Today we introduce Paul Baker, the director of Collected Stories. Paul is the founder and first president of HPCP. He has directed and co-directed numerous HPCP shows, most recently The Lady’s Not For Burning. Paul last appeared as an actor with the HPCP in Rashomon.
Q. How did you first encounter Collected Stories, and what made you want to direct it?
PAUL: I first encountered Collected Stories when Laura presented selections as an offering in our monthly Staged Reading series in September, 2014. Watching only part of a good play is nearly always unsatisfyingly incomplete, so, as I often do, I went ahead and read the rest of it, and was wowed by it. The characters of the two women are so believable, the progress of their relationship such a lovely balanced/unbalanced roller coaster of mixed and conflicting emotions.
There has been an ongoing conversation in the Players about whether we’d ever want to repeat the experiment of running two plays in tandem as we did in Spring, 2016 with Proof and Jar the Floor. Collected Stories fit the bill perfectly if we ever wanted to do that again: an excellent, compelling piece of drama with just two actors and a simple set. So that was how I originally proposed Collected Stories.
Then, when we, sadly, couldn’t get the rights for The Strange Undoing of Prudencia Hart (Renata’s proposal), Collected Stories was brought forward as the “mainstage” production for this Spring. We began to plan how this “compelling piece of drama with just two actors” could be most effectively presented, and we found it was an opportunity to try another idea the Players have been kicking around for a while: “pocket” drama in a private home, saving us the expense of a theater, while increasing the intimacy of the drama.
So that’s how it came to be our Spring production. The chance to work with two fine actresses to bring this script into complicated, compelling life is what makes me happy to be directing it.
Q. You’ve co-directed some of the largest casts we’ve ever had (Rhinoceros and Romeo & Juliet); now you’re directing the smallest cast we’ve ever had. How is the director job different with a play that has only two actors in it?
PAUL: I always prefer a more collegial style of directing. When the cast is this small, there are many fewer moving parts that some one person has to keep in his head. And when the actors are this good, it’s very easy just make the rehearsals a threesome and let the director’s role become that of the observer that watches and comments, exploring possibilities and posing questions. It’s a lot of fun. It’s always a little unsatisfying to me that, in the end, the director gets this special billing. Right now, Laura and Renata are doing all the hard work. I think of this as pretty much a three-way collaboration.
Q. Collected Stories is in some ways a very New York play, and both Ruth and Lisa are part of a very clubby New York literary scene. How does this play speak to people who have never been part of that world, or desired to be part of it?
PAUL: The references to very specific real people, places and things helps convince you that these two women are really real, but the references to that milieu aren’t what make the play interesting and powerful. No more do you have to be a writer to enjoy the play. It’s the vividly textured relation of the two women that makes this play exciting and memorable.
Q. Arcadia and Proof, which you’ve also directed for HPCP, also feature gifted young women who have complicated relationships with their mentors. Why do you think playwrights keep coming back to the mentor relationship? What are its dramatic possibilities?
Hmm. I’m not sure I accept your premise here. Maybe I’m not sufficiently well read in the literature, but it seems to me that playwrights have tried out pretty much every permutation of young/old/male/female you can think of, and I don’t see that one preponderates. If your definition of “mentor” includes fathers (as in Proof), that permutation goes back at least as far as Shakespeare, or maybe we should say Sophocles.
The two plays you mention, on the other hand, are significantly of our time because, in both Arcadia and Proof, I believe the playwrights are taking some delight in pushing forward the polemical point that the brilliant mathematical prodigy is just as likely to be a young woman as a young man. This is still, sadly, not uncontentious. I think Tom Stoppard and David Auburn are doing their bit to make the point, even as they are exploiting the inherent dramatic possibilities.
Beyond that, speaking of “dramatic possibilities,” I believe that one of the perennial mysteries that writers explore is the strange arc we humans travel in time from birth through growth to maturation, through decay to senescence to death, and the ways that individuals at different stages on this strange journey intersect. Youth learning from, depending on, admiring, challenging, supplanting Age; Age teaching, enabling, admiring, challenging, envying, impeding, giving way to Youth: it is the human story. Embodying these patterns in real, passionate people playing for real stakes creates profound, exciting, heart-tugging theater in the hands of a skillful playwright like Margulies.
And, if you want to find some kind of common thread here, maybe the obvious place to look is the director who picked all these plays, and I might add Jean Anouilh’s Antigone into the mix. Isn’t it true that he has two daughters whom he homeschooled? Well, yes, it is. Feel free to psychoanalyze.
Q. We’ve done a lot of rehearsing in living rooms, but this is the first time we’ve actually staged a show in one. What are the challenges of staging a show in a living room, and how are you approaching them?
PAUL: This is definitely a learn-by-doing thing. As you say, we all know about rehearsing in a living room, but what if you stay in a living room and have to miniaturize and simplify all the tech for that space? Since we haven’t done it yet, I can only tell you that we are trying to think through all the challenges and possible pitfalls: it’s obvious, for example, that props and make up have to be different when the audience is sitting right on top of the action. We also believe that that closeness will heighten the emotional impact of the drama.
Tech week is coming up. But we haven’t done it yet, so ask me again after the show starts its run.
Q. Is there anything else you would like the audience to know about Collected Stories?
I don’t want to say too much about what happens in Collected Stories, but if anyone wants to do any homework, one if the things that I’m convinced is in the background of this play is Harold Bloom’s book, The Anxiety of Influence. That book came out in 1973, and certainly not everyone will know it or remember it, but I think Margulies is playing with its basic premise in Collected Stories teasing out its implications in interesting ways, and it makes sense of some things that otherwise might be puzzling.
The other thing is: keep in mind that the small space means limited seating. Don’t delay to get your tickets or you may find your chosen performance sold out.
(This space seats about 20, as opposed to our other venues which, depending on configuration, seat between 60-100. Buy tickets for Collected Stories here.)
Susan Harris with Paul Baker