Barbara Jwanouskos interviews local theatre maker, Ariel Craft.
Kicking off the first The Real World, Theater Edition interview for 2015 is Ariel Craft, local theater maker, director, and The Breadbox’s Artistic Director. February is SF Theater Pub’s month exploring passion so it was fitting to connect with Ariel about the process of collaboration. She explores her process of diving into a new project from its first fruitful beginnings into getting your hands dirty.
I met Ariel while volunteering for the SF Fringe Festival last summer. She was a joy to work with and I immediately had this sense that “this girl gets it”, making it easy to talk to her about any number of theater-related projects and collaborations in the mix. I was excited to be re-connected with her through Stuart when I asked “who would be a good person to interview first”.
Ariel’s responses are thoughtful and well-crafted. You can tell she’s thought a lot about her role as an artist and what she wants to have her hands on. Even in the editing process for this post, I was absolutely inspired to see her in action! So, keep tabs on her, folks!
Without further ado…
Barbara: I know you have worked with playwrights on developing new work, but I’m also curious about your process on directing reimaginings of existing work – first off, how do you pick the piece?
Ariel: Like all directors, I suspect, I’ve got an ever-running list of “plays that speak to me” and another list of “shows that I have wild appreciation for” and I can look to these lists at any time for inspiration, to single out a piece that I’d be fortunate and ferociously excited to dig my teeth into. And sometimes a collaborator – a would-be collaborator, a collaborator-to-be, or a previous-collaborator – will propose a piece that resonates in some delightfully unexpected way and calls me to action then and there. And both of these, for me, are frequent and fruitful beginnings.
And then sometimes I get inspired in an almost entirely subconscious way. A play can bumble around with me for years before I realize that it means something to me. I’ll read it and it’ll tuck itself into some crevasse of my psyche, and then – once I think it is gone forever – it’ll demand my renewed attention. This is typically how the reimaginings begin. I’m reminded of a piece (not always classical but usually classic, in some sense) that I’ve known, but not known deeply; I have a fresh impulse to engage with it, gnaw on it, stew in it, and as I move it to the front-burner, the production concept begins revealing itself too.
These early generative stages feel especially exceptional because they introduce themselves with such grace and fluidity, like the back-burner of my brain is an Easy Bake Oven cooking up delicious art-making elements and only letting me in once they’re well-formed enough to take their first practical steps.
Barbara: When you have a particular play in mind, walk me through your process of creation– where do you begin? How do you “find a way in”?
Ariel: Every production, and every entry-point into every production, is unique. But I do find – more and more, and especially while reimaginging a classic and having the freedom to invent and construct liberally – that I enter through music. Knowing what the world sounds like tells me where the production is and when it is. And, once I know the setting, the rest can fill in around it.
But: when in doubt, I always enter through character. Some directors speak in terms of stage pictures or symbols or sweeping messages, but my base-line for communication with the work is emotional experience and character action.
Barbara: There is an ongoing question of authorship in theater. With this in mind, what does the director contribute to this aspect of creating a play? Do you operate under any “best practices”? For instance, in your mind, is there a line you as an artist have made the decision not to cross or is it fair game?
Ariel: There’s definitely a line, but where that line is varies dramatically from production to production, and much depends – for me – on the play’s history.
If I’m workshopping a new play or directing a world premiere, my vision has to be unified with the playwright’s vision. I can’t be running off and chasing my own butterflies. And that doesn’t mean that the production doesn’t have my fingerprints all over it – or that it wouldn’t be entirely different in the hands of another director – but the playwright’s interests have to be my interests too. As the director of a new work, my job is to crack open the text, to create the living-and-breathing environment, to specify and realize relationships, and to pave the way for the story’s arc. I might claim the title of animator, but not author.
A play with a grander and more varied production history allows more and more for a generative and complicating directorial voice, because – fundamentally – the play’s legacy and the playwright’s legacy will not be defined by any individual production. No matter how off-the-wall your Romeo and Juliet is, Shakespeare’s artistic identity remains intact and unchanged, right? And isn’t that liberating? You can author the production, without the weight of the play’s legacy on its shoulders. Your production can spring forth from your very specific relationship to the play. I find that my vision is always related to the playwright’s and is always in conversation with it – otherwise, why am I doing this play? – but there is more room for playfulness, more directorial boldness and experimental choice-making.
Our recent production of Blood Wedding was by no means a ‘traditional’ Blood Wedding and it certainly wasn’t what Lorca envisioned when he wrote the play – and, because of this, the production made some viewers mad. But was our production wrestling with the all of the questions and yearnings at the core of Lorca’s play, despite the differences? I’d say absolutely yes — which, to me, is what matters. And, hey, Lorca’s legacy stands regardless.
Barbara: The name alone, Breadbox, implies that you are working with minimal resources for a production (which I think is awesome btw!), is there anything that becomes essential to wrap into the production costs? If you have an anecdote or story, I’d love to hear it!
Ariel: Minimal resources is right – so right – the rightest. (But, hey, aren’t we all dealing with that?)
And it is difficult – as it is for all of us – and it churns my guts when I can’t pay my collaborators what they deserve to be paid; but, in a lot of meaningful ways, the constraints posed by lack of funds can be stimulating to the imagination. Little else unlocks our creativity like obstacles, right?
If you’re doing a play that calls for a fiery gas-station explosion and a school of dolphins falling from a great height, and you’re in a 50-seat black box with a hundred bucks to make it happen, you have to say to yourself: “well, I don’t have pyrotechnics and I don’t have a fly system and I don’t have life-size dolphin props or the means to construct them… But what do I have?” And you figure something out.
You create a solution where one isn’t obvious.
Will it achieve the same sensation of spectacle as it would with a thousand times the budget? No, probably not. But, if you’re embracing and feeding off your surroundings and its limitations, your solution is almost always going to be more interesting and magical than if you had all the money in the world to throw at the problem.
But, as you say, there are some essentials that can’t be scrimped on and some costs that just are what they are. For Breadbox, something we can’t compromise on or do without is most often expert fight choreography. We’re never willing to economize at the cost of our collaborators’ safety, and there is really nothing like a skillfully staged and executed fight. And the work that we do tends to call for them en masse.
Barbara: Is there anything that defines your approach as a theater artist and where on your creative path you would you like to go that you haven’t been to or that you would like to return to?
Ariel: In content, I am drawn to work that explores actions that are typically deemed unacceptable. I am drawn to protagonists whose lives are marked by void and longing. I root for characters who fight for their wants and needs with abandon, often selfishly and to the detriment of others.
In form, I’m interested in the intersection of comedy and tragedy because, to me, they feel intrinsically linked: sometimes at seeming odds with one another but always in cohabitation, whether you like it or not. So I like to play with tonal variation and juxtaposition. I like an upbeat song underscoring a slaying. To me, it feels very much like life.
My interests will no doubt change as I do, but – in the now – I’m finding all this pretty delicious.
Barbara: What is making theater like in the Bay Area for you? Is there anything that defines it?
Ariel: Hmmm. I don’t know that I’ve worked enough outside of the Bay Area to be able to assess what makes us, geographically, unique. But I do find Bay Area audiences – the ones that we encounter, at least – to be mostly curious and agile and at-the-ready for a challenge.
Barbara: Any plugs for upcoming shows you are working on?
Ariel: Up next at The Breadbox is Oh Dad, Poor Dad, Mamma’s Hung You in the Closet and I’m Feelin’ So Sad by Arthur Kopit, directed by Ben Calabrese. It is the story of a remarkably-disturbed young man’s struggle to unearth himself from his overbearing mother. It evokes a little Norman Bates. There are piranhas and venus flytraps. It is robust and strange and very human.
Directorially, I’ve got a couple exciting projects coming up quickly but, for news of those, you’ll have to stay tuned!
Barbara: Any advice for artists that want to direct?
Ariel: As a director, you are a problem-solver. And you can’t solve a problem that you don’t understand and you certainly can’t understand a problem that you don’t know is there. You have to, first and foremost, be a good watcher and be able to assess what is actually happening in front of you.
Don’t be afraid of not knowing, and don’t be afraid to admit that you don’t know. You can’t be expected to have all the answers in the beginning and, if you think that you do, be cautious of those answers.
Most artists do their best work when they feel nourished, valued, and cared for. Even when you’re tired and over-worked and have had a major shit-storm of a day, stay constructive and generous.
Have fun. Be thoughtful but not precious. Get your hands dirty.
Find out more about Bigger Than A Breadbox and their upcoming productions here!