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Red Light Winter goes to Poland: Interview with Laura Savia

Laura Savia is a faculty member of The Lee Strasberg Theatre & Film Institute®. She recently directed the March production of Red Light Winter, which was invited to participate in the International Theatre Schools Festival (ITSelF), currently running in Warsaw, Poland. LSTFI was first invited to represent the United States at ITSelF in 2011 and has been consistently invited back to participate for every incarnation since. Ms. Savia discusses her process and bringing the production to the international fore in an interview for The Lee Strasberg Theatre & Film Institute blog.

“What I love about The Lee Strasberg Method™ actors is – on their own before even the first day of rehearsal – they can plunge really deep into the emotional life of the characters… Their characters tend to be three dimensional very quickly.”

– Laura Savia

Q. What attracted you to this project?
A. I loved Red Light Winter since I saw the New York premiere about ten years ago, because it had some of the meatiest roles for actors I had ever seen, especially for young actors, and I love working with actors in their twenties. It’s not structurally perfect, but there’s so much humanity in it that it doesn’t matter, sort of like a Jackson Pollock painting. I always filed it away on my bucket list of plays I want to direct some day, and when Victoria suggested talking about a Poland project, I thought of the play immediately. It’s really a tough play; it deals with prostitution, rape, and HIV, and the female character- the only female character– is on the receiving end of all of that. I hadn’t heard of a production of this play directed by a woman, and I wanted the challenge of making that female role more than just the object of men’s actions, but actually a three-dimensional human being. It’s the kind of supernaturalistic, really high stakes acting that typifies american stage acting. It’s not avant garde; it’s not expressionistic, so I thought that representing the USA in a festival would be a really good choice, because it shows what we do best.

Q. Red Light Winter is an award-winning Pulitzer-prize finalist known for its challenging, sexual, edgy material. What was your process with directing this material?
A. The stage manager, Jen Jacobs and I, just wanted to make the actors comfortable, because it’s a lot to ask. There’s full frontal nudity for all three characters. My first job was to make sure the actors believe, as I believe, that the sex is essential to the story. It’s not gratuitous. The sex isn’t really about sex; it’s about a human being so stuck that the only thing they know how to do is to do something with their bodies, and sex is the only available tool. We did a lot of discussion and a lot of work at the table about why it’s there. Then we built a really safe space. We said, far in advance, which day was going to be naked day. On the day, we made sure that we had barricaded the door for total privacy. We worked in really dim light, so that even I could almost see nothing. We basically knew the play so well at that point, that the staging happened organically. It was like choreography; it was like micro-choreography. The lighting designer lit it really beautifully; it almost looks like an independent film, the way that it’s lit, so the audience understands that the sex is an expression of the internal lives of the characters. It’s not a porn-style sex scene, so I ended up feeling really proud of those scenes, actually.

Q. It’s not often that working artists can be involved in productions featuring other actors and directors who have experienced the same training. Can you talk a bit about working with other The Lee Strasberg Method® trained artists and how that’s impacted this production?
A. It’s interesting, because I teach at The Lee Strasberg Theatre & Film Institute, but I didn’t come up through it, and I don’t teach any method classes. I teach classes about how to build the bridge between the method and a professional working environment, so to be able to offer these young actors a professional working environment felt really natural to me. I’ve directed or taught here for six years, and what I love about The Lee Strasberg Method™ actors is- on their own before even the first day of rehearsal- they can plunge really deep into the emotional life of the characters. I can support them in that if I have to, but at other programs I find that the beats of a scene are in place, but they need a lot of help dropping in, as I call it. These actors- they have sense memory at their fingertips- have a lot of tools for going deep. Their characters tend to be three dimensional very quickly. Mike Turner, who plays Matt, is a really good example of that. Even now that we’ve already mounted the production and we’re getting ready to remount, he’s still finding greater depth for his character. He’s still finding the spine of his character in an even deeper way than he did in March. I think it’s the perfect play to capitalize on that, because they’re onstage for 30 or 40 minutes at a time with no break on the worst day of their lives or the best day of their lives. They need those tools to make it happen and to keep it interesting.

Q. In addition to the production this past March, this production has been invited to participate in the International Theatre Schools Festival in Warsaw. What is the significance of this opportunity, not only for the cast and crew of Red Light Winter, but potentially, also for the audiences in Poland being exposed to this work and The Lee Strasberg Method®?
A. I think this is an opportunity to update the international community on what’s happening in American theatre, because American theatre has its 20th century heroes. We have Tennessee Williams, Arthur Miller, Clifford Odets, and I think everyone at this festival will have heard of those writers. They will have maybe even done scenes from their plays in their acting classes, but we have- especially in New York City, an incredible tradition up to present day, of championing living writers and Adam Rapp, who wrote Red Light Winter, is one of the great living writers, and he’s young. I would love for Adam Rapp’s name to be on the tip of their tongues when we leave. I would love for them to go out and buy this play and all his other plays when we leave. For us, it’s also a chance to cross-pollinate with the rest of the theatre world. There’s going to be a play from Iran; there’s going to be one from China. I don’t even know anyone from iran, let alone have a chance to see their work and then go discuss it at the bar after. I think it’s nine other countries, so the chance to see their aesthetic in one week- it’s going to blow my mind. I hope I can let myself be influenced by all those different aesthetics and bring that back into my work here in the upcoming season.

Laura Savia is a faculty member of The Lee Strasberg Theatre & Film Institute’s program at New York University. Learn more about The Lee Strasberg Method Acting™ BFA program at NYU Tisch School of the Arts.

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