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Q&A: Matthew Earnest

The former Dallas theatermaker talks about directing Brenda Withers' new take on Don Quixote at Amphibian Stage Productions.



published Sunday, July 5, 2015

Photo: Taylor Willis
Bob Hess and Christie Vela co-star in the world premiere of The Quixotic Days... at Amphibian Stage Productions

Fort Worth — Rehearsal for The Quixotic Days and Errant Nights of the Knight Errant Don Quixote—whew!—won’t begin for another hour, and the theater space at Amphibian Stage Productions is dim, cool and all but empty as we glide through. (Onstage, a young woman is lovingly petting a wall of green grass, but that’s another discussion.) Director Matthew Earnest and I settle down in the costume room, where a bronzed breastplate of armor is draped over the shoulders of a chair, upright and soldierly. Is the Don (or at least his spirit) sitting in?

Earnest is a Dallas theater kid and UNT grad, and laughs that he said “yes, yes, yes!” when Amphibian’s Artistic Director Kathleen Culebro sent him this script by playwright Brenda Withers, whose writing The New York Times has called “sharp and clever.” In some circles, Withers is known for her connections to the ubiquitous Mindy Kaling—they are college best friends who shared early struggles in New York, and hit it big with their play Matt and Ben, a comic speculation on how Damon and Affleck really came by that Oscar-winning script.

Photo: Taylor Willis
Jeremy Schwartz stars in the world premiere of The Quixotic Days... at Amphibian Stage Productions

“They sent me a finished script [for Quixote] I thought was fantastic,” Earnest says. “And Kathleen and I had been looking for a way to work together for years. And God bless Brenda; if I were to do this, my production of the story would be as long as Nicholas Nickleby: an entire day, with six intermissions and two meal breaks. Brenda, fortunately for all of us, doesn’t have quite my level of hubris. Hers is not even two hours long. She’s dealt mainly with Volume One of the book; we trick Don Quixote into the birdcage and finish with an ending that is a bit of a question mark, which is the best kind of ending.

“It’s a celebration of books and art and poetry—what they bring to us, how they make our lives better.”

Celebrating the life-altering power of art was the very specific angle Culebro envisioned in commissioning this world premiere piece from Withers, a longtime friend. Withers runs Harbor Stage Company in Cape Cod with Amphibian co-founder and Artistic Associate Jonathan Fielding.

“I had in mind a piece we could tour to schools,” Culebro says. “Don Quixote can see the world as a magical, beautiful place because he has books and imagination. It’s about the power of the written word and the arts to change perception and lives. Brenda wrote a 40-minute piece [originally], and it was so beautiful we asked her to expand it, and decided to put it on the main stage.

Earnest, who began his career working for Richard Hamburger at the Dallas Theater Center in the early ‘90s, formed his own company in New York in 1995, the deep ellum ensemble. There he began writing his own plays and adapting literary works for the stage. He’s directed across the United States, and in Europe and Africa—most often at the English Theatre Berlin, where he is an associate artist. He’s one of the founders are The Lunar Stratagem, a touring company, and directs for the University of Delaware’s REP (Resident Ensemble Players). Of his 2010 adaptation of playwright Aphra Behn’s The Emperor of the Moon, a reviewer said Earnest “brings an exciting and vividly theatrical energy to this delightful 17th-century classic that allows the piece to speak—in fact, to sing—eloquently and entertainingly to the audiences of today.”

Don Quixote opens July 9 and runs through Aug. 2. Here’s more of what Earnest told TJ when we sat down before a long day of rehearsal:

 

Were you a theater kid in Dallas when you were growing up?

Yes, I was. And when I graduated from North Texas in the early ‘90s, I went to work with a company in Dallas called Moonstruck—we did plays in the old Deep Ellum Theater Garage [a group founded by Matthew Posey, who now runs the Ochre House]. I wasn’t yet creating my own work, but I had the chance to direct some good plays.

 

Was directing always your aim, the piece of it you held onto from the first?

I realized in school that I was a director, but I was too vain at that time to give over the acting. So I joined Equity and did a season with Fort Worth Shakespeare in the Park. I was in Hamlet and The Taming of the Shrew—I played the tailor in Taming, which I loved. And then Richard Hamburger, who came on as AD at the Theater Center in 1992, established a new intern program. There was a national search; I applied and got one of the two directing spots. So I thought, this is the moment when I admit what I love to do, and where my true creativity and joy is. I never looked back. I was 22 years old, so I guess an early bloomer for a director. And I have never regretted it; I think I have the best job in the world.

 

Richard Hamburger was both legendary and infamous around here—what did you learn from him?

So many things. He and Melissa Cooper, his wife, who was the dramaturg, both taught me so much about how to read a text. They’re hardcore intellectuals, and always had such a great relationship to the written word. They taught me how to read a text, and I loved watching Richard at work: he really excelled at fireworks onstage, with those pieces that called for great brio. I loved the way he brought that show biz aesthetic to some unexpected pieces. I was grateful for that season as his assistant. And there also, I met actors who had been brought in from New York; and in early 1995 I moved there and founded the deep ellum ensemble—and also had an internship at a revered old experimental company called Mabou Mines.

 

Was it in Dallas or New York that you began writing your own work?

Photo: Courtesy
Director Matthew Earnest

I was not writing before I went to New York—in fact, not until I worked as an assistant to Lee Breuer at Mabou Mines. People may remember that Lee did the production of A Dollhouse at Mabou Mines where the women were six feet tall and the men were played by dwarves. Lee was the poet, the one who made me think I might contribute to the canon and not just restage other people’s work for the rest of my life.

 

Did you continually need to explain the name “deep ellum” up in New York?

Yes. A lot of people in New York associated it with The Grateful Dead because of that song they did, the “Deep Elem Blues.” So a lot of Yankees know that name through the Dead, and that wasn’t the truth [for our ensemble] at all.

 

You write your own plays, but also you’ve turned quite a few literary works into stage pieces.

I really enjoy adapting literature—non-fiction works too. [Wanderlust: A History of Walking] It’s like being a translator. These are totally different crafts: creating something new, adapting, and then directing a play.

 

There seems to be major interest in re-booting classic plays right now. I’m thinking of Aaron Posner’s Stupid Fu**king Bird (a reworking of Chekhov’s The Seagull) and such. When you adapt something like Aphra Behn’s fantastical Emperor of the Moon from the 1600s, or an Anthony Trollope story from the 1800s—what’s your thinking about how they will connect with modern audiences?

It depends from piece to piece. In the Trollope story, Can You Forgive Her?, I found a fascinating portrait of a free-thinker in a very conservative environment, trying to swim upstream—and causing lots of problems for everyone. It’s an old theme—there’s an element of it in Don Quixote too. But I thought it was an interesting way to talk about my time. And you know, the theater-maker has to stand outside of his time somehow; you can’t really live in the frame if you’re going to objectively look at the picture.

 

Is that sense of standing outside the frame the thing that is constant, no matter the piece you’re working on?

I think so. Often I don’t know why something is striking me. With Alice Vavasseur in Can You Forgive Her?—great title, of course, but what a great character—she just digs her heels in; she’s annoying as hell. And then as I began to think about it—it took ten years for that piece to get made—it all began to take on more meanings [the longer I worked on it].

 

So what part of our times, our zeitgeist, do you think the Don Quixote story connects with?

We are now participating in the erasure of art and cultural curricula in the schools. We have participated over the decades in letting many of our cultural institutions slip away: symphonies are closing, our theaters are gasping for breath. We wonder why we don’t have as many inventors and original thinkers—we don’t teach the arts anymore; we’ve cut it all out for that STEM thing. We’re teaching people how to be workhorses.

But this man [Quixote] insists on a life filled with poetry and art. His family and town utterly reject it, because it’s too much trouble for them, and they don’t understand it. Also, with all the discourse in our world about religion, the story is striking a lot of notes with me—and will with audiences—about how we think about religion in our lives. There was such a history of anti-Muslim feeling in Spain at the time [Cervantes was writing]—and though it isn’t overtly in Brenda’s script, the very Catholic and Christian iconography and symbolism is there. There is a resurrection motif; he even slaughters a lamb at one point—hard to get more direct than that. It seems to me that Don Q equals Everyman, being given a second chance, rising from the dead.

But also, these are adventure tales; he’s the forerunner to our superhero archetypes. The designers even have dressed him like Voltron—he looks like a robo-cop.

 

And you even leave him in a cliffhanger, so it’s ready for that summer blockbuster sequel. Did you get to involve yourself early on with the production designs?

[Stage whispers] I’m kind of fussy about design. A lot of directors don’t care, but I’m not such a man. I have a particular vocabulary for image and line.

 

Photo: Taylor Willis
John Forkner and Nathan Smith co-star in the world premiere of The Quixotic Days... at Amphibian Stage Productions

 

So how does this very clean, white, angular set design (from the drawing)—lots of doors and whiteness—how is that the “way in” to this story for you?

It’s kind of like this exuberant thing full of color emerges from a very neutral, Dorothy Gale-in-Kansas place. He escapes into his own imagination.

 

What would you especially want audiences to know coming in?

I’d like them to know that this will not be a totes intellectual, literary adaptation. This is going to be a slam-bang, interdisciplinary, hellzapoppin’ kind of thing. They can bring the kids, there’s no [bad] language, and it’s a celebration of books and art and poetry—what they bring to us, how they make our lives better. And by the nature of how I’ve trained myself to create work, I always want to push what the theater can be. I don’t work from a template, and am always trying to stir the pot—so I hope there will be some unexpected and fun elements to the show. And seriously, this group of actors is one of the best casts I’ve had in years, all of them. I’m working with some longtime friends, too, Christie Vela and Jeremy Schwartz, and Bob Hess—who’ve been onstage their whole lives.

 

This is an odd one to end with, but I’m curious—what are Berlin audiences like these days? You work there so often, you must know.

Berlin is the best theater town in the world, no doubt. It’s a director’s town; there are people like me who they call theater macher—theater maker—and there’s this thing that the most revolutionary idea wins. [The term translates as “director” but is probably closer to the French idea of the “auteur” who has his/her finger in all aspects of the production.]

There is the Anglo notion there, too, that the playwrights are gods. But they are willing to re-imagine the plays. If Brecht, certainly, but Shakespeare too, knew they were seen as the establishment, they would turn and retch. Those guys were outlaws, the anti-establishment—and they’re still cool. In Berlin, they recognize this, and there’s such a tradition of theater-going that people will come out to see what [this director] is doing with a play they’ve seen many times before.

At the Comedie Francaise in Paris, if you go to see The Imaginary Invalid, it’s excellent, but you could be looking at a production from 1998 or 1807 or 1680. They think of themselves as keepers of the culture. Not so in Berlin; the one who shows us how we can reimagine ourselves the most wins the day.

And for me, that’s a thrill. Brecht was my first love in the theater, and to me what we should be doing is to put ourselves in these situations and imagine who WE are, or might become. In Berlin I think they achieve that the best. London is coming along, and New York is a marketplace—it’s buy and sell.

That wasn’t always the case; I cut my teeth downtown in the mid-‘90s, when there were these extraordinary companies like Arden Party and Target Margin—beautiful companies where people had their teeth painted blue, or were throwing hot dogs at each other. They’d do Titus Andronicus with 50 actors in a room the size of this table. You’d get a flashlight with your ticket and the audience would light the production for themselves. Now there are templates and ways to do things in New York: you can’t do that, it won’t sell. Thanks For Reading





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Q&A: Matthew Earnest
The former Dallas theatermaker talks about directing Brenda Withers' new take on Don Quixote at Amphibian Stage Productions.
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