We had a chance to sit down with Steve DiUbaldo & David Mendizábal, who have been awarded The Clifford Odets Ensemble Play Commission and The Lee Strasberg Directing Fellowship, respectively. They share intimate takes on their processes, the beginnings of the upcoming piece, and how this project is similar to and different from their other works.
Steve DiUbaldo is a Brooklyn based writer. Plays include Under the Water Tower, Boomer’s Millennial Hero Story, It’s Only Quiet in the Dark, and Exposure, among others. His work has appeared in Chicago, Los Angeles, and New York. He is a member of the Rattlestick Playwrights Theatre apprentice company, “The Middle Voice.” He was a 2014 terraNOVA Collective “Groundbreaker,” is a member of Page 73’s 2015 “Interstate 73” writers group and was a recipient of “The Rita and Burton Goldberg Playwright Foundation Fellowship” and the “Excellence in Playwriting Award” at NYU, where he received his MFA in Dramatic Writing.
David Mendizábal is a director, designer, and Producing Artistic Leader of The Movement Theatre Company [TMTC] in Harlem. At TMTC he conceived and directed Look Upon Our Lowliness by Harrison David Rivers, produced by Deadria Harrington. He also directed the North-American premiere of Bintou by Koffi Kwahulé, translated by Chantal Bilodeau, nominated for three AUDELCO Awards. Other directing credits: And She Would Stand Like This by Harrison David Rivers (20% Theatre/Prelude Festival), AT BUFFALO by Dr. Amma Y. Ghartey-Tagoe Kootin, Joshua Williams, Khalil Sullivan (NYMF/CAP21), Evensong by Christina Quintana (INTAR), and Ashé by Ricardo Pérez González (UP). Andrew W. Mellon Artistic Leader Fellow at the Los Angeles Theatre Center/Latino Theatre Company for Encuentro 2014. Alumni of Drama League Director’s Project, The Civilian’s R&D Group, Lincoln Center Directors Lab, LAByrinth Intensive Ensemble. Steering Committee Member of Latina/o Theatre Commons, The Sol Project, and La Cooperativa. B.F.A. NYU/Tisch – Playwrights Horizons Theatre School. www.davidmendizabal.com
“Writing for actors onstage has been a philosophy of mine since I started writing. It goes back to when I wrote my first play, when I was the age of many of the actors who are going to be in this play.”Steve DiUbaldo
Could you both introduce yourselves and what you’ll be doing in the actual project?
David. I’m David Mendizábal; I will be directing the play by Steve DiUbaldo with The Practicum students. The play doesn’t exist yet, or…
Steve. It’s in the process of existing.
David. It’s in the process of existing, so we will work together once we have our first draft, have a couple of read-thrus, start rehearsing, and put together a play from scratch for an ensemble. I am one of the Producing Artistic Leaders of a theatre in Harlem, called The Movement Theatre Company. Our philosophy is about collaboration, collaborative creation and leadership, so we’ve developed lots of new plays by artists of color uptown in a variety of different ways: solo works, playwright-driven, and devised, and we really believe in matching the process to the work as opposed to sort of placing the process on top. In that sense, I feel really prepared to figure out organically what this process will be in the room but also go in and have a point of view.
Steve. I’m Steve DiUbaldo. I’ll be (one of) the playwright(s) for The Clifford Odets Ensemble Play Commission. I will be writing a play for ten actors in The Practicum, who I’ve met with one-on-one and, from there, form a play around them. I’m also a member of The Middle Voice Theatre Company, which is Rattlestick’s apprentice company. I’m working on another play for a workshop now, and in the very beginning, the idea was to specifically write it for two of the actors in the company. Writing for actors onstage has been a philosophy of mine since I started writing. It goes back to when I wrote my first play, when I was the age of many of the actors who are going to be in this play. I was 21, in college, and I had a few scenes written. We had six months to have the actors inform the character and vice versa, so without even knowing it, I started that natural process that I carried with me in my writing. My favorite thing that I like about writing plays is getting to work with the actors. Having met all ten of them, they’re all very serious-minded, driven, deep-thinking artists, and I’m just really excited to get to collaborate with them, and with you (to David), of course.
That’s very interesting. Can you talk a bit about coming in with this very specific intention to write for actors and how that may differ from other intentions?
Steve. I don’t think it’s something you think about very much; I think it naturally happens if that’s how your brain works. It just happens that’s how my brain works. It helps a lot to have the body and the person when you’re thinking of the character, because you’re sitting there by yourself writing words that people are supposed to be saying at some point. It’s really helpful to just have a soul connected to it. It operates mostly on instinct, I think, for the writer. It’s kind of difficult to explain, but it’s just having that person, having that spirit and whatever connection you have to that actor to inform the character that you’re creating. That character can exist through that actor, and maybe you’re basing it off someone from your life. Maybe it’s an amalgamation of things. But whatever it is, they can feed into each other in a way that’s really exciting, and you have a destination. That’s really exciting.
To whatever degree you can talk about this semi-extant piece, I’d love to hear some of your thoughts.
Steve. To start with, I didn’t put an idea on it before meeting the actors. In the spirit of what’s being done here, I wanted to meet the actors and figure out a possible world in which all of these people could exist in a play and build characters that each of the actors could sink their teeth into, so it’s a full experience for everyone involved. In terms of the play, I do now have a subject for it. It’s going to be about the troubled teen industry, which instills the philosophy of tough love, so parents send their children out into the wilderness for a summer or for an extended period of time in the hopes that it will fix their kid. These camps are run by large institutions that don’t have very much jurisdiction, and the counselors are also teens, so it’s kind of an interesting dynamic that could get these kids in a play together.
And, David, can you talk a little bit about your approach to a piece that’s in development and has a preselected cast?
David. Yeah. Steve and I interviewed for this gig separately, but it turns out we’ve actually worked together before. That’s exciting. For me it’s always exciting knowing the playwright, having been in a room with them before. We worked together on a new play development type process, so we had a chance to see how the other one approaches new work. This is my jam! I love working on new plays. I’m not a writer, at all; I don’t even tweet. I think being in the room with a playwright is such a gift.
I actually really enjoy and have developed many plays where there are- what I like to call- the muses. This time, we were gifted our muses, but the piece is pulled from what they bring into the room. Steve has a really great idea for a world and characters and, as a writer, he knows everyone. He’s met everyone now, and his part is the nuances that he picks up. My part is the physicality, how to stage what has been written and make it exciting, draw from what we have, and also push everyone in the room to go beyond what they think they can do. I think that’s the greatest part about this process. Also, in terms of a text that’s not finished yet, that’s also so exciting, because you don’t know where it’s going to end. You just keep digging into it and asking questions, and the best thing is that the writer is in the room! They can decide to outwardly answer them or answer them in the next draft, and that’s the give and take.Everyone in the room has a different approach to story, whether it be sound, movement, inner life, backstory, anything… So I am really excited about coming into a room where everyone has the same tools, but at the same time, they all have their hidden tools as well.
“Everyone in the room has a different approach to story, whether it be sound, movement, inner life, backstory, anything… So I am really excited about coming into a room where everyone has the same tools, but at the same time, they all have their hidden tools as well.”David Mendizábal
This is a question for the both of you. Knowing that you’re working with an ensemble of actors who are specifically trained in The Lee Strasberg Method Acting™, do you have any impulse to use some of the skills specific to that type of training or push these actors in a way that they may be especially prepared?
Steve. Yeah, I certainly want to create characters that have an inner life that exist on the page already. A big part of our process will be coming in with a play for ten characters. It is going to be a lot of work in the room, working with these actors, and I’m going to be interested to see what they find from the characters. The play being set in the wilderness, in this kind of dislocated setting, I think it actually adds a lot to that inner life, and a big part of it is turning your isolation into solitude. I think those theories translate very well to The Lee Strasberg Method™, and meeting with the actors, I found that they were really excited to have the opportunity to explore a character created for them while also using their training in a more traditional sense.
David. Yeah, there’s a self-help relationship book called The Five Love Languages. I learned a lot from reading it, and I started to adopt that model into my belief of my role as a director. It says that everyone has a different approach to love, and maybe you have to find what their language is. As a director, it’s similar; everyone in the room has a different approach to story, whether it be sound, movement, inner life, backstory, anything… So I’m really excited about coming into a room where everyone has the same tools, but at the same time, they all have their hidden tools as well. I’m not trained in The Lee Strasberg Method Acting™; I’ve worked with actors who have been, and I’ve learned something about working with them. I hope that they’ve learned something about working with me, because outside of an institution like this, they’re going to be working with ensembles of people who come from so many different backgrounds. The role of the director is to be able to communicate that singular story to everyone in the room, so if that means you have to speak in one way to someone and another way to another one, you go about doing that to make sure that everyone exists in the same play. I’m excited to see and learn how those tools are put into play when working on a new play.
Steve. I’m really excited, too. It’s a situation where the muse is also the template. It’s certainly an opportunity to have met with each actor, have a very genuine conversation, and get to know each other to then use that as a muse while also building the character on them as a template. I think it lends itself perfectly to The Lee Strasberg Method™.
“I definitely want every actor to have a full experience and a full experience in their character.”Steve DiUbaldo
Do you feel any sort of pressure to make sure everyone gets a certain amount of stage time or dedication?
Steve. I wouldn’t call it pressure, but I definitely want every actor to have a full experience and a full experience in their character. I’m not a huge believer in stage time and lines being what makes something important, but I do believe that if a character exists in a play, they should have a full life. They should have a reason to be in that play, so that is what I’m most focused on. It is an ensemble play; there is no doubt about that, but getting into it, the core storylines will come out more. Certain characters will come up and have stronger wants and placement in terms of story, and I think this process will be great for finding the stories for each character. Whatever presents itself early may not be what it is on opening night. It definitely won’t be, actually.
David. I would agree with what Steve said. I don’t necessarily think that whoever has the most stage time is the one that you’re going to remember, you know what I mean? You see that a lot in movies, theatre, and television. It’s about the impact of the role on the greater story. For me, it’s about making sure that every character onstage has a full life, and that full life can take place in a moment that is silent. Whatever that moment is, it should be as rich and as layered as the primary storyline that we’ll follow. It’s my hope that when we get in a room where everyone understands that. That’s part of my job, to get everyone to understand that, at the end of the day, it’s about telling the story. Once we figure out what the story is, everyone will know what their role is in telling that story, and that’s where you get that importance.
How does the dynamic of the rehearsal room change when you have students?
David. That’s a good question. I don’t know that there’s a huge difference, necessarily. As a director, I demand a professional and fun room. We’re all there; it should be fun. That doesn’t mean that’s it’s not hard work, but we should want to be there. We should want to be diving in. We should be thirsty to ask questions and dig in.
In my experience, I’ve found that sometimes working with students or people who are early on in their careers, there is either more timidness to ask questions or the opposite; they’re diving in, asking more questions, and exploring more. Sometimes, with a more seasoned actor, they have their process down and are less inclined to explore. That sometimes can stop a process, and sometimes it expedites things. Sometimes you walk into the room, and you’re ten times ahead of the game because everyone has done homework. They know themselves, and they’re able to all be there. It’s going to really be about testing the pulse of the room to see where everyone is in the beginning and encouraging that people ask questions and be confident to make choices. In any play process you really need actors to come in and make choices, even if it’s the wrong choice, whatever that really means. It’s only when you have open communication in the process, I think, that everyone can really get on the same page. I have a feeling it’s going to be really fun; it’s going to be really exciting. From what I’ve heard, the energy is professional but hungry, hungry for an opportunity, and that’s exciting. Sometimes, you just don’t get that in a professional setting. Like, they’re not as hungry.
Steve. It’s true. After I had my meeting, that’s the most excited I’ve been.
Steve. I met all ten of them, and I was like, “Wow!” They seem like great artists, but they’re definitely great, hardworking people.
David. They’re trying to figure out their process also, which is great. I have to make room for that, as well, which will be a little bit different in this educational setting versus a professional setting. Room needs to be made to understand your process; I think that’s the only way an actor or any artist can really start to articulate what it is they bring and get stronger.
How do you see your role in the rehearsal room?
Steve. It’s always different with every approach and every dynamic between the writer and the director. My general philosophy is: I let the director direct, but once it’s something that concerns the story, that’s when we can have a conversation. I do like to have a lot of dramaturgical talks with my director. Oftentimes those have been outside of the room, but if it’s beneficial to have the actors involved in that conversation, it’s really fun and insightful to have conversations in the room. But when it comes to the actual scene work, I’m mostly concerned with seeing how it operates, not how it’s working. If it’s something textual that needs to be done, that’s when I’ll come in. If not, I just really enjoy watching the process and seeing choices that are made that maybe I didn’t expect to be made, because that’s not really my job. My job is to write so that other people can bring it to life.
“I think it is about this constant investigation of what exists rather than hypothesizing about what could exist.”David Mendizábal
You also mentioned excitement for working with playwrights in the room. I’m curious how having a playwright directly involved impacts your process.
David. Whenever you have a question, you can always turn to them and ask if you’re stuck. I strongly believe in playwrights, because I don’t write. If it’s been written, I believe that it’s my job to make it work or to find a way to make it work. Sometimes directors think they can fix the play. They approach it like it’s broken, and they’re there to fix it. I feel the opposite. With a new play, I feel like we’ve opened the box for a ten thousand piece puzzle, and my part of the process is to put the pieces together. It’s always about going back to the text. No one has a problem saying that Shakespeare’s perfect, so why not approach a new work in the same manner? Look for the answers in the play, and if you’ve exhausted the search and can’t find the answer, then ask for help. I think, then, the writer knows it’s not there. Sometimes, they know it so well in their heads, but it hasn’t been written down. I think it’s about this constant investigation of what exists rather than hypothesizing about what could exist. With what’s on the page, I have a lot of ideas and a lot of strong opinions about trends or rhythms. That has made for very fruitful collaborations in the past for me.
Steve DiUbaldo has been awarded the 2015 Clifford Odets Ensemble Play Commission, and is currently writing an original work, which will receive a full production featuring ten Practicum students. David Mendizabal, who has been awarded The Lee Strasberg Directing Fellowship, will be directing DiUbaldo’s play, which will run December 3-5, 2015. A Gala will follow the December 5 performance.
Learn more about the NYU Strasberg program here. Learn more about The Clifford Odets Ensemble Play Commission and The Lee Strasberg Directing Fellowship here.