Supporting the Arts in Western Massachusetts and Beyond

August 11, 2014

Matthew Penn, Guest Director

From the director’s vantage point at Shakespeare & Company
Shakespeare & Company, Lenox, MA 
by Jarice Hanson and Shera Cohen

Act I: The Interview
The following is a paraphrased interview with Matthew Penn, director of “Vanya and Sonia and Masha and Spike,” performing at Shakespeare & Company (S&C), Lenox, from August 6 - September 14. The interview took place during the first week of rehearsal.

The Tony Award winning play by noted playwright Christopher Durang tips a hat to Chekhov’s look at family dynamics, sibling rivalries, love, and dreams under the umbrella of razor-sharp comedy.

Penn’s primary credits are as director and producer of television and theatre. Penn has directed and/or produced over 150 prime time TV dramas including Law & Order (2003 - 2007), NYPD Blue, The Sopranos, House, Damages, and The Closer. He has been nominated for an Emmy Award. Prior to TV, Penn spent many years working in theatre. Last summer, Penn directed “Beauty Queen of Lennane” at S&C.

Q: What drew you to this show?
MP: I was drawn to its sweetness. It’s tons of fun. Having worked here last year, I enjoyed the experience. My family has had a house in Stockbridge for about 50 years, so I feel at home in the Berkshires

Q: What is it about “Vanya and Sonia...” and this venue that appeals to you?
MP: The audience here is very erudite. This play gives an affectionate nod to Chekov, but you don’t need to know Chekov to get the idea that this is about three siblings with all of the squabbling siblings go through. A casual theatre-goer can have lots of fun. There’s the kind of affectionate wit here that perhaps urges the audience to take a chance and change our lives for the better.

Q: Have you seen a production of this play before?
MP: I saw this in New York, but well before I knew I would be directing it. I thought that Jim Frangione (a Berkshire Playwrights Lab co-founder) to play Vanya. I thought that Elizabeth Aspenlieder would be Sonia, but then Tod Randolph auditioned and she was “born to play Sonia.” So Elizabeth became Masha. There are also a number of newcomers to S&C in this production.

Q: Do you have any favorite moments yet?
MP: I usually have a series of  favorite moments, but it’s too soon in this rehearsal process to have any yet. Plays are a conflation of writing talent, acting  talent, and as a director, I just need to know when to get out of the way.

Q: What was your first directing experience?
MP: It was “The Marriage Proposal” -- interestingly by Chekhov, which I directed very badly when I was still in school.

Q: Which do you enjoy more -- directing TV or live theatre?
MP: I love live theatre because the audience is right there with you. In “Beauty Queen,” for example, you hear the immediate laughs and gasps. There’s no substitute for live theatre.

Q: Is there a relationship between Berkshire Playwrights Lab (of which Penn is one of the founders) and S&C?
MP: Not officially. Last year I asked Elizabeth and Tina Packer (S&C. founder) to do readings at the Lab. I have always considered myself a fan and think of it as “a special place” largely because of Tina’s vision.

Act II: The Rehearsal
Photo by Kevin Sprague
Down what seemed like a maze of hallways at the Bernstein Theatre is a rehearsal room. It’s large, open, white, and unexciting. We sat in the few chairs situated against one wall. A table to the side held bagels and cream cheese. There was nothing fancy about the setting. Any thoughts of seeing the actual play set were quickly dashed, as the actors worked with only a few chairs. Each actor greeted us warmly -- highly unexpected, as we were the ones who interrupted their work.

Today’s rehearsal was Act II, Scene I featuring four of the actors. Penn had already (a week
 or so prior to our visit) set the scene, pace, character interaction, etc. which the actors stepped into. They wore casual summer costumes. They stood. Each held a script -- this is called an open book reading -- but the actors had already memorized most of their dialogue. It was instantly clear that three of the characters were siblings and the fourth, a young stud boyfriend of one of the sisters. The actors didn’t “just” read; they acted each line, addressing the others.

Let’s do it again...this time sitting on chairs in a semi-circle. On occasion, the actors walked to faux settings and held pretend props as they felt appropriate, undirected yet in character. Periodically, they talked to each other and asked Penn questions. There were no lengthy discussions.

It was Matthew Penn who walked and paced, deliberately and with concentration. He often held his hand under his chin. He said nothing, didn’t laugh, just watched from all angles. He let the rehearsal scene play out. Only then did the significant conversation take place. Yes, conversation. This was not dictatorial direction, but a give and take between the actors and Penn.

It will be exciting to see the “end product” on stage.