What's New on the Rialto
Interview with Scott Elliott
by Beth Herstein
A few months shy of its Tenth Anniversary, the Off Broadway company The New Group is in an enviable position. It is a co-producer of last year's surprise Tony winner for Best Musical, Avenue Q; and, it recently presented a critically acclaimed revival of Wallace Shawn's Aunt Dan and Lemon as well as a well-received production of the new work Sin: A Cardinal Deposed, by Michael Murphy. With funds from Avenue Q, The New Group has started a second stage, called The New Group (naked), which offers smaller budget productions of new works at Off Off Broadway prices. Finally, the "old" New Group's current production, David Rabe's Hurlyburly, which is being directed by the company's founder and Artistic Director, Scott Elliott, was a popular hit even before the show opened to widespread critical acclaim. Within days of the opening, Hurlyburly had extended its run.
"It's an incredible place to be," Elliott says of his company's success. "I never thought this could happen. Every step along the way I'm surprised and interested. I'm constantly thrown curve balls, which keeps me on my feet."
Even before these recent successes, The New Group had earned a reputation as one of New York City's more interesting Off Broadway companies. In fact, The New Group's first production, Ecstasy, which Elliott directed, helped introduce the work of now renowned film maker and playwright Mike Leigh to the American public and immediately put The New Group on the New York theater map. Its next show, Curtains, by playwright Stephen Bill, was another critical hit and further cemented The New Group's reputation for well-rendered ensemble work. Other productions include two additional Mike Leigh plays, Goose Pimples and Smelling a Rat; the revivals What the Butler Saw by Joe Orton and Comedians by Trevor Griffiths; and Kenneth Lonergan's This is Our Youth.
Several days before the opening of Hurlyburly, Scott Elliott set aside some time to speak with me. With warmth, energy and down-to-earth intelligence and humor which were evident even through the telephone wires - and which contrast sharply with the harsh, sometimes misanthropic humor evident in many of the works Elliott has directed for The New Group - Elliott discussed The New Group's history and good fortunes, the current production of Hurlyburly, The New Group (naked), and Elliott's future directing plans.
Talkin' Broadway: I would like to know a little more about The New Group and your plans for the upcoming tenth anniversary season. Do you have a unique program in mind, or do you intend to deliberately reflect what's typical of what you've done in the past?
TB: I read that you founded The New Group while you were still studying at NYU.
SE: I have kind of a checkered past. I was an actor for a while; I went to NYU because I was going to get out of acting. I was going to become a therapist. I was pursuing my Ph.D. in psychology and taking some classes at the film school at NYU. Then I changed goals again, and that's when I started the company.
TB: Do you feel your studies in psychology have helped you in your work as director?
SE: Just understanding human nature is helpful in directing. Or trying to formulate your own understanding of human nature. In my storytelling, I try to be true to my own perspective of human nature. It definitely helped me figure out how to probe things a little more. But, it's less helpful than you would think in things like handling personalities - although it does give me insight into what makes people tick, a little more.
TB: One thing that strikes me, though, is that you do such wonderful work with ensembles. The New Group has done wonderful ensemble work.
SE: That definitely was something that always interested me. And, perhaps [my psychology training] did help there. I love the idea of group dynamics, and one of the challenges for me in directing is to try to make it seem like everybody is in the same world. Without sounding too pretentious, then you can understand the truth of the thing. Or, at least what we think the truth of the thing is. And, I love acting, I love actors. I love working with people and helping to guide them and to detail their performances.
TB: The New Group has been described as presenting "highly naturalistic dramas that focus on unusual subcultures." How do you respond to that?
SE: I think that is a part of who we are. But it's not all we do. Everybody tries to figure out exactly what your thing is, but that's very difficult to pinpoint because it's very personal and it's always changing ... I am interested in people and situations, how people deal and behave in various situations. That's what makes things dramatic or suspenseful. Sometimes people don't take into account that people have different ways of behaving in different situations; the works that result are a little bit more academic. I try to approach it from the emotional.
TB: That is not inconsistent with your comment that we're all part of the same world. I don't know if you've read Invisible Cities by Italo Calvino. Marco Polo is describing his travels to Kubla Kahn. All the cities he describes are the same city. Part of Calvino's philosophical spin on it is that we're bringing ourselves wherever we go and projecting our own reality onto the places we visit.
SE: I think that's what I do with my work. I do try to bring myself to it, my own sense of experience and of reality. Really, it's all you have; whether people agree with you or don't agree with you, you have to put out what you feel. Otherwise, the work can feel dispassionate. I like to think that I try to be passionate. I would never work on something unless I was really passionate about it. And, I try to keep my passion going all the way through and see what happens.
TB: I read that you try to get actors to react to the work the same way, and to draw upon themselves.
SE: Yeah. I do a lot of that sort of work, probing the characters. I never really go into the rehearsal process feeling that I know exactly what I'm going to do. I always go in with an open mind because I like the actors to base the characters on themselves rather than on something abstract. I want people to use their experiences to bring the characters to life, to reveal themselves. In truth, you could reveal yourself on the stage and nobody would ever know that it was you. It is the biggest way to live out those fantasies. So many people get into the business because they have wonderful fantasy lives and wonderful imaginations. But, they don't fully use those imaginations in their work. I encourage them to use it.
SE: Oh, it was. It was a lot of fun. It was an incredible experience and it still is.
TB: You say you never know exactly where you're going to go with a show. Have there been any surprises during the rehearsal and preview period for Hurlyburly?
SE: There always are. I really enjoy encouraging the actors to approach every performance like the first performance. That's what makes the ensemble acting so good in a way. It's important also that the actors embrace the evening how they are, because then they can really be in their skin. They don't have to worry about whether Scott only likes it this way or David Rabe only likes it that way. I trust the actors; I guide them through the rehearsal process and train them to approach each performance using the condition that they're in. If an actor has a cold, then the character has a cold. Other times people are in interesting mental states, and it's important to use that too. As long as they know the story that's being told or that we're all trying to tell, they have play within that.
TB: In this production, you work with several actors who are best known as movie actors, but they also have a lot of theater experience.
SE: You really can't do Hurlyburly and just be a movie actor without stage experience. I would never do that, unless I auditioned them to death to show that they had those stage chops. The play is just too challenging; it really is so challenging for all the actors. It really is like a sort of Shakespearean play ...
TB: It's so word driven.
SE: Very word driven. You have to have that sort of theater experience. You have to have chops.
TB: Did David Rabe work extensively on the revision process for this new production?
SE: There are a lot of different versions out there. The version that originally was seen in New York was missing the football scene, which is a big scene in the production right now. David re-inserted it, and made other sorts of trims around it. People have not seen this version in New York.
TB: You've also directed a movie [1999's A Map of the World] and directed plays on Broadway and with other theaters. How do you manage to do it all?
SE: I get a lot of joy out of my job. So, I have no problem being extra busy. Plus, I have a wonderful support staff here at The New Group. Also, I don't really direct that much outside of The New Group anymore. Now, I mostly work at the Roundabout if I'm going to do it outside of The New Group. That's a different sort of venue - it's a Broadway venue - and I can develop things slowly there, which I wouldn't be able to afford to do at The New Group. Like, I'm going to be doing The Threepenny Opera next season at the Roundabout. We've been developing it for a while with Wally Shawn.
The film world - well, it pays me well. So, I've been doing a lot of screenplay writing. I really do enjoy that very much. It's very different from the job that I do, which involves working with a lot of people all the time. I get off on the screenplay writing because it's private, and it's quiet ... I also enjoy the filmmaking process, but I would never do anything in the movies unless I really, really loved it, because it takes a lot of time and it's a very different sort of thing.
TB: You mentioned that you'll be directing The Threepenny Opera. I read that one of your goals was to direct a musical someday. So, now you're getting to realize that goal.
SE: I'm so excited about it. It's a new translation by Wally Shawn. We're very close. Last year I directed [Shawn's play] Aunt Dan and Lemon here [at The New Group's Acorn Theater]; and, then we hooked up on this project ... I just did a workshop of it at the Roundabout, and it was a thrilling experience. It was such a great cast. I think it's going to be a really cool thing to go out there with this as my first musical because it's kind of different and it feels me.
TB: I also want to ask you about Avenue Q. It's been such a big hit for you.
SE: Isn't that wonderful? It was the perfect musical for The New Group to do. And, we got lucky. Really lucky.
TB: I'm sure that it has helped financially, too.
SE: Can you imagine? I still can't imagine it. It really is helping us a lot. And it is helping us to do more work. This year we offer a second stage [The New Group (naked)], which is going gangbusters. [Avenue Q is] still going really strong, too. We're going to be opening in Las Vegas, which is so funny. Of all places for The New Group to have a show! But, whatever.
TB: How did you reach the decision to bring Avenue Q to Las Vegas?
SE: (laughs) It was an offer we couldn't refuse. It was such an incredible offer that, with our commercial partners, there was just no way we couldn't do it. It's an amazing thing for us. The New Group has always been kind of hand-to-mouth; and, now we have a reserve fund.
TB: I don't know if you can gauge the impact of Avenue Q on The New Group's audience. But do you think that the show has expanded your audience?
SE: It definitely has increased our profile, so that has helped audience-wise. We're not really a big subscriber theater. We've been lucky that because of all our past work, we have enough of a reputation that people just come to our shows.
TB: What prompted the creation of New Group (naked)?
SE: Well, it's something I always wanted to do. Also, it's something I never thought I would be able do. But, [after Avenue Q] we had some extra money, so I decided I was going to do it. (laughs) You know, it's a not-for-profit company; you gotta spend it.
So it's a place to nurture young writers. Not necessarily young, but, the play has to have the right scope. It has to be the proper tone for The New Group and also not too big.
TB: How many plays do you intend to put on with The New Group (naked)?
SE: Two a season We couldn't handle any more than that. It's killing us anyway, but that's ok. It's funny, though. I want The New Group to grow, but I don't want it to grow out of hand. I want to do it at the proper pace because I want it to be around forever. I don't want to make foolish decisions. So, I'm taking it slow. Hopefully I'll live. (laughs)
One of the things I've learned is that it's better to take time, not go into anything unless you're sure you can do it. Because, you know, nobody really wants to fail at it. So, I try not to rush too much, but to take everything slowly and to think things out properly. And, with Naked, it just felt like it was time.
We budgeted no ticket sales for our first show because we didn't know if anyone was going to come. But people came and we sold some tickets and it was a wonderful thing. It let me know that people were interested in what we're doing here, and that people would be willing to come. The tickets are only $15. I'm keeping it low because I want people to come. I want to offer it to younger people who might not be able to afford to come to the shows [on the main stage]. I want The New Group to stay young. It's important that you keep changing. You can get so bogged down in the business of making these sorts of works. Because it's so competitive, and so competitive for audiences. I just want to make sure that I do it in a healthy way.
TB: One comment of yours I really appreciated is that things shouldn't be competitive in a nasty way because there's enough room for everybody to do their thing.
SE: Enough room for everybody to do their thing. I don't know when I said that, but that sounds like a nice quote. It is also something that I very much believe in. All you have to do is do good work. You don't have to get involved in all the junk. You can get your feelings hurt so badly in this business. So, you have to be very careful. I try not to hurt anybody's feelings if I can help it.
Hurlyburly has extended through March 19 at The New Group at Theatre Row, 410 West 42nd Street.
Critical Darling runs February 19 - March 5 at Lion Theatre in Theatre Row, 410 West 42nd Street. Sat - Wed @ 8, Sat @ 2, and special performances on Sunday 2/20 @ 2 & 7pm. Tickets $15.
To order tickets for either shows, call 212-279-4200, or visit www.ticketcentral.com.
For more information, visit TheNewGroup.org.
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