Role Reversal: From Intern to Director

February 24, 2012

This content is sourced from The New York Times.

On a typical January morning this year Richard Maxwell, 44, woke up in his apartment at Manhattan Plaza, took the subway downtown from the Port Authority terminal and ended up inside the Performing Garage, where he went to work directing the most famous experimental theater troupe in the world, the Wooster Group, in a rehearsal of Eugene O’Neill’s Early Plays.

Seventeen years ago he had the identical commute, but back then he was an eager intern at the Wooster Group, sleeping on his sister’s couch (she also lived at Manhattan Plaza, a publically subsidized complex primarily for artists). Adding to the sense of coming full circle: the set of Early Plays is the same design as for O’Neill’s “Emperor Jones,” the production he observed in 1994 as a newcomer to New York. The only difference is that it’s now swiveled 180 degrees.

Mr. Maxwell’s role is similarly switched. While he said he moved from Chicago then because he wanted to see the Wooster Group’s artistic director, Elizabeth LeCompte, rehearse, now Ms. LeCompte sits in on his rehearsals, taking notes. “I’m trying to learn from him,” she said. It’s a remarkable evolution for Mr. Maxwell, a North Dakota native who said he’s not intimidated filling her shoes on this production.

Why not? “Bravado,” he said with a wry smile.

There’s mutual respect between these soft-spoken, iron-willed directors and company leaders who belong to the top tier of avant-garde auteurs in New York. But while Mr. Maxwell and Ms. LeCompte have each established international reputations by creating self-contained aesthetic worlds, it’s their differences that both drew them to the collaboration and make it a challenge.

Ms. LeCompte is known for seamlessly integrating technology into deconstructions of existing texts. Her work, which depends on a lengthy process, often weaves different styles together. Mr. Maxwell is a writer with a strong interest in narrative who is a self-proclaimed “fundamentalist” about staging, preferring simplicity in design and performance.

Early Plays, which runs at St. Ann’s Warehouse through March 11, features three short works O’Neill wrote in his 20s (Bound East for Cardiff, The Long Voyage Home and Moon of the Caribbees) that unromantically portray life on or near a British steamer. The critic George Jean Nathan was an early champion of these moody one-acts, and O’Neill called Moon his “first real break with theatrical traditions.” But these dense works, which have none of the epic sweep of O’Neill’s classic dramas, are rarely produced.

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