Interview with Hal Brooks

Adam Szymkowiz: Tell me a little about the play coming up at the Public.

Hal Brooks: I’m working with Mona Monsour who is coming out of the Public’s Emerging Writers Group. And the play is called Urge For Going, which is the title of a Joni Mitchell song. It’s set in a Palestinian refugee camp. Modern day. It’s sort of a family drama about a father and daughter. The father was a scholar who had a lot of great potential until the Six-Day War got in the way and he became a refugee. The family itself falls into an odd category called non-ID status. The daughter wants to take a test that will hopefully get her out of the camp but it’s tricky because of the ID problem.

four actors on stage
The cast of Urge for Going presented at Public LAB Production in New York City in April 2011, as directed by Hal Brooks. 

Adam: And you went to Beirut to research this?

Hal: Yeah. Very, very intense experience. Mona and I both were sent by the Public. We went to the Shatila camps, which are most famous for a massacre in the early eighties. Just the whole passage to get to Lebanon was one of the more intense experiences and being there was similarly intense. We felt while we were there that there was a civil war still going on. The place we were staying was a neighborhood that was run by a militia or, I should say, a faction called the Amal and the house we were staying in had a green flag on it and despite the people in the apartment building maybe not believing in the green flag, nobody’s going to take it down.

Adam: What’s the green flag?

Hal: The green flag is the flag of that specific militia—the next block could be a Hezbollah block. We traveled to the south too because we’re going to actually set the camp in southern Lebanon in Hezbollah country and it was amazing to see as we were traveling down south, posters of Khamenei and posters of Ahmadinejad and Nasrallah, who runs Hezbollah, and knowing that the people down south just love him. Now we’re wrestling with how much of that research goes into the play and how much is background and how much is to support our set design. It’s an embarrassment of riches as they say.

Adam: Clearly you don’t usually have the luxury to travel to a foreign country to research a play. How do you find a way into what you’re working on normally?

Hal: Well, the normal process is read the play a ton, ask questions of the playwright if they’re alive, try to read as much about the subject matter as I can, watch movies that might relate, and try to draw from my own experiences so I have something to say. That’s what I aspire to. If three directors are all handed the same script, three different productions will be created. You draw on what you know and you draw on what you imagine. That permeates into the production.

Adam: As a playwright it’s sort of a mystery to me what directors do and how they do what they do. Can you explain the mechanics behind the magic or is there more magic behind the magic?

Hal: I’m trying to think practically what it is that I do. I just got off doing this Clybourne Park production with the fourth year students at Juilliard. It’s a little bit of an exception because they’re students and so they will willingly do anything you ask. This is college for them and if they went to a performing arts school, that’s what they have to draw from. They don’t have life experience. So we were dealing with a play that is all about the subtleties of racism. I had them talk about racial relations in Chicago and what they came back with was all about the KKK and hate crimes and it just really missed the boat. So I had them talk about experiences in which they themselves acted as racists and I offered my own example. I think it really worked for them and it started an interesting conversation. There was a moment where the black students at Juilliard went out and a white student who was in the cast wanted to go with them and was told she could not. The actress got very upset and it generated this interesting and provocative conversation about what that moment was like.

So I don’t know how I direct every moment but sometimes you just dig in and ask questions. I ask actors to probe about themselves and, granted, because it was a student production, they’re so open to trying. I felt it was a very successful technique to let them absorb the full depth of what the play is about. But direction is a mystery and sometimes for me it’s about hearing the words on stage. It’s like the classic definition of obscenity: I’ll know it when I see it. If it doesn’t have the right rhythm to it, if there’s something off, or if you detect that an actor’s hitting the wrong word, that’s not going to open up the full meaning of it.

Adam: I’m always worried about saying the wrong thing during rehearsal and I’ve often thought one of the secrets to being a good director is about timing and word choice.

Hal: Yeah, that’s true but I also feel like one of the things that makes somebody a really strong director is the ability to admit when they’re wrong or when they don’t know what’s right. I think actors really appreciate it when you say, I don’t know the answer to that but I’m pretty sure that we’re going to get to it. So that you’re both confident in your approach but also admit what you don’t know. That is a sign of confidence. It’s certainly about saying the right thing at the right time but it’s equally about allowing yourself to say the wrong thing with the right parameters around it. And also when you’re directing you have to be a really good listener. You have to be a really good friend and very nurturing but you also have to know when it’s okay to push an actor in a way that may not be Mr. Friendly but is going to get them to that right moment.

One of the things that makes somebody a really strong director is the ability to admit when they’re wrong or when they don’t know what’s right.

Adam: What are your dream projects? What’s on your short list of plays you’d like to direct someday?

Hal: There’s a number of them. One that’s always been kind of intriguing to me that I’m excited to see a production of at the Public is Shakespeare’s Timon of Athens. It’s a wild fable about Timon who is a very generous man and gives his money away until finally the day of reckoning comes and he asks his friends for money and they all turn their backs on him until he becomes a big misanthrope. It’s a big “out there” play and I’m very much looking forward to the Public lab version of it.

The other is Platonov, which is an early Chekhov play. It’s his first play and it’s a big sprawling mess but within it you can see kind of all the antecedents to his other major plays. You can see characters that reflect those in the Cherry Orchard, Three Sisters, etc. I’d love to be able to have the space and the freedom to kind of make this giant play happen. Brian Mertes did a production of it out at Lake Lucille that was really, really wonderful to watch. But it was an adaptation. I guess there is no definitive version of it. If you look at the translation of it there are varying versions of different parts of it, varying endings of different scenes.

And the final on the list of oddball plays that are dream plays is Beckett’s first full-length play called Eleutheria. The story goes that he had written Godot and he had written Eleutheria and his wife or girlfriend Susan was shopping both plays around and the guy who eventually produced Waiting For Godot was like, let’s see, this one has a really big set and there’s a lot of characters, and this one has a tree. I think I’ll go with the one with the tree. I don’t really know what it means but I’m going with that one. That’s allegedly true.

Adam: It makes sense.

Hal: It does, but it’s so funny to see that you’ve got this amazing moment in theater history that’s really dictated by a producer saying, we can do the one with the tree.

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