How Do You Solve a Problem Like a Big Cast?  // By Joe Calarco

Director Joe Calarco gets creative – more so than usual – while helming Irwin Shaw’s BURY THE DEAD.

How Tennessee Williams Helped Me Revive the Dead

I have been a huge fan of Transport Group from early on, having seen, and been blown away by, Michael John LaChiusa’s First Lady Suite in 2004 and then having the great thrill of being among the 30 extraordinary writers on the Drama Desk Award nominated The Audience in 2005.  I would go on to see almost everything they have produced since.  The daring of the new work they commission and the extraordinary creative mind behind Artistic Director Jack Cummings’ reinvention of classics is right up my alley, and we share a very similar aesthetic as directors.

Somewhere in early 2008 Jack offered me the opportunity to direct for the company.  It could be anything I wanted as long as it was a classic that was ripe for re-invention, but the cast size had to be reasonable.  I was thrilled.  I love cutting down the cast size of a play so it seems like doing the play will be almost impossible.  I love a challenge.  I spent my early career Off-Off-Broadway where there were always obstacles to battle in terms of staging a show in seemingly impossible spaces or having little to no budget.  As I started working at larger theaters, I often had to give myself creative obstacles knowing I would have to come up with inventive ways to make a piece work.  To this day I try to remind myself that I like to be—need to be scared heading into a project, knowing that challenges always bring out my best work.

So, with Jack’s assignment, I headed over to The Drama Book Shop and spent an afternoon looking through plays.  I combed through old warhorses.  It became almost a parlor game; what is the biggest most impossible play I can find?  Lawrence and Lee’s Inherit the Wind had just been revived on Broadway with a cast of 34 cut down from the original cast size of 48.  I looked at Agatha Christie’s Witness For The Prosecution with its cast of 30 and Sidney Kingsley’s Detective Story with its cast of 34.  The thing is, none of the plays I looked at, including the three mentioned above, held any interest for me.  Happily, Tennessee Williams came to my rescue, but not in the way you might imagine.

That same year I was also asked to direct The Glass Menagerie at The Old Globe in San Diego.  Talk about a dream project.  It had been on my “I must direct this play” list for as long as I’ve wanted to direct, and with this cast—Mare Winningham, Michelle Federer, Michael Simpson, and Kevin Isola—let’s just say I was loving my life.  As part of my research, I was reading Lyle Leverich’s biography on Williams, Tom.  Now, having been a mega Williams fan for years, I knew a lot about his life and his work.  However, there was one piece of info that was new to me.  It said that pre-Menagerie, he had written a “curtain raiser” for the St. Louis premiere of Irwin Shaw’s Bury the Dead.  It had a brief run on Broadway via The Group Theater the year before where Shaw himself had written the curtain raiser to his own play, which is set during “the second year of the war that is to begin tomorrow night.”  Well, I was intrigued already, and then when I heard the premise of the play, “during a burial detail for six soldiers killed in battle, the soldiers stand up and refuse to be buried,” I immediately ordered the play.  The piece addresses how the military, how the press, and how the public, deals with this crisis which is ruining morale across the country and chipping away at support for the war.  I was hooked, and reading it only excited me more.  The majority of the play has a Clifford Odets quality to it—didactic, furious, trying to get the audience to actually stand up and do something.  And then the last section of the play feels like you’re suddenly in a Thornton Wilder play.  The government asks women in each of these men’s lives—wives, girlfriends, a sister, a mother—to go to the graves and try to convince their loved one to lie down and be buried.  The language suddenly has a lyricism and a beautiful but brutal openheartedness to it.  I immediately knew how I wanted to cast the production; six male actors would play the six soldiers as well as everyone else in the play, and one female actor would play the six women in these men’s lives.

So, I had a casting “concept,” but now I had to have a reason for it.  No cool or even brilliant idea can truly work without it being supported dramaturgically in the text.  But like I said, I love an obstacle, I love a problem to solve.  The Tennessee Williams research showed me the way.  I would write my own curtain raiser to make my casting decision make sense.  And I must mention the extraordinary cast: Jeremy Beck, Fred Berman, Mandell Butler, Jake Hart, Jeff Pucillo, Matt Sincell, and Donna Lynne Champlin.  The collaboration with these astonishing, smart, inventive, delightful, actors is one of the most thrilling of my career.  Donna Lynne is one of my oldest friends and was in the first show I ever directed when I was 19 and she was 16.  I’ve said before that I think she’s a genius and finds humor and pathos in corners many actors don’t think to even look.  It made writing the curtain raiser, A Town Hall Meeting, for her a joy.  I created a new character for her who would host the evening.  The premise is that the character has been struck by how young the ages are of the dead soldiers that scroll up the screen at the end of This Week With George Stephanopoulos every Sunday, and she wants to do something to honor the soldiers who died and were fighting in Iraq and Afghanistan.  A student recommended Shaw’s play to her, so she calls a Town Hall Meeting to have members of the community read the play aloud.  She asks for volunteers to come up and read, and six men (our male cast members seated in the audience) do.  It starts out as a dry reading of the play at a table, but eventually the line between what is playacting and what is real blurs and is eventually obliterated.  I could go on and on about the gorgeous and shattering moments this cast of actors and my design team created but I’m hitting my word limit.  Lincoln Center Library filmed it so you can check it out there if you’d like.  I might give it another look myself.  Writing this has brought back such wonderful and joyful memories of creating that production.  So, thank you Mr. Williams for guiding me to the play and thank you Jack for offering up the challenge.

About the author:

Joe Calarco is an award-winning director and playwright. He is the winner of the Lucille Lortel Award, two Barrymore Awards, and four Helen Hayes Awards for directing.  His published work includes Shakespeare’s R&JWalter Cronkite is Dead (included in The Best Stage Monologues of 2013), in the absence of spring (included in The Best Stage Scenes of 2004), Winter Break, and two collections of plays for teens Signature in the Schools Volumes 1&2.  Other plays for teens include 295N, Smile Lines, 12 Million Footsteps, The Spoken Word and Authenticated Users.  Other adaptations include A Midsummer Night’s Dream (The Shakespeare Theater Company), and Antigone Renewed, which had its first workshop at the National Theater in London.  Other produced work includes A Measure of Cruelty (Carbonell Award nomination and included in The Best Stage Monologues of 2013), Isolated Incidents, Watershed, Waiting, and Separate Rooms (included in The Best Stage Monologues of 2020).  He is the book writer for the musicals The Mysteries of Harris Burdick with composer Chris Miller and lyricist Nathan Tysen (Barrington Stage Company), Golden Gate with composer/lyricist Richard Pearson Thomas, and he was a contributing book writer of the Drama Desk Award nominated The Audience (Transport Group).  He was resident playwright at Expanded Arts, is one of New York Theater Workshops Usual Suspects, and is a member of the Dramatists Guild and SDC.