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Leigh Way

Date: Feb 01, 2008


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Director Leigh Silverman is an expert multi-tasker, a skill that has come in handy in balancing the many agendas involved in directing brand new plays such as David Henry Hwang's YellowFace, Lisa Kron's Well and Tanya Barfield's Blue Door.

Multi-tasking has also become a more urgent necessity now that Silverman's directing career has begun to take off.

"I am literally juggling projects right now," Silverman said recently on a rare break from her breakneck schedule. "Here was my day yesterday: I auditioned 17-year-old boys for three and a half hours." (That's for the high school-set comedy/drama From Up Here by Liz Flahive, a new play which will open at Manhattan Theatre Club on Apr. 16 starring Julie White.) "Then I came to 59E59 and rehearsed the show for four hours." (The "show" is Brooke Berman's romantic comedy Hunting and Gathering, starring Jeremy Shamos, Mamie Gummer, Keira Naughton and Matthew Chernus, which opens Feb. 3.) "Then I had understudy auditions for Beebo on my dinner break." (That would be Beebo Brinker Chronicles, a stage adaptation of Ann Bannon's lesbian pulp novels from the 1950s, which was a runaway hit at the Fourth Street Theatre last year and reopens at 37 Arts on Mar. 5.)

"Then I watched Hunting and Gathering and had a meeting with Brooke," Silverman concluded. "That's a small sampling of what my life is like right now. It's fantastic, in a certain way. The complete changes of scenery from show to show gives me all this space, in a sense, for ideas to brew and for the shows to inform each other. It's the thing I've always dreamed about, to work this way."

She hasn't quite had as much time lately for such dreaming, she confessed. "I do wish I was sleeping maybe a little bit more," she said with a chuckle.

The project that tipped it for her, as well as for all those involved, was the 2006 Broadway transfer of Kron's Well, an autobiographical piece about the actor/writer's relationship with her ailing mother.

"Certainly Well changed my life," Silverman said of the show, which in addition to rave reviews and awards nominations received special notice for being among the only plays on Broadway that year directed by a woman. "That show changed everyone's life: Jane Houdyshell is about to start on Paul Rudnick's The New Century at Lincoln Center, and two years ago she couldn't get an audition there."

That milestone might have opened up Broadway, too.

"When we did Well, I was only the fifth woman to direct a play on Broadway," Silverman marveled. "And this season, there are five or six women directing on Broadway. This feels like a real step forward. It's like 20 years ago, you could never imagine a woman sportscaster. It's radical."

Like the cause of equal employment for women, Silverman's recent spate of assignments didn't happen overnight, of course. She's been working with Flahive on From Up Here for nearly a decade; likewise Barfield, whose Blue Door she directed last year at Playwrights Horizons and whose Of Equal Measure she'll direct in L.A. in the summer.

"I never really know how things work," Silverman said. "So much of the business is about always working and just trusting that something else is around the corner."

Is there a Silverman "style"?

"I feel like what I mostly look for is stylistically challenging pieces that are about big issues," Silverman said. "YellowFace and Well had a lot in common in terms of their meta-theatricality and their memoir aspect. And Beebo Brinker was very challenging; those books were written totally seriously, not as campy send-ups, and they were about such a specific period in history."

She's relishing Berman's play, about young people struggling to find their way in New York, as a departure from her usual métier, in fact.

"I don't do a lot of romantic comedies, so this is incredibly refreshing," Silverman said. "Brooke captures an optimism I think you rarely see in plays about 20- and 30-year-olds. She's created a universe that is truly sweet; it's a very unusual and charming play about interconnectedness among a group of friends."

Sweet as it is, it's still a brand new play finding its first feet--a rocky proposition even in the best of circumstances. It's a feat Silverman is used to and known for; the only major revival she has directed was a production of Danny and the Deep Blue Sea at Second Stage. Does she ever tire of serving as midwife to a play's birth pangs?

"Yes, there are times when I've thought I'd rather eat glass than work on a new play," Silverman joked, "but mostly I love it. New plays are so organic--by which I just mean alive. It's all coming together at one time. When you're working on a revival, you know you have a light at the end of a tunnel. When you have a new play, there's no light--you're just in total darkness. Sometimes you find the light and sometimes you don't. But that fear and that challenge, for me, is why you do theatre in the first place."

Working on new plays also helps keep even the most in-demand director humble, she explained.

"With a new play, there's so much going on that the only thing that you can focus on is what's best for the play," Silverman said. "Directing new plays is an ego-less art--it's all about what's going to make the play better."

Hunting and Gathering opens at 59E59 on Feb. 3. Beebo Brinker Chronicles opens at 37 Arts on Mar. 5. From Up Here opens at Manhattan Theatre Club's City Center Stage 1 on Apr. 16.