Milwaukee Chamber Theatre

Interview with Director C. Michael Wright

Wednesday, February 11, 2015

A Long History with Fugard

By Michael Cotey

Michael COTEY: You've had a lengthy relationship with playwright Athol Fugard and his work, as both director and actor. Walk us through that history.

Michael WRIGHT: Athol Fugard is one of my heroes.

I first met him back in 1982, when I auditioned for the Broadway production of his semi-autobiographical play "MASTER HAROLD" ...and the boys, which he also directed. At the audition, Athol actually got up on his feet and read scenes with me! I'd never had a director - much less a director who also happens to be the playwright - read with me in an audition situation. But that's the kind of man he is. He's a true artist, totally invested in the work, diving into every project with his body, heart and soul.

Master Harold

L-R: Delroy Lindo, C. Michael Wright, Athol Fugard and James Earl Jones, "MASTER HAROLD" ...and the boys (1983)

I was incredibly fortunate to then be cast as understudy to the lead and was able to perform the role for two glorious weeks on Broadway. Immediately after that, I played the role in the national tour, which included a few weeks in Toronto and a tour of five cities in Israel. Not only was Athol my director, he was also my mentor and my guide. He used to take me out for breakfast and tell me in-depth stories about growing up in South Africa. What a gift that was to have personal background about your character handed right to you! I vividly remember how kind and generous he was to strangers; he was as warm and open with waiters and box office staff as he was with his artistic colleagues. But at the same time, he was never reluctant to fully speak his mind or fight for what he believed in. I consider him a man of great integrity and I really learned a lot from him.

Coincidentally "MASTER HAROLD" ...and the boys was the show that first brought me to Milwaukee. A year after I left the tour, I performed the role one last time at Milwaukee Rep. (That's when I first came to Milwaukee and I fell in love with the city!) And then, many years after that, I directed my own production of the play at Next Act Theatre.

COTEY:  And you keep returning to him. What is it about Fugard's work you find compelling?

WRIGHT: First and foremost, I love the issues he writes about. I've always been particularly attracted to stories about injustice and the struggle between the haves and the have-nots.

Even though Athol's plays are specific to his South African experience, his themes are universal. He's incredibly courageous, not afraid to tackle extremely difficult topics head-on, even though his work has often been banned in South Africa. He would often say that he doesn't consider himself to be a political writer, just a storyteller. But the stories he chooses to tell have such profound impact and resonance.

Besides that, his language is so beautifully rich.  There's an almost heightened, poetic quality to it, balanced with a surprising simplicity and purity. And yet he's not shy about including a visceral, sucker-punch to the gut that can leave you reeling.

COTEY: THE TRAIN DRIVER has been said to be Fugard's response to post-Apartheid South Africa. Does this play carry a different feeling than the work he wrote previously?

WRIGHT: The majority of Athol's plays, especially his earlier works, are all intense and hard-hitting. Some of his newer pieces have become quieter and more introspective, but THE TRAIN DRIVER is a definite return to his roots.

I find this quote from Athol pretty revealing: "This is for me the whole; it's my truth and reconciliation. I think all of my writing life led up to the writing of THE TRAIN DRIVER because it deals with my own inherited blindness and guilt and all of what being a white South African in South Africa during those apartheid years meant."

COTEY: Why this play? Why now?

WRIGHT: Not only do I have a long history with Fugard's plays, Milwaukee Chamber Theatre has one, too. Since this is an anniversary season, I thought it would be perfectly fitting to include one of his plays, combining my own personal history with MCT's. THE TRAIN DRIVER will be the fifth Fugard work produced here. (Interestingly enough, Shaw is the only playwright that's been performed here more than Fugard!)

Frankly I've wanted to direct this play ever since I first read it. But it's an extremely challenging piece. I needed to wait until the time was right for me to take this emotional journey to a very dark place. I wanted to make certain I was ready to commit to it 110%, just as Athol would, and approach it with enough clarity and focus.

Besides it's always time for strong, important plays that make you think about how you look at, and fit into, the world around you.

COTEY: How do you hope it will resonate with a Milwaukee audience?

WRIGHT: I hope it provokes much discussion about how we treat our fellow man and about the power of letting other people and other cultures into our circle.

COTEY: How do you prepare as a director?

WRIGHT: That varies pretty dramatically from project to project. I always try to read the script a lot, highlighting important lines or sections and making some notes. Sometimes I jot down staging ideas; sometimes I even play with the scenic model, arranging furniture and moving figures around. Sometimes I like doing fun research, like exploring artwork, music, films that just inspire me or are somehow representative of a specific style or time or location. Most importantly, I always try to spend time actually visualizing movement, stage pictures and specific moments that I want to capture. I also try very hard to see another production in the same theatre, so that I get a good sense of the playing space. Even if I've worked in a particular theatre before, I still like to sit in it again with an audience to be reminded of the general vibe of a space, as well as any sightline issues or acoustic challenges.

COTEY: I think most people have a vague idea what a director does in the room with his or her actors. How do you view the director's role in rehearsal?

WRIGHT: I think it's a director's primary responsibility to provide a safe and stimulating environment where ideas can be shared and creative risks can be taken. For me, it's very important to come into the process with some strong thoughts and opinions, but also with openness to new thoughts and opinions. I view the director as the "parent" in the room, overseeing the activities in a "playground," guiding the actors as they play, while generously encouraging collaboration and mutual ownership of the work.

Athol Fugard's THE TRAIN DRIVER, directed by C. Michael Wright, runs February 25 - March 15, 2015.

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