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US director Bartlett Sher: ‘Trump’s presidency is ghastly, but I won’t flatter him by staging it’

Bartlett Sher Bartlett Sher

As the acclaimed US director prepares to bring Tony award-winning play Oslo to the National Theatre, he talks to Alex Clark about making political theatre in 2017, the differences between British and American audiences and how lucky he feels to be around in the time of the ‘revolutionary’ Hamilton.

Political theatre will always be at the mercy of a changing news agenda. But for Bartlett Sher, the US director about to bring JT Rogers’ play Oslo from New York’s Lincoln Center, where he is resident director, to the National Theatre, recent events have provided an extraordinarily mercurial backdrop. Brexit happened in the middle of the first run. Sher tells me that certain lines provoked a reaction in response to the UK’s decision to leave the European Union, even in America, and even though the play concerns talks between the Israelis and the Palestinians from a quarter of a century ago. Then, of course, President Trump arrived.

Loretta Ables Sayre and company in a scene from South Pacific in 2008 at the Vivian Beaumont Theater. Photo: Joan Marcus
Loretta Ables Sayre and company in a scene from South Pacific in 2008 at the Vivian Beaumont Theater. Photo: Joan Marcus

For Sher, celebrated for his work across plays, musicals and opera and perhaps best known for his Tony award-winning revival of Rodgers and Hammerstein’s South Pacific in 2008, the important thing was to remain steady.

He and his company decided that “as it became more tumultuous in our political world, we would get further and deeper into 1993 and try less to make associations with now”.

But such an apparently clear-cut decision doesn’t mean that Sher, famed for the depth of his research, is not acutely aware of the play’s wider implications and both its resonances and contrasts with the contemporary geopolitical situation.

Oslo tells the story of the back-channel diplomacy that resulted in the only accord ever co-signed by the Israelis and Palestinians, and the two Norwegian diplomats who helped bring the parties to an agreement: Terje Rod-Larsen and Mona Juul, also husband and wife.

As Sher points out, the process was reliant on excellent negotiators and something in short supply these days: secrecy. “Everything now gets acted out in public. I think in Brexit, one of the big problems is they can’t find good negotiators who can actually help hammer out a deal.

“The country’s decided – I’m not making an opinion about that, although I have my opinion – but nevertheless, they have to find good negotiators who can work this out. And a lot of what Oslo is about is negotiating. How to take implacable enemies, who absolutely to the point of death hate each other, force them into a room, and help them to make actual change and agreements.”

Immediately, then, Rogers’ piece takes on wider associations – even more so since last November. By the time Donald Trump was elected, Sher explains, “it was not about Palestinians and Israelis, it was about Republicans and Democrats. Or it could be about: are the Tories and Labour further and further apart?”

He continues: “Are there such divergent sectarian forces taking control of our societies that they can’t find common ground? They can’t come to compromises? And what is the tool of statecraft and diplomacy to hammer out agreements? It means people have to give things up, and that’s really hard to do in an incredibly public world with social media. So audiences who come to watch it get a history lesson on what used to be.”

What those audiences at the Lyttelton, and then the West End’s Harold Pinter Theatre, will see are 65 scenes, unfolding over three hours, with a total of 900 cues.

Bartlett Sher and Nabil Elouahabi in rehearsal for Oslo. Photo: Brinkhoff-Mogenberg
Bartlett Sher and Nabil Elouahabi in rehearsal for Oslo. Photo: Brinkhoff-Mogenberg

In a relatively short amount of time, Sher has replaced an American cast with a British one, with all the “adjustments” and “tuning” that entails. I ask him whether he can zone in on the differences between actors on either side of the Atlantic. English actors, he replies, are a little more proactive – he describes himself as doing a lot of very hands-on staging – but also notes that Oslo is a play in which “no one gets to be in a world they’re comfortable with”.

As for audiences, his answer is illuminating. In New York, he suggests, houses were more likely to be pro-Israeli; here, he expects them to side more naturally with the Palestinians.

He adds that British audiences are good listeners, and more patient than their American counterparts. “They’re also going to be less obvious if they don’t like it,” at least, he laughs, until afterwards, “whereas with American audiences it’s really obvious when they don’t like it.”

I meet Sher in the middle of a packed rehearsal schedule: he dashes in to an abandoned backstage bar and stops only to pick up a couple of dry cream crackers and a smear of cream cheese to fortify himself.

But the week we meet has been exceptional for what has taken place in the wider world: the hideous events in Charlottesville and their painful aftermath. How does it feel, I ask, to be an American abroad at a time of such turbulence? “Obviously,” he replies, “these white supremacist voices are intolerable on every level. And that should be an easy thing for a president to say. And how it is possible he can’t do that is very dispiriting.”

It also raises questions about the position of the artist. How to oppose, to resist, to document? And, perhaps even more discomfortingly, does such a lurid figure in the White House present a compelling subject for the makers of art?


Q&A: Bartlett Sher

What was your first theatre job? I assisted Robert Woodruff on a production of Brecht’s A Man’s a Man at the La Jolla Playhouse in San Diego.

What was your first non-theatre job? Caddy at a golf club.

What do you wish someone had told you when you were starting out? Stay out of debt. Because now, when young people are in the middle of this, they’re taking on college loans and all these debts to establish themselves. Anything you can do in order to maintain your freedom as an artist, you have to try to stay liquid enough that it doesn’t become about having to make a lot of money.

What is your best advice for auditions? Get the focus off yourself. Play your scene. Do your work. Let go when you’re done. Spit on the floor and leave.

If you hadn’t been a director, what would you have been? If I was smart enough I would love to have been a doctor, a medical doctor. I like the diagnosis process, I like the problem-solving of it, I like the care of it. I just don’t have the science.

Do you have any theatrical superstitions or rituals? Oh, millions. I believe them all. You can’t talk about the Scottish play. I make people leave the theatre and turn around a zillion times and do that. Any one that comes up I probably know and follow. I’m very superstitious.

On this count, Sher is clear. He remembers working in the UK on a musical version of Pedro Almodovar’s Women on the Verge of a Nervous Breakdown, a piece heavily influenced by post-Franco Spain.

What was interesting about Almodovar, Sher says, “is he would never mention Franco’s name, in any conversation, because it was so abhorrent to everything he believed in”.

“I feel the same way about our current administration. It’s almost too much to talk about. So to actually flatter them by trying to dramatise their situation seems way too much for me. Let’s figure out how to either vote him out of office or get him out of office as quickly as we can, because I disagree with him so violently, but I don’t want to talk about it. I don’t want to give him the benefit of doing some play about it. It’s just ghastly.”

The picture that emerges – of a director committed to both the primacy of the work and to a wider social and political responsibility – is borne out by Sher’s impressive CV.

Nearly a decade on from his production of South Pacific – the first time it had appeared on Broadway since its premiere in 1949 – it is still remembered as an urgent and engaged piece of musical theatre. A revival, says Sher, must always ask the question: “What is the immediate significance of doing it now?”

In South Pacific’s case, “it was about race, and it was about who gets to be in our family. We used to say, on a subtextual level, that South Pacific at that time was about gay marriage. That we were expanding our notion of family from when they did it in the 1940s, to what it was now. That people had to accept the idea of family expanding, powerfully, into new things.”

Haydn Gwynne and Tamsin Greig in Women on the Verge of a Nervous Breakdown at London’s Playhouse Theatre in 2015. Photo: Tristram Kenton
Haydn Gwynne and Tamsin Greig in Women on the Verge of a Nervous Breakdown at London’s Playhouse Theatre in 2015. Photo: Tristram Kenton

Similarly, he tells me, his next project is to stage My Fair Lady in New York, which will explore different issues of feminism and class than those that preoccupied or informed Shaw when he wrote Pygmalion, the basis for the musical work, in 1913.

And those questions come particularly to the fore in opera – Sher’s other great theatre of operations – when one bears in mind the many productions that will have preceded any contemporary version. As we start to talk about opera, I ask him about his love of working across forms and genres. “I do like it,” he grins. “I do opera and plays and musicals, and people ask which ones are harder. The conditions for each are completely different. It’s unquestionable to me that the hardest is plays. But that’s not the answer everyone expects.”

Why is that the case? “Because if I do an opera, and I’m trying to build up all those layers, I have 80 people in the orchestra providing all the emotional information. When I do a musical, we’ll stop and sing and it changes and goes somewhere… If you do a play, all those actors are out at the edge of the diving board by themselves, they have to do the rhythm, they have to do the layers, they build the whole story within this structure of language, pure language.”

Sher’s work in opera – most notably his Barber of Seville at the Met in 2006, Nico Muhly’s Two Boys in 2011 at English National Opera and his more recent production of Gounod’s Romeo Et Juliette at the Salzburg Festival and the Met – has received great acclaim, and has required immense amounts of work on the director’s part.

A scene from Two Boys at the London Coliseum in 2011. Photo: Tristram Kenton
A scene from Two Boys at the London Coliseum in 2011. Photo: Tristram Kenton

Despite having always loved music, he admits that he’s not a musical person and can’t play any instruments. In preparing for a new work, he goes over five or six versions note by note to commit the score to memory. And there’s another attraction to switching between art forms: “It’s a good antidote to being in one world or the other. I think if I had to do one world all the time, it would be difficult.”

Is there an opera he’d love to direct? Anything, he says, by Muhly, and also the work of Verdi, Rossini and Mozart, with certain caveats: “Marriage of Figaro is one I’ve always wanted to do; and Don Giovanni is one I’ve never wanted to do.” For good measure, he’d also really like to do Porgy and Bess one day.

Currently Sher, who’s 58, is scheduled into 2020, although he says – as if not wanting to close any doors – “it’s always moving a bit”.

Having spent years in motion – for many, he worked between Seattle, where he was artistic director of the Intiman Theatre for a decade until 2010, and New York, where he took over as resident director at the Lincoln Center in 2008 – he attempts to rein himself in a little these days, not least because he has two school-age daughters with his wife, actor Kristin Flanders. But he also values the ability to bring his family on the road with him, and expose his children to new environments.

His own upbringing had its challenges. Born in San Francisco to a Catholic mother and a Jewish father, he had six siblings, including a twin, and lived through his parents’ lengthy divorce and the revelation that his father had a second family.

Now, he says: “I feel privileged in the fact that I was raised in a Catholic household that was Jewish. I feel privileged that my stepfather [his mother remarried] was Chinese-Hawaiian, and I have a whole Chinese-Hawaiian side of my family… I’m privileged by the fact that my parents went through a divorce and I had to kind of suck it up and learn from it.”


Bartlett Sher’S top tips for aspiring directors

• Ambition is boring. Interesting work and expressing your interest in how the work can be unique for you, your influences, what you want to explore, how you want to be thought about in the theatre, all make a good bit of difference. Who you know or your connections: that’s all boring.

• I’m one of those people that doesn’t believe in individual genius. I believe in collective genius and that you have to be willing to share. And so I think individuals, especially directors, have to be patient with themselves. It takes a long time to emerge. And the tendency now is for people to think it has to happen quickly and that somehow, like their mother told them, their genius will be uncovered. And that’s just bullshit.

Among his upcoming projects is a Broadway production of Harper Lee’s classic novel To Kill a Mockingbird, written by Aaron Sorkin and produced by Scott Rudin.

Once again, he relates the story’s potential to address contemporary concerns. “The important part in that story is confronting change and how a culture has to be pulled to law and reason and change and rationality, and transform their ideas of race and mature,” he explains.

“The destabilising force in our current situation in the United States is people kicking away at the building blocks of what we share and what we assume. What our collective reality is, what our shared identity is. And social media and all those things allow people to silo themselves into only watching and learning and seeing what they want to see. But we actually need to share a point of view. What’s great about theatre is it makes people come into a room that don’t know each other and watch the same story and share an experience. And that’s better than doing it on your phone.”

Kelli O’Hara and Ken Watanabe in The King and I in 2015 at the Vivian Beaumont Theater. Photo: Paul Kolnik
Kelli O’Hara and Ken Watanabe in The King and I in 2015 at the Vivian Beaumont Theater. Photo: Paul Kolnik

That leads me to a final question. In our instant entertainment age, and given that theatre can be accused of posing cultural, class-based and financial barriers to wider access, does he think the art form is evolving to become a more inclusive space? His answer is unequivocal. In one word, it’s Hamilton: “It’s brought everybody to the theatre. So if you make the right kind of piece, they’re going to find a way to go.” And if it’s the right piece, fans see a ticket price in no different a way as they might, say, a Beyonce concert: “They’d find a way to get there if it meant something to them.”

Committed to the idea of the company and collaborative effort, he finishes with a characteristically generous tribute: “I think the theatre is a place where somebody like Lin-Manuel Miranda really made possible a way of seeing our history that included everybody. And that made a big difference.

“It was probably the most revolutionary moment in my time in the theatre. And I’m very honoured by what those guys accomplished; I felt lucky to be around when that work was being made.”

CV: Bartlett Sher

Born: 1959, San Francisco
Training: MA at the University of Leeds; work and study at the Guthrie Theatre, Minneapolis
Landmark productions: The Light in the Piazza, Vivian Beaumont Theater, New York (2005), Awake and Sing!, Belasco Theatre, New York (2006), South Pacific, Barbican, London (2008), Le Comte Ory, Metropolitan Opera, New York (2011), The King and I, Vivian Beaumont Theater, New York (2015), Fiddler on the Roof, Broadway Theater, New York (2016)
Awards: Joe A Callaway Award for Cymbeline (2002), Tony Award, Drama Desk Award, Outer Critics Circle Award for South Pacific (2008), Drama Desk Award for Fiddler on the Roof (2016)
Agent: George Lane, CAA

Oslo will be at the National Theatre from September 5-23, and then continues at the Harold Pinter Theatre from October 2 to December 30

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