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Les Waters: Explorer With An Ear
AMERICAN THEATRE

December 1, 2007

For the director, every play -- new or not -- is terra incognita

In March 2005, the artistic director of Berkeley Repertory Theatre Tony Taccone asked Les Waters if he’d be interested in staging The Glass Menagerie for the company’s 2005/2006 season. It wasn’t meant to be a difficult question. Long before his arrival as associate artistic director at Berkeley Rep in 2003, the British-born Waters had proved himself adept at staging world premieres by the likes of Caryl Churchill, Wallace Shawn and Charles Mee as well as classics, having mounted productions of everything from Romeo and Juliet at the Public Theater to The House of Bernarda Alba at the Guthrie. He’d even done Tennessee Williams’ Suddenly Last Summer in 2002 as his “audition piece” for the associate job at Berkeley Rep. But Taccone’s proposition was met by an unexpected pause from his second in command. “I don’t know,” Waters eventually responded. “I’ll have to read it first.”

That Waters could have worked for so long on the American stage and not be familiar with Menagerie – he’d neither read the play nor seen it produced when Taccone called – at first startled everyone at Berkeley Rep. Then it became a cause for excitement. “Les had no preconception of the piece. To him it was like a brand new play,” says Taccone. When it opened in April 2006, Waters’ take on Williams’ semi-autobiographical drama about the fractured relationship between a pushy mother, her fragile daughter and maladjusted son in 1930s St. Louis sent the mothballs flying. For one thing, it was bleedingly funny. Larger than life in gaudy frocks that had – like the spindly matron inside them – seen better days, Rita Moreno’s Amanda Wingfield bounded about the threadbare set smothering and goading her children without once upstaging them. For another, Waters’ production took the drama beyond the usual, frequently dull autobiographical revelations about the playwright. Both claustrophobic and sparklingly translucent, Waters’ Menagerie was as delicate as a tiny glass animal and as potent as the myth of the upstanding south. The production deservedly received two extensions.

All plays are, in a sense, new plays to Waters, regardless of when they were written or whether he’s read or seen them on stage. The director embraces dramatic texts like an explorer surveys terra incognita and approaches each one in the same way: by listening to it very, very closely. Waters’ extraordinary ear is the one thing that his collaborators comment on time and time again. It’s the quality that enables him to tackle both the architectural rhythms of classical plays such as Woyzeck and School for Scandal and the evasive shades of complex new works like Adele Edling Shank’s adaptation of Virginia Woolf’s To The Lighthouse and Sarah Ruhl’s Eurydice. “His real power as a director is as a listener,” says actor Erik Lochtefeld, who appeared in Waters’ Menagerie and The Pillowman at Berkeley Rep. “Les is very attentive to the play as it is written,” says Ruhl. “He keeps distilling until he approaches the essence of what is intended textually. He listens very intently to the play.” Meanwhile, Mee compares Waters to a friend of his who always reads a poem ten times before making his mind up about it. “Les has an openness to listen to something for a long time before passing judgment on it. He lets ideas emerge from a text rather than imposing some hasty preconception on it.”

What this means in rehearsal terms is a lot of table work. Waters’ desire to absorb the words of a play fully before attempting to block it and his mistrust of approaching a project with a pre-determined vision impresses playwrights in particular. Before Jordan Harrison worked with Waters on Finn in the Underworld at Berkeley Rep in 2005, the dramatist had spent time with directors from what he terms the “let’s get this thing on its feet school” or the “bada bing bada boom school.” He wasn’t prepared for Waters’ method of creating theatre as an Englishman might a cup of strong, black tea – through slow steeping. “I was really floored that this director who had worked with Caryl Churchill and Chuck Mee was diving that deeply into my play,” says Harrison. “He really seemed to be at the beginning of a long search.” The long search can be an ordeal for some of Waters’ collaborators, though. Especially actors. “We were there for a week in a four-week rehearsal period just reading the play over and over again,” recalls Moreno of the Menagerie process. “I was dying to get up on my feet but Les just sat there listening and listening. He wouldn’t look at the actors’ faces, he was so busy listening.”

The only child of a steelworker father and homemaker mother, Waters was born on April 18, 1952 in the northern English seaside town of Cleethorpes. When he was two years old, his family moved to Scunthorpe, which, with the possible exception of Cleethorpes, is the most frequently lambasted place in the whole of the British Isles. (When in 1981 Scunthorpe residents voiced anger at the inclusion of the town’s name in comedian Spike Milligan’s book Spike Milligan, Indefinite Articles and Scunthorpe, Milligan replied, “we should like the people of Scunthorpe to know that the references to Scunthorpe are nothing personal. It is a joke, as is Scunthorpe.”) Waters calls his hometown “Scunny,” articulating the word like it’s something gray and sticky he found under his shoe. He hasn’t been back to Scunny in years. The last time he was in England was 2003, the year his father died.

In some ways, Waters’ appearance and manner reveal little of his roots. His accent is English, but not especially northern. He dresses with care: the expensive-looking navy jeans say casual. The dark, rectangular-framed glasses say intellectual. The red-and-pink-stripped, cowboy-style, button-down shirt with the embroidered floral motif says, “I dare.” Yet Waters’ physique and conduct still suggest something of his native Lincolnshire. It’s there in the unruly mop of graying hair that froths above his temples like waves scuttering across the North Sea, as well as in his wiry build, aquiline nose and North Wind-chapped complexion. He could be a character in an Alan Sillitoe novel. He even behaved like a Sillitoeesque misfit as a teenager, distressing his mother by hitchhiking down to London on his own at the weekends to see shows like Ted Hughes’ adaptation of Seneca’s Oedipus directed by Peter Brook. He’d sleep in the forecourt at Euston station (“the floor was heated there”) before hitching back up north for a week of school.

Waters sometimes has trouble wrapping his head around his journey from his grammar school days in Scunthorpe to directing plays on many of the U.K. and U.S.’s most prestigious stages. Waters directed the world premieres of Shawn’s Marie and Bruce at London’s Royal Court Theatre in 1979, and, for Joint Stock Theatre Company in 1984, Churchill’s Fen, which he mounted on both sides of the Atlantic at The Public in New York and The Almeida and Royal Court in London. Joseph Papp subsequently invited him to stage Keith Reddin’s Rum and Coke at The Public. Having found himself a U.S. agent, Waters spent some years living and working in England, while moonlighting to the U.S. to undertake directing gigs for American impresarios like Robert Falls and Des McAnuff. The last production he staged in London before accepting a position as head of the graduate directing program at the University of California, San Diego and moving to the west coast with his wife, theatre designer wife Annie Smart, in 1995, was Churchill’s The Skriker at the National Theatre in 1994. That production, with its malevolent sense of humor and twisted worldview, left a mark on many people, including American Repertory Theatre’s acting artistic director Gideon Lester. “I still remember Les’ production of The Skriker as if it were yesterday,” says Lester. “It was one of the strangest, funniest, scariest moments I’ve ever had in the theatre.”

“Before he left, Les Waters looked like he was going to be picked for one of the big directing jobs in England,” says The New Yorker’s senior theatre critic, John Lahr, who followed Waters’ trajectory on the London stage through the 1980s and early 90s. It’s taken some years, but Waters’ career now seems poised for a similar leap in this country. Since winning an Obie Award for his world premiere production of Mee’s Big Love, which he first developed with his students at UCSD in 1999, Waters has earned himself a formidable reputation for his work on contemporary drama in particular. “Les is perhaps the most accomplished directors of new plays in the country,” says Lester. Time Out New York named his off-Broadway staging of Anne Washburn’s Apparition as one of the Best Five Plays of 2005. Waters’ production of Eurydice appeared on The New York Times’ Top Ten Plays of 2006 list. “Eurydice was one of the best directing jobs I’ve seen in a long time,” Lahr says. “Ruhl has found her director in Lahr. She should sign him to a contract.” In the coming months, Waters will stage the American premiere of Will Eno’s Tragedy: A Tragedy and a workshop of Ruhl’s new play about the use of vibrators as a treatment for female hysteria in the 19th century, tentatively entitled The Operating Theater, at Berkeley Rep. Elsewhere, he will oversee the world premiere of Mee and Stephen Greenblatt’s romantic comedy about Shakespeare’s lost play, Cardenio, at A.R.T. His production of Harrison’s pop music-inspired Doris to Darlene is currently playing at Playwrights Horizons through December 23.

Waters’ growing success stems from several factors beyond his strength as a listener. One is his subtle yet powerful relationship with actors and playwrights. Dramatist Paula Vogel (who teamed up with the director for her play Hot ‘n’ Throbbing) has dubbed Waters “the Zen director” because of the way he gets the nuances he wants from actors and playwrights seemingly without trying. Ruhl is transfixed by the director’s way with actors. “He tends to give actors a great deal of freedom and gives very few notes,” Ruhl says. “Call it Svengali or some strange kind of mind meld, but I swear that the actors become better simply by being watched quietly by Les.” Moreno corroborates Ruhl’s observations: “I never heard Les say ‘don’t do it that way’ or ‘do it this way’ in rehearsal. As I got to know him and understand what he was after, I began editing myself in a way that I thought would be pleasing to him.” Harrison’s collaborations with Waters follow a similar vein. “If a director or dramaturg comes to me like a trial lawyer with a list of very logical reasons to make a change in the script, I’ll be inclined to mount an equally logical defense of the problem area. Les knows that if he simply directs my eye towards something by saying ‘what do you think about X?’ I’ll be exacting on my own.” Waters, for his part, takes a less benign view of his process. “Really, I’m manipulative. I’ll let people think they’re making choices but what they don’t realize is that I’ve quietly closed doors around them.”

Another reason behind Waters’ formidable talent is his ability to preserve the complexities of a play while inviting the audience in through the seamless marriage of visual and textual metaphors. In Eurydice, for instance, Ruhl’s blurring of certainty and enigma was memorably visualized in the vast shower room set, where blue-green wall-tiles inscribed with letters morphed over time to become messages from the dead to the living from Hades. Meanwhile, in the mesmerizing dinner party scene in To the Lighthouse, the characters articulated their internal thoughts out loud, while miming their external conversations with each other. This conceit simply and sublimely dramatized Woolf's stream-of-consciousness technique, while allowing the characters and their conflicts space to dance like the flickering candle flames endlessly reflected in the mirrors on stage.

Waters’ profound personal connection with his material further strengthens his directorial vision. “I have to stick myself to the play in some sense,” Waters says. “I have to find something that I’m obsessed with in it.” Sometimes patterns in his work emerge subliminally from the director’s own life, often recognized only in retrospect. Seeing Eurydice as “a conversation with one’s father,” The Glass Menagerie as “a conversation with one’s mother” and To the Lighthouse as “a conversation with one’s family,” Waters acknowledges the resonance of these works with where he was in his own life at the time he created them, as the father of three growing children and a son adjusting to the loss of his parents. Sometimes he feels such a strong personal link to a project that it informs the creative process explicitly. Churchill’s Fen, for instance, contains references and direct quotes from Waters’ mother and her family. “In no sense could I say that the play was based on my mother but she did come from a long line of deferential workers, and the theme of thwarted desires and ambitions resonated with her in a deep way,” Waters says. Unsurprisingly, Waters’ mother felt betrayed by the play when she saw it at The Court.

During his eight years at UCSD, Waters would sometimes walk across campus to the cliffs in the sunshine, look out across the Pacific Ocean and say to himself, “I’m a working class kid from Lincolnshire who became a theatre professor at a southern Californian university. This is bizarre.” It’s been more than 12 years since Waters left England, but the director still feels ambivalent about his homeland. He says he misses London but thinks that the city “beats the shit out of people.” He’d be interested directing plays in England again, but wouldn’t want to live there permanently. “I’d be surprised if people know who I am there today,” says Waters of the U.K. theatre scene.

The founder of Joint Stock Theatre Company and artistic director of the Royal Court from 1979 to 1993, Max Stafford-Clark, for one, hasn’t forgotten Waters, even though the relationship between the director and his former protégée has been through ups and downs since Stafford-Clark first singled out the young, Manchester University graduate to be his assistant from a pool of mostly wealthy, Oxford and Cambridge-educated directorial hopefuls. “My relationship with Les was close. He was very promising,” Stafford-Clark reminisces. When Stafford-Clark was in New York this past fall directing J. T. Rogers’ The Overwhelming at the Roundabout Theatre, Waters popped in to say hello. It was the first time the two men had seen each other in over a decade. The reunion was brief but friendly. Reached over the phone, Stafford-Clark sounded pleased about Waters’ success in the U.S. “I backed the right horse all those years ago. I’m glad he turned out to be a winner.”

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