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Arthur Miller Theatre - Grand Opening

Playing for Time

By Arthur Miller

Arthur Miller Theatre - Walgreen Drama Center

March 29 - April 8, 2006 (All Performances Sold Out)

An Interview with Director Robert Chapel

Betsy Goolian, editor of Michigan Muse, had the opportunity to speak with Playing for Time’s guest director Robert Chapel. Chapel is Professor of Drama at the University of Virginia and the Producing Artistic Director of the Heritage Repertory Theatre. A multiple graduate of UM with a BFA, MFA and Ph.D. in theatre, Chapel recently directed Dept. of Theatre & Drama’s production of The Laramie Project in Nov. 2005.

GOOLIAN:  Once you've selected a play, how do you approach it? What comes first? How do you form an overall visual and intellectual concept?

CHAPEL: I read the script several times — first to just get a feel for it, a better understanding of its plot, theme, meaning.  Then I read it very meticulously, making lists of all production needs and how I want to approach the play physically.   While studying it this way, ideas pop into my head in regards to what I want to discuss with my set, costume, lighting, and sound designers.  I am very dependent on my designers — I love working with artists who I trust will bring fresh ideas to the table — I feel blessed working with the team UM has given me for Playing for Time.  I believe we all connected in a very positive way right from the start.

              In addition to the close study of the script, I of course look at the "world" of the play in the context of the time and society in which it is set (or could be set).  If I'm not familiar with the playwright's work (assuming he/she has written other plays) I try to read as many of his/her other plays as I can.  Any and all source material I can find always helps form my thoughts conceptually.

GOOLIAN: I just read Playing for Time and see lots of challenges from the perspective of set design, sound, costuming. What challenges does this play present for you, as director?

CHAPEL: Certainly all of the things you have mentioned.  The challenge of finding actresses who not only were good actors but who could also play instruments on stage was an enormous challenge.  Fortunately, we have been able to do this.  But what I believe will be the greatest challenge with these young, but very good actors, is creating the milieu and horror of Auschwitz — through not only their acting but what we do with the setting, the costumes, the make-up, the sound, the lighting to create gut-wrenching moments, poignant moments, etc. That will allow our audience to suspend their disbelief and become totally involved in this story of utter survival.

GOOLIAN:  How do you and the production people arrive at a collective visual aesthetic for this play?

CHAPEL: We talk a lot.  We send each other e-mails.  Vince Mountain (set design) and Jessica Hahn (costume design) have done a great deal of research and have shown me many pictures of how they "see" the production visually from the scenic and costume perspectives.  Because the play needs to move quickly from scene to scene, Vince has given me a set design that will allow for just that.  I haven't as yet had a chance to speak at length with Gary Decker (lighting design) or Henry Reynolds (sound design) but from our initial meeting, I believe we are all in sync with what we want to do.  As much communication as possible enables us all to arrive at an end product with which we are all proud.

GOOLIAN:  Once you know what you want from a play, what is the process you use to get that clarity into the staging?

CHAPEL: With plays with large casts such as Playing for Time — I still tend to block on paper and bring my blocking into rehearsal — but I always allow my cast freedom to move and change the staging as the play evolves through rehearsals.  I expect my actors to come totally prepared — I do not spoon feed them, but encourage them to find their characters through their own thoughts and experimentation and give and take with one another.  I like to think of myself when I'm directing (and when I have very good actors) to be more of an "editor" and "shaper" than any sort of directorial dictator.

GOOLIAN:  The show has been cast. How do you start rehearsals?

CHAPEL: We will start by traveling to the holocaust museum in Farmington, Michigan.  When we return that evening, we will gather to read and talk about the play.  However, I never like to spend much time around a table talking so we will begin music rehearsals and blocking rehearsals the very next day.  I always encourage as much discussion as possible as we block and then work on the play as it evolves on its feet.

GOOLIAN:  The play is loaded with high emotions. What do you, as a director, do to bring out this heightened level of acting from the students?

CHAPEL: This is always different and depends on the actors I have on stage.  A director is a kind of psychologist and no two "sessions" are the same.  So I don't know what I will do.  It will depend on each moment and each actor.  More than anything, I always encourage my actors to go the limit in finding the "wants" of their character — when they do this the proper emotions usually follow.

GOOLIAN:  You directed The Laramie Project. How did that process, so far, compare with the experience of directing Playing for Time? Or is it too early to tell?

CHAPEL: As I've not started directing Playing for Time — it is way to early to tell.  I did find my experience with The Laramie Project cast to be a wonderful one from start to finish.  They were a marvelously gifted and totally dedicated group of actors.

GOOLIAN:  Of all of Arthur Miller's plays, what do you think is the significance of choosing this one as we inaugurate the new theatre?

CHAPEL: Playing for Time, for whatever reasons there may be, has not had very many productions, either in america or abroad.  I read in Martin Gottfried's biography of Arthur Miller that he considers Playing for Time to be "Arthur Miller's most emotional play since Death of a Salesman and that it "remains to be discovered."  What better play to open the new Arthur Miller theatre than what is somehow a "new" play to our populace even though it was written over twenty years ago?  Beyond this, this play, like all Arthur Miller plays, concerns human ethics and morality — how far would you go and what would you be willing to do in order to live?  Certainly, a thought-provoking question.  I also believe as our world changes and new generations are born, the history of the holocaust and all of the horrors it symbolized to our world must never be forgotten (or erased as some would now have it).  Hopefully this play will have many more productions in the future and it will be a part of the movement to keep those very brutal years in the forefront of history so that such a time will never occur again.


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Section drawing of the Arthur Miller Theatre


Director Robert Chapel
Music Director Bradley Bloom
Orchestrations Jerry DePuit
Scenic Designer Vincent Mountain
Costume Designer Jessica Hahn
Lighting Designer

Gary Decker

Sound Designer Henry Reynolds
Stage Manager Colin Miller


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Photography Credits:

U-M Photo Services

Joe Welsh

Peter Smith

David Smith

Glen Behring

Tom Bower