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CurtainUp Talks With Director Ethan McSweeny: Part 2

Les Gutman Interviewer
In Part 1 of this interview, we focused on 18th Century France, discussing Ethan McSweeny’s direction of Marivaux’s The Triumph of Love at Washington Shakespeare Company. In Part 2, we will time travel forward to Chicago in the 1920’s, to talk about John Logan’s play about Leopold and Loeb, Never the Sinner. McSweeny directed the play at Arlington, Virginia’s  Signature Theatre last summer, and through three transfers: to Columbia, Maryland’s Rep Stage, to New York’s American Jewish Theatre and now to a large off-Broadway stage, the John Houseman Theatre. (Links to CurtainUp’s DC and NY reviews can be found at the end of the interview.)  We'll also inch our way toward the 21st Century to try to discover what's in the future for this up-and-coming director that CurtainUp recently selected as one of two "most innovative" directors on its Mid-Season "Most" List (see link below). 
CU: How did you get involved in the Signature production of Never the Sinner?
EM: It's never supposed to work like this in the theater, but Eric Schaeffer [Artistic Director of Signature Theatre] called me and said, "Hi, I've got this play and all I need is a director." We met, I read the play, I pretended to take two weeks to think about it and then I called him and said yes. When Eric told me about the play, it sounded interesting -- although I truly did think that Leopold and Loeb were Sacco and Venzetti. So reading the play for the first time for me was like reading Hamlet without knowing how it ended.
CU: This was your first professional directing job. Not to state the obvious, but I assume you were pleased.
EM: I probably would have agreed to direct anything at Signature, because it was a place I wanted to work, but it happened that I loved the play. One of the good fortunes I've had in coming to the Washington theater community, and why I feel very strongly about it, is in part it's a place where someone like me can spend four years as the Assistant Director of The Shakespeare Theatre, get known a little bit in town and get offered good jobs -- good plays to direct right away. I never had any interest in my life in trying to con all of my friends into doing something in a garage in the Bowery. It doesn't really appeal to me. (Having said that I'm sure I’ll get to do that.)
CU: What did you like about the play?
EM: There's something endlessly fascinating about the presence of evil. What they did was evil and truly horrific. John [Logan] is very good about never losing sight of the horror of the violent act that they committed. By the same token, and I've said this in a few other interviews so I think I can say it is less of a confession now,  I quite like Leopold and Loeb. They were mislead; they were wrongheaded; but at the bottom of it all it's a play about hubris and wanting to be more than what you are -- aspiring to be too big for your own humanity. There was a reason the Greeks discovered that as one of the quintessential themes of the human condition.

One of the [other] things that appealed to me about Never the Sinner has been my feeling that there are very few American dramas about our history. This might be the influence of millennial thinking, but it seems to me now that this country is really 400 years old, it's time to have some dramas drawing on that experience. The Leopold and Loeb trial was one of several so-called "Trials of the Century". Reflecting on it seventy years later explores who we think we are and where we think we came from as Americans.
CU: What do you think has caused audiences (and even us critics) to respond to the play so favorably?
EM: I think the play is a surprise. I don't think people expect it. It's an intelligent play with big ideas being debated in it. It's not a four character play about why my mother screwed up my life. This one asks the audience to work hard. I also think we're celebrity trial inundated right now, and the sort of cultural celebrity  around the trial appeals to people, but it has ideas that are interesting to explore in theatrical terms. The play synthesizes a huge amount of material into a very dramatic, watch-able evening. The suspense of the evening is not created by whether or not they did it. The only "suspense" is whether or not they are going to get hung, but the clues revealed are aspects that hint at the un-understandable why.
CU: After having spent four years under Michael Kahn at The Shakespeare Theatre, is this your first experience working on an unknown play by a living playwright?
EM: Actually, I did the original NY production of the play about Lee Atwater, Fixin' to Die. It was still in its nascent stage and I was working closely with the playwright who became a friend and is a wonderful writer.
CU: Is there a difference in how you approach a contemporary play like Never the Sinner and a classical play?
In Never the Sinner, you're trying to understand the situation and the situation is not defined by the language whereas in most classical plays, language carries the action. But the principal of telling the story is the same. The method may be different. You may spend different amounts of time paying attention to different elements of the story. On a new play, you are concentrating on discovering psychology and in a classical play discovering the language.

I always thought – wouldn't it be wonderful to forget the story of one of Shakespeare's plays. How great to see Hamlet once without knowing what happens. When you know, you're not experiencing the play as plot but you're experiencing the path by which the plot is executed. Someone asked me about the influence of Hitchcock’s Rope on Sinner, and I said I haven't seen it. When I got Never the Sinner I became really interested in going to see Rope but I thought, if I see something as visually compelling as a Hitchcock film, my entire production is going to be an homage to him. So I tend to avoid things I think are going to skew my imagination. By the same token, I didn't go to Triumph of Love on Broadway.
CU: You are directing the show in the fourth space now. Have you made any changes?
When we moved to NY, I knew I wanted to tinker. I did some major redirecting of some moments with the boys. They had discovered a lot of stuff, but I was very conscious not to fuck up what made it work in Washington. John Logan had felt for a while that the second act had a weak spot in it -- it swings into being a trial drama and you lose Leopold and Loeb. So I cut a couple of trial scenes and the audience is a little more hung with Leopold and Loeb (no pun intended). I think that made a big difference in the arc of the second act. Also, [moving into the Houseman] will be the first time I've done the play on a proscenium so that's going to be what the rehearsals are going to be about for me -- re-staging some of it to fit a different audience and configuration.

We're enhancing the production substantially. The story of Never the Sinner in its first three locations was going to a smaller space each time and now we're growing it again. It's now going to go back to what it was at Signature which was slightly more (and I use this word guardedly) operatic, perhaps, and a bigger scale vision. The lighting is going to be very strong. Given the incredible limits of the space at AJT, it's going to be quite astounding. (I again have my friend Howell Binkley doing the lights.) I do want to keep the rawness of it. The set is very much meant to live in an empty space. It's very theatrical; we're not trying to fool anybody about that. You see the transitions; a chair is a car and so forth. I do want to keep that downtown theater quality.
CU: Is there a particular audience you'd like to attract?
People my age especially. I hope I'm going to get a lot more to see this play. I think it deserves a young audience -- it has dark humor, people who like Pulp Fiction are going to like Never the Sinner. We're going to have student discounts and stuff like that because I think a lot of the excitement of the play is about youth. and one of the things that made me the right director for it at the right time is my youth. The excitement I had being in my professional debut in Washington -- the same thing was true for Jason Bowcutt and Michael Solomon [who play Leopold and Loeb]. Part of the story of the production I think is the three of us were all assistants and apprentices at The Shakespeare Theatre together and so far our experience with the show has been, well, "beyond beyond…."
CU; What are the main influences on you as a director?
EM: The short answer is Michael Kahn, Michael Kahn and also Michael Kahn. What I should mention in addition to Michael is the company of The Shakespeare Theater many of whom became not only my personal friends but also my most significant mentors. That experience is unrepeatable, and for me going to The Shakespeare Theatre was better than going to graduate school. The company there represents the finest classical actors in the country.

My biggest influence as a director was sitting around my family's table growing up. We're Irish and the mode of discourse is to tell stories. Everyone is expected to have one to tell when you come to dinner. You may have to shout to get it heard over everybody else's -- it's not a big family but it's a very vociferous one. At all of our holidays and family gatherings the most exciting part was always the end of dinner when everyone would kick back and enjoy an after dinner drink and start spinning stories out that were variations on certain themes. Some of them you may have heard before but not exactly that way. That was also a principal of good storytelling -- the storyteller is licensed to improve the story as they will.
CU: Is there anything else you are particularly keen to direct?
EM: I don't have a list of projects I'm dying to do anywhere that will have me. Everything has happened so fast. Never the Sinner has enabled me to leapfrog over two or three years of my career in terms of where I expected to be. I can't wait for February and March, which are dark for me, to read some;  there are readings I’d like to do, some backers auditions I’d like to be involved in.
CU: Isn't something pulling you in a particular direction? Do you like the Irish playwrights perhaps?
EM: Yes I really do. I want to do some. I did direct a Brian Friel play once. He's wonderful and I’d like to do somebody else. There's this big explosion of interest in Irish playwrights and Irish theater right now. Joe Dowling just sent me a Frank McGuinness play he thought I might be interested in it precisely because it's an Irish play. I’d like to get in touch with my roots. I like them because they also tend to be language plays.

I love Tom Stoppard. Someday I'd like to get a chance to direct a new one. [This comment followed by a big smile.] In the future. There are a couple of Shakespeare’s plays I'm keen to do.
CU: Being in your twenties, there are people in that age bracket who are writing plays. Is that of interest?
EM: I’d really like to work with my contemporaries in the theater. I've been in an environment for four years where I haven't had many contemporaries in the theater or the experience of working with them. That's the biggest reason I intend to move to NY. I’ll always be a Washingtonian, but I want to be in the midst of that community to work on new plays. One of the nice things that's happened with my profile raising a little bit with Never the Sinner is that I'm starting to get sent some stuff to read and I love that. I haven't yet become very sophisticated about discerning whether I really want to do a play or am just flattered at having been sent it. I want to get to know people who are writing plays. I'm not a writer myself but I have tremendous respect for what the writer does. I'm keen to work. I'm inexperienced enough that there's not a lot I won't do. For me, there's always a value in learning something new.
CU: Thanks, Ethan. We'll definitely be watching.
NEVER THE SINNER is playing at the John Houseman Theatre, 450 West 42nd Street. Telephone (212) 239-6200.

CurtainUp's  DC Review of Never the Sinner
CurtainUp's "Second Thoughts" Review in NY of Never the Sinner
CurtainUp's Mid-Season "Most" List
©January 1998, Elyse Sommer, CurtainUp.

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