Interview with Resident Director Sam Buntrock
Posted by Amanda Coe on November 7th, 2011
Sam Buntrock is the Resident Director at McCarter Theatre for the 2011-2012 season, and will be directing both Travesties and Are You There, McPhee? this spring. Artistic Programs Associate Erica Nagel sat down to ask him about his history with McCarter and what he’s looking forward to during his time here.
Erica Nagel: How did you initially become involved with McCarter?
Sam Buntrock: I directed an earlier incarnation of the Maltby-Shire-Weidman musical Take Flight in London at the Menier Chocolate Factory in 2008, and Laura Stanzyck, who does the casting for McCarter, saw that production. The writers wanted to carry on development of the piece, and there was a history between the writers and [McCarter’s Artistic Director] Emily Mann. [McCarter’s Producing Director] Mara Isaacs pursued it passionately, we did a number of developmental readings, and it was produced at McCarter in 2010.
Sam Buntrock during rehearsals for McCarter’s production of Take Flight.
Photo by John Baer
That’s one of the great assets of McCarter as a producing house – the sense of family, the sense of community within those walls. So, after Take Flight, Mara and I immediately began to talk about other potential projects. We settled on Stoppard’s Travesties, and I agreed to direct it at McCarter in the 2011-2012 season. Not long after that decision, I was directing a play at Manhattan Theatre Club, and [playwright] John Guare realized I was in New York. He had always assumed, as people do assume, that I only worked in London, because that’s where I’m from. Mara sent me John’s new play, Are You There, McPhee? and I had a very strong reaction to it. I fell in love with it immediately. So John and I met, and suddenly I was directing two plays this season at McCarter. Then the phone rang – and I remember taking the call and seeing it was Mara, and thinking, “Okay, well one of them is not going to happen.” And Mara said, “I have a third thing for you.” And I said, “Are you joking?” And she said, “We’d like to make you the director in residence for this coming season.” And I laughed and said, “Yes please.” So that’s how I come to take this position.
EN: What does the position of Resident Director mean in addition to directing these two plays?
SB: It means I am part of the artistic staff of the building. I’m not only involved in my own productions, but I’m also involved in the other projects that are being produced and developed at McCarter. I’m going to be living in Princeton during the two productions, so I’ll be in there from the first day of rehearsal for Travesties – Valentine’s Day, which is quite fitting, even though the play isn’t necessarily… well, every play in the world is a love story, you just have to find who’s in love with who, or what, or why – until the summer. As a freelance director, you float from place to place; you put a show into rehearsals and into a theater and then you leave. It’s very rare that you get to develop an ongoing, long-lasting relationship with the people responsible for those theaters in the long-term. And it’s those relationships that are extremely important to me at this moment in my life and career. People ask if I’m interested in running a building someday, and I’m not necessarily that interested at this point in my career, but the ability that this is giving me to be part of the running of the building, to be inside the creative process that takes place outside of the rehearsal room is extraordinary. When I first came out of college I landed a great job as the Resident Assistant Director at the Donmar Warehouse, and as a young, early-twenties director I was obsessed with what happens in the rehearsal room. All I was interested in at that point was how does so-and-so work in the room, how does so-and-so rehearse this play, that play. I wasn’t that interested in the bigger picture. And this feels a bit like I’ve gone back to that position again but in a much stronger capacity as a director in my own right. Now I’m able to experience the other aspects of the creative process. There’s the artistic element of my job, but there is so much of my job that is about management, and working with others that I, for one reason or another, was very shy of earlier in my days. I sound like I’m eighty – I’m actually only seventy six…
EN: You’re in fact younger than that by several decades! This season at McCarter you’ll be working on two plays by master playwrights of a much different generation. Do you have any thoughts on being labeled or thought of as a “young director”?
SB: I was just having this conversation with [scenic and costume designer] David Farley the other day. For the first time, I don’t feel like I’m in the kindergarten of the industry anymore. I feel like I’m probably in the…middle school? What we would call primary school (you Americans and your strange schooling!) I’m now really aware of a younger generation in the field, who I find exciting and terrifying in equal measure. After working as an assistant in my early twenties, I actually moved away from this art form for a while. I remember reading an interview with Simon McBurney, a director whose work I admired so greatly, and there was a picture of him and a caption that said something like “Simon McBurney: Hot Young Director, 39.” And I was in my early twenties, so of course at that point 39 felt like an octogenarian. I’d always been interested in animation. Alongside theatre it was my great passion as a child. My father was an art director, my mother a journalist. Pictures and words! So I developed a career for myself as a freelance animator and animation director. Because I knew that being so young in the theater business back then… it just felt like I was hitting my fist against doors and not getting through. I also wasn’t very good about “selling myself.” It just wasn’t something I was naturally comfortable with. I had – I still have, but it was much worse back then – a stammer, a stutter. And the idea that I’d need to go out every morning and hustle work just broke me out in a cold sweat, especially knowing that I’d be seen as so young, and that a director’s lifeblood is his ability to communicate. It felt like an insurmountable combination of circumstances. So to come back on the question, now I’m 36, I don’t feel young any more. Of course, I say that to someone like John Guare and I get a funny look. And I do feel very privileged to be getting to do this work at this point in my life. I think there’s a lot of distrust of younger directors. There’s this sort of preconceived notion that in order to be able to direct theater with insight and authority you have to be old enough to have that authority. And I immediately dismiss that notion because I don’t think of a director as an authority. I think of a director as a collaborator with others. I do guide the work home, but it’s not on my own.
EN: You mentioned David Farley, a long-time collaborator of yours who will be designing sets and costumes for both Travesties and Are You There, McPhee? Could you talk more about your history working with him?
SB: The running joke is that McCarter’s asked me to be Resident Director because they know if they ask me nicely I’ll bring David Farley along. David did Sunday in the Park with George with me; that was the first time we worked together. We’ve also done the current European tour of the Rocky Horror Show which…there’s no…I mean, it’s chalk and cheese between Sunday and Rocky Horror Show! He also designed Take Flight in London and at MCCarter, and he’s designing both Travesties and Mcphee with me. We just have this great, long relationship, this great vocabulary together. I’ve worked with a number of other designers here in the states now, and I’ve loved working with every single one of them, but there’s something particular about working with David that’s like…wearing a good old comfortable pair of shoes. No, that’s terrible! It’s just…there’s just something great about working together, especially with these two upcoming pieces which are very challenging in very particular ways. To take on one of these plays would be a challenge. To take on both of them could be a little daunting, but knowing that I have David on the creative team is a thrill.
Sam Buntrock during rehearsals for McCarter’s production of Take Flight.
Photo by John Baer
EN: What excites you most about each of these upcoming productions?
SB: Well, Travesties is one of the great comedic masterpieces of the 20th century. I am of the belief that it’s Stoppard’s greatest play. Put simply… it’s a memory play of events in 1917 remembered by a man in 1974, and not necessarily remembered correctly. And as with all of Tom’s plays, it contains extraordinary ruminations on life and art. But it does it in a way that is so boldly comedic. It’s like a play of ideas has smashed into a farce and they’re both competing for the stage. It’s a challenge in its scope, it’s a challenge tonally, and it makes such exceptional demands of its performers. But it’s one of those plays which is so theatrical and entertaining and moving. To get to do this play, which is so rarely produced because it’s such a challenge to do so, to do this play with this particular theater company is really exciting.
McPhee is a world premiere by John Guare. It is the work of a master playwright and it is… I actually don’t want to say too much about it other than: it’s hysterically funny, it’s dark, and it produces an emotional response in me that I haven’t had since really… it’s taken me by surprise. I’ve not reacted to material in this way since Sunday in the Park. One thing with this play, to reveal something of it, is that it tells the story of a man in his mid thirties. That time of life is a vital factor in it. So I feel a huge affinity to that. This piece…it captivates me. Again, it’s a challenge – I don’t want to say exactly why because I don’t want to spoil it – but it’s a real example of working at McCarter that we’re approaching this material as a team, with John very much at the center of the process. I couldn’t imagine being able to do the world premiere of this piece anywhere else but McCarter. From Emily to Mara to the whole artistic and production team – everyone in that building recognizes the immense potential of this play.
EN: Do you have a dream project?
SB: I’m actually a firm believer that you shouldn’t talk too much about your dreams, because if they don’t come true you’ve not let anyone else down! But yeah, I do have a number of dream projects, a number of things I’m developing or working on. I’d love to do another big musical at some point. But I’ve made a very distinct decision to concentrate on plays at the moment because that’s something I trained in. I studied Elizabethan and Jacobean Drama at Bristol University. I always had a passion for musicals but my training was with the classics. What you first do in New York defines you, and I had the great good fortune to direct a musical on Broadway, so for a while that defined the work I did. But I would love to do more Shakespeare; I just did Much Ado about Nothing with Michael Cumpsty and Kathryn Meisle at Two River Theatre Company, which was one of the most satisfying experiences of my career so far.
EN: How do you think your training in the classics serves you as you approach more contemporary work?
SB: It gave me a very strong understanding of the power of language and the importance of engaging the audience’s imagination. That is the most vital tool in the theater. We have all these tools at our disposal – we have actors, we have scenery, we have lights, we have sound – but actually the thing that has the most versatility and scope and range is the audience’s imagination. Training in the classics taught me that theatre should strive to be at all times theatrical – and that sounds like a truism, or an obvious statement – but what I mean is that theater should transcend and transport as opposed to just entertaining. It’s amazing how much you can communicate to an audience with so little. That’s one of the great lessons of my training.
Sam Buntrock with actors Jenn Colella and Michael Cumpsty during rehearsals for McCarter’s production of Take Flight. Photo by John Baer.
EN: One last question. What makes McCarter a good artistic home?
SB: McCarter is a great artistic home because of the community within the building, but that community is a reflection of the audience community. Also, the wide and varied programming that occurs at McCarter, not only in the theater series but also the visiting work — it’s exceptional. It’s world-class. There’s no other way of defining it. And that level of excellence is again a reflection of the audience and the larger community that McCarter is serving. I think that’s exciting. I mean, just have a look at the season! Just have a look at the slate of work that’s on their stages this year. Across the board it’s varied, it’s daring, it’s entertaining – it’s all those things that you hope theater could be.
Posted by Amanda Coe, Digital Media Specialist at McCarter Theatre