2014 Best Director of a Play: Michelle Aguillon for Hovey Players' "Rabbit Hole"

Although we have announced our 2014 ArtsImpulse Theatre Award Winners, we continue our Nominee Interview Series.

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.

Michelle Aguillon directed a strikingly moving and simple production of Rabbit Hole, a Tony Award winning play about loss, grief, family, and moving on.  The play resonated with audiences because of her careful direction, expert character work, and subtle directorial decisions in both the acting and design.  In her Interview, Michelle discusses her theatrical background, her love for food, and her favorite moments in Rabbit Hole

Michelle, wonderful to speak with you.  Can you introduce yourself to our readers?  Can you tell us a little bit about who you are, where you are from, and what brings you to Boston? 

MichelleAguillon

Hello, Brian, and thanks so much for Hovey’s nominations and recent wins for Rabbit Hole. We had such a great time at the ArtsImpulse Awards evening.  And thank you for these interviews. I have really enjoyed reading them.

I have been involved in theatre in the Boston area for 20 years.  I’m a transplant from California, where I discovered theatre in high school.  I followed some friends one day who were auditioning for the high school musical.  I dared myself to do something outrageous, having been a very shy kid, and I auditioned. I was cast in a major role, and I was hooked. After continuing theatre in community college, I was accepted into San Francisco State University’s Communications Program, but it didn’t take long to switch my major to Theatre.  After my summer studies at the National Theatre in London in 1992, my daughter’s father was accepted at the A.R.T. and so, we moved here in 1993. I discovered that the area was rich with a very enthusiastic theatre community. I had found my theatre home.

What is your performing and directing background?  What have been some of your favorite projects?

I performed for many years, never once thinking I should direct. I was an actor, focusing on gaining as much experience as I could, trying to evolve and learn as much as I could.  Being an actor of color had its advantages, but mostly disadvantages, especially in this area, but I loved that challenge.  I am so grateful to those directors that saw past my “type.” I auditioned for a variety of roles, regardless of the character’s ethnicity.  I felt fortunate to work both in town and in community theaters.  But. in time, I grew weary of myself, and I admit that I really started to get sick of myself on stage. I know that’s harsh, but it’s true. 

In 2003, a friend of mine, Leigh Berry, encouraged me to direct a Vietnam drama, G.R. Point. I had submitted it for Hovey’s season, and I found a new place for myself.  I just loved it.  The IRNE committee awarded the production for Best Supporting Actor, Best Ensemble, and Best Director. I was honored -- I was content enough with the experience and I was happy that the production was received well by our audiences, but wow! I was completely surprised our wins.  That experience has stayed with me since, and I’ve rarely been back on stage. 

As far as favorite projects, I have loved so many, each with their unique experiences. I had the good fortune of collaborating with so many different groups of actors, designers, and crew, I don’t have a favorite.  Besides Rabbit Hole and G.R. Point, I also loved working on Looking for Normal, Kimberly Akimbo, Miss Saigon, A Midsummer Night’s Dream, Sense and Sensibility, God of Carnage, Good People, and, most recently, Of Mice and Men. I would love a do-over with Looking for Normal.  It seemed audiences at the time weren’t ready for a play about a long-time married man becoming transgendered, and how it deeply affects his wife, family, and community. 

What drew you to directing Rabbit Hole?  Had you seen the play before?  Had you watched the movie?

I was looking for a great script to submit for Hovey’s 2007-2008 season. I had already worked on David Lindsay-Abaire’s Fuddy Meers.  Because I loved his writing, I looked at the rest of his body of work.  Rabbit Hole had just been on Broadway, and it won the Pulitzer Prize for Drama. Its description seemed so different that the rest of his work.  I discovered that the play’s dialogue and characters were far more realistic than anything else I had read from Lindsay-Abaire.  I plowed through that script so quickly. I could hear it and see it. The characters and relationships were so rich. Needless to say, I submitted it.

The Board loved it too, and it was selected. But the rights were pulled because Nicole Kidman bought the rights to make the film.  I was so disappointed. I was so ready to direct it. Instead, I submitted Kimberly Akimbo, and I loved working on that.

In 2008, I moved to L.A.  I saw the film out there.  I liked a lot of it, but I missed a lot of what was cut.  I longed to direct it on stage someday. 

How do you feel that your production was different or unique?  What did you want to focus as a director?

I had never seen it on stage, so I didn’t try to be unique or different. I only knew what I envisioned. When I moved back to Boston in 2013, I submitted it again to Hovey for its next season, knowing the play had been produced many times in the area already.  I was really itching to direct it, to “get it out of my system.”  I hadn’t directed a major stage production since I left Boston, and I found that the downtime gave me time to reset as an artist.

In rehearsals, I focused on the relationships, on how they were trying to move on despite the tragedy. We worked hard to get the dialogue to sound as conversational as possible. I didn’t want to focus on the tragedy itself, instead almost ignoring it, so that when it did present itself there would be a natural and sudden shift to make it disappear again. I felt the play represented a phase of the Corbett’s daily lives, not the end of them because of the tragedy. I wanted the ending of the play to be ambiguous – leaving the audiences to feel that there was hope, but also that perhaps Becca and Howie may not make it. My biggest goal was to have the audiences relate to any of the characters at any given moment. Lindsay-Abaire’s script is brilliant that way.

Talk to us about the rehearsal process.  What were the biggest challenges?  What were some of your discoveries?

The biggest challenge was getting the set design right in Hovey’s intimate space.  It was important to me that the environment wasn’t only functional, but that it was also an extension of Becca and a reflection of her inner life. Having a limited budget and resources is always a challenge, but I’m proud with what we came up with.  The set reflected the Corbett’s daily lives, like nothing was wrong. Most of the set had colors of the desert to reflect Becca’s desolation & loneliness, splashed with bits of color from Danny’s things, his toys & books. Being so intimately involved with these people, I wanted to include subtle set dressing that wasn’t obvious to the audience, but was symbolic of Becca. I discovered that I really enjoyed being part of that side of the production. 

Because none of the actors knew each other, my first goal was to get us as comfortable with each other as quickly as possible.  We didn’t do a lot of table work. I wanted to work through their back-stories on their feet.  I wanted memorization out of the way as quickly as possible, too, in order to build the relationships and tweak them all along the way. Thank goodness, the cast was on the same page. We bonded very quickly, laughed a lot, and we have been close since.

What stories are you drawn to as a director?  As an audience member?

I like stories with characters to whom I can relate, but I also love being introduced to foreign yet relatable experiences.  I enjoy having common experiences with audiences, finding great joy laughing together, and I enjoy the opposite extreme of experiencing sadness together.  It makes me feel more alive, less alone. Theatre makes me very emotional. I cry over the smallest things.  I recently saw On the Town on Broadway; I wept over a dance number!

What do you like to do in your spare time?

Spare time?  What’s that?

What is your favorite dessert?  Homemade or store-bought?

I guess this answers the previous question because I’m a huge foodie. My family loves to cook, and we will try anything. After fulfilling a lifelong dream to go to cooking school, I worked in restaurants and for large events, and I catered. I am also a private chef. 

Picking a favorite dessert is just too hard. There are so many! I go through phases.  I have always been into ice cream, and sometimes I make my own.  My favorite to make is buttered popcorn ice cream with a salted caramel sauce and chopped peanuts – a play on caramel popcorn, which I loved as a kid. I have been into gourmet donuts for a couple of years, too, and I have sometimes made my own.  I also love crème brulee and crème caramel.

What advice would you give to other directors?  What about to actors?

I feel that I still have so much that I want to learn, how can I offer advice?  I only offer advice to directors if asked; it is the same for actors. 

For actors, I would say to keep an open mind and an open heart, not only to the work, but to your director, your fellow actors, your crew - don’t shut anyone out.  It’s a collaborative art.  Always be open to learning more.  Practice your craft even in the smallest of ways.

For auditions, be as prepared as possible.  It’s competitive, right?  You want to stick out! So, be as educated as you can with the play, its characters, dialogue & relationships.  I always look for context in auditions, a through-line. Go into your audition with nothing to lose, confident in your research and in the practice of the dialogue. Serve the play, not yourself.  If you don’t get the part, come away from it being as content as possible that you did your best despite what the director and/or casting committee may be thinking.  Hopefully, you’re on the same page. An audition is an opportunity to evolve and learn, if nothing else. And if you’re cast, that’s the icing on the cake.

But hey, there are some brilliant actors out there that don’t need to do any of that!  Maybe I’m projecting, or talking to my younger self!

What was your favorite moment in Rabbit Hole?  What are some other favorite moments in other plays that you’ve directed?  

Wow, this is a tough one.  I loved so many. The one that comes to mind at the moment is Act One, Scene 3, celebrating Izzy’s birthday. The scene takes an ugly turn and somehow becomes an intervention for Becca.  For all that has happened, she has barely kept it together choosing to grieve in her own way, which the rest of the family seems to misunderstand.  Nat, Becca’s mother, tries to pry her open. Nat feels that she identifies with Becca, having lost a son herself.  At this point, Becca feels cornered, and she unleashes her anger and pain, but quickly recoils, trying to take it back.  Instead, she excuses herself from the situation and leaves.

Katie handled this beautifully; we worked together to ensure that Becca had a lot of restraint, keeping her in a place of neutrality. When this moment came, she had built up a damn of emotions. Becca is not mean, but hurt from being so misunderstood by her family. The cast was great in helping to build up the tension leading to that moment.

What is the best production that you saw in 2014?

Next to Normal directed by my friend, Donnie Baillargeon, for Vokes Theater in Wayland.

What makes you laugh? 

I laugh at a lot of things, but a dark, almost sick, sense of humor, or pure goofiness makes me laugh. When actors enjoy a great moment on stage together, that can make me laugh.  Bill Murray makes me laugh; he can just sit there, do nothing and I just laugh.  I love impersonations, too, either of famous people or people I know personally! And no, I don’t do impersonations.

Do you have any upcoming projects or productions?

I will be directing True West by Sam Sheppard for the Umbrella in Concord this summer.  It opens in late September.  I will also direct Gina Gionfriddo’s Rapture, Blister, Burn in the Spring of 2016 for Vokes Players in Wayland.

Do you have anything else to share with our ArtsImpulse readers?

Thank you, Brian, for your continued support of professional and community theatre! I hope that your readership continues to grow.  It’s great to hear another perspective/voice in our community. 

I would encourage readers to continue to support theatre, and the arts in general, as it is an integral part of our society and culture.  Theatre gives us the opportunity to explore & understand different worlds, different voices, and to see how the “other half lives.”