Featured Player: Leigh Silverman
NEW YORK — If you’re reading this story in New York City, take a look at the theater listings. Chances are, you’ll see Leigh Silverman directing something.
Though she’s had a solid reputation for years, Silverman has recently become an Off Broadway fixture. This season alone, she’s helming four major productions in Gotham, followed by a buzz-magnet workshop and a world premiere at Los Angeles’ Center Theater Group.
But for all her success, it’s difficult to predict Silverman’s trajectory. Her career is such an unusual patchwork it has no obvious predecessor.
For one thing, Silverman only helms new plays. “I’m not an auteur director,” she says. “I don’t have any interest in reinventing a classic. To me, it’s always more interesting when you’re approaching a script or a subject that hasn’t been seen before.”
Hence her work on Brooke Berman’s play about four interconnected New Yorkers, “Hunting and Gathering,” which world-premiered at Primary Stages on Feb. 3; and Liz Flahive’s “From Up Here,” a dark comedy starring Tony winner Julie White (“The Little Dog Laughed”), bowing as part of Manhattan Theater Club’s lineup April 16.
Silverman also helmed the East and West Coast preems of David Henry Hwang’s “Yellow Face,” which wrapped last month at the Public Theater. Discussing the dense commentary on issues of race and identity in America, she says: “That play was terrifying and hard, but I thought, ‘I haven’t come across something like this.’ So I felt like I had to do it.”
She acknowledges that working on new plays may limit her chance to make a radical artistic statement — the kind that could transform her into a brand-name director.
“For me, directing is a fairly egoless art,” she says. “You have to do what’s best for the play, and sometimes those ideas have nothing to do with you. It’s a director’s job to keep the entire room creative.”
Silverman’s eagerness to collaborate helps her get work. Thanks to her long-term partnership with playwright Tanya Barfield, she will helm the scribe’s new play “Of Equal Measure,” preeming this summer at Center Theater Group.
Similarly, several years of development will result in a reading this spring of “Coraline,” a musical adapted by graphic novelist Neil Gaiman and indie synth-pop iconStephin Merritt from Gaiman’s novel (a separate film version of which is in production from Focus Features).
Silverman also forges alliances outside the rehearsal room.
“I’ve never had a director more willing to engage with me,” says Public Theater a.d. Oskar Eustis. “She makes the correct assessment that an active collaboration improves the environment in which a show is made. She gets her producers even more invested in her projects than they already are.”
Those projects often bring unexpected rewards. Last fall, Silverman steered the low-budget Off Broadway premiere of “The Beebo Brinker Chronicles,” Kate Moira Ryan and Linda S. Chapman’s adaptation of the classic lesbian pulp novels, which was a hit in its limited engagement. Now she’s prepping the show for a commercial run at 37 Arts, opening March 5.
Silverman didn’t become involved with the show — which deals frankly with lesbian issues and takes a purposely old-fashioned tone — thinking about its for-profit future. “With some plays, you know they’re going to take that next step, but I really didn’t expect it for this one,” she says.
Nor was she expecting the highest-profile gig of her career. After directing two productions of Lisa Kron’s metatheatrical comedy “Well,” Silverman traveled with it to Broadway in 2006.
That job was triply unconventional: Silverman not only made her Broadway debut with an experimental show, but she also became one of a handful of women to direct a nonmusical there. And at 31, she became one of the youngest helmers to get a Rialto directing credit.
“I never said, ‘I’m gonna hitch my star to this performance artist, and then I’m gonna ride it all the way to Broadway!’ ” she says. “Of course Broadway is a goal, but it’s not my only goal. For something to be lucrative there, you have to have something for everyone, and I don’t know that I typically work on plays that have that.”
Maybe not: Despite some of the strongest reviews of the season, “Well” closed after just 52 performances.
But while she’s not involved in either project, Silverman sees hope in the upcoming Broadway run of unconventional musical “Passing Strange,” as well as the audience and critical enthusiasm for ambitious plays like “August: Osage County.”
If more avant-garde work does reach the Rialto, will Silverman be invited to direct it? Aside from Susan Stroman and Kathleen Marshall, and perhaps the occasional visit from Ireland-based Garry Hynes, the core group of regular Broadway directors (Joe Mantello, Doug Hughes, Jack O’Brien, Daniel Sullivan, etc.) are all men. And Stroman (“Young Frankenstein”), Marshall (“Grease”) and Brit helmer Phyllida Lloyd (“Mamma Mia!”) are all repped by populist musicals, not by the kind of challenging new work that usually has Silverman’s name attached.
Silverman declines to speculate on that part of her future, though she optimistically notes that female directors on Broadway have become less rare — even since her brief stop there in 2006. Among this season’s openers, for instance, in addition to “Young Frankenstein” and “Grease,” women are helming “August: Osage County,” “Passing Strange,” “The 39 Steps” and “The Little Mermaid.”
“In the big picture, that can only be good for everyone,” she says.