We’re so excited to have Mike Lew as one of our Directors Salon playwrights this year. He’s currently blowing up the blog-o-sphere with his thoughts on issues such as gender parity in the theater, casting actors of color, and interning at NYC theater companies (and Mike is married to the awesome playwright Rehana Lew Mirza, who wrote the hilarious short play “The Waiting Game” for the 2012 Salon, directed by Daniela Thome!).
Mike’s short play “Ten Page Manifesto” will be performed on the final night of the Salon (Sunday, June 23rd at 7:30pm), so make sure to check out the show, OR come to the opening night party on Monday, June 17th at 7pm for a chance to direct it yourself! Keep reading for a Q&A with Mike about his play in the Salon as well as his thoughts on the playwright/director relationship (and how to even go about forming one).
Working Theater: Tell us about your play in the Salon. How did Waiting for Lefty inspire your play?
Mike Lew: I have to admit to being a bit uncultured, in that I wasn’t familiar with “Waiting for Lefty” prior to the Salon. I’ve read lots of plays, like a whole lot… I swear. But this was one that had slipped through the cracks. My angle for the piece was thinking about how gutted unions have become, how the slow and sure work of monolithic corporations has steadily chipped away at the union’s power. So I wanted to come up with what a modern-day “Waiting for Lefty” might look like, given the modern workplace.
WT: What do you look for in a director?
ML: I started out as a director, so my bar is always, “What is this person bringing to the room that I couldn’t have done on my own?” As it turns out, though, most directors bring a HELL of a lot more than I can do on my own; I’ve worked with several wonderful directors. I’m looking for somebody who has an intrinsic sense of the text and the rhythms of my particular sense of humor, but who knows when to ask about about interpretation. It’s a bad sign when somebody gets one of my plays and says, “This is all very clear; I have no questions.” I’m also not very spatially savvy, so I’m looking for someone who can bring the spatial composition and specificity of movement to partner with the specificity of language I’ve placed in the text.
WT: Tell us about your worst experience working with a director.
ML: I honestly don’t have one. If a director is coming in with a spirit of collaboration in mind, and of amplifying the play in a way that’s organic to what’s built into the meaning of the text, then I accept that they’re coming at it with the right spirit in mind and I don’t rely upon any specific outcome. Different directors bring different skill sets, and each collaboration is instructive. It’s all just play.
WT: What do you love about the director/playwright relationship?
ML: I love it when it feels like I’m of a shared mind with the director and we’re working the room together. Having assistant directed so much before, I have huge respect for what the director is doing and the sanctity of their relationship with the actors. That said, I’m not afraid of talking directly to actors (which I feel like some training programs advise you not to do) because I’ve spent so much more time on the play than anyone else has, and am very specific and clear about what I want each line to do. So when it feels like the two of us are working in tandem – have shared goals in mind but are mutually respectful of our differing areas of expertise – that’s when it feels like we’re really cooking.
WT: What are some key elements of a successful director/playwright collaboration?
ML: Open line of communication inside and outside of the room, and knowing which conversations to have where (and when). Mutual sense of rigor about pushing to make the production the best and the fullest it can possibly be — no laziness on either side. Sense of humor in the room and a wealth of regard for the contributions of actors, designers, and theater staff — a sense of generosity and gratitude towards others.
WT: How can emerging directors meet and develop a relationship with a playwright? What has been your experience?
ML: Most playwrights are thrilled when a director takes an interest in their work, or can speak specifically about their previous work. Most playwrights are also happy to get their work out there, so it’s not too hard for any emerging director to start working with any emerging writer by bringing them an opportunity to work. If this is a peer relationship, you just have to get in the room and work it out and there’s no shortcuts to hard-knocks knowledge. But if this is a just-starting director wanting to work substantively with an established writer, those relationships take more time to build and the best forum for working together might be doing a short play together or working on a non-world-premiere play.
In that regards too, the writer-director relationship isn’t a marriage to a specific project but a symbiosis that grows over time. Sometimes a director who works on a play during its early life may not end up directing the production, which can cause some hurt feelings. To that point I would ask the director to bear in mind that each full-length takes a writer a good 1-3 years to create. The limitations on a playwright’s output – the fact that they can’t generate as many plays as a director can direct – are not to be taken lightly. But know that our careers are long and there will always be future opportunities to work together. Over the long run writers and directors are constantly helping each other grow.
WT: What’s next for you?
ML: NYC premiere of “Bike America,” which is about a cross-country bike trip, staged on stationary bikes. The play will be produced by Ma-Yi Theater in September, directed by Moritz von Stuelpnagel. We were actually directing interns together at Playwrights Horizons 10 years ago. The play previously won the Kendeda Grad Playwriting Competition and had its world premiere at the Alliance Theater in Atlanta (with Moritz also directing), after previous readings/workshops with Juilliard, EST, Ma-Yi, the Lark, the Kennedy Center, and the Playwrights Foundation.
Also I’m working on 3 new plays. “Collin” is a doomed love story about a hot new actor and a jaded casting director, and is a love letter to NYC and the theater. “Tiger Style!” is about what happens to Asian kids after the wild success of tiger parenting, after the books and the schools go away and they have to grow up. “Knot Ends” is a big nasty epic about the Mexican Drug War.
Mike Lew’s” Ten Page Manifesto” will be performed on Sunday, June 23rd at 7:30pm at the June Havoc Theatre at the Abingdon Theatre Arts Complex (312 W. 36th St., 1st Floor) along with short plays by Keith Josef Adkins, Chad Beckim, Halley Feiffer, Cándido Tirado, Mfoniso Udofia, and Alladin Ullah. Tickets are free with a suggested donation either online or at the door, but reservations are strongly encouraged due to all prior Salon performance nights being sold-out! Click here to RSVP to the show.
For a chance to direct “Ten Page Manifesto” or one of the other plays, make sure to attend our Opening Night Kick-Off Party on Monday, June 17th at 7pm! Visit us on Facebook or go to our website for more information and RSVP to the party here. Feel free to e-mail firstname.lastname@example.org with any questions.
Mike Lew’s plays include Bike America (Ma-Yi, NYC; Alliance, Atlanta; Juilliard, Lark, Kennedy Center, and Playwrights Foundation workshops); microcrisis (Ma-Yi, NYC; InterAct, Philly; Next Act, Milwaukee); Stockton (AracaWorks and EST workshops); and People’s Park (Victory Gardens Ignition Festival, Chicago). His shorts include Tenure (24 Hour Plays on Broadway), In Paris You will Find Many Baguettes… (Humana Festival), and Moustache Guys. He is a resident writer for Blue Man Group and winner of the Kendeda Grad Playwriting Competition, AracaWorks Grad Playwriting Award, Heideman Award, Sam French Festival, InspiraTO Festival, and Battle of the Bards. Juilliard (2013), Yale (2003). Website: mikelew.com