SAN FRANCISCO For years now, Les Waters has been in the enviable position of handpicking his projects. Lately, the prolific legit director is handpicking a lot of them.
His production of “Eurydice,” an early play by MacArthur “Genius” grant recipient Sarah Ruhl, just opened at Second Stage in New York. He follows in August by kicking off the 40th season at his home base, Berkeley Repertory, with a revival of George Bernard Shaw’s “Heartbreak House.” Next up is the world premiere in November of Jordan Harrison’s “Doris to Darlene: A Cautionary Valentine,” Off Broadway at Playwrights Horizons. Then it’s back to Berkeley in March for the U.S. bow of Will Eno’s “Tragedy: a tragedy.” Waters’ productive season will wrap in May at American Repertory Theater in Cambridge, Mass., with the world preem of Stephen Greenblatt and Charles Mee’s “Cardenio.”
Somewhere in among those gigs, the director also plans to hold at least one workshop of Ruhl’s next play, a Berkeley Rep commission about the history of the vibrator.
So how does he choose the projects on that jammed schedule?
“I suppose it’s how I respond to the content of the play,” muses the lanky, bespectacled Brit. It also has to do with his relationships with playwrights, both established and emerging, among them Caryl Churchill, Anne Washburn, Harrison and Mee. Waters won a 2002 Obie for Mee’s “Big Love,” taking it from the Humana Festival to Berkeley, Brooklyn Academy of Music, the Goodman and Long Wharf.
Waters’ first loyalty is to Berkeley Rep. As associate artistic director there, he has staged nine shows, including extended runs of Martin McDonagh’s “The Pillowman” and a fresh take on “The Glass Menagerie.” He has directed at key regionals including American Conservatory Theater, the Guthrie, Steppenwolf and Yale Rep.
In New York, he is an associate artist with downtown Gotham troupe the Civilians and has helmed productions for Manhattan Theater Club, Signature Theater Company and the Public. And in his native England, Waters worked with virtually every prominent theater, from the Bristol Old Vic to the Royal Court and the National.
“Eurydice,” which had hit runs at Berkeley and Yale prior to New York, typifies the challenging new work that particularly attracts Waters. It’s a lush, heartbreaking tale of a young girl who dies on her wedding day and is pursued into the underworld by her bereft groom. In Ruhl’s semi-modernized version of the Greek myth, one of Eurydice’s underworld encounters is with her father.
“It’s a kind of elliptical play with extraordinary use of theatrical poetry and metaphor,” says Waters. “In the end, why I wanted to do it was because it’s about loss and grieving and how you keep in contact with people you’ve lost. You can’t in real life, but you certainly can in theater.”
The death of Waters’ father four years ago made scenes between Eurydice and her father almost unbearably painful to rehearse. He says Charles Shaw Robinson, who has played Eurydice’s loving parent in all three productions, has a gentleness and strength that reminds him of his own dad.
Robinson raves about working with the director. //”He’s funny, he doesn’t take himself too seriously, and he’s willing to say out loud, ‘I don’t know.’ A lot of directors don’t feel secure enough to admit that they don’t have a ready answer.”
Playwrights and actors alike have talked up Waters’ ability to create an atmosphere of trust and experimentation in the rehearsal room. Asked to define his strength as a director, Waters says, “I direct what I need to direct and get out of the way of the play.”
Ruhl has commented that he never tries to put his personal stamp on a production; instead, it’s all about the playwright’s intention. Waters notes that during his tenure as Royal Court associate director, writers were often in the rehearsal room. Since then, Americans have asked him, “Aren’t you thrown by having the writer in attendance?”
“No, I’m not,” he responds. “It’s what I expect.”