The Convert

Woolly Mammoth Theatre Company's THE CONVERT
by Danai Gurira
directed by Michael John Garcés
October 9, 2013November 10, 2013

Interview with Director Michael John Garcés - Part One


Michael John Garcés is the director for Danai Gurira's The Convert. He originally directed the play this spring for Woolly Mammoth Theater Company in Washington, DC, in a production featuring the same design team and three of the leading actors who are appearing at the Wilma.  A week before beginning rehearsals in Philadelphia, he spoke on the phone with Walter Bilderback about The Convert, his career, directing, and other topics.

As I was trying to do some very cursory research, I realized I had forgotten that you are also a playwright. Which came first - the playwriting or the directing?

MICHAEL JOHN GARCÉS: Playwright definitely came first. I started writing plays after I moved to New York. I originally moved to New York to  be an actor and pretty quickly got fed up with some of the aspects of the business of acting and I think that spurred me to write scripts and things like that. And you know, as a young writer you’re trying to get things produced and you wind up just making it yourself and you wind up directing. So I fell very backwards into directing, and it was really other writers seeing stuff that I did of my own and saying, “Hey do you want to direct my play?” and kind of being like “Well, I’m not really a director, but sure!” And it sort of organically grew out of that kind of conversation and situation.

WB: Do they feed off of each other in your work?

MG: I think my directing is definitely impacted by my writing. My focus with directing has always been on new work with living playwrights and scripts that are at least on some level in the process of becoming. So the understanding I believe I possess of writer’s processes, and how I interact with writers is informed by my own practice. And I’m just a very text-based guy. All my impulses come from the text, I don’t tend to visualize things and work that way. I tend to come out of the rhythm and the images that are evoked in the writing. And I think that comes because I’m a text-based person and oriented towards written word and spoken word.

WB: For you, what is the process of going from that intense focus on the text to moving the play into three dimensions into blocking and stage design etc.? Do you feel you have a process?

MG: Yeah, I do. It may or may not be contradictory to what I just said, but I have a real desire in the rehearsal room to move away from the page and certainly away from the table and into movement quickly, you know? And some texts demand more than others and I try to honor that, but at the end of the day I prefer to be in space because I think I’m very interested in the relationship between word and voice and body and space. And it’s very hard for me to visualize what things will be and until they’re in three dimensions. I don’t sit at home and imagine or play with pennies or anything or imagine what it will look like before I’m in the room doing it, at all. Usually, I am very surprised with what comes up in the rehearsal room and actually try to be disciplined about not preconceiving too much. And I’m interested in what the actors bring to the table in terms of their impulses and instincts and voices and things. So it helps me to get the piece on its feet as quickly as possible. I really push the actors, actually pretty hard, to be word perfect and try to find the natural rhythms in the text as they resonant in those particular voices. And not to push them against what the writer intended in terms of rhythm. What they writer may have seen happening when those rhythms were occurring, I’m not necessarily as faithful to always. (Laughs) If that makes sense. But in terms of process I try to get up on the feet and in the body as quickly as possible.


WB: Your day job is as Artistic Director of Cornerstone Theater in Los Angeles, which is a fascinating company. I remember when it was starting off and even more peripatetic than it is now, but I don’t know if our audience necessarily knows a lot about Cornerstone. Could you explain Cornerstone’s aesthetic and its dynamic and process because it’s different than a lot of other theaters in the country.

MG: Yeah, we definitely are. The best phrase for folks who don’t know our work is, we are basically “professional community theater.” We commission professional playwrights and we have professional directors working on the piece as well as designers. But we commission them to go into living communities and spend a lot of time listening to people’s stories. And we have various ways we illicit those stories, through story circles and other activities, exercising, etc. And then a play is written, that is a fiction, it is not a documentary theater kind of thing generally, but it’s a fiction, sometimes an adaptation of a classic. Then we do readings in the community to get feedback from folks who participated in sharing their stories, and usually it’s a pretty diverse range of people in the community. And then we stage the play in a venue that makes sense for that particular group of people, combining the talents of professional actors and professional community members on stage together in large and small roles. So that’s essentially what we do, and really essential to the aesthetic is having those nonprofessional but authentic voices on stage next to the professional voices who bring a lot of skill and talent and understanding of stage craft to the stage, but don’t necessarily have the same authenticity and passion about the specific text and context as the community members do. And in the hope that alchemy between those two different kinds of performers really elevates the play and to our best, it certainly does.


WB: And you just opened a new play for Cornerstone, is that correct?

MG: We did, yeah! We just did a play up in the Alisal neighborhood of Salinas. Salinas is the hometown of John Steinbeck. It is to this day, a heavily agricultural town - that’s the economy, that’s the driver. The Alisal neighborhood is a mostly Latino neighborhood with both recent immigrants and long-time residents as well, mostly agricultural workers. And all different facets of agriculture, from working in the fields every day to higher up things. It’s a really interesting community, it definitely provides the labor for the economic driver of the valley. It’s really vital and vibrant. It’s also got a tremendous amount of violence. The murder rate there is extremely high for a town of its size. There’s a lot of gang activity and things like that, so they’re also facing a lot of challenges with youth and stuff. It was really quite remarkable to make a play there. Our community members were actually really - we found some amazing actors. It was sort of ridiculous how good they were. We forgot they were non-professionals often. And we also had people who would literally wake up at four in the morning to go work in the fields all day and then come to rehearsal until ten at night. It was crazy, you know. And it was great experience. I had spent my summer vacation, I think it was after my junior year, selling books door-to-door in Salinas. So it was fun to go back there years later and re-experience that neighborhood and that place.


WB: That’s great! When you were doing The Convert at Woolly Mammoth you mentioned that it was unusual for you to direct a play that was already as set as this script was.

MG: The play had a very successful first production that was at the McCarter in New Jersey and then was at the Goodman [in Chicago] and at the Taper [the Center Theatre Group, in Los Angeles]. So the play was pretty much set when we did it at Woolly. Danai was very present in our rehearsal process for me to bounce off of, and she was very open to new ideas so it was fun, I think, for her to see a different take on the play.  But at the same time it was really useful to have her in the room to give us a context for a lot of the specific decisions she had made and choices she had made throughout her writing process. I was excited about the play for a number of reasons. It beautifully turns a lot of western narratives about colonialism on their heads in ways that are really smart. I grew up in South America which is a very different context, but nonetheless was shaped in large measures by European imperialism and colonialism. Zimbabwe and Columbia, where I grew up, are wildly different contexts in so many ways but there are things at the core that resonate with me very strongly that I can identify with. And so that, I think, was part of the appeal of the play to me - inverting the heart of darkness narrative is so smart and rich. I think doing that play in Washington, DC was very interesting, the seat of American power, so I enjoyed that aspect of it as well.


WB: You also talked about the role of religion in this play and what drew you to that. Could you talk about that a little bit for us?

MG: I’ll admit that when I gave it my first read, through fairly secular eyes, you know my own eyes with some of the biases that I think one bring into one’s reading of plays - in American plays in this century one assumes sort of a critical eye towards religion and maybe western plays. And so that was the assumption I had, and in talking to Danai that was not her perspective. And as I read the play and got to know it better it seemed very clear to me it’s a very deeply Christian play. I think it’s a narrative, a martyrdom narrative, about Christianity that at its core really critiques organized religion, it certainly critiques western power and hegemony, but it actually embraces Christianity and African Christianity in particular. I find that really moving and interesting. And for me, given that I am not a religious person, to push against that in the context of making the play was very inspiring, and I think is at the source of a lot of the creative tension in the play because that kind of violence and that kind of societal disruption is one in which its very hard to believe that the center actually holds and there is a God when everything is falling apart, right? And I believe that our lead character deeply believes that and lives it and embodies it in her life. Whether we as an audience or the characters all together can really buy that, I think is at the center of the tension that makes it such an interesting play for me.

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