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‘Fish in the Dark’ Director Anna D. Shapiro on Why She Talks Just Like Larry David

Anna D Shapiro
Patrick James Miller

In the last 12 months, theater director Anna D. Shapiro (“August: Osage County”) helmed the Broadway debuts of James Franco (“Of Mice and Men”), Michael Cera (“This Is Our Youth”) and, currently, Larry David, whose play “Fish in the Dark” racked up an astonishing $13.5 million advance before its first performance. Along the way she was named the new artistic director of Chicago’s storied Steppenwolf Theater.

Were you a Larry David fan before you started working on “Fish in the Dark”?

Huge “Seinfeld” fan. “Curb Your Enthusiam,” big fan. Because of how old I am, the “Seinfeld” thing was pretty seminal for me. I’m almost 50, so it’s like I didn’t really realize how the structure of my humor is hugely impacted by him.

How would you characterize that structure?

It’s highly verbal, and it goes on the assumption of a kind of shared complaint. It’s that there are things that are obvious about how you should live your life and obvious truths in life, and idiots are constantly violating those obvious truths. Just purely rhythmically, too, it’s so easy to get pulled into that rhythm with him. You feel initially embarrassed because you feel like, “Oh my God, I’m replicating the rhythm of Larry,” and then you realize, “Well, actually, that’s the way I talk anyway. Because I talk like him.”

When did you first meet Larry?

I was doing “Of Mice and Men” and we met for lunch. I was really nervous. I don’t really think of myself as funny, and I also was hesitant because I suspected Larry would be unpleasant and not superkind or patient. And why would he be? Why would he have patience for the things that I felt he would need to have patience for in order to do this?

But within five minutes of meeting him, I thought I could sit across from this guy for a long time and be really happy. He’s immediately clockable as warm, intelligent, curious. I just adored him within 15 seconds. I wouldn’t have had to adore him in the way I adore him for me to have said yes.

Add in Chris Rock in “The Motherf***er with the Hat,” and you’ve now directed four Broadway shows in a row with well-known screen stars making Broadway debuts. Do you consider that a specialty now?

The conversation of how you do a play is my favorite conversation in the whole wide world: what a play is, why it’s different than anything else, the math of the way that human behavior has to be calibrated theatrically versus anything else. So perhaps it’s just because I’m really interested in that conversation. I don’t know any more about it than any other director. It just might be a conversation I’m more interested in having.

A huge part of it is, I teach [as the head of graduate directing at Northwestern]. I miss teaching. I’m not teaching this year until the end of March, and I miss that conversation. Besides, I love when people who have absolutely no reason to do a play, want to do a play. I feel like we must have something in common. Because who wouldn’t want to do a play?

The challenges must be different for every performer, I’m guessing.

Everybody brings something completely different to the party. For instance, the thing with Chris Rock is: Chris Rock is a live performer. That dude gets up in front of Madison Square Garden, okay? I don’t know how much more live performer you can get. So there wasn’t ever going to be a conversation about that aspect of being in a play. But Chris was playing somebody who’s nothing like himself. Even though he had an extraordinary aptitude for live performance, he didn’t have that net.

In Larry’s case, although Larry was a standup, he doesn’t feel he was a successful standup. He’s not a live performer. But in this, he has the net of living in a character that is essentially recognizable. So everybody has the part of this that comes easily.

The writers you’ve worked with — Tracy Letts, Stephen Adly Guirgis, now Larry David — they all have a kind of, I don’t know, strong masculinity to their work. Why do you think that is?

They’re very male. I think of myself as actually kind of prudish and girly, but I don’t know if a lot of other people would see me that way. These writers are very muscular, but I don’t think that has to do with them being male, because there are female playwrights who are very muscular in their expression. I just feel like for whatever reason, female playwrights don’t really ask me to do their plays. Nothing would make me happier than finding the sisterhood, but I can’t make them. So I’m waiting! Maybe it’s the Steppenwolf thing. In a Steppenwolf play, usually somebody throws a chair.

As the new artistic director of Steppenwolf, what do you see as the challenges ahead of you?

One of the big conversations we’re having is that in the culture of Steppenwolf as we see it, things are different now because it’s very hard for us to do a new play without asking, “Is this moving [to Broadway or another commercial transfer]?” It’s pervasive. There are shifts in the culture of new plays now, and there are writers whose plays you can’t get because a commercial producer already has the rights to it, so if you want to produce it, you have to be in conversation with the commercial producer. This was antithetical to everything we at Steppenwolf believed in for many many years, because back then it could be.

So we have to look at our place in our world and we have to understand how to exist in a world that is more commercial than it’s been, and that’s more communal than it’s been. That will a challenging, and — to me, because I’m deranged — a fascinating and cool conversation. I’m looking forward to that.

Has working on “Fish in the Dark” helped you decide that you’re funny after all?

What I’ve understood is that to be funny is not my job. To see funny is my job. And I can see funny, because Larry taught me. I think he thinks I’m a little funny, although maybe not in a way that’s helpful. Besides, he’s hardworking. You don’t get to where that dude is without being a perfectionist. Besides his daughters, who are the most important thing to him, I’m just not sure he’s that interested in anything else. His daughters and golf. I think it goes 1. Daughters, 2. Writing, 3. Golf. When that’s his hierarchy, you’re in good shape.