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Sam Gold has just spent half an hour getting two actors to move a few metres in sync. “It should look totally banal,” insists the American director, but it has to be spot on. “This is where you stop sweeping. This is where you pause. This is when you walk.”
Control-freakery? Micromanagement? Perfectionism? Yes, yes and yes again — but that’s what has made Gold one of the most sought-after directors in New York.
He is directing, or rather redirecting for its UK premiere at London’s National Theatre, a play by Annie Baker, her Pulitzer Prize-winning The Flick. Baker writes naturalism so natural that it could step off the stage and blend in at the bar. Her low-key dramas reveal unexamined lives in all their tedium and complexity. The Flick is set in a small rundown cinema, between films. As three underpaid ushers sweep up the popcorn, their hopes, hearts and insecurities are revealed.
In a sense, Gold and Baker shaped each other’s work. Introduced by his then girlfriend, now wife, Amy Herzog, they bonded over a shared frustration: that even at its most naturalistic, theatre never felt like life. The two set out to make “something that didn’t feel like theatre, something with a kind of anti-theatricality”. That something was Circle Mirror Transformation, a peek into an amateur acting class. Nothing much happens, yet five lives change irrevocably. It grew out of workshops in 2008, with Baker scripting off improvisations. Five projects later, Gold gets the scripts fully formed, all the exactitude inbuilt.
It cuts both ways, though: Gold needed a writer as precise as Baker to hone his practice. After training at the prestigious Juilliard School, he interned with the experimental Wooster Group, later directing a pirate-themed puppet rock opera. Baker’s writing allowed him “to get really microscopic. Because of the way she writes, people pay attention, giving me the opportunity to really iris in.” For all that it looks off-the-cuff, Gold’s style “is actually very technical — the opposite of natural”. Hence the sweeping, stopping and stepping off in sync. “To a certain extent,” he says, “The Flick is a dance piece.”
With his retro tortoise-shell specs and the black curls that won’t be slicked down, Gold looks every inch the New York director — so much so that he cameos as one in Lena Dunham’s sitcom Girls, a return to his acting roots. He understudied on Broadway while at college, and still sees actors as the essence of theatre.
“You don’t need anything else on stage except a human,” he says, “in all their complexity and messiness and soulfulness.”
When he turned to new plays, those were qualities he sought out, favouring writers, like Baker, who lean in towards the little things in life: Dan LeFranc, Stephen Belber, Zoe Kazan. Gold often picks plays that relish inarticulacy, countering the idea of “the theatre as a place for wit or a well-written line”.
It’s an American thing, he admits. “A lot of British theatre is theatre of ideas. You think about what the playwright is arguing. We’re sort of fearful of intellect. For us, things have to come out sideways and, I think, come out of vulnerability. Americans really enjoy watching vulnerability.”
Is that why American writing is having a purple patch: vulnerable plays for vulnerable times? “Part of it’s about the economy,” Gold shrugs. “We’re in this golden age of television in America, so all of a sudden, being a playwright, you’re in a world with some power, some cultural efficacy, even some monetary reward.” Playwrights stick with theatre, supplementing their income through TV. “It subsidises the theatre, so theatre can double down, do more new writing and take bigger risks.”
In recent years Gold’s repertoire has broadened. He won a Tony Award last year for his first musical Fun Home, based on Alison Bechdel’s graphic memoir, and he has increasingly been tackling classic works.
With actors breaking into song or performing well-known texts, these projects are inescapably theatrical. Gold’s productions tend to admit as much, and his set designer Andrew Lieberman will often use the theatre space itself, almost as he finds it. “It’s to do with putting the audience inside something that has no artifice,” he says. “Just people and the place they happen to be in.” All Gold asks us to do, in other words, is watch actors performing a play, here and now. If we invest in the fiction, that’s entirely our doing.
Like acclaimed Belgian theatre director Ivo van Hove, who pared A View from the Bridge back to its bones, Gold tries to find the essentials. “I don’t set out to be iconoclastic,” he insists. “It seems that way if a new version doesn’t carry the conventions of its production history. All I’m doing is stripping away those conventions to get at what I see inside the text.
“One person does a great production and the next person borrows from it, and 10 years later, you realise that you haven’t seen this play without any of that influence. As a director, it’s my job to say, ‘Well, that has nothing to do with the play.’”
As such, his Uncle Vanya, in Baker’s version, stripped out the samovars and sat the audience up-close on cushions. He went to Amsterdam to stage The Glass Menagerie to escape the ghost of Jessica Tandy, Miller’s muse. (“I couldn’t do Southern American aristocracy — I had a Belgian Amanda.”) He even got John Osborne’s relic Look Back in Anger working again, treating it as “a young playwright’s first play: long, messy, with its heart on its sleeve”. He sealed up the stage and played it on a raised platform in the stalls. The aim, he says, was to restore the original radicalism.
Up next, this autumn, is his most classical play yet: Othello, with Daniel Craig as Iago and Selma star David Oyelowo in the lead. It’s no star vehicle, though. Craig has big box office clout (Betrayal, in 2014, took over $1m a week on Broadway), but Othello will run in a 199-seat studio off-Broadway. It’s very much Gold’s baby: his first shot at Shakespeare.
He picked the play for its purity (“It’s not got a lot of B-plots”), and his cast for their authenticity. Craig hasn’t done Shakespeare since he was 16 — and Gold, having known the Bond star for a while, finds that exciting.
“If you know him, he’s such a great Iago” — Gold’s practically bouncing in his seat — “Iago’s the kind of guy you can imagine going to a bar with, wanting to hang out with — he’s honest Iago — but he has to have the power to turn the whole play.”
As for Oyelowo, who started out at the RSC: “He speaks the language beautifully, but if you look at his film work, he’s obsessed with authenticity and being very raw, very naked on film.
“There’s a tension in Shakespeare between the incredibly naturalistic — the idea that his plays invented contemporary psychology, that they contain these very real, very complicated people — with a form that’s artificial and technical. Wrestling with that will be fascinating.”
‘The Flick’, National Theatre, London, from April 13. nationaltheatre.org.uk
Photograph: Anna Huix