The Battle Series

Leigh Silverman

Corey Ruzicano is collecting stories on how artists and humans pick their battles. The Battle Series seeks to answer the question: how do you know what's worth standing up for, and once you've figured that out, how do you do it? How do you do the hard work of growing up?

The word battle brings with it banners waving, flags flying, gunshots and smoke, and a charging forward. I have seen battalions and rallies and sit-ins through romantic Berkeley-in-the-60s-colored glasses. I think of anthems, not of working songs.

I look back at the question that seeded this series—how do you pick your battles—and I must remember that battles can be all sorts of things. There are big, sweeping, do you hear the people sing storms, but there are also delicate, pedestrian, important everyday matches. The brilliant Leigh Silverman reminds me of this.

I have stood in awe of Leigh for many years now. I admire her clarity and her razor-sharp intentionality, the unwavering, self-possessed honesty with which she holds a room. As a young woman, I dream of seeing infinitely more sensitive, direct, thoughtful leaders like her.

Corey Ruzicano: Is there a battle you remember picking, or a battle you’ve come to over and over again?

Leigh Silverman: I feel like challenges come all the time. I think so much of the craft of directing is what to say when—and that’s picking your battles—but there’s also a certain amount of restraint or curiosity. It depends on where you are in the process: in the first couple of weeks of rehearsal, anything goes, but if it’s two days before we open, forget it. And there have been plenty of times when I’ve thought this is it, this is my line, and then it turns out something else is more important.

Corey: Are there times you’ve had to move or cross that line in the room?

Leigh: I’ve had battles over casting, some that I’ve won, some that I’ve lost. In retrospect, certainly, I gave in on casting choices I never should have given in on, and as a director you end up ultimately paying the price. If you agree to cast someone you know can’t do it, and other people want that person, and then they can’t do it, you get blamed. It has taken some time to be able to say absolutely not to something. I feel certain that there have been decisions that I’ve been coerced into that I wish I hadn’t.

A thing happens when you’re working for a theatre or for producers where they don’t like your choice, you don’t like their choice, so you end up with Choice C, and a thing can happen where you start to look back and think: how did we get there? And you realize you’ve just ended up with a bunch of C Choices because they didn’t like A and I didn’t like B. That’s a weird thing about working at theatres or working for producers where you end up with somebody that’s actually just the least offensive to everybody.

 

So there’s a struggle all the time as a director between flexibility and authority. One of the circumstances that potentially changes a director’s pliability is how much money is on the line: if it’s a commercial project what’s at stake is different than what’s at stake at a not-for-profit.

 

three actors on stage
Tobias Segal, Aya Cash and Julie White in From Up Here by Liz Flahive, Manhattan Theatre Club. Photo by Sara Krulwich for The New York Times

Something about decision-making that is really hard as a director is knowing what your power is, when to pull your punches and when not to, particularly if you feel like a show’s on the line or the job’s on the line. It’s also part of our job to feel like our opinion is important, or the most important. So it’s very hard to put that mantle down, because in a way, people are hiring you because you carry that mantle with you; you carry that authority with you into the room.

So there’s a struggle all the time as a director between flexibility and authority. One of the circumstances that potentially changes a director’s pliability is how much money is on the line, and if it’s a commercial project, what’s at stake is different than what’s at stake at a not-for-profit. I would say, generally, a nonprofit theatre company wants the best art and is hiring artists that they trust, and hiring those artists, usually, because they want their taste and their opinion and their skill. A commercial producer wants a different thing and how they get that thing is a question of checks and balances in relation to things that a director has no control over. And then there are some times when all those things can be one and the same.

What that all boils down to is: there is no one answer. Every circumstance is unique. Every project is unique and every circumstance in which you’re making the project is unique and so the hard choices are around issues that aren’t present in another situation.

 

There’s great benefit and great joy that comes from being a director and there’s also great responsibility, and you have to want that and to step into that, and you have to be able to make decisions. It’s not just battles, it’s decisions. You have to be able to make decisions and stand by them.

 

three actors on stage
Joshua Henry, Sutton Foster, and Colin Donnell in Violet, Roundabout Theatre.
Photo by Joan Marcus

Corey: It’s so interesting because working within an institution versus self-producing is a totally different animal, even though sometimes the bigger questions are the same. My last conversation was with Diana Oh, whose latest work is very reactive to a very present, very particular battle, and she has very specific things she wants to say and a very specific way she wants to say them. And one way to do it, is to write what you need to say, in the way that you need to say it, and whoever hears it will hear it. It’s a different thing if you’re in dialogue with a larger body where other, sometimes larger or more fiscally significant needs are at stake. The word institution feels sort of insidious, especially to a young artist, but knowing that there’s an incredibly varied range of factors that go into every decision, changes how I think about how you choose when to put your foot down, and when not to. It’s a delicate art.

Leigh: I think it just takes practice. It takes skill to know. And that’s one of the hard things about directing. You’re learning as it’s happening in real time. There are plenty of times where I feel like I’ve certainly learned a lot from the mistakes that I’ve made, and also I feel that on any given project you have your strikes and you have your gutter balls.

The thing that’s fundamental about directing is that you have to be able to lead. And sometimes that means doing the hard thing—whether that’s firing someone or standing up to someone, or telling the writer something isn’t good enough, or telling the theatre something’s not being handled well—whatever it is. But that’s what it takes to be a leader, and to be at the head of a project. And if that feels uncomfortable...there’s a level of discomfort that’s just part of the business, right? And then there’s a discomfort that comes from not being able to handle that, and that’s a different thing. There’s great benefit and great joy that comes from being a director and there’s also great responsibility, and you have to want that and to step into that, and you have to be able to make decisions. It’s not just battles, it’s decisions. You have to be able to make decisions and stand by them.

Corey: Exactly, and I think you do a masterful job of leading without an agenda that is so impressive from someone who is telling these very human stories. I’m interested in how you choose pieces and people. I hear so much of these beautiful relationships that you have with Sonya Tayeh and with Jeanine Tesori, and how these other very strong, very passionate women have come together and informed, helped, and benefited from one another. Making decisions around who you have in the room feels very essential.

Leigh: Absolutely. I have a lot of female director friends who I’m very close to and we talk about it all the time. I can guarantee you, male directors don’t sit around in groups and talk about some of these questions that you’re asking. And that’s a really interesting thing to me because I do think women have to think about the work in a way that men don’t. Men have to think about other things, and I’m sure the things they’re talking about are interesting and valid too, but this is a very specific thing because women’s level of comfort with authority and ambition is something that’s complicated and hard. Sometimes I talk about my ambition or someone else’s and I can see people feel nervous. It’s a thing Jeanine does really beautifully and I find very inspiring. It’s particularly hard among directors, in a way, because we’re all eating from the same cake. But I do think it’s a very important conversation. I have felt that being in it with people going through it with you, in their own way, in their own process, is such wonderful support. I am able to call any number of directors and say, “What do you think about this person,” or, “This thing is happening to me,” or “I have to deal with this.” I have just chosen to feel we can all help each other. That’s been a much more positive way to be in this world. I often find myself getting sick of what sometimes feels like a crushing uphill climb, so it’s just nice to feel like there’s support.

Corey: Yeah, that you’re not alone in it. That support is its own arsenal of other tools and tricks—human power. I had one very important female drama teacher growing up, but everyone else was male. I just didn’t work with any other female directors, and even in college most of my professors, and particularly the ones I was closest to, were almost exclusively male. That’s part of why it’s been so important for me to watch you and Jeanine and Sonya work. Because leadership is very hard and isn’t generally presented as an obvious, or even attainable, option for girls. I’ve always been fairly ambivalent about leadership, but sometimes it becomes the only option when you see things being done and the same stories told the same way over and over again.

Has your idea of success changed over time?

Leigh: I want to work with people that I trust. It was a lot harder for women a generation above me, and it’s easier for the women coming up. The women who assisted me and the women who are just getting on the roller coaster right now—I’m so happy for them. It’s so great to feel like there’s this whole generation that are coming up and they get to look at me and my peers and say, oh, we can do it so much better. And I guess that’s a good thing. That’s how it’s supposed to go.

The goal for a long time, for me, was just to work. Didn’t matter what the work was, I just wanted to work as much as I could. I was so proud of the fact that there were three or four years in a row where I had less than ten days off total, including Christmas and Mondays and Sundays and holidays and birthdays and people dying and people being born...and now that seems exhausting. I’m reevaluating what the goal is. And that’s really interesting, because now that the goal isn’t just to work, what is the goal? And how do you keep it all together?

It’s an interesting time for me because I have not experienced trying to look for a new goal ever. Since I was a tiny child, this was all I’ve wanted. I don’t know what’s next, but I do feel excited about trying to do what I do but in a way that feels different or more manageable in some ways. Weirdly, what I aspire to now is just more control. Getting to be in the room with who I want to be with. I said no a bunch of times this year for the first time ever in my whole career and it’s very interesting and very uncomfortable.

Corey: It’s another decision, just a different kind.

Leigh: Yeah, and I guess that’s what success looks like to me now, more control as opposed to just, yes, yes, as much as possible all the time, desperate, desperate, desperate.

Corey: You’re no longer starving, so now how do you decide what to eat?

Leigh: Exactly, that’s what the goal is: getting to choose, to feel like I don’t have to walk into situations I don’t want to be in because I need my health insurance.

Corey: Everything informs everything. In fact, that idea very much fits into what feels like the connective tissue between what you said beautifully a few years ago, “No matter who it is on stage, the more personal the journey, the more universal.” I think that’s so true and also such a useful strategy for making some of these hard decisions. It’s easy to get lost in trying to make something universally accessible and understandable and appealing and it’s probably not possible, so to have that very sound and practical but also very moving frame of reference, feels vital to the decision-making process. How do you learn to shut out the other noise and find the clarity around these specific stories that, in their singularity, become universal?

Leigh: I feel like that was something I really learned from Lisa Kron. While we were developing the play Well, which we worked on for five years before we did it at the Public, every time we made something more specific about her mother, her neighborhood, and what she was really talking about, more people said that’s exactly my story. There was this direct correlation between the amount of specificity that Lisa brings to her work and that feeling of universality. It’s the same with Fun Home. There’s a way in which that work is so specifically about that family…

Corey: That everyone comes away thinking that’s my story. It’s a story about Alison and Bruce and Joan. It’s their story, but people walk out saying that’s my story.

Leigh: Yeah, it’s a really important lesson. Tanya Barfield, a writer I’ve worked with for years and years, also has this incredible rigor about the specificity of her characters. Not that the other writers that I work with don’t, but it’s really amazing to me what she’s able to articulate about character in a way that makes them so accessible. The first play of hers I did, Blue Door, I felt was so weirdly personal and specific to me, but it was about these three generations of African American men.

Corey: There are these things that are codified in very early thoughts of how we think about and internalize stories, and the more formed and specific they are, the more we’re able to carry them with us. 

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Thoughts from the curator

A collection of interviews on how students and humans pick their battles.

The Battle Series 

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