A Q&A with School of Theatre & Dance Directing Guest Artist, Robynn Rodriguez
Robynn Rodriguez made her professional directorial debut at the Utah Shakespeare Festival with an acclaimed production of Shakespeare's “King John.” Since that auspicious beginning, she has gone on to direct at USF, the University of Texas at Austin, Pacific Conservatory Theatre, Dartmouth College and American Players Theatre. Robynn has been teaching acting as well as directing school tours and community theatre since 1993. She is a sought after guest instructor and lecturer at theatre schools and colleges across the country. Rodriguez directed the School of Theatre & Dance’s production of “Hedda Gabler” running March 5-13 in the Gladys G Davis Theatre at the WVU Creative Arts Center. Website: robynnrodriguez.com
You've acted most of your life and moved to directing. How did you approach the new job description?
As I became an older and more experienced actor, I found that few young directors were coming to directing having had experience in other theatrical disciplines. To me it seemed as if they had a “process disconnect.” It’s as if some the directors I found myself working with had no real idea of what a designer, a stage manager, an artisan, let alone, an actor brings to the collaborative endeavor of working on a play. I found that in rehearsals, I had a desire to communicate the actor’s process effectively—to other actors. I couldn’t help other actors if I was acting with them. I slowly began to seek out an opportunity to direct to stave off my own frustration and disappointment with a less than stellar rehearsal process. What do you like best about the different role? I love the challenge of it . . . I am humbled by it . . . It is all encompassing. Every aspect of the production demands one’s time and attention. Now when I go back to work on a play as an actor, it is almost like a vacation.
Ibsen is a formidable figure in modern drama. What about his dramaturgy challenges you and excites you?
Ibsen is credited as being the father of theatrical realism. His writing is spare. The characters in his plays are complex. There are a lot of things going on at once in his plays, with his people. There is a lot going on between the lines. What people don’t say is as compelling as what they do say. In Ibsen plays, actors have a real opportunity to take a deep emotional dive without the heavy trappings of production. There are no technical fireworks, no “bells and whistles,” no sweeping declamatory speeches. Just some very real, complex people trying very hard to live their lives. For the actor in an Ibsen play, the work is less about “acting” and more about “being."
What did you share with the cast on the first night of rehearsal about Ibsen from the adapter's intro?
“Ah Ibsen; yes. In the panorama of contemporary writers, are any more dead, male, white and European than Henrik Ibsen? Yet modern literature, and particularly, dramatic literature, is impossible to imagine without him. He wrote in a language known to fewer than four million people in a syntax that was still in the process of formation, yet he became the most cosmopolitan and universal of writers. And the body of his work is both elusive and vital long after the controversies he challenged and inspired settled into the dust of history.”
— Jerry Turner
The Plays of Ibsen, Volume One: (From the Introduction)
How well did you know the play before you signed on to direct it here?
Only through my experience of theatre history and seeing several productions of the play. I was fortunate, as a young actor, to work on several Ibsen plays that were translated by Jerry Turner, the translator of our production at WVU. Jerry Turner was the Artistic Director of the Oregon Shakespeare Festival. He hired me to work in the company and directed me several times. I learned a lot about working on Ibsen from him.
What are some of the most salient elements you'd like this production to bring out?
Perhaps with the exception of Shakespeare, no playwright before Ibsen could match his observations of women. In 2020, it is hard to imagine the seismic reactions to his plays and the women who inhabited them. Women who dare to become the agents of their own destinies—eschewing the constraints of their time and culture and most especially, the men in their lives. Ibsen's view of women and their challenges is very modern. I think today’s audiences will find that a lot of what Ibsen writes about is still resonant today.
You're not only working with student actors, but also student designers on this production. What special attention do you feel helps you to work in an educational theatre environment?
I hope that in our work together, the students will discover that the journey is as important as the destination. We all know
how the play ends. Our work together must focus on how we make our way through the story of the play; of how we go about laying a foundation that breathes life into the words the playwright has given us. It is an exercise in patience. It is an exercise in trust. Collaboratively, all of us working on Hedda Gabler are charged with upholding Ibsen’s work. As Shakespeare’s Hamlet says, “the play’s the thing.” What special attention helps? I don’t know. I guess I hope that our experience together will leave the students inspired to go further, to dig deeper, to understand that in “play making” there is always something new to discover.
Excerpt from the production study guide: compiled by Dr. Jay Malarcher, Production Dramaturg