On the Phone With Marianne Elliott

On the Phone With Marianne Elliott

After triumphing on Broadway as director of War Horse, earning a 2011 Tony Award for Best Director for her freshman outing on the Great White Way, Marianne Elliott returns to New York with another ambitious work, Simon Stephens’ adaptation of Mark Haddon’s best-selling novel, The Curious Incident of the Dog in the Night-Time, about a 15-year-old, autistic boy who investigates the murder of a neighbor’s dog. (Previews begin Sept. 10 for an Oct. 5 opening night at the Ethel Barrymore Theatre.) Will lightning strike twice? The omens are good. Curious Incident, produced at the National Theatre of Great Britain in 2012, swept the 2013 Olivier Awards, winning seven gongs, including Best New Play and Best Director. So, what makes this prolific director tick? Certainly, as the daughter of director Michael Elliott and actress Rosalind Knight (and granddaughter of actor Esmond Knight), theater is in her blood. But, other than a genetic predisposition, what really (one of her favorite words) drives the vivacious Brit to give life to the seemingly impossible?

Francis Lewis: Welcome back to New York …

Marianne Elliott: Thank you.

FL: where you will forever be remembered for War Horse. Can we expect the same kind of theatrical magic from Curious Incident?

ME: Um, well, I don’t know. I suppose in some ways there are similarities in that each [play] follows a young boy’s adventure [and contains] life-changing realizations about himself and his family. [Curious Incident] is very visual, a bit like War Horse was, but in a very different way. There are lots of projections and lighting effects and sound. We try to convey what it’s like to be Christopher Boone [the lead character] and to live inside his head. To experience things in the way he experiences them.

FL: What was it about Mark Haddon's novel and Simon Stephens' adaptation of it for the stage that drew you in?

ME: Several things. I thought the writing was really, really beautiful. Simon’s adaptation is a really beautiful adaptation. I felt incredibly moved at the end of the play when I read it the first time. Really moved. I felt like I understood Christopher emotionally throughout. I was completely on his side. I thought it would be a huge challenge for any director. But it's such a beautiful story, it’s really worth taking the risk. I couldn’t bear the idea of anybody else [any other director] having a go. i thought, I’ll keep it for myself.

FL: You and Simon Stephens have a rapport that goes back a while. Did he offer the play to you?

ME: Simon didn’t tell anyone he was doing it. He wanted to do it quietly, because he wasn't sure he could do it. Quite sneaky, wasn’t it? Then he gave it to me and said, "Have a read. I don’t know if it’s any good. Just have a read. and let me know what you think." And I loved it immediately. And that was it. So, we went on this journey together. I don’t think I was available for about two years, so he had to hold it for two years. In the meantime, he went into a studio, I think, for a week with some actors that we knew and explored how we might stage Christopher's journey to London or moments where Christopher is trying to work things out in his head, like a very crowded Paddington Station.

FL: You’ve recast some of the parts with American actors.

ME: They’re all American.

FL: Were you looking for anything specifically? And in general what do you look for in an actor when you’re casting a play?

ME: Gosh, well, generally I look for somebody who can play truth. There’s a truthfulness I look for. [Curious Incident] is a very particular project in that the actors have to be physically very able and physically very fit and expressive. So, we did auditions which were basically big physical workshops, as well as auditions which worked on the text. We did a lot of auditions and meetings here, particularly for the part of Christopher [Juilliard grad Alexander Sharp has been cast in the role].

FL: New York rehearsals have only just begun [Marianne Elliott and I spoke at the end of July], but are there any early revelations coming out this time around? I imagine you start from scratch every time you put in a new cast or move Curious Incident to another theater.

ME: Totally start from scratch. The Ethel Barrymore here is a different theater with a different type of stage, so automatically certain scenes have to be played differently. Because we start from scratch and because we’re exploring with completely new people, it means the show will have a different nuance in New York because it’s all about how a group of actors as an ensemble tell the story. They tell the story with very few props and no set changes on an abstract bare stage. Once the actors start exploring the depths of what they think the characters can be, then I’m sure it will have all sorts of different feelings to it.

FL: Why do you think you, as a director, are so good at grand-scale theater?

ME: [laugh] Kind of you to say that. I don’t know. I suppose [it's because] I think theater can be incredibly exciting. It’s a very unique medium. It can do all sorts of things that television or film can’t do. It can be incredibly intimate in the minutiae of detail. It can also make these grand, sweeping statements in a visceral way. I’m attracted to the excitement of the theater.

FL: I read somewhere that you’d love to do a musical because you get a charge every time the orchestra strikes up the overture.

ME: Yes, I love musicals. The soar of feeling from the music and the way the music can whip you up into a particular kind of euphoria is wonderful, especially if it’s a shared experience in an auditorium with lots of people.

FL: You’ve certainly covered the theatrical bases, directing works by classic playwrights, from Shakespeare to Ibsen to Coward to Tennessee Williams to Lillian Hellman. All, unfortunately, no longer with us. What's it like like having a living author, like Simon Stephens, by your side when you’re putting on a show?

ME: They’re two different experiences really, and delightful for their own reasons. I suppose when you do a new play with a living playwright, you’re trying to absolutely unearth what the playwright has written or is trying to get across. If you’re doing a classic play that many other people have done, you’re trying to find a new, interesting way of doing it that renders it worthwhile. Why do it when someone else could do it just as well? You’re trying to find a modern interpretation or a new slant. You’re trying to what’s the word?—renovate or refine the genesis of what made the play so brilliant in the first place.

FL: Two of my most memorable theatrical experiences in New York have been Nicholas Nickleby [the second time around in 1986] and War Horse [2011], both of which were produced in Britain by state-subsidized companies: the RSC and the National, respectively. What is it about those companies that fosters that kind of excellence?

ME: I suppose what I find helpful about those companies is they are not about commercial success or profit. And because they’re subsidized, you’re absolutely encouraged to think in the most imaginative way possible and encouraged to take risks. It’s not about getting the money back. Sometimes you’re very well aware that you’re not going to make the money back, that you’re going to lose money on something, but that it’s worthwhile because it’s such an artistic or creative or imaginative way of doing something. That’s how War Horse began, in that we desperately wanted to work with this puppet company, and we found this book [by Michael Morpurgo] that was a perfect match, we hoped. And then we went on this incredibly long journey in the studio with various workshops, just to work out how to stage the show. But nobody was thinking, we musn’t spend this amount of money or we’ve got to make sure this is popular in order to get the money back. It was just a worthwhile experiment. And it happened to take off. The same is true of Curious Incident. Nobody ever thought that we would be successful commercially. [Working under conditions like that] enables you a kind of freedom, I think. It enables you to spread your wings and take risks and try things out. Otherwise, if you know it’s got to hit a certain target, it can be quite limiting and claustrophobic. If you don’t take risks, you become very self-conscious about everything you’re doing.

FL: Now that you’re back in New York, have you been able to see any shows?

ME: Funnily enough, I saw Matilda the other day because a family from Chicago that we’re very close to came to visit and we all went with our kids, and we absolutely loved it. I saw quite a lot of shows when I came out here casting Curious Incident. I just have to remember which ones. I’m desperate to see Of Mice and Men, but I’ve missed it, haven’t I? I went to see Caryl Churchill's Love and Information downtown.

FL: Is that your way of relaxing, going to the theater? Or is that too much of a busman’s holiday?

ME: It’s a bit of a busman’s holiday. [laugh]

FL: What do you do you do to relax?

ME: I like to go running. I love jogging in New York. And I love to be with my daughter, who’s 9.

FL: Is she here with you?

ME: She is. Being with her at home is my idea of relaxing.

>> The Curious Incident of the Dog in the Night-Time, Ethel Barrymore Theatre, 243 W. 47th St., btw Broadway & Eighth Ave., 212.239.6200. Previews begin Sept. 10, opens Oct. 5.

Photo of Marianne Elliott by Kevin Cummins