David Leveaux Interview - On the Art of Making Theatre

David Leveaux

Although David Leveaux is English it would be a misnomer to call him a British Theatre director. More fitting and precise would be to say he is an International Theatre director. His credits read more like a World Atlas than they do a resume; covering countries such as England, Ireland, Scotland, United States, Germany, Austria, and Japan.

On Broadway, some productions Leveaux has directed are Anna Christie , Nine, Fiddler on the Roof, and Cyrano de Bergerac. In England he has directed for The Royal Shakespeare Company , The Almeida Theatre, The Donmar Warehouse, The Royal National Theatre, and The English National Opera. He was also one of the founders and the Artistic Director of Theatre Project Tokyo in Japan.

Leveaux has worked with luminaries from the theatre world such as Harold Pinter, and Tom Stoppard. Some well known stars from the movie world he’s directed are Antonio Banderas, Jennifer Garner, and cross over stars such as Kevin Kline, and Chita Rivera … I could go on and on but you get the picture.

As a self proclaimed “fugitive” (because of his nomadic lifestyle) one would think that Leveaux is a man without a sense of home. Instead this “fugitive” status has given him insights into the commonality of our souls which he finds much more intriguing than our differences. For him the world has become a home, or in his case, a stage.

Recently I had the pleasure of speaking with David Leveaux. True to form, he proved to be intriguing, articulate, and of course, generous.

Our conversation follows below:

Paula Jessop : David, what are you working on now?

David Leveaux: We are in the middle of rehearsals for a play called The Late Middle Classes which is at the Donmar in London. It’s a play by Simon Gray which has never been performed in London. He wrote it in the late 1990’s. Harold Pinter directed it; you know Harold directed a lot of Simon’s plays. For one reason or another it didn’t come into London, I think because the theater they were supposed to bring it into dumped them by putting another show in there. So it was under rather scandalous circumstances. Anyway, the upshot is that it’s a major play of Simon Gray’s that has not been shown in London.

Jessop: How do you choose your projects? What draws you to a production?

Leveaux: I don’t know that there is one thing, really. I think that the first thing is probably that I try to pick something which I think might have a kind of currency about it, whether it is a so-called revival or a new play, it has to be something that people want to see right now. I don’t really believe in just doing a good revival for the sake of it. And then I suppose I chose to direct the play by Simon Gray because obviously, in this country [England], I’ve had the experience of directing the plays of Harold Pinter and Tom Stoppard. And Simon is very much of that generation although a very different kind of writer. I am very interested in those plays. Simon writes and Harold wrote in a very different way. I suppose you could say they are plays that make the invisible undercurrents of our culture become visible in some way. I think that is something the Theatre takes [to] very, very well.

Jessop: I’ve heard you speak before about making the invisible visible. I’d like to hear you talk more about these “invisible undercurrents”.

Leveaux: Yes. I know it’s a rather sort of grand and difficult phrase, isn’t it really?

I suppose what I mean by that is the writing that I love has a way of appearing on the surface to be naturalistic and representational of the way we speak and the way we are. But actually, it’s highly organized in a way that reveals some of the things that deep down draw us on, motivate, or drive us to certain kinds of behavior; the interaction and relationships of political as well as private things that are running under the surfaces of our lives.

Which is why I think when you get a great writer like Harold Pinter; I would describe him as prophetic. What Harold always did was to give us a version of ourselves that was highly organized in many ways. Often in his world it involved exchanges of power and the way that works. It’s certainly very interesting. There’s a sort of brilliant expression of the kind of unspoken forces that drive us, that sometimes are very dangerous and very potent and very passionate. In that way when you go to the Theatre and you watch one of these plays its like you have access to who we are and to some extent our history – which, if, and only if, the writer is in command of the facts- however strange they may seem – turns out to be the shape of our future.

Kevin Kline and Jenniefer Garner in Cyrano de Bergerac

Jessop: Tell me one of the biggest surprises your career has brought to your life?

Leveaux: My career? (laughing) The biggest surprise is that I still have one.

I do sometimes reflect on it. Like most people who work in the Theatre or related forms, it’s something you have to have an absolute passion to do. I’ve never fully got over the kind of exhilaration of waking up in the morning and thinking: this is what I do, this is my job, I get to go to a rehearsal room and make Theatre.

That remains to me the sort of almost bewildering surprise; that I have been able to or allowed to devote my working life to this particular thing. Beyond that, I think everyday becomes a surprise.

I was just thinking about this recently because somebody asked me to write a piece about Simon Gray and maybe Harold Pinter, Tom Stoppard, or whatever. It’s very interesting because all writers, particularly famous writers, tend to acquire adjectives for convenience. You know, Harold Pinter is enigmatic, Tom Stoppard is dazzling, Simon Gray is witty or whatever it is.

Those adjectives are almost invariably turned on their heads when you get down to the practice of approaching these plays. I’ve never not been surprised by the revelation of working on a writers play even if it’s a play that already exists, that has already been performed … because you find out things. For instance, the depth of Tom Stoppard’s sense of history, his sense of a kind of Central European pluralism, a kind of moral view of the world that embraces the negative and the positive, as opposed to an idealist version of the world which simply demonstrates how we fall short. Tom has a sort of Central European, almost romanticism, in the core of those plays. That is something really, really fascinating to me.

I think when you approach a play by Tom Stoppard the first thing that strikes you, and I think is very necessary, is that these plays should be sexy. People think that they’re surely exhilarating plays of ideas. I say no, no they’re actually ideas that are only projected through a kind of sensuality on the stage and if you don’t understand that or you don’t do that then they don’t fly. Or they fly but not perhaps in the way they originally were intended. In essence what I’m saying is that [with] every writer, particularly great writers you have the privilege of coming into contact with, there’s a secret, which is not necessarily the thing about that writer which is widely written about or expressed. But that’s the thing that makes wonderful Theatre.

Antonio Banderas and Jan Krakowski in Nine

I think that everyday is a surprise. Actually everyday I’m on Earth is a surprise. I’m always stunned by how difficult it is after all these years … you’d think that you could come up with some sort of reliable technique or method or something. I don’t know whether it’s just me and I’m sure other people are like this. I always feel like I’m starting again each time I go into a rehearsal room and that in itself, is full of surprises. It never stops. It never stops being completely fascinating and very hard and very surprising. I don’t feel that I know more now than when I started 25 years ago and my main sensation is one of a kind of jammering ignorance. (laughs) But that’s not a negative thing that kind of just drives ones curiosity. I think that’s part of the privilege of doing this job.

Jessop: What is your adjective and your secret?

Leveaux: I don’t think it’s for me to come up with an adjective (laughs) even if there is one. (more laughter) It’s best left to other people to try to come up with [adjectives] because that’s something you’re trying to grapple with everyday. So I’ll leave that to others. I’m sure you could come up with one, Paula.

Jessop: I’d say “generous”.

Leveaux: Really? Well, thank you.

Jessop: What about your secret?

Leveaux: Wow, you know, I think that … Peter Brook wrote a book called There Are No Secrets, have you ever read that?

Jessop: No.

Leveaux: It’s a wonderful book. It’s sort of a companion piece to The Empty Space that he wrote at the other end of his career. So I think actually increasingly that this job that I do is about paying attention and listening not to what you think you’re hearing or think you want to hear, but to what you’re actually hearing and actually seeing. In other words trying to penetrate the veil of familiarity … [it’s] something radical. Because of course when you do that, it can take a long time and some very surprising things emerge. So I really now think it’s about paying attention.

Jessop: If you were me interviewing you, what is a question I should be asking you?

Leveaux: Oh, that’s a cunning question. Good God, I have no idea. Why haven’t I made a film, probably?

Jessop: Why haven’t you made a film?

Leveaux: Purely coincidental, they [films] have been around. I think that what’s happened is that the Theatre work has been very absorbing and preoccupying. It’s not because I don’t want to [make a film]. I actually adore the medium of film. I think as you get further on in your life you start being perhaps more critical about the kind of film you would chose to do. I think in my early twenties I just would have jumped behind the camera for the sake of being behind the camera and seeing how that would work. But now I feel I’d have to pick the right thing. Plus, for a while the kind of film that would come my way, that people would suggest, would be a film that was about the Theatre. I don’t want to make a film about the Theatre, because I don’t make Theatre about the Theatre. So that was another issue really. The long and the short of it, I have no explanation and hopefully that will not be the case forever.

Jessop: Okay, It’s Sunday afternoon and it’s raining, what are you doing?

Leveaux: I just got in from buying a rose bush. I have this balcony and because I’ve been traveling around so much it was completely barren of anything on it. It’s a lovely spring here and I thought, that’s really disgraceful, you need to put some life out there. There’s this great nursery [nearby] and they have these great plants. So I went to get a rose called the Darcey Bussell named after a ballerina that I knew at one time. I thought that’s what I’ll do; I’ll get some roses and see if they’ll grow on my balcony. Of course if they don’t, it’ll be a complete indictment of my ability to create anything enduring and lifelike. But I thought I’d take the risk. (laughs)

"A rose called the Darcey Bussell named after a ballerina that I knew at one time"

Jessop: What was the last piece of Theatre that blew you away?

Leveaux: That’s a very interesting question. Things have different effects. Sometimes it’s something about a piece of Theatre; maybe not in totality but something about it that is very extraordinary. For instance a few weeks ago I went to see Andrew Lloyd Webber’s musical Love Never Dies, which got some slightly mixed notices. I’m sitting in the Theatre thinking this score that he has written is absolutely astonishing. I think it is one of the best scores he’s written. I don’t know why, I just wasn’t expecting that. I think it’s because the theme, the whole Phantom theme, is something that is very vivid to Andrew Lloyd Webber. So I’m sitting in the Theatre thinking, I’m actually getting a sense of who Andrew Lloyd Webber is as an artist from this music. And that was a wonderful moment in the Theatre. It was kind of at odds with what the critics had to say, but you know often one is at odds. That aside, I think very recently I would say I was absolutely knocked out by David Hare’s play The Power of Yes which is not even a play. David himself says at the beginning, “It’s not a play”. It’s about the financial meltdown. I just thought, all right, this is maybe not a play but it’s the most fascinating drama and a beautiful example of the work of a brilliant dramatist who is also a great’ journalist’. It exhilarated me because I’m excited by that kind of journalism and I don’t think we get enough of it, especially since print is kind of dying. That was a wonderful event.

In terms of the key formative productions I’ve seen in my life I’d have to go back to Peter Stein’s “ Cherry Orchard which was back in the late 80’s early 90’s and [also] Peter Brook’s “ Cherry Orchard. And the production, I think, [which] deeply influenced and affected many directors in my generation which we saw when we were teenagers [was] Peter Brook’s “ Dream,” the one he did in the white box on the trapezes. This effectively kind of blew open the traditional representative way of doing Shakespeare. That’s like a loadstone production that in one’s head, one goes back to again and again and again. It’s spread across a pretty wide range. In Japan I saw Robert Lepage’s “ Seven Streams of Ota, I thought that was an absolutely magnificent work by a major artist; again, a complete stand-alone original. Each one of the artists I just mentioned has an entirely different personal aesthetic and political approach to the Theatre they are making. They’re all masters at creating affects of currency, immediacy and necessity in the Theatre. Those are the ones off the top of my head.

Jessop: In the past periods of social transitions have birthed new movements of art. How is your work being affected by these times?

Leveaux: It’s difficult to say in any kind of absolute and analytical way. What I would say is that you live and work in the real world and that world is shifting and transforming all the time in terms of what audiences bring with them into the Theatre. In just the same way, techniques and narrative in the Theatre have been radically changing with every decade going right back to the fifties with The Berliner Ensemble, Brecht's company in the former East Berlin and the sixties with the new plays that were coming out of the Royal Court here [England]. Then in the United States when I first came across the Wooster Group or Charles Ludlam and the Theatre of the Ridiculous and that explosion of energy going on in New York in the 70 & 80’s … all those. And working with Joe Chaikin who was formally with The Living Theatre with whom I worked as a kind of “sprog” assistant at La Mama when I first got to New York.

All of those things filtered in, in some way, and challenged your preconceived notions about how to handle narrative, stage space, and theme. It’s hard to specify a specific influence. What I will say is that whatever the different forms one tries to approach or work within … there’s something Joe Chaikin said to me when I was about twenty one that I’ve just hung onto that makes the best note I’ve ever had.

[ Chaikin] said to me “I know you want to be a director and therefore I’m going to pass on to you this bit of advice that comes from all the years we were creating the avant-garde Theatre of the 60’s. At The Living Theatre we were doing anti-war protests; we did nudity, we did boredom, we did turning on the house lights, we did all these things that now have actually filtered through to what you would call the mainstream Theatre. The one thing I carry away from that, that I think can apply to all Theatre, is that there is no excuse for an audience to leave a Theatre with less energy than they came into it with.”

What a great note! I think that as long as you head there, then the rest is courage and boldness and trying to push the envelope. You are still involved in a public and popular art form; you need to take people with you. People are very sophisticated, and audiences as a group are not conservative. They are capable of the most incredible leaps, but they are not going to take anything away from their own humanity. I think as soon as the Theatre becomes cerebral and intellectual it starts losing steam so whatever the forms, there has to be an emotional artery that runs through them. And I don’t think there is such a thing as Theatre that doesn’t involve that.

Jessop: In your work, how do you find the balance between spontaneous moments of imagination and adhering to your pre-existing ideas or the pre-existing conventions of the piece you are working on?

Leveaux: It’s a perpetually renegotiated balance because there is no freedom without organization. So therefore obviously when I enter a rehearsal room I tend to have in my head a kind of comprehensive intuition about the shape of the thing that we’re working on; that there is a sort of emotional grammar about what it is we are trying to achieve. If you don’t have that, then there is no authority to the working process. What appears to be freedom just leads to kinds of endless blind alleys and people become dispirited and exhausted; so organization and pre-organization is very important. Having said that, not having the flexibility to respond to a possibility [in the rehearsal room] that was far outside of anything that you yourself could have thought of at that moment ... not to respond to that is just foolish. So maybe I think of organization as being the kind of fundamental requirement to permit spontaneity.

Jessop: You know, I believe that Mikhail Baryshnikov said that “self-discipline is the only road to true freedom”.

Leveaux: And he would know. I think it’s generally true. The problem is that organization or discipline minus imagination is tyranny. Discipline plus imagination is art. You have to renegotiate it at all times. The whole point of forms is that they are there to hold life as intensely as possible. But without the form there is a loss of intensity. The thing falls away into banality or ordinariness. That’s why we have form. But we don’t have form to block out life or, if you do, it’s not a form, it’s an ideology. And that won’t stand up for more than about five minutes under the interrogation of an actual rehearsal with real human beings.

Jessop: If a typical theatrical production had the budget of a block-buster Hollywood film would that enhance or detract from the production?

Leveaux: I’m not quite sure how I’d spend 80 million dollars on a show. But I’m always amazed at how I’ve never, under any circumstance, ever come up with a design (with a designer) that was not mysteriously over budget. It’s one of the enduring mysteries to me. I just know that if I said, “We are going to put a grey square of carpet down on the stage and that will be that,” [someone] is going to come back to me and say we are still four thousand pounds over budget. How is that possible? It’s one of those real mysteries.

If you’ve got a small idea, spending more money on it is only going to make it a more decorated small idea; it doesn’t necessarily lead to something more energetic or startling. Of course, there are some things, like big musicals, where you would love to be able to have a budget where the sky’s the limit. I think we all have that fantasy. Robert Lepage, when he made in Vegas, had a budget that was almost without ceiling. It was one of the most stunning visual coups that I’ve seen in an age. But that’s Lepage. I think the truth of the matter is you do not need an inordinate amount of money. You can have an inordinate amount of money and produce an absolutely dead piece of Theatre. No question. Money is not going to inject life into the Theatre. There is either going to be life in it or there isn’t. The trouble with the Theatre is that however much you want to divert attention from something that’s dead in its center, the more dead the center seems to be. You know, the Theatre’s ruthless like that; you shouldn’t need millions and millions and millions to make a piece of Theatre. Somebody can make something for a few thousand dollars that you never forget and they can [also] make something for 35 million dollars that you’ve forgotten even before you’ve made it out onto the street.

I’ve got nothing against the spectacular because I love the spectacular. I think anybody who thinks that’s the sort of surefire way of having something successful is very wrong. The history of the Theatre proves that. Audiences know when they are sitting watching something alive or not, and they are not impressed by the amount of money spent on it. Maybe for the first two minutes; but then they are going to want something else and if its not there, it’s a waste of money.

Jessop: You’ve worked in other countries/cultures different from your own. What has that been like for you?

Leveaux: The country most unlike my culture that I’ve worked in most was Japan. We made a company of entirely Japanese actors which we had for about twelve years. I spent a lot of time there and what I loved about that was the kind of feeling of being off-balance, of being in an environment where I couldn’t rely on any of the kind of ordinary hooks that I could recognize to spin my way through. I liked that feeling; it made me feel alive and I probably managed to do better work as a consequence. Talking about, you know, shedding the familiar to try to get at something lifelike. There was nothing familiar about Japan when I first went there and that was exciting. You know, they had very, very different Theatre traditions which are quite complex in Japan because it’s a traditional Theatre in the form of the Noh and Kabuki. And then there’s the contemporary, the Shingeki, which goes back to the early part of the twentieth century but has been through so many different changes because of the war, the occupation etc, etc. It’s a very, very remarkable place. What I take from it is, they made me think in the rehearsal room of another culture every single moment in one form or another. We find ourselves interrogating that culture because we’re testing things out in terms of language, of attitude … all those things that come into that rehearsal room. It made me think yes, you know one should actually be interrogating ones own culture in just as lively a way.

It put me off balance working in these different places and that’s been good for me. It’s not been good for everybody because frequently I’m asked by people, “Why haven’t you stayed consistently in one place? Perhaps if you didn’t keep disappearing off you’d be more famous or something … you know what I mean?” And I think well, yeah, but what’s the point? What’s the point of that? The point is to be able to have exposure to all these different cultures around the world; it’s a kind of privilege that I wouldn’t trade for the world. It feeds into the kind of work that I’m doing. Even now with what I’m doing with the Simon Gray play. I often think about Japan in terms of how relationships work, in terms of how space works … all those things. It’s worked for me even though I have to admit it’s not everyone’s cup of tea.

"I spent a lot of time in Japan and what I loved about that was the kind of feeling of being off-balance"

Jessop: Do you feel any special kinship with a culture outside of the one you were raised in?

Leveaux: Japan is an interesting one because there are many aspects of Japan … mainly because it’s an island culture that strikes you as having a real strong relationship with some things about England. That’s an odd thing but something that many Japanese friends of mine would also say is that they have an affinity to the English, perhaps more than any other culture. I think a lot of that has to do with being an island race. I also think with all of the differences within different cultures the really fascinating thing is about where we meet as people. That’s something so extraordinary to me that in the end you come down to this thing that I would call, without being wishy-washy about it, a shared humanity. That the differences that set us apart are nowhere near as extreme or as frankly interesting as the things that actually connect us. You can’t just assume that another human being from another culture is going to respond to you in the way you think is the “appropriate way” or the way you’re familiar with. If you are open to it, in the end you’ll find that you are granted access to their world and in so doing you realize that this has an echo in your own world. Things aren’t so visible on the surface, they’re more undercurrent. I got used to the idea of transplanting myself, as it were, to different cultures. Maybe that’s just because I’m a perpetual fugitive of some kind. You know it could well be a bizarre pathology in me that I actually like un-anchoring and then re-anchoring somewhere else. I don’t feel this yen all the time to bounce back like an elastic band to the place I call home. I don’t feel that need.

"Discipline plus imagination is art"

Jessop: Okay, it’s Monday and it’s still raining…

Leveaux: Going to rehearsal. (laughs) There’s a surprise!

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