As resident director at Lincoln Center Theater in New York City, Bartlett Sher knows his theater. A veteran director of operas, musicals and plays, Sher earned a Tony in 2008 for the Broadway revival of South Pacific. He has served as artistic director of both the Hartford Stage in Hartford, Conn., and Intiman Theatre in Seattle, Wash., as well as company manager of the Guthrie Theater in Minneapolis. His most recent project, The Bridges of Madison County, opened on Broadway recently. Sher will speak to the Harvard community on “The Nature of Space in Theater,” 3 p.m. Wednesday, March 5, as part of the Harvard Office of for the Arts Learning from Performers program. I spoke with Sher about becoming a director, working on operas versus plays and on the importance of being free to explore while in pursuit of a career in the arts.
What was the process of becoming a director?
The most difficult part about it is that you have to know a lot of things. You can’t learn it in a school setting. When you train to be an actor, you can actually train to be one. You can do voice, and speech, and take acting classes, there are things you can literally train as if you were studying to become a ballet dancer. You can’t really do that when it comes to directing. When kids who are 5-years-old say they want to be a director, I can’t understand how that’s possible. It’s an interpretive art form. It’s not a creative art form. A director is the conductor, as compared to the composer. You have to learn all the parts of the orchestra. You have to know what everybody does, and you have to spend a lot of time learning to master them. My education came from apprenticing under two major directors. One was Robert Woodruff, who at one point ran the A.R.T., and the other was Garland Wright. At the same time, I studied lots and lots and lots of other directors. I came up in an era where nobody really knew what it was to become a director. You couldn’t study it in college. I fell into it a little more like it was a medieval guild, where you act as an apprentice at the foot of the master, move up while doing your own work, then you move on to where you can take on a project. I now have an assistant who has been with me for over a year and will be with me for at least another year. She is my one student. I don’t have a class where I say: This is how you do a scene, these are the mechanics. I can talk about composition and all the parts of it, but really the best way to learn is to watch me go from the beginning of the process to the end. It’s not something that anyone but an extremely precocious 21-year-old is going to start doing. There are a lot of things to do before you get right to directing. It’s more an apprenticing art than it is a schooled art.
Where do you find inspiration for your work?
I was an English major in college, and literature is a very important source of inspiration for any kind of director. I have, at a very deep level, studied the work of some major directors. They would be Tadeusz Kantor, a famous Polish avant-garde theater director, who’s kind of at the backbone of my work, and I did my dissertation on him; Giorgio Strehler, who was an important director in Italy in the last century; Ariane Mnouchkine, who’s still working in Paris. There are a lot of leading directors whose work I try to see and study. There’s also Peter Brook and Bertolt Brecht, who helped create the idea of the director developing the mis-en-scène.
How can directors distinguish their own work from plays, musicals or operas that have been produced before?
The truth is that if you’re only worrying about being different than somebody else, then you’re doing the wrong thing. All you can do is what you do, and other people can decide if it’s different enough from everybody else. It’s a highly competitive, rapacious, capitalist system, and it’s all about distinguishing your product from everyone else’s, and that is the wrong way to think about making a piece of art. It is absolutely flawed, and it is absolutely the way you will get eaten alive.
Does your process differ at all if you are approaching a play versus a musical?
My process is very different for an opera than it is for a play. The basic job is the same. In other words, I have a responsibility taking some pre-existing reality and laying it into some form of stage action that happens over time. In the case of opera, you have other factors involved: the amount of time you have to rehearse, the presence of an orchestra, the presence of a music director, the actual physical reality of singing. Whereas a play, where there is no orchestra, I find to be more difficult, which most people wouldn’t believe. That’s because all of the rhythm has to be built into it. If I’m doing Faust, by Gounod (which I’m working on now), then I have the support of 80 people in the pit providing all of the subtext and reality. With a play I have no help. You have to build in all of those rhythms, and sort of build a score, and put in all the layers. And the nature of actors versus singers is quite different. Musicals are somewhere in the middle. You have to have the skills and intelligence and understanding of acting. Because they’re sometimes speaking in prose, they have to have the ability to listen to the song. Each one is different, but each has things that are very much the same.
What advice do you have for students who are interested in pursuing a career in the theater industry?
Stay out of debt. In contemporary educational situations, you wrack up so much debt in your 20s, when you can really explore your interests and make mistakes; go somewhere crazy, and make some work that nobody sees. You don’t want to be burdened with the responsibility of paying off loans. Being debt-free allows you to be free to have time to build. If you’re a director, you have to be patient. It’s a form of art where you have to be immersed in it, and may only be successful 20 years from now. You have to be willing to explore, and experiment, and find your influences, and go to weird places, like go to the middle of nowhere and set up a warehouse and do something on your own. The problem with a lot of people is that they only have an interest in being famous and making a lot of money. Both of those things are total BS. And if that’s your goal, you may achieve it, but you won’t be a good artist. Those were never things that occurred to me growing up, and neither was winning awards; it never mattered to me at all. On the surface in the culture, there’s a lot of interest in that stuff, but in the real work that we do, there should be no interest.
Bartlett Sher will speak 3 p.m. on Wednesday, March 5 in the Farkas Hall Studio at 10-12 Holyoke Street. The event is free and seating is on a first-come, first-serve basis.