Curtain up in a new town

By Toby Zinman, For The Inquirer

Brace yourselves, Philly theater people: Joanna Settle, the new head of the Brind School of Theater Arts at the University of the Arts, has arrived with big plans - for herself, her students, and the city's theatergoers.

Blindingly articulate and brimming with new-kid optimism, Settle recently returned from the Oregon Shakespeare Festival, where she collaborated with Passing Strange singer/songwriter Stew on his new musical, Family Album. She is making her local directorial debut at the Wilma Theater this week with Gina Gionfriddo's Rapture, Blister, Burn.

During an interview in which big names dropped right and left, Settle - wearing silver shoes - explained the similarities involved in directing, producing, and running a school within a university: "There's a reason they call it 'helming' - you're steering this thing." The trick for an in-demand avant-garde director is how to steer several ships at once.

At 44, she sees her five-year contract with presumption of renewal (standard at UArts) as an opportunity, "a five-year project on how to develop young artists, right when I'm in the heat of this question about how the American medium should be developing itself. It's super exciting - there is the classroom experience, the peer-to-peer experience, and then putting the students in contact with established artists."

Her transition to a new city has not been seamless. After opening Family Album in Oregon, Settle flew back to New York, packed up her household, and moved to Philadelphia on July 11. Less than a month later she was diagnosed with breast cancer.

Now in chemotherapy, with surgery set for February, she says her prognosis is "extremely positive - all doctors feeling very good about the early detection through a self-exam, I'm responding well to treatments, and all expect this to go well for me."

"I am resting when I need to, but making art through this time and having a supportive and stimulating work environment at UArts are both major sources of joy for me."

In the world of theater, her mission, she says, is "How can I be of service?" She wants to offer opportunities to theater-makers ("What is the piece no one else will let you do? That's what we want here.") that will also benefit students through participation and proximity. To make that happen, she has invited two local experimental companies, the Bearded Ladies and the Berserker Residents, to work in residence at the Brind School in the spring semester.

"My approach to art making will be a signifier," she adds, noting that two very significant theater people - the aforementioned Stew and Pulitzer-winning playwright Annie Baker - were her recent guests at UArts. She expects Jennifer Tipton, the internationally famous lighting designer, to visit. She has asked Acme Sound Design ("star sound designers who do more than half of Broadway") to diagnose UArts' sound systems ("about 150 years behind the times") and talk to design and tech students. The starry list goes on. "I kind of fling open the doors to the most interesting artists, and I have the connections."

Meanwhile, she has been busy with her directing career. "The number-one question I get from people is about being a woman director," she says, "and the number-two question is about having a kid and being a director." (She's the single mother of a 9-year-old son.) Gionfriddo's Rapture, Blister, Burn, the Wilma Theater's season opener, should offer insights into how she works: It takes up feminist themes as four women talk across generations.

Settle and Wilma's artistic director, Blanka Zizka, met only recently, but Settle hopes this "will become a really tight relationship." As an example of how she wants to merge the worlds of UArts and the professional stage, when she first got Gionfriddo's script, she sent out a call for students to "read me a play," and they were "lined up outside my office like little ducks at 4 p.m." A student is assistant stage manager, adjunct faculty did lights and costumes, and a recent graduate is in the cast.

How is a director's work visible? One theory is that it shouldn't be - the best work is invisible. Another is that the director is an auteur, with a signature style. Settle says, "I'm creating a three-dimensional work. If you're going to point your face at something for three hours, it has to exist as an art object on its own."

She explains that she thinks it's a mistake for a director to imagine a scene in every detail, and then, in rehearsal, test it to see how well it matches what she had imagined. "I work intuitively," she says.

She has directed all kinds of theater - musicals, Shakespeare, contemporary work. "The truth is," she says, "I could live a happy life directing only Greek plays. That's the true truth, but I don't see an opportunity to do that."

Despite what Settle describes as a chaotic childhood - on her own at 14, living on welfare, homeless for a while - she graduated from Hampshire College, then worked in New York with the experimental theater company Mabou Mines for five years, and at the Public Theatre when founder Joe Papp was still there. When it was suggested that she apply to Juilliard for graduate school, she resisted ("I'm not goin' above 13th Street"), but she did, and was accepted.

She thought she'd last a few weeks, but it turned out to be "the most artistically freeing experience of my life. Shakespeare went from being dead stuff for rich people to being my personal property." And that, she adds, is "what I want to set up for the Brind students."

When, during a university convocation, a student asked her what she wanted, why she was here, she replied, "Because of you, exactly you, sassypants." She refers to actors as "citizens" and explains that, "when we take a creative action, it's an action of citizenship - artists can facilitate and express who we are. Actions of art create opportunities for advancement in what we are to each other - and what we are."

"My job is to sit hundreds of people down together, tell them to be quiet, and take a break when I tell them to. They will perceive the story the way I tell them to, and then don't talk until I tell them they can talk about it. So I take that very seriously; I have to intend that for 500 people. I have to mean all of those moments because I'm turning the lights out and telling them to sit there. So a conversation about feminism across three generations [referring to Rapture, Blister, Burn] is something I would do that for." She adds, "Theater training programs today are run by gay men, so that's who's picking which 17-year-old women are going to be developed as artists."

Settle has seen much local theater in her short time in Philadelphia. "I'm trying to meet the scene, and every time I do I am so happy. I'm a native New Yorker, and I am so happy to be here. It's not the 'sixth borough,' it's its own thing. It's a community I feel I can snuggle into - the welcome has been amazing."