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Meet Shaun Peknic: Recipient of The Lee Strasberg Directing Fellowship

We had a chance to sit down with Shaun Peknic, who has been awarded The Lee Strasberg Directing Fellowship to direct Crystal Skillman’s upcoming Pulp Vérité for The Clifford Odets Ensemble Play Commission. He shares intimate takes on his processes and working with other theatrical artists.

Shaun Peknic is a theatre director with a focus on the development of new plays and musicals. He is the Associate Director for Once the Musical (Broadway, National Tour, West End, Toronto). Select directing credits:  Comes a Faery (Nylon Fusion Theatre Company); Sherlock Holmes & The West End Horror (Cortland Repertory Theatre); One Night In New York! (Musical Theatre Factory); A Snowfall in Berlin (Nylon Fusion Theatre Company); Pageant Princess (Bleecker Street Theater); The Girl With The Red Balloon (The Tank); Must Be The Music (ArsNova);Chaser (New York Fringe Festival); Aimless (Theatre Row); A Streetcar Named Desire (New York University). Shaun is an alumnus of NYU and the Lincoln Center Directors Lab, and teaches directing at NYU/Playwrights Horizons Theater School.

Let’s get started with a little bit about yourself.
Shaun. I’m a born and raised New Yorker. I grew up in Queens, and I went to NYU for my undergraduate. I got my BFA in Theatre there. I’ve been a freelance theatre director in New York City for the last 15 years, and I’ve worked all over. I’ve worked with a lot of small theatre companies. I’ve worked independently; I’ve independently produced my own work. I’ve directed at NYU, and for the last 3 years, I’ve been the Associate Director for the musical, Once, which has been a complete joy to work on a beautiful piece of art like that and get to dip my toes into the commercial theatre world. I’ve been working on the Broadway Production and the national tour, and I’ve traveled now all over the world with the show. I was just out of town directing a show for the last few weeks. I prefer working in New York when I can, but of course, you gotta go where you gotta go.

“Any time that there is an opportunity to develop a brand new piece of art in an environment that is helping the art grow, that is a dream come true for me.”

Shaun Peknic, Lee Strasberg Directing Fellowship recipient

What interested you in working with The Clifford Odets Ensemble Play Commission?
Shaun. Personally, I love new works. Of course, I grew up reading classic plays, and when I was in college and shortly after, most of the work I was doing was Shakespeare and Tennessee Williams and stuff like that. In the last 7 or 8 years, I’ve become much more interested in developing new work in theatre and have done a bunch of new musicals and have worked with a lot of writers on a lot of new plays. Any time that there’s an opportunity to develop a brand new piece of art in an environment that is helping the art grow, that’s a dream come true for me. The idea of working on a commissioned piece for a group of NYU actors, that alone was an exciting prospect, also to be able to work with a writer like Crystal. I’ve known her and her work for many years. We’ve been friendly but have yet to have the opportunity to actually create something together. This gave us an opportunity to do that.

Can you talk about how your process is affected by having a living writer involved?
Shaun. I love having a living writer. You know, theatre is a collaborative art, and I truly believe that everyone involved has to bring themselves to the process. When you’re working with a writer that’s no longer around, you have to problem solve by yourself, but when you have access to the person who wrote the piece, you can get that extra piece of collaboration. You can get that extra information. You have that extra eye watching the piece grow and develop. I not only love the process of working with writers, I spend a lot of time with writers in general, even outside of rehearsal rooms, where we sit, have coffee, and talk about the plays we’re developing. I tend to be kind of hands-on as a director in the creation process of new plays, but I love having a writer in the room in the beginning of the process and then again towards the end of the process. Where it becomes a little bit trickier is in the middle of the process. For me, the art of directing is often about going down the wrong path for a little while. Rather than always looking for the right answer in the room, sometimes I like to define where all the wrong territory is in the room. I usually will try to work with the writer to help them understand that sometimes actors need to make big, bold, weird choices. Sometimes they need to try things that are maybe ultimately not where the character is going to land. I also believe in the rehearsal process of the work of layering. Rather than trying to get a single choice that balances a bunch of different things, I like to create one layer of the character and then layer on a whole other completely opposite layer of the character and, then, find the balance of all those different. I also think it’s great when actors have questions. Sometimes  I like for them to work out those answers; sometimes I’ll come in and have my own point of view, but to have the writer’s point of view, as well, can be really valuable.

“I love working with a group, because I think that theatre becomes really powerful when it’s a group endeavor. To have the energy of a large group of people that all has the same level of investment  in the creation of the piece is a powerful thing.”

Shaun Peknic, Lee Strasberg Directing Fellowship recipient

Can you talk about, similarly, how your process will be affected by having this preselected ensemble and, especially, such a large ensemble?
Shaun. Well, I think the biggest effect it’s going to have on the work is that we’re writing the piece for the ensemble, so I think the ensemble will be an asset and nothing else. It’s actually really nice to be crafting something that has a large number of roles that we’re attempting to really evenly weight all of the roles, so everyone in the cast will have the opportunity to shine in some way. I love working with a group, because I think that theatre becomes really powerful when it’s a group endeavor. To have the energy of a large group of people that all has the same level of investment  in the creation of the piece is a powerful thing. Crystal has spent more time with them than I’ve been able to, but we’ve spent time looking through materials of theirs and having interviews with them, and we’re really trying to shape and craft the piece with their input and their interests in mind.

“I have seen a number of student projects through the years at LSTFI, and the level of work that is created there is a professional level of work, so we are excited to know that we have a really strong group of actors that into the room.”

Shaun Peknic, Lee Strasberg Directing Fellowship recipient

That leads to a similar question: To what degree does their training in The Lee Strasberg Method Acting® shape how you will work with them?
The main thing that we know is that they’re all going to have great acting training. I mean, I’ve seen their work. I have seen a number of student projects through the years at LSTFI, and the level of work that is created there is a professional level of work, so we are excited to know that we have a really strong group of actors that into the room. We are dipping into a world that is going to require a deeper, darker emotional honesty, and I do think that is directly related to the fact that we’re working with these Actors. If I had to say what I thought was the main strength of the The Lee Strasberg Method™ actor, it is that ability to tap into the well of honesty and emotional life and bring that to the surface. Our dialogue with those actors has been informing the direction that we’re walking down with the piece. Now, Crystal is a writer who can open up darker worlds but still find comedy and fun inside. Her plays often have a balance of those elements, and I’m excited to explore that dark, comic world that I’m sure Crystal will birth.

Have you had the opportunity to work with pre-selected ensembles in the past?
I have worked with theatre companies that have members that would fall into a particular project in some way, but I’ve never worked on a project where we had the ensemble in place first and then started writing the play after that. I will say that the majority of my work with writers that are working on new pieces are on projects that they’ve started and then they seek out a director to work with them on the development of the piece. It’s not even that common for me to have gotten in on a project wherein the entire creation of the process is starting at the same point, which is really exciting!

It is. It seems like a wonderful opportunity that it calls upon this lauded classical acting technique with a more experimental production timeline and trajectory for writing and directing.
Shaun. Yeah, which I find is like the world we live in today. I think that it’s so important to get the training of the great methods, the great teachers. Anne Bogart, in one of her books, says, “We need to stand on the shoulders of the giants who have come before us.” Right? We’re not doing this alone. And yet, at the same time, we’re living in a world where experimental theatre and classic theatre are overlaying each other much more than they used to. They’re not completely different worlds. To be able to use very contemporary techniques with classic techniques together makes for exciting art. Crystal’s interviews with the actors- who these people are right now in this space and time, their stories, the things that are important to them- all of that is going into the mill that Crystal is working with to birth this piece of theatre. For instance, we’ve had a number of conversations with students about the idea of social protest and how to engage in the world. One of the students was talking about walking out of his dorm on 14th street and seeing a huge protest happening in Union Square and wondering what the protest was for and if he should join or keep walking to the subway. We keep talking with the students about Facebook and how you interact with horrible events that are happening all over the world, and also it’s really easy to not engage with those things, even though the information is there. How we view what’s going on in the world and how young artists are interacting and trying to create art about it is a big part of the genesis of this project. At the same time, Crystal is going to write a full play. It’s not going to be a fully devised process; although I do imagine that once we start to get into the readings and the beginning of the rehearsal process, that that will affect and change the writing. Crystal is the kind of writer that’s not afraid to fully go down a path and throw it away to try something else if that’s where the work wants to go. I like that in a writer.

Given the direction that the work is going and this particular ensemble, what impact do you want to create on the audience and the actors?
Shaun. Well, that’s a couple of questions. We, as the artists involved in the creation process, are very excited about giving this group of actors juicy roles. You know, acting training is essential. I believe in it very wholeheartedly, and I also believe, in order to understand your training, you have to put it into practice. You have to be onstage, playing a role that requires you to use your craft and technique. It’s that dialogue between the performance and the time you’ve spent in class and rehearsal where you really start to understand who you are as an actor and an artist in the world. In terms of the relationship to the audience… you know, I view any performance, whether you’re doing something that was written 200 years ago or a brand new piece of theatre, I think we’re there to entertain the audience. I think that we ideally want to create something that allows them to see what being human is like. I think that’s one of the great values of theatre, for us to collectively examine, explore, and dream about what the experience of being human is about, the moments that connect us and set us apart. With this particular piece, Crystal and I are really interested in creating a dialogue with the artists and the audience about what it means to be alive in the world right now. It’s a piece that’s really about right now, about being young right now, being someone who is the generation that’s inheriting the world right now. We’re creating a piece that’s about artists, also, and we’re doing that so the actors can tap into that honesty. What do they understand more than anything else in the world? The role of being a young artist in the world. We’re crafting a piece that’s about that, and we’re hoping that there’ll be a dialogue with the audience about the youth and young artists of the world, their place, and how we’re all moving forward together.

Shaun Peknic, who has been awarded The Lee Strasberg Directing Fellowship, will be directing the upcoming Pulp Vérité by Crystal Skillman, for The Clifford Odets Ensemble Play Commission, which will run December 10-12, 2015. A Gala will follow the December 12 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.