2014 Best Director of a Musical or Opera Nominee Interview: Ilyse Robbins for New Repertory Theatre's "The Little Prince"

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.

Photo by Joe Henson

Photo by Joe Henson

It is a joy and delight to be around Ilyse Robbins and to see her work.  Each of her productions is infused with lightness and color, movement and depth.  As a director, choreographer, and performer, Ilyse brings a wealth of knowledge to each of her productions.  For that, she is nominated for a 2014 ArtsImpulse Theatre Award for Best Director of a Musical or Opera for her production of New Repertory Theatre's The Little Prince.  In her Nominee Interview, Ilyse describes her joy in being a Mom and a director (and how they complement each other!), her passion for adaptations to the stage, and her guilty pleasure (let's just say that Ilyse rivals them in super powers!).  

Ilyse, thank you for interviewing with us.  It’s wonderful to interview you again, after your fun and introspective interview with My Entertainment World last year.  Can you start by telling us a bit about yourself?

Now that’s an open-ended question . . . My son, having just watched Guardians of the Galaxy three times would like me to answer, “I like pina coladas, and getting caught in the rain.” I am the Mom of two great kids, which is my first job. I direct, choreograph, act, coach presentation skills, and teach. People ask which is my favorite job, and my answer is always whatever I am doing at the moment.  We just got a dog this year - my first ever - and I adore her. I am writing my first book, a young adult novel. We’ll see if I ever get it off my computer and out into the world.

How did you choose The Little Prince?  Had you grown up reading the story?

The Little Prince chose me. The New Rep had announced it for their season and after talking with Bridget O’Leary, I decided to pitch myself to Jim [Petosa].  And yes, I have read the story many times throughout my life.

How did being a mother impact you as director for The Little Prince?  How does it impact you as a theatre professional and artist?

Being a mom helps me in everything that I do. I had a teenager in my cast and I treated him as I would want someone to treat my teenager - both with care and respect. I wanted the show to be something my kids would both enjoy and learn from, and they came to rehearsal now and again which helped keep me on my path. Honestly, having kids puts everything into perspective for me. They give me a richer, fuller life. And in return, getting to do the work that I love makes me a better Mom.

It was certainly a rich production! Why was The Little Prince so impactful as a production?  What do you think that the adapters did well to make it a success?  What did you and your cast and crew bring to the production?

I think many people knew this story very well and were thrilled to see it brought to life. And for those who didn’t know it well, it is a beautiful journey that teaches some wonderful life lessons - lessons that we often need to be reminded of at any age. The adapters kept VERY close to the original Saint-Exupery book and I think that was what makes it most successful. I also think the choice to use one actor to play all the men of the planets makes a very interesting statement. I think our cast and crew infused this production with new life. My designers and I tried to create a world filled with surprises and whimsy - a land to play in. In this production, I brought the actors on to play several characters that were called for to be “off-stage voices.” I also had the actors manipulate the set. I wanted this to be an ensemble story-telling production and I think we succeeded.

Photo by Andrew Brilliant / Brilliant Pictures

Photo by Andrew Brilliant / Brilliant Pictures

The joy and depth that my actors brought to this piece was astounding. I was incredibly lucky to work with four actors who were fearless and creative. I would be remiss to not mention my Music Director, Todd Gordon, who was just as flexible and playful as well as David McGrory who scored the piece for piano and reed (which is not how it was originally conceived).

I loved the woodwinds! Such a great sound! Why is it important to do adaptations of other works?  Are there any stories that you would like to adapt or direct onstage?

I am a huge fan of adaptations. I “grew up” doing theater at Northwestern University. Chicago is a breeding ground for ensemble-based, adaptive theater. We called it “Performance Studies” at school. There are beautiful stories that have been written by the most talented authors that really have stood the test of time. There is a reason these stories still resonate - their themes still have meaning to us. Adapting them for the stage is a logical next step. We bring them to life and breathe with them. I am dying to work on Laura Eason’s adaptation of Tom Sawyer. I went to school with Laura and I got to see the piece on stage in Hartford a few years ago. It is fantastic. There are many stories I would like to adapt. Right now, I am working on adapting several children’s stories with my students at Wheelock College. I feel like it is a place that I really like to live.

Sign me up if you ever do Tom Sawyer! What are the joys and challenges of working with youth performers?

So many joys. Most of the young performers that I work with are just joyous about theater. They don’t think twice about the fact that a play is called “play.” They are creative and inventive and excited and intelligent. They are like sponges and want so much to learn and improve. 

The greatest challenge? Young men’s voices changing - hands down. Next in line - scheduling. I often work with middle school children and they are going through a lot of life changes - but we’ve all been there. It’s just something that I, and my casts and crews, need to remain sensitive to.

It’s wonderful to see your directing work, again! I know that you also perform and choreograph.  How does working in each of the other areas affect your work as a theatre professional?

Aren’t you sweet! Thank you. I was just saying to a friend that each makes me better at the other. Directing makes me a better actor as being an actor DEFINITELY makes me a better director. I can see things through the eyes of the other. And I still love to choreograph because I learn so much from the other directors with whom I share the room.

What do you think is your biggest strength as a theatre artist? Your biggest challenge?

I would say that my biggest strength is the fact that I am able to work in so many capacities. I think it broadens my perspective and I am able to speak the many languages of the theater. It also makes me a more empathetic person.

My biggest challenge is that I always feel there is so much to learn and never enough time to do everything I wish that I could with all the people I would like to work with.

If you could go anywhere in Boston on a Friday night, where would you go?  Who would join you?

On a date. With my husband.

Do you have a favorite TV show? Guilty pleasure? Why?

Right now, my husband and I are binge-watching Breaking Bad. But I am really just biding my time, waiting for the next season of Sherlock. Most of my friends know that my guilty pleasure is comics - especially Batman and Legends of the Dark Knight - and any really good superhero TV shows and movies. I can not wait for Heroes Reborn.  Though I am disappointed that Zachary Quinto is not rejoining the cast.

Do you have any upcoming projects or productions?

My current project is my Story Theater class at Wheelock College. We are putting together a half-hour of adaptations of children’s stories to bring to schools and daycares. After that is How To Succeed…  at Stoneham Theatre. I will be directing and choreographing.

I’ll be directing/choreographing for Wheelock Family Theatre’s Summer Youth Intensive for the sixth straight year alongside John O’Neil and Sophie Rich over the summer. I think that’s it for now!

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

Just that I want to thank you, Brian, for adding a new, fresh, and exciting voice to Boston theater. See everyone at the theater!