly interested in the visual and spatial world of the play, and the conversations with the designers have been about establishing a space that feels accurate, all-encompassing, and playful. We want to create a world that feels dynamic, with energy radiating from the actors and objects in the room. This starts as a larger, general dialogue about what resonates for each designer: impulses and lasting moments, lines, or images. After that conversation, we bring in reference material and start specifying and making choices from there. I am a huge believer in common language between collaborators. While I do contribute reference material in the forms of images, I also send along articles, books, songs, and anything else that transported me to the world of the play. It’s helpful to have common denominators and, as I mentioned before, languages by which we can add texture and depth to the visual world of the play.
TS: How do you keep yourself inspired as an artist?
MH: I spend a lot of time with other forms of art outside of theatre, which inspires me to explore new means and methods of creating within theatre. I carve out time for music, dance, visual art, and new media because part of my artistic vision and understanding of myself includes these forms of making art. I have a lot of generative, creative energy as well, so I also spend time writing and devising, which doesn’t have to turn into a big production or anything. I can craft a joke on the subway ride up to rehearsal and that structure of the joke inspires me to investigate how a comedic moment in the play is landing. I can build an entire world for a character I just made up in my head, which could lead to me posing a question about a character in the play’s backstory. For me, total involvement in a play includes the synthesis and exploration of the play itself, as well as what is adjacent.
I also am inspired by performance theory: sometimes very dense writing regarding aesthetics, spatiality, place-making, or the nature of performance. Reading theory about performance allows me the opportunity to consider how this theory manifests in the play I am currently working on. It’s fun for me to read a theorist’s opinions on staging, time, or character then go into rehearsal and have it in mind or just try it out. Performance theory gives me an additional set of tools to go into rehearsal with and elements of directing to shift my focus towards.
TS: Do you have any advice for new directors?
MH: Advice is incredibly specific to each person. There’s no way I could give advice that is applicable and accessible to everyone. But, I would like to share something that has been crucial in my development as a director, which was finding my artistic home. An artistic home can (and should!) mean a lot of different things, but the most significant for me is a place where you can share your work at all stages of development. This could be a basement, your living room, or a small theatre in the back of a bar. This home can change depending on your needs as an artist, and you can even have a few different homes at once. But developing a relationship with a space and experimenting with how different kinds of work can fit into that space has been the best workout for my director muscles and development of craft. We are in the business of play, so seek out and then reach out to some potential playgrounds, and make a home out of them by generating work in them.
UPSTAGE GUIDE: What impact has the experience of the two year pause between the planned production and now had on Exception to the Rule for you?
MH: With a play like Dave’s, the work only ripens over time. While the show hasn’t changed, the world has—and will continue to. I’m eager for audiences to have our show as a space to expand and continue the discourse.