2015 Best Director of a Play Nominee: Michelle Aguillon for The Umbrella's "True West"

Before we announce our 2015 ArtsImpulse Award Winners, we are proud to present our 2015 ArtsImpulse Nominee Interview Series. 

NOTE: If you were nominated for a 2015 ArtsImpulse Theatre Award, and you would like to participate in our 2015 ArtsImpulse Nominee Interview Series, please email us at brian@artsimpulse.com


Michelle Aguillon, a 2014 ArtsImpulse Theatre Award Nominee for Best Director, brought her own warmth and humanity to Sam Shepard's True West, at The Umbrella in Concord. Rippling with familial strife and love, the play resonated from the solid directing and character work in making these characters become fully-developed and empathetic human beings.  In her Interview, Michelle describes the challenges in True West, her 2016 goals, and how the Greater Boston theatre community can grow!

Hi, Michelle, and welcome back to ArtsImpulse. Can you start by reminding our readers who you are, and what you’ve done this year? 

Besides directing True West at The Umbrella last Fall [2015], I am currently directing Rapture, Blister, Burn by Gina Gionfriddo for the Vokes Players in Wayland.

Talk to us about drew you to True West.  Had you seen productions of the play before?  Have you directed it or other Sam Shepard plays?  

Brian Boruta, Director of the Performing Arts at the Concord Umbrella, contacted me about directing True West.  At first I was honored but trepidatious because two of my friends, Nancy Curran Willis and David Sheppard, had directed very notable and award-winning productions of the play. I had never directed a Sam Shepard play before. These productions were so clear in my mind and I thought, “What can I do differently?”

I asked Brian to forward the script to me. I realized that I had to start from scratch, and not think about Nancy’s or David’s productions. After reading the play, what ultimately drew me into the play were the family relationships in the play. The family’s struggles were so relatable and recognizable.  Dare I say, they are just like us!  Ok, they are a little more nuts, but they are basically like us.

What is challenging about Sam Shepard’s work?  True West, in particular?

What isn’t challenging? His work is many things: abstract dialogue and off-kilter pace, and it comes with "Shepard-esque" expectations.  I found the biggest challenge was finding relatable people on-stage to keep our audiences with us. There are so much non-verbal, familial moments not in that script. We had so much fun discovering, building and calibrating those.

Another challenge, True West has had many productions on Broadway and in this Greater Boston theatre community, so we had a standard to uphold.  Shepard’s work is admired by some, hated by others–either way, his work is well-known and has a level of expectations.  We had to meet that, as well as find our own journey with Shepard’s words leading the way.

Can you tell us more about your own family?


Just kidding.

I surprisingly found a lot to draw on from my family. Surprisingly, because the characters in True West are known to be beyond us; their situations and conversations are somewhat abstract and very dark.  I found that they are not. The characters just speak in a slightly different dialogue is all; I was so relieved to realize that. It became the foundation of how to build the play.

But my family: they are as normal and as dysfunctional as any other.  I come from a family of very strong, opinionated and confident women with strong convictions.  We were ruled by our very Catholic, very ambitious, and very strict mother. 

We didn’t always get along, but we love each other deeply.  It took us years to get here, when for so many years we had to grow and evolve separately in order for us to grow together.

Lee (Gordon Ellis) talks with Saul (Alex Thayer) as Austin (Michael Carr) observes in The Umbrella's  True West  (Photo Credit: Meghan Donnelly) 

Lee (Gordon Ellis) talks with Saul (Alex Thayer) as Austin (Michael Carr) observes in The Umbrella's True West (Photo Credit: Meghan Donnelly) 

What did you learn about yourself through the plays that you directed this year?

I learned that I am still learning, still evolving.  Since every show is different, there cannot be a formula as to how to approach each one.  I’m stating the obvious, aren’t I?  That shows you that I’m still learning.  I learned to be even more flexible and more open than I thought I already was. Having worked with so many different actors and designers, being open makes the collaborative process so much better for the production.

Do you have any 2016 resolutions? Goals?

I would like to work on being a better collaborator on the production’s technical aspects since I am the most intimate with the play besides the actors. I want to be better relied upon by the designers to really speak for the production once we get to tech week.  I just want to be more well-rounded, I guess. I caught myself several times not only with True West, but on other productions, where I was not very clear on what I was envisioning or needing.  Luckily, Brian Boruta, our very intuitive True West producer, was able to stay cognizant of all production aspects and keep me on track.

If you could travel anywhere, where would you go?  Who would you bring with you?

Well, that changes.  Right this minute?  I’d say, I would love to go back to Palawan, a remote resort island in the Philippines. It is more underdeveloped than most resorts.  Having seen other local resorts become overrun by commercialism and pollution, the locals are trying to be environmentally conscious and controlling tourism.

I was there in 2012, having traveled alone.  I would like to share that experience again next time with my daughter or one of my close friends.  That place was just paradise.

I would also like to travel throughout Europe, just backpack it for as long as I could, but alone. I think.

Ask me tomorrow, and I may say Bali and Southeast Asia.

How do you think that Greater Boston community theatre can improve?  Greater Boston theatre, in general?

Oh, we need to find more affordable theater spaces!  Also, although there has been some great effort, we need more diversity.  And I’m not only referring to plays with characters of color, I am also referring to seeing more theater companies cast more diversely regardless of an actor’s color, and have their casting based on talent, not type. 

What did you want to be when you grew up?

I was so shy; I had no ambition to be where I am now.  I never dreamed I could do it; wait, I didn’t even dream about it.  But it is where I belong.  The one thing I did dream about was being a stay-at-home mom and raising a big family. That was it; it was what I thought I wanted until I discovered theatre in high school.  It’s still funny to me when I think about how and where I ended up, but I’m really happy. It was hard getting here, but I’m happy.

Mom (Nancy Curran Willis) looks at her dying plant as Austin (Michael Carr) and Lee (Gordon Ellis) fight in the background in  The Umbrella 's  True West  (Photo Credit: Meghan Donnelly).

Mom (Nancy Curran Willis) looks at her dying plant as Austin (Michael Carr) and Lee (Gordon Ellis) fight in the background in The Umbrella's True West (Photo Credit: Meghan Donnelly).

Do you have any upcoming projects?

I can’t really say yet, but yes, there is one I’m very excited about.  It should be announced by the time this comes out.  There are a couple of potential projects that may be on the horizon.  I hope they are a good fit for me and for the company; if not, I am always confident that that means I’m destined for something else even if that means doing nothing for a while.

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

Basically what I said last year (I think): Support Art - in all forms. Children should especially be exposed to any form of art!