British theater director Marianne Elliott and London’s National Theatre are on a roll. “War Horse,” their first joint blockbuster, and “The Curious Incident of the Dog in the Night-Time,” their second, received numerous Olivier and Tony Awards and have enjoyed long runs. Elliott’s newest high-profile success, a revival of Tony Kushner’s “Angels in America” at the National, is receiving raves amid talk of heading for Broadway next year.
After a decade at the National, Tony-winner Elliott, 50, has now left to co-launch a new production company where she will direct both new and classic productions. But first she’s shepherding “Curious Incident” to the Ahmanson Theatre, where it opens Thursday (also at Segerstrom Center Sept. 12-17). In a recent phone interview, she talked about the risks and rewards of such ambitious projects.
“Curious Incident” is adapted from Mark Haddon’s bestselling novel about a behaviorally challenged 15-year-old math wizard. How did you get involved with taking it from book to stage?
I read the book when it first came out. I loved it and that’s all I thought about it. Then, playwright Simon Stephens, who is a very good friend, asked me a favor. He was going to adapt “Curious Incident” into a play on the quiet. Since he didn’t know if it would be possible and he didn’t want anyone to know, he asked if I would read his first draft. I said yes, and I remember being quite trepidatious about it because I thought it probably was not a great idea and would be very difficult to pull off.
I had no idea he wanted me to direct it and that it could be a successful adaptation. I read it purely objectively, and that is always the best way to read things because when you’re asked to direct something, you always read it with a filter of “oh, my God, how am I going to stage that?” But I didn’t have any of that. I just came to the end of reading it, and I was profoundly moved. I knew then I had to do it and had to make the National agree to let me do it.
How did that go?
While it was a risk, the National is a subsidized house, and we are encouraged to take risks that don’t necessarily have to recoup or make money. We did it in the smallest venue at the National, the Cottesloe, and we had no expectation whatsoever that it would affect so many people in the way that it has. It wasn’t until it was trending on Twitter in previews that I realized people were really liking it.
With its minimal scenery, lighting effects and walls that hide mysteries, “Curious Incident” works so well at taking the audience into Christopher’s magical world. How did you come up with that?
What the book does is place you inside Christopher’s head as he tells his story, and we ultimately decided that was what we should do too. Because he can’t articulate his emotions, we were trying to make the audience see and feel what he sees and feels. We’ve all been in very busy, crowded train stations and found them overwhelming. We’ve all felt the effects of information overload. I think the success of the writing is that you say to yourself, “Oh, wow, he sees the world that way, and I understand that because I do too sometimes.”
You’ve said that when you were looking into adapting “War Horse,” Michael Morpurgo’s bestseller about a boy, his horse and a world at war, you thought it too was impossible.
I felt the same about “Angels in America” — there’s a theme here, isn’t there? I suppose there is something enticing about “the impossible,” but also it means you will be made to think outside your usual box. To be made to be that creative is terrifying but also potentially huge and exciting.
The National Theatre is designed to take risks like these, but what led you personally to take them on?
I feel that if you’re going to do theater, you’ve really got to throw yourself into the deep end. You have to commit your whole life and soul to it to make it the best it could ever be because theater can truly change people in lots of different ways. But I also think it can bore people to death, and it’s quite a fine line between those two things. There’s something about witnessing and experiencing the ritual of these stories, with all their subconscious layers, that takes you to a place where you can be changed. And that’s what I am aiming for.
Were there many female theater directors in England when you started?
No, there weren’t. In fact, I didn’t go into directing until my late 20s because I assumed you had to be a man. My father was a director, everybody in his peer group were men, and I felt that’s what men did. I find it shocking that I thought that. Katie Mitchell, Deborah Warner and Phyllida Lloyd had started to break through before me, and by the time I was coming up, I think people were saying we should have some more female directors around. I was helped by that, and today women directors here are much less rare.
What were some of the greatest challenges for you on reviving “Angels in America?”
The length itself, and the epic nature of the piece. It is 7½ hours running time, and there are so many layers to it. We worked on it for a year and a half before we even started rehearsals, and it was an enormous task to even approach it. There are 76 scenes which required very specific and different settings and aesthetics, and it was absolutely daunting. We met every week for a year just on the design.
It wasn’t just because of the amount of time we spent on it, but because the writing is so powerful that by mere osmosis you take it in. It is full of anxiety, paranoia, desperation, terrible isolation and doom. When you really explore what’s going on for the characters and what the themes are trying to tell the audience, you really do get very affected.
“Angels in America” will be your swan song at the National as you launch a new production company, Elliott and Harper Productions, with your frequent producer Chris Harper. How did that come about?
After 10 years at the National, I was questioning what I should do next: Give up theater, try and go into film or do something else entirely. I decided I would take a long period off and see where I was at. Then Chris said we should set up our own theater company, and it was a no-brainer. It seemed like a perfect opportunity. I wanted to do something very different, and I have always loved working with Chris. I wanted to be more in control of the work I was doing but I never wanted to run a building or a theater.
Your new theater company’s first play is Simon Stephens’ “Heisenberg” [which is also currently playing at the Mark Taper Forum.]. Why did you choose that particular play to lead off your venture?
Like with “Curious Incident,” Simon’s plays truly affect and stir me, which is why I want to direct them, and I was keen to do something that was the opposite of “Angels.” I also wanted to do something that had an incredibly strong female lead, which is not particularly a political statement. It’s just my personal taste. I’m drawn to female stories, of which there aren’t that many, and particularly to stories now about older women. The things they have to confront and override is really fascinating. That’s a whole untold part of our world.
Could that interest have come with your turning 50?
Yes, I suppose it does. I’m aware as I get older, there are less and less stories that really pertain to me and who I am and where I’m going. But who wants to retell the same old story? You have to feel you’re making a statement in a way that nobody else has before or that you’re throwing light on something that people may not have seen before. Otherwise, there’s no point.
Your new company has also announced plans for a female protagonist as the central figure, Bobby, in Stephen Sondheim and George Furth’s “Company.”
I always loved and secretly wanted to do “Company.” It was produced on Broadway in 1970, and it’s about a successful 35-year-old guy who’s starting to think he should get married. Nowadays, I don’t think anyone cares if a 35-year-old attractive, successful man isn’t married. But there are a lot of women who are 35 and doing well in their careers and not settled down who are thinking, maybe now is the time to settle down and if I don’t do it now, will I ever, and feeling that pressure. So I would say doing “Company” with a female Bobby makes it very relevant to now.
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‘The Curious Incident of the Dog in the Night-Time’
Where: Ahmanson Theatre, 135 N. Grand Ave, Los Angeles, through Sept. 10. Also at Segerstrom Center for the Arts, 600 Town Center Drive, Costa Mesa, Sept. 12-17
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