Teaching Artist Leah Reddy spoke with director Sam Pinkleton about his work on You Will Get Sick.
LEAH REDDY: What is your theatre origin story?
SAM PINKLETON: I grew up in a small industrial town in southern Virginia and was lucky enough to go and see national tours when they came to the nearest city. It's probably a pretty common story, but I had a very rough patch in middle school. There was a public performing arts high school in my area and I went to play the saxophone because it was the only art thing that could get me out of my other school situation. In my first week there, as a nervous freshman, I stumbled into a rehearsal for Godspell and there were people on ladders pretending to be clowns. I knew I had to do that. I went from zero to hero and became a full-bore theatre nerd in high school. Theatre definitely saved my life as a teen.
LR: Once you had identified your interest in theatre, where did you take it from there in terms of your education and starting your career?
SP: In high school, theatre meant big musicals and show tunes. I thought I wanted to be a performer because that's what you think you want to do when you're 16. I never thought that you could do theatre as a job. I grew up in a very working class community and there was no professional art anything, but I was encouraged by a couple of teachers and applied to NYU and ended up taking out 90 gajillion dollars in student loans that I will surely never pay back, regardless of what Joe Biden does or does not do.
In school, I had a couple of amazing teachers, once again, who pushed me towards the strange. I worked with the great Elizabeth Swados, who’s no longer with us. Liz was a pioneer, and I think it's so important to say her name as often as possible, especially to young people because so many people don't know the amazing work she did. Liz very directly – when I worked with her at 19 – said, "Don't do any of that shit. Just stop now."
Liz pushed me to write and to devise and to make weird stuff and to collaborate with people. And in that small group of people who thought they were just performers – who were getting yelled at by Liz Swados – were people like Shaina Taub and Ani Taj, so many folks who have super-vibrant lives in the theatre right now. We were all together having our minds blown open by Liz, who was fearless and who thought of theatre as having so many possibilities. From that point forward, I was making and directing and choreographing and devising.
LR: Looking at the intersection between your work as a choreographer and a director, how are you approaching the physical life of this play?
SP: That's a great question. I'm always very bad at articulating the difference between a choreographer and a director. The answer that I can come up with is a director tends to have more meetings and gets to decide when we rehearse. Other than that, I think it's the same job. You're ushering the physical and visual life of a production forward. There are plenty of amazing theatre makers who would really fight me on it, but for me, the theatre is first and foremost a visual medium.
Coming at You Will Get Sick, what I know is that it's not a dance piece. I think we will go into this rehearsal process with a lot of curiosity and a lot of excitement to find the most physically specific and exciting and unexpected and unique-to-the-actors physical vocabulary to tell the story. It's a super visually minimal world. There aren't a lot of objects. There's not a lot of fussy stuff. So most of the story is going to have to be told with bodies.
Sometimes that might look like something that you might call choreography and sometimes it might not. I hope we tell the story and I also hope we make a really fun night, using the bodies we have in the room. I prefer to make things in collaboration with actors, as opposed to being like, "Here's where you go. Here's what you do. Here's my genius plan." I don't have a genius plan. I hope that the way the show moves and the way the show looks is a project that is created by the company, and that I'm as much an editor as I am a director or choreographer or whatever we want to call it.
LR: What excites you about working on this play? When you first read it, what jumps out?
SP: Noah’s play – and his work – insists on being theatre. I think this play could only be seen on a stage in front of a live audience with live people. It's not an episode of Law and Order. It's not a gripping Netflix film. It's not a naturalistic play about somebody getting a painful divorce at a kitchen island. It's theatre. It's rambunctious, and it's anarchic and it's colorful and fragmented and it doesn't always make sense and it feels really alive. It absolutely insists upon being a live experience. When I first read it, it reminded me that – despite all of the suffering theatre inflicts on us [as theatre professionals] – there are some things that only theatre can do.
I think that this play also takes some things that humans collectively often have a really hard time talking about and puts them into playful, poetic language that we don't need to talk about, because it just does it. That's one thing. I really love working with older actors. I love seeing older actors on stage. I love seeing older people do unexpected things. I love seeing older people not be underestimated or discarded. And Noah wrote an incredible role for an older actor.
LR: Do you have any ideas about the second person narration throughout the play? How do you think it will impact your staging?
SP: What excites me about the second person narration is that I hope it creates an active experience for the audience. I don't think this is a play that you can be like, "Yes, I just had dinner. Now I'm digesting and I'm going to let a thing happen for 75 minutes." It starts by talking directly to the audience. I'm curious what it will feel like for the audience to be the “you” of the title. For you to not be one person, but for “you” to be 400 people every night, and for every “you” to be different. I hope everyone walks away with a different experience of the “you”.
LR: What advice do you have for aspiring directors or choreographers?
SP: I would say never, ever, ever, ever lose sight of the fact that it's fun. It can be joyous and it's fun. Making pretend stuff is fun and it can be a vehicle for all sorts of ideas and change and challenge. But the foundation of it is joy. Joy won't let you down. I think it's such a fraught time to exist right now, period, but I think it's an especially fraught time to have a curiosity about theatre or to try to do it as your job. I also encourage aspiring directors or choreographers to consider what theatre is and isn’t good at. Is theatre the best way to communicate __________?
But mostly I hope that folks who want to come into theatre stay tethered to the fact that it is joyous and there don't have to be rules. They can make it better and they can make it more joyous and they can make it more fun. Also I hope they know that people who have been doing this for a long time don't know everything. That's really important. Also, fancy people don't know everything. And just because someone has some massive theatre career, doesn't mean that they have answers that you don't have. Just do it and try to find joy in it and if joy is not available perhaps consider doing something else because there is enough suffering in the world without having to also suffer over a play.