Good times and bum times, David Cromer's seen 'em. The theater director followed his record-breaking production of Our Town off-Broadway with the total flop that was Brighton Beach Memoirs on Broadway and a perfectly fine Edie Falco/Ben Stiller House of Blue Leaves revival. Now the Chicago-based Cromer is back at the Barrow Street Theater, where Town used to live, for his next act: Nina Raine's Tribes, a surprising, entertaining and emotionally charged look at how one "conventionally unconventional" family of British intellectuals deal with the fact that the family's youngest member, who is deaf, has come back from school a grown man who wants to learn to sign. It is far more exciting than it sounds, trust us. As Cromer prepared for opening night, we caught up with him to talk about everything from supertitles in the round to exercise balls to saying "tits" on Gothamist.
So, good to be back at Barrow Street? Great, it's really great. You don't have to learn anything new and I don't like learning anything new.
Well, speaking of learning anything new...You're doing this play dealing with deafness and signing. Have you done that before? No, never have. Very limited experience with it. You know it's sort of like the line in the play, 'there were deaf kids at school and you were sort of aware of it.' You know, it's not a source of pride that I don't know anything about it.
What made a play about a British family dealing with deafness attractive to you? Well, the circumstances of any play are in a lot of ways kind of irrelevant, it's like they're only...just a way into bigger scenes, and to bigger ideas. And you know, the bigger idea here, was that you can be incredibly smart, you can be incredibly honest ,you can be incredibly funny. You can be all of these things. You can make yourself safe and you can protect yourself really well. You know? This family built this home and they were honest with each other and they informed themselves and educated themselves and they did everything you could possibly do to make your way in the world interesting and relatively safe and none of that is going to protect you from fucking up. From the dangers of something going south, from making a mistake that you didn't know you were making, making an error in judgement. That's so terrifying and it's one of the great vulnerabilities of walking through the world to me, is knowing that. Because there's almost no way to fully insure yourself against just fucking up.
Ultimately you sort of figure, what can you do? There's only one thing you can do and it's not a solution, it's merely one way to get through it. Sometimes there is nothing left after those fuck ups, but to have people to cling, have a group who will look out for you, you know? And O think that's something that almost all of us think about a lot. It's another way to think about that through the prism of these specific circumstances. In the meantime, the specifics of this play are incredibly interesting and unbelievably well explored by this writer. So it's these universal ideas in something incredibly specific. Like the idea of what were the decisions this family made about how they were all going to communicate with each other and how they were going to raise this kid.
I was impressed watching how everyone did have flaws. I was worried going in that you were going to have this saintly deaf kid and instead...Isn't that great? Isn't it amazing how that doesn't happen?
It was a relief. And I think the play even addresses that. There's a point where he says to them—I don't want to give too much away—where they say 'you're part of us' and he says, 'no, I'm not part, I'm your mascot.'
How involved was the playwright, Nina Raine, in the process? Very, it was great. We didn't talk that much actually, before we started. I'm bad at that. I was like, 'plays good, I'm going to do it and we're going to get really good actors.' She came in for casting, I think we were sort of feeling each other out and I think were were really digging each other by the end of casting. She went away. She came back for the first week of rehearsal and it was really so great to have her here that we kind of made arrangements for her to come back early. So she was here for the first week of rehearsal and just sat at the table with us and we talked about things and she talked about where things came from and she talked about what moments meant to her and everyone just got to talk about everything they felt like talking about and then she came back. She's been here for two weeks and she's staying till opening or a little bit past it, I think. So she's been there everyday, it's been great.
We knew that there would be people who signed and deaf people coming to the show. We thought let's not get aggressively confusing. I guess it's like saying we do a Chekov play in English rather than Russian. You know? We did want it to be as understandable and accessible to the American audience as possible. We also found very few ASL speakers who knew any BSL—it's not like we searched, but a lot of our advisors were like, 'They don't really know BSL.'
Because there is so much signing, and mumbling, you use supertitles a lot in the show. But they aren't static, they really seemed a part of the scene. How do you work with your team to plan all that out? We really set ourselves up to fail, didn't we? I wanted [the show] in the round because I wanted the real environment of the household. We wanted it to be, ideally, as articulate as the characters and to have a different character to them. So we did that. It was trial and error. We set out the goal to do it, then you had to design projection surfaces into the set and you have to paint the theater for projection as well and then really a lot of it was in tech. These brilliant designers can sit at a laptop and change the font and change the timing and change the arrangement of words very easily...it was just trial and error. We just did it back and forth little by little until we found the right thing. It's about economy of communication, what the best way for people to understand and not be confused by what's going on is.
Again, with the round, I was interested in that choice, only because there is so much sitting around the dinning room table. It means in this play—where a lot of the plot is involving lip reading—the audience can't always see the people who are speaking's lips! It was a really conscious decision. Someone interpreted it the other day as, 'you intended to push the idea that not everyone can communicate all the time.' No, I just said—there's a line in Boogie Nights where the director of photography for the porn film says to to Burt Reynolds, 'I'm dealing with a tricky shadows here,' while he is setting up a shot. Burt Reynolds says, 'There are shadows in life, baby.' And I take that on as a personal philosophy, that you can't see everything. And I don't honestly, necessarily get the idea, theatrically, that you get everything by seeing someone's face. Sometimes things are overheard, sometimes you get a back, sometimes you get alternate perspectives on things.
It's almost impossible to give the audience a single perspective on a show. I think we try to do that, we try to say, 'we'll give everyone the exact same picture,' but I don't think it's possible so I don't try anymore. I sort of run the other way and embrace the idea that you're going to be given a random position in this world based on what ticket you bought and you're going to get a completely separate experience and completely separate perspective on a situation because that's going to happen anyway. So why not embrace it?
Do you have a favorite perspective? I mean, I'm assuming you're watching from all four sides. Yeah, I like the corner by the stairs. And I really like the mezzanine, surprisingly. From the mezzanine you watch the whole thing play out in terms of where people are in physical relationship. When you're down on the floor, you see people in extreme depths of field, you're on the floor with everyone, so you're sort of in the room with them. You know, I sort of like them all to the extent that I like looking at my work, which is not that much. Which is a shame. It frustrates me. I like the oddness.
I'm trying very hard to do less. I have an enormous responsibility to the audience, I also have a responsibility to do less fake stuff. And my greater responsibility is fake stuff, it's people constantly moving around so you can see everyones face all of the time and once you're doing that you're just spinning around and around and around and then we just become strippers—we're just making sure everyone can see our tits all the time. I'm not a fan of that. Can I say 'tits' in the Gothamist?
Sure. Ok, good.
Moving on, I thought the set was really interesting. I've seen, now a number of your shows and there are always these interesting small touches, like in this show there is an exercise ball and a chair it goes with that was never talked about, never used, but seeing it you immediately knew a ton about the mother because of the way her chair projected. It's the chair she wrote in because she had just become a writer. So she had created a little area for herself down at the end of the dinning room table, which is where she wrote. And you know, there was this sort of day where she thought about what she wanted to sit at while she was writing and she went on the internet and got that.
It was interesting because in some of your shows you've had some very detailed sets—and some less so—along with the combination in Our Town. How aggressively do you set out for your sets to be realistic? It's what the show asks for. Our Town literally asks for nothing and then we made this alternate decision to have that section where we did something.
Wait! Is that considered a spoiler now? Hmmm. I think it's still considered a spoiler, yeah. I mean, the shows been closed for almost two years. The Tribes set, what sort of spoke to, you know, their home life is incredibly important. None of these people have jobs outside of the house. The father writes at home, the mother writes at home, the children are all back home, Billy's just come back home. They all live there. So it's their home. And we really decided they like their life, they like being together. The parents loved having children. They loved having this family and they're all adults. They're going to France together. The script seemed to keep dictating that it was all one room...it was a room with a piano, it was a room where they ate, it was a room where there were books, so you realize it was this all-purpose family room. They had ultimately, whether consciously or unconsciously, built this place where they didn't have to leave very much. There was a tea kettle in it, so you're like, well, it's not the kitchen...so they have brought almost all of the bare necessities into that room so that they can all be together. There are places to lay down, there's places to sit down, there's places to eat, a place to work, there's light, there's music, there's a piano, there's a stereo. So then the nature of it became, what is the family room they've created? So then it just demanded that we fill it with a lot of detail and it tells us where they traveled and how long they've been there. Some of that furniture is 30 years old, some of it's 20 years old, some of its 10 years old, some of it's five years old and the exercise ball came two weeks ago on the internet. So it's just lived in. There's this big bowl in the middle of the kitchen table that has phone chargers in it and it has phone chargers for phones they don't make anymore.
Well, that all really does become evident the minute you walk into the theater. Meanwhile, the show is a bit tricky to describe to the average theatergoer. How would you describe this show in a quick logline to people? I am so bad at that. I'd say, being a member of a family is calculated guessing... Or, maybe, 'sometimes words might fail and you just have to go out and say I love you.'
That works, I guess. After this show is done, you are heading back to Chicago to do a production of Rent. Then what? Yeah, I'm going to do Rent at the Goodman in Chicago, then I'm going to go to Boston and do Our Town and after that... I'd have to look.
Fair enough. Last question! Has being a certified McArthur "genius" made your life better, worse, the same? No comment! [laughs] No, I'd answer that but I'm sooo smart you wouldn't understand. It has made my life much better. It's not called that "genius grant", you know what I mean? The grant is an amazing compliment and the money has been an enormous freedom from worry. The money has taken away a lot of worries. But like I said about the play, you can have all that and it's not going to stop you from fucking up. So it's a little bit better. For a second.