AD World: An Interview with Tony Estrella of The Gamm

tonyThis is the second in a series on interviews where Epic Artistic Director Kevin Broccoli interviews other ADs in the area to create a more in-depth conversation about theater in Rhode Island.  This month’s interview is with Gamm artistic director Tony Estrella.

Kevin Broccoli: Like many other people, I was so impressed by Streetcar. I’m wondering how you approach taking on such a notable work. Is there added pressure because of its history?

Tony Estrella: Any play that can arguably considered the “greatest…” of its kind comes with a certain amount of cultural baggage and increased audience expectation. Streetcar comes with more than most, particularly the spectre of Marlon Brando whose performance as the original Stanley is considered the most indelible stage and screen performance of the 20th century and certainly the most influential. Ironically, it’s not Stanley’s play so focusing the action where it belongs — on Blanche — is the first step. From there you have to do your best to rethink every line as if it has never been performed before. I hope we created a production that honored Tennessee’s brilliance and complexity and allowed the audience to feel they were seeing it for the first time.

KB: The 2016 – 2017 season is going to overlap with a presidential election. Does that affect the way you plan that season and the shows that end up in it?

TE: Yes, we always are looking for plays that speak not only to ‘universal’ themes, but also directly reflect how we are living right now. This year, The Rant and Grizzly Mama are particularly on point. I think it’s important that theater matter not just in an essential sense but in a particular one as well. And that has been something that has helped to define the Gamm and hopefully will continue to do so.

KB: Is there something about a particular script that makes you want to direct it instead of having someone else direct it? Are there themes or elements that really speak to you?

TE: There’s no general rule, but I guess it starts by what drew me to the piece. If it was a particular character that I’d connected with very personally and it’s something I think I can do or will stretch me appropriately then I’m likely to want to act. If there’s something about the overall story, I lean toward directing. But then again, they are always closely tied together. A glib but somewhat instructive way to explain is that when I’m acting I think like a director and when I’m directing I try to think like an actor. In other words, when you’re focused on one character you have to remember to think always on what the play needs from you, and when you are focused on the play you ought to be thinking how to translate that to specific actions for each performer. What do they need to tell the story effectively, powerfully and clearly? In the end it all starts with acting for me. The most important relationship is that triangle of  actor, author and audience.

KB: Could you talk a little bit about wearing different hats as an artistic director? Is it challenging to go from being onstage, to directing, to dealing with the administrative aspects of running a theater, or do you find it helpful to be able to see the organization from so many different perspectives?

TE: There are so many aspects to the job. In the small not for profit theater world, you have to be able to do or at least be willing to try anything. There isn’t a job in the theater that I haven’t done. It’s a constant juggling of hats, but I’ve found that after so many years, they have all formed into one oversized and slightly absurd 10-gallon. The different facets of the job that you describe above become inextricable. They’ll boil down to one thing: Advancing the mission.

KB: The Gamm is known for doing work that pushes the envelope.  Do you ever get pushback from your audience about some of your choices, or have you cultivated an audience that expects and wants you to keep taking those risks?

TE: Occasionally, someone complains, but in this world that’s inevitable. Usually it’s from someone who has never been to the theater and takes a pot shot from the safety of social media or the comment section in the newspaper. But largely, our audience is incredibly smart and cares deeply. I think we have the best subscriber base that any artistic director could wish for. They passionately care for what might be deemed difficult or challenging or controversial in some circles. I don’t think they think in those terms, they are looking for and demanding powerful stories.

KB: Looking at your past seasons, there are certain playwrights who pop up again and again.  You’ve talked before about the special connection the Gamm has to the works of Shakespeare, but Martin McDonagh is featured this season as well, and he’s someone who’s work you’ve had great success with in the past. What about some playwrights’ work do you think makes them well-suited for the Gamm?

TE: I love McDonagh’s dark comic power. It’s uniquely theatrical and plays really well in small spaces. He writes amazing roles for actors and most importantly, shocks and delights the shit out of audiences in equal measure and usually at the same time. His plays, for all of their outrageousness, also seem incredibly human and moving to me. They are epic and intimate at once, and that’s something we strive for in everything we do.

KB: The space you’re working in is very intimate, and the work the Gamm does always has a strong sense of urgency to it. Do you find that these two things are connected? Does the audience being so close help create a stronger relationship with the actors onstage?

TE: Absolutely. Breathing the same air, sharing physical space in an intimate way is the one thing we can do that movies and TV cannot. It’s everything.

KB: One of my favorite Gamm productions was Red Noses, and it occurred to me that it might be difficult to do that production today because of dwindling attention spans. Is that something that you find to be frustrating and does it impact the work you do or choose to do?

TE: I hope not. Streetcar was only 15 minutes shorter than Red Noses and unlike Barnes’ masterpiece had no songs and far fewer jokes. Yes, length has become a challenge, but as an audience member I personally like spending time with a piece. So it becomes our particular challenge to keep the audience with us, not by dumbing down, but by concision, relentless forward momentum and great emotional depth. It’s what Shakespeare has demanded from us for 400 years and, if left uncut, he wrote only two or three plays that would clock in under three hours.

KB: Has there been a production that you thought best exemplified what it is the Gamm does or one that best reflects its message or identity?

TE: Too many to recount as I think they all do to one extent or another. I always like to think about how plays talk to each other. I’ll give two examples, a few years back we did back-to-back productions of Festen (based on the great Thomas Vinterberg film Celebration) and Hamlet. We deliberately produced them one after the other so that they might start a conversation in the mind of the audience. Both were family tragedies set in large haunted houses in Denmark. Set 400 years apart they were liked twins separated at birth and time travel. But together, highlighted in form and content what we do best, again the epic and the intimate, classic and contemporary and, most importantly, both matter right now. I’m very proud of this season’s opening one-two punch of Streetcar and The Rant for the same reasons.

KB: How often does the business side of running a theater conflict with your artistic side and how do you handle that balancing act?

TE: It’s always a conversation and a reality. But like all boundaries and limitations, they actually define the game and give it meaning. They help to shape your work practically but I think in the relationship between art and commerce, art is the first among equals. Commerce is the back seat driver, incessant and annoying, but occasionally helps you avoid the deer or oncoming traffic.

KB: Your work not only pulls in Rhode Island audiences, but also audiences from the Boston/Massachusetts area.  Do you notice any significant differences between those two groups in terms of what they enjoy or what they’re looking for when they go to the theater?

TE: I haven’t noticed any. I think Boston, as a bigger city, has more of a variety in what they can offer and if someone’ is making the hour trip down to Pawtucket that means we have something unique and artistically worth traveling for.

KB: Even though Rhode Island is such a small state, the theaters in it operate in vastly different communities.  Pawtucket is such a huge part of the Gamm’s history and its identity. How does the community in Pawtucket factor into your work?

TE: I grew up in this town for the first part of my life so I’m proud that we can provide this community with a kind of artistic work that didn’t exist when I was a kid. The city cares about the arts deeply and welcomed us from Providence to help it grow economically and culturally. We have a very intimate relationship with the schools from kindergarten through 12th grade, and I’ve seen our educators take our work into the community and make a real difference. We are not only an artistic institution but a community one, and have a responsibility to do our part to help improve the quality of life. Our work with the schools is immediate and local and is hopefully helping build the audiences and theater-makers of the future.

KB: What kind of growth most interests you when looking ahead?  (More productions, more performances, bigger shows, etc?)

TE: We need a slightly larger, more effective space. We’re fast outgrowing ours in terms of what we are capable of providing audiences, facility (space) is the key to the whole experience. Whatever it is, rest assured intimacy remains central.

KB: Is there a choice you’ve made over the course of running the theater that you now regret?

TE: Tough question, a play or two that didn’t  measure up to initial thoughts or expectations and millions of mistakes in every facet of what we do. Goodness knows we try mightily, but to quote David Milch, “Every skirmish is not a victory, chief.” But no major can’t-ever-get-that-one-back blunders… yet.

KB: Is there an artist working today (playwright, actor, director—or it could be a totally different kind of artist) who inspires you? Is there someone whose work you’re a fan of?

TE: Too many to count. Theater is the ideal art form if you have a magpie sensibility. I find I draw inspiration daily from novels, music, visual art, dance, movies and television. TV in particular has been overwhelmingly great and innovative and dramatically, I think, has given the theater more than a run for its money. In a crowded 2015, HBO’s “Leftovers” left me consistently pole-axed.