2014 Best Director of a Play Nominee Interview: Nancy Curran Willis for The Umbrella's "Angels in America, Part I and II - Millennium Approaches and Perestroika"

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Before we announce the winners of the 2014 ArtsImpulse Theatre Awards, we are proud to present our Nominee Interviews.

NOTE: If you or your production was nominated for a 2014 ArtsImpulse Theatre Award, and you would like to participate in a Nominee Interview, please email us here.

Nancy Curran Willis boasts many years at directing theatre at all levels across the Eastern Massachusetts region.  Her ability to create epic plays and musicals, while sustaining the humanity and rich storytelling, make her a cut above the rest.  In her Interview, Nancy describes he work on Angels in America through motifs and directing moment to moment; her theatre adjudicating experience; and her busy  2015-2016 season!

Nancy, can you tell us a little bit about yourself?  Who are you, what do you do, what are some of your theatre experiences and background?

Theater is something that’s been in my blood since early childhood. I grew up in Wakefield, MA with actor parents who met working at a professional theater in Lowell (well before MRT), my father’s hometown.  My Dad was an actor/singer who specialized in comedy, and Mom was a brilliant dramatic actress and a real “actor’s director.” That ended when they got engaged and my Grandfather took my Dad aside and suggested that he “find real work” to be able to support his family.  But the love of performing was never really left behind. My mother had lied about her age in high school and was cast in a show for The Quannapowitt Players (“QP”), a community theater formed by the two contiguous towns of Wakefield and Reading. She returned there as an actress/director as soon as I was old enough to play in the parking lot with the other theater brats, while they rehearsed. It wasn’t surprising that 20 years later when I had a family of my own, I followed in Mom’s footsteps and dragged my kids to QP to play while I worked on sets, sold tickets, ushered and served as President and member of the board for twenty years. It was there that I learned everything I know about producing, directing, stage managing and running a theater company. A theater brat with larger-than-life crazy actors for ‘rents, meant that my life was full of comedy and tragedy. A burnt roast became fodder for my Dad’s imitation of Julia Childs while Mom fumed, tossed the roast on the floor and stormed out the door and my brothers and I laughed hysterically. So, I guess my ability to work with actors was learned at an early age!  

The first play I directed was The Boys Next Door for QP, 25 years ago. We took a cutting to the New England Theater Conference drama festival held back then at Brandeis University, and won Best Production. It had been 38 years since QP had won the festival and that show had been directed by my Mom. Things do come full circle!  I had many years and much success in community theater while building a career in “Corporate America” and raising my three children as a single mom.

Anxious to see how professional theater worked, I had the pleasure of being the Assistant Director for Rick Lombardo at New Rep on a play called Beast on the Moon, my first professional experience. Not long after, I left Corporate America (and the salary) behind, and I began my journey into Boston area professional theater as the Managing Director of Gloucester Stage, which led to my joining with Jason Southerland in a collaboration of many years with Boston Theatre Works, the highlight of which was winning an Elliot Norton Award for Direction in 2008 for BTW’s Angels in America. Since then, I have directed for many professional, community and high school theaters with almost 10 years as guest director at Newton South High. I have been an adjudicator for Eastern Massachusetts Association of Community Theatre, Irene Ryan, and area high school festivals, as well as directing 3 to 5 shows a year, which retirement has allowed and my husband graciously puts up with.

What is your history with Angels in America?  How did you decide to direct these plays?

As mentioned above, my history with Angels started with my collaboration on BTW’s production. While that shared experience was highly successful professionally and personally, I never quite got over thinking on a purely personal level, there were some things left on the table that I wanted to explore further given the opportunity. I also felt that performing this important piece of theatrical history in the midst of Boston’s theater community in the South End was a little like preaching to the choir. I wished for the opportunity to bring this epic, important play to the suburbs but knew it had to be for a company that could provide the technical support and resources that I wanted to explore further in a production of my own. And then it happened. Brian Boruta, Artistic Director for The Umbrella in Concord, put out a call for directors for their 2014 season and Angels was on the list.

Talk to us about the story.  It’s epic. How did you make it manageable for yourself, your actors, your production team, and, more of all, the audience?

I actually had a very simple theory on that and not a very original one: How do you eat an elephant? One bite at a time.  I found that if you approached this material from the outside edge and got caught up in the magnitude of its themes and issues, it was easy to get lost in the hugeness of it. Instead we focused on managing that by working in small beats, each with its own journey and objective; stringing them together beat by beat, and hoping that three hours later, you’ve told the whole story and done justice to Kushner’s words and world.

On the technical side, keeping the world of the play in one location supported simple scene changes indicated merely by furniture placement and lighting. This allowed the theater magic called for in Kushner’s “Gay Fantasia” to be captured through creative/inventive costuming, lighting, sound and specific special effects.

For the audience, I felt it was important to bring out the humor of the two plays, especially the absurdity of Perestroika, which is a crazy mess structurally in comparison to Millennium. I felt strongly we needed actors who could personalize this journey for our suburban audience. Not from the perspective of an AIDS play but from the perspective of the relationships: of caring for a loved one with a terrible disease; of marriages that fall apart; of trying to fit in where you don’t belong; and of coping when your religious beliefs are in conflict with who you are. I directed a play about the hope for “more life” and wanted to use the power of drama and comedy to reinforce that theme.

How were these productions different than your other directing projects?  How were they similar?

Angels in America is rather typical of the type of theater that I like directing the most. I tend to gravitate towards epic storylines, dramatic through lines and big ideas. I also tend to like dark comedy that comes out of tragic storytelling. Some of my work along those lines are: Mary Zimmerman’s Metamorphoses, The Laramie Project, Cabaret, A Piece of My Heart, Jekyll and Hyde, to name a few. I also love material based on real people and true stories such as Diary of Anne Frank, The Miracle Worker, Grey Gardens, and Breaking the Code. And, anything by Sam Shepard or David Mamet!

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What were some recurring ideas, images, or motifs in the plays for you?  How did you reinforce these in your directing?

Probably the most recurring image for me in thinking about Angels was the importance of the Angel of the Waters atop the Bethesda Fountain in NYC’s Central Park. The statue references the Gospel of John, which describes an angel blessing the Pool of Bethesda and giving it healing powers. Kushner places several scenes at the fountain throughout Angels Part I and Part II. In fact he ends the play at the fountain with Prior Walter wishing for “more life.” That image drove the set design and the importance of the Angel to our production.  I wanted to make the Angel of the Water a metaphor for “more life” at the end of Perestroika, thereby giving hope to anyone needing to wash themselves clean. As a living metaphor, it would be enacted by the actress playing our Angel, Sharon Mason, who was swathed in a concrete dress, atop an 8 foot platform, covered in grey make up to replicate the statue. At the end of the play, with a nod of her head and a slight smile, she motions to Prior and as the fountain came to life with water flowing. We owe a huge thank you to set designer Brian Boruta and costumer Elisabetta Polito for pulling that one off.

What are you reading right now?  What is on your “To Read” list? Do novels or non-fiction ever inform your directing decisions?  

I’m embarrassed to admit that I don’t do much reading for “fun” these days. Most of my reading is based on research for upcoming or proposed directing projects. Presently I’m reading two books on Bonnie and Clyde, my next directing project: Go Down Together: The True, Untold Story of Bonnie and Clyde, and My Life with Bonnie and Clyde, a biography of Blanche Barrow, married to Clyde’s brother Buck who became one of the gang and the only survivor who wrote her memoir from prison. I have a vast library of play scripts and librettos and one day hope to actually read all of them!

Take us through a typical Saturday for you.  What are you doing?  Who are you with?  What do you have planned?

Well this particular Saturday, I am in my office, in front of my computer answering your questions. Other than that I would either be at a theater working on tech or spending time with my kids and grandkids. Most Saturday evenings, find me either attending a performance of my own show or supporting friends by attending their productions.

Tell us about your adjudicating background.  What is that like?  How does it help you as theatre artist?  What are some of the challenges?

I’ve been a consultant for Eastern Mass Association of Community Theaters (EMACT) for 20 years and have adjudicated Irene Ryan and several high school level festivals. It means that I see a lot of theater, which drives a curiosity and interest in the growth of our theater community and the nurturing of the next generation of theater artists. Key to being a good adjudicator is in being able to mix criticism with praise. At all levels of adjudication, you want to encourage good work while pointing out areas for improvement.  Finding that balance is a huge challenge of the job.

Another challenge is being in the position of adjudicating the work of your friends and peers making sure you are always evaluating without prejudice one way or the other.  My own directing work has benefitted greatly from being an adjudicator. Having to think about why a production or performance resonates or why it does not is something I use to inform my own projects. It continues to draw you into the role of observer (audience) and always reminds me that is the most important role of all.

How do you think the Greater Boston community theatre scene has changed?  How about the Boston fringe and professional scene?  What has stayed the same?  What do you hope will change in the next year?  Five years?

Frankly, I’m envious of the strength of the fringe theaters in Boston now since I was a part of the fringe companies that didn’t make it back in the day. It feels like Boston is more accepting of the companies that do new work and more opportunities for new directors and actors who want to get a start in the business.  And even more importantly, the number of amazingly talented actors and actresses, (several of whom are fellow nominees here) who have chosen to make Boston their theatrical home.

I also believe that the quality of theater at all levels is consistently reaching new heights. High schools are tackling material like Laramie Project and Spring Awakening. Community theaters are producing New England Premieres like Bonnie & Clyde, the Musical at The Umbrella (shameless self-promotion) and newer works by contemporary playwrights like Mamet, Shepard, Rebeck, Lindsay-Abaire, Dietz, and LaBute to name but a few. I believe the quality of community theater in our area has grown tremendously in the last decade with groups taking amazing risks doing edgy, new and challenging material. As the quality and body of work our audiences are exposed to at all levels continues to rise, I’m convinced the numbers of butts in seats will follow which is the ultimate goal for keeping theater alive.

If your best friend spoke at an award ceremony for you, what is one word that you hope that he or she uses to describes you?  

I think you’d get many answers depending on which friend you asked!

There is really no way to answer this without sounding like an egotistical idiot so I will leave it as a simple: NCW, my friend.

Do you have any upcoming projects or productions? Do you have anything else to share with our ArtsImpulse readers?

My personal projects for next season include: Bonnie & Clyde at The Umbrella in the fall; Proof for Concord Players in the winter; and Israel Horovitz’ My Old Lady for Quannapowitt Players in Reading in the spring.

I’d like to thank you and ArtsImpulse for the attention being given to theater at all levels in our community leading to their success and growth. I also would like to thank The Umbrella for being a huge part of that growth and mostly I want to thank the actors and designers who spent well over a year with us on Angels in America, Parts I and II. A director is only as good as the talent on the team. With special shout outs to: Peyton Pugmire, David Berti, Kendall Hodder, Damon Singletary, Kevin Brown, Jennifer Shea, Liz Robbins, Sharon Mason, Jim Barton, Cathie Regan, Brian Boruta and our amazing tech team who gave Angels in America the wings that allowed Kushner’s words to soar!