Interview with Peer Gynt Director John Doyle
Q: What do you think accounts for PEER GYNT’s continued relevance and why is it a play that attracts master directors such as yourself?
JD: I think there are elements of the play that I feel are almost impossible, so it provides you with so many challenges. How do you stage it? How do you stage a man talking to an onion? How do you do some of the tasks that Ibsen gives you to do? So that’s probably why it attracts people like myself who like to problem solve in the theater. Bigger than that and more than that is that, to me, the piece is about our mortality and how we live our lives and the crossroads that we come to in our lives.
In the case of Peer Gynt, I suppose originally Ibsen imagined an older man. It’s like a Seven Ages of Man story where you are watching somebody enact their life, the mistakes they made and how they run away from those mistakes, and they run away to bigger mistakes and, in doing so, they realize the place to face your mistakes, where peace may lie, is at home, is home.
How do we face the errors of our lives? Face the power of the imagination, which is what Peer has? He has a vivid imagination, given to him by her in storytelling and that goes wrong and topples him. At what point does the imagination become the lie? The play explores that and that’s fascinating. So I think of those issues of when we reach the crossroads in our lives: what do we do? Which way do we go? They’ll always have a tremendously deep relevance because we all have those crossroads in our lives and we all know what they are.
Q: The size and the scope of the play—it can easily become a six-hour affair and you’re cutting the play considerably. I was wondering, how do you go about such a vetting and how do you decide what stays and what goes?
JD: I’m adapting and directing it, but I see those two jobs almost being one really. You have to decide, “What I am trying to say with the play? What are the aspects of the play that I find most fascinating?”
I find the fifth act the most interesting. It’s the area that I’ve cut least, so how do I plateau the play? How do I get the play to the point of telling the depth of that act? And that determines then what stays or doesn’t. You still have to keep the story clear.
I always knew that I wanted to do it in an intimate way, in the round, with a small company. I felt that would stop it being like a Grimm fairy tale, or like a pageant, and more about what we remember in our lives. Quite a lot of what I’ve taken out is traditionally taken out, or there are many precedents for many of the cuts. Ibsen never really intended it to be staged initially. It was a poem as far as he was concerned, a sort of a treatise on man’s life.
I definitely want this production to be done straight through, because I feel, that way, you get the purgatory that can lie inside of the play. I mean that in the best possible way, because a lot of it is very funny. The ritual of telling man’s life is easier without the intermission.
Q: Does it give you pause that you are following in the directorial footsteps of Ingmar Bergman, Peter Stein, and other great directors that have tackled this play. How do you approach such a vaunted work and keep a clear head?
JD: You know, you don’t think about it. You’d never get up in the morning. You just have to think, “What can I do? What can I bring to this?”
When you’re doing a play like PEER GYNT you have a great sense of responsibility because it’s not done very often, people don’t get to see it much, so it’s a special occasion. It is a privilege to do the play and that I feel very conscious of.
I think, “who have I got in the room with me? What can I bring it out that will hopefully make it clear but, at the same time, illuminate it in some way? What theatrical techniques am I interested in exploring while doing that?” I also teach at Princeton, so I’m aware of the academic viewpoints, but as a director, it’s about not overthinking it.
Q: You’re very well known for a minimalist approach to making plays. What draws you to such an approach and how do you think it works with such a maximalist text like PEER GYNT?
JD: People say I’m a minimalist. I quite like that notion, but it’s not something I’ve ever called myself. I have an interest in how you get to the essence. Because my job is to do everything I can to clarify the story, but not get in its way and let it breathe.
So my own way of doing that is to clear away. I have a production of The Color Purple running on Broadway at the moment that’s only done by actors with fifteen chairs. Really nothing other than that, a few small props and that’s it. That’s something that, to my mind, you can only do in the theater.
So how do I take a play like PEER GYNT, which is so big, and strip it away? My invaluable tool in all of that, whether it’s Peer, or The Color Purple, or Sweeney Todd or whatever it is, is the audience’s imagination. If I put too much structure, stuff, fact, in front of the audience, it will cease to use its imagination, because all of the imagining is done for them.
Q: This is your first non-musical work for CSC. Does moving from musicals to plays change your process at all?
JD: No, my process is based on everybody’s being in the room all the time; the actor is usually audience to the work so nobody leaves the space. They are all there for the story, all the time. The way of working is exploratory. I explore ideas in scenes. I don’t do any table work. I don’t expect anybody to do any research. I always use the text only.
The play gives you the form if you listen. If you can hold on as a director through the whole rehearsal process with the exploration of what you’re trying to say and have some view, however simple, about what you’re trying to say, then you don’t even have to be able to articulate that, it’s just a feeling and it grows, it bakes by itself as long as you are asking the right questions. I think my job, to the actor particularly, is to ask questions, and they should be questions to which I don’t know the answer.
Q: Next year will be your first season as Artistic Director at CSC. What kind of programming people can expect in the coming years?
JD: I’m interested in what the word “classical” means to people. I’m interested in what the classic story is. I’m interested in taking classic plays, or great stories, from all sorts of cultures, and that can mean some of the repertoire that’s already been done. Of course, why wouldn’t I want to do some Shakespeare? Of course, I’m interested in European writers, but I’m also interested in where the American classics fit into that. And it could well mean that a classic play could be a new play, dealing with a particular time or a classic idea.
I am really interested in developing some kind of house style where the audience recognizes that if they come to a CSC production, they’re going to have to do some work. They’re going to have to activate their imaginations when they come into the space.
There’ll never be enough weeks in the year for my taste. I never have any shortage of plays that I think would be interesting to do.