Finding a Director, and Bidding Farewell

Andrew McGinn (R.) directing actor Dara Lillis in ‘Visiting Cezanne’

When a script has the merit and good fortune (both are necessary) to move off the writer’s desk into production, a lonely orphan is getting adopted into a big, noisy family. The person charged with focusing that family’s talent and bursting energy is the director. He is the hub from which all theatrical spokes radiate.

My newest play, Visiting Cezanne, lost its orphan status last fall when Andrew McGinn read the script and signed on to direct. He and I have been pretty much joined at the hip for the past six months. I thought the script was in good shape but, as is always the case with me, I discovered it needed more work. Andy was intimately involved in my rewriting, so much so that by now he may well know the script, and the characters struggling inside it, better than I do.

An impulse to perform showed up early in young McGinn. His first formal role was in the play Tell It to Tommy in seventh grade. Andy says he was drawn to acting by a desire for attention, adding that anyone who claims a different reason for an initial attraction to acting is telling a fib.

His first directing gig was in public high school in Athens, Ohio, putting up a play titled Cave that was written in the 1950s by Mervyn Peake. Andy remembers it as a surrealistic piece that shifts among three time periods – Neolithic, Medieval and modern – and flirts with Jungian archetypes. “It’s not really a play suitable for high school,” he recalls, “but we put it on and had fun with it.”

When he went to New York to do his undergraduate work at Juilliard he became so fascinated by all he was learning about acting that his interest in directing went dormant. However, while acting he often found himself imagining stage pictures he might have created had he been the director. As he pursued his professional acting career after Juilliard, an interest in directing gradually reappeared. His attention would frequently shift from performing to an intellectual interest in creating the overall theatre experience. In particular, his roles in the classical canon – the Greeks and Shakespeare – stimulated his directorial musings.

Andy has performed in more than 150 stage productions. His peripatetic career brought him to Seattle several times. In 2010 he decided to move here for real and earn an MFA in the directing program at the University of Washington. Another big event in Seattle was working with actor and singer Christine Marie Brown in a 2007 production of Twelfth Night at Seattle Rep (she was Olivia, he Sir Andrew Aguecheek). Four years later they married. (Don’t all Shakespeare comedies end with a wedding and a feast?) Folowing his MFA, Andy has kept more than busy teaching, directing and acting.

Garland Wright (1946-1998) is the director Andy credits as his biggest influence. After serving as Artistic Director at the Guthrie Theatre in Minneapolis for nine years, Wright moved to New York and joined the Juilliard faculty. Studying under him, Andy was struck with how Wright directed with such authority yet wielded that authority with such a deft hand.

Andy states two of his abiding principles for directing as:
● A good choice has many relatives. If a choice is wise it is necessarily interrelated to multiple aspects of the production.
● An ounce of preparation saves a pound of panic.

His Holy Grail is to make theatre that incites the audience to consider or do things that they never would have done otherwise. He claims he’s not always nice to audiences because at times he wants to agitate them. (In this regard Andy’s view is one with playwright Edward Albee, who considered a play a failure if it didn’t disturb the audience.)

Bad experiences can teach us as much as positive ones. The two worst directors he’s worked with were bad for the same reason – they lacked a unified concept for the production and quickly tired of answering all the questions generated by their confusion. Andy saw how that situation does not allow designers to collaborate; their relationship to the director devolves to blind obedience.

He can see his directing chops growing with each production and feels that in some respects his work on Visiting Cezanne is his best yet. I have admired Andy’s agile mind in the rehearsal room. He doesn’t lock himself into choices too early, he truly welcomes input from his cast and designers, and is more than happy to let the best idea prevail. He’s also a natural leader, excelling at encouraging team members while keeping us all on the same page.

Two weeks ago, right before Visiting Cezanne loaded into our performance space, Andy and Christine were asked to fly to Interlochen, Michigan to interview for two faculty positions at the Interlochen Arts Academy, a renowned four-year secondary school for the arts. Andy is an alum, having gone there for his senior year of high school. Two days after returning to Seattle they were offered the jobs and accepted. This fall the couple will be pulling up stakes in Seattle and moving to Michigan. Seattle will be losing two outstanding members of its theatre community, but students at a major educational institution in the Midwest will be beneficiaries.

Musing about this major life move, Andy observes that Visiting Cezanne explores artists’ need to give their life meaning. He told me, “I need my life as an artist to have meaning. As an arts practitioner you hope your work will have meaning. As a teacher you can be sure of that.” In Cezanne’s last scene the protagonist Nora expresses her discovery that helping other artists “can be as fulfilling as my own work.”

At Interlochen Andy will be teaching acting, directing, introduction to classical acting, and character immersion. (He is a scholar of Stanislavsky and Chekhov.)  Interlochen mounts seven stage productions each year. Andy will direct one and oversee the other six. He is quick to point out that he and Christine will now have three months free each summer, during which they plan to travel beyond Michigan for theatre work, including perhaps to Seattle.

For the moment, Puget Sound residents have eight opportunities left to see Andy’s artistry before he leaves town. He, the designers and the cast have performed magic on Visiting Cezanne. The play opens tonight at 18th & Union Arts Space on Capitol Hill in Seattle for eight performances. Find show details here. Tickets are only $16 to $20 and are available from Brown Paper Tickets.

I have been blessed to have Andy as a collaborator and the play’s director. We’ve now been working on Cezanne for half a year, during which time I have become attached to the guy. Working with him has been rewarding on many levels. He has taught me valuable lessons about making theatre and in the process has made me a better writer. I will miss you my friend. Godspeed.

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