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Director Joe Mantello on His Broadway Plays ‘The Humans,’ ‘Blackbird’

Actor-turned-director Joe Mantello is among New York’s most regularly employed stage directors, but even so, things are unusually busy for him this spring. His critically lauded staging of Stephen Karam’s “The Humans” began previews Jan. 24, and 12 days later, his starry production of David Harrower’s “Blackbird,” starring Jeff Daniels and Michelle Williams, kicked off performances. Factor in “Wicked,” the 2003 global smash he also helmed, and he’s got three shows running on Broadway at once.

You directed “Blackbird” Off Broadway in 2007, also with Daniels in the cast. What brought you back to it?

It was a play I felt like I had unfinished business with. But it’s been eight or nine years. Michelle wanted to be assured it wouldn’t be just a straightforward re-creation of what we’d done, and
I said, “I can honestly tell you, I have no idea what we did.”

“The Humans” is so complicated and subtle. How did you achieve that balance?

One of the things we talked about a lot was not feeling any pressure to make big moments happen, but to find the theatricality within the more mundane moments. I’m interested in that lately, in how little you have to do, and in trusting the audience more. Which I think is a newer feeling for me. Before I felt like I had to make the production tapdance a little bit more.

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“The Humans” and “Blackbird” are two very intimate plays going from small theaters to Broadway houses.

Plays like these can rise to the occasion of those buildings. The only other time I’ve experienced that first hand is with “The Normal Heart.” I’d seen all these productions of it Off Broadway, and then, just by moving it into another space  (on Broadway, in a 2011 revival in which Mantello starred), the ideas existed on a larger scale. Somehow the real estate of Broadway released it from being a piece of agitprop theater to being something else — a more classic work.

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