From directing to teaching, Gregory Mosher is a man of many talents. In this interview with The Pickwyck, he discusses working with notable playwrights, his newest production Love Letters and the appealing nature of theatre.
What inspired you to begin teaching? You have a dedication to the dramatic arts, teaching currently at Columbia's School of the Arts and lecturing at several Universities. What have you learned from your students? What is the most important lesson you want them to gain from their education?
- "The theater is changing or it's dying. I teach to download what I've learned, so that they can take what they can use - or rebel against what they find boring or stupid - and make something new."
What was your motivation while you were in college? What was your first big project, or one that meant the most to you?
- "When I realized I didn't have the innate skill to conduct classical music, I thought I'd try directing plays. Nobody asked me to, and I didn't get school credit. I just chose a play, put up a casting sign on the school bulletin board and did it."
When you began working as the Head Artistic Director of the Lincoln Center in 1985, you completely revitalized their theatrical life, allowing it to be more diversified by appealing to a younger audience. What is your reflection on theatre audiences today?
- "Many things conspire to keep young people away from the theater. It's not just Netflix/Hulu/Vudu (which I use as much as the next person) but price, convenience, and frankly value. I think audiences who have grown up on the theater care about it, and I'm not one of those people who wants to drive Boomers out. But we - which is really to say young theater makers - need to find a way to invite young people in, and then do work that makes them want to come back."
You have directed countless classic dramatic works throughout your career, what makes these plays so timeless and appealing to new audiences?
- "The great plays - the Greeks, the Elizabethans, the mid-century Americans like Arthur Miller and Tennessee Williams and many more - ask questions that are by definition timeless. Do I seek revenge for an evil act? Can I survive in a cruel world? Does what I do matter? What is my responsibility to my family, my country, my world? These plays don't, in my opinion, need "updating." They need to be rediscovered at the deepest, scariest level, which almost always turns out to be sex, power, and death."
David Mamet wrote this about your directing style: "Mosher's skills are based on respect for the text, the cast, and the audience." Are the audiences different in the West End versus Chicago versus Broadway? Do you consider this when directing a production?
- "I think audiences are mostly the same. They come willing to hear what you have to tell them. If you respect them, and the story you're telling, they'll be with you."
What has been the most challenging work you have directed? What production seemed to pull together seamlessly?
- "Oh man, they're all so hard. I have this theory that as a director you pay early or you pay late, but you always pay. And when the production is swimming along in a jolly way, that's when I get worried. "
In 2009, you directed the Broadway revival of Arthur Miller's "A View From The Waterfront," seventeen years after your last Broadway directorial project of Tennessee Williams' "A Streetcar Named Desire." What was the factor or factors that spurred you to return to the theatre?
- "I needed a break after almost 200 plays in 17 years. It was getting to be not so much fun. Then I missed it, and came back. Glad I did."
Is there a specific genre that appeals more to you as a director?
- "I like so many things. I like when they cry, and I like when they laugh. But I suppose I like most those scripts that are mysteries for us to present, and for the audience to experience. I'm not so big on message plays, regardless about how much I care about the issue, which is often a lot."
What are you most passionate about? Do you have any hobbies outside of your work?
- "I'm pretty good with a chain saw. Imminent potential physical disaster has a way of taking your mind off the problems you're having with the second act."
What was your earliest memory of theatre?
- "When I was really little, I saw Rex Harrison and Julie Andrews in My Fair Lady. That was fun. In high school I read Waiting for Godot, and thought I'd like to be doing whatever Beckett (whom I'd never heard of) was doing."
You have worked with writers such as David Mamet, Tennessee Williams and Samuel Beckett - what was that collaborative process like? How did they differ from each other?
- "Great playwrights understand that the actors, even if their goal is to just do the play, are going to bring things that the writer never could have imagined. And then they grab onto those things. They know this takes time, and there will be false starts. I like having the writer around. Mostly. Sometimes you have to remind them you weren't looking over their shoulder when they were typing."
Did you ever feel intimidated when working with the numerous playwrights you have collaborated with? Were you ever worried that the end result, be it a play or a film, wouldn't live up to their expectations?
- "Every single time. In the theater, you usually fail. It's very rare, maybe 3 or 4 times out of hundreds, that I thought it was as good as we were capable of."
Who would you want to collaborate with again (or for the first time) and why?
- "One reason i did Love Letters is that it was a chance to work with people I'd never even met: Mia Farrow, Carol Burnett, Anjelica Huston, Martin Sheen, Alan Alda, the great Diana Rigg and Stacy Keach. What a thrill that has been, and there are scores more, both young and old. There are writers who have their directors (the way Williams had Kazan, or Mamet had me), and I wished I'd gotten to do their plays. I'm always on the lookout for new writers."
What prompted you to get involved with "Love Letters"? What is it about this play that resonates with you?
- "I was just so moved by Gurney's idea that things tend not to work out. It's hilarious, of course, but Pete's point is that life is really, really, hard. Which is one reason we gotta laugh."
What would you like the audience to take away from "Love Letters"?
- "Don't wait 50 years to tell the other person you're in love with her/him."
What is it like reinventing "Love Letters"? Since the lead characters have been portrayed by several different actors and actresses, from Carol Burnett and Brian Dennehy to Alan Alda and Candice Bergen, how do their portrayals differ from their predecessors?
- "I hope that it will be different not just with each cast, but every single night. That's the joy, isn't it?"