Spotlight: Tony Adams, Director


Hi all! Here’s the next installment in the director-to-director interview series. Be sure to join the Twitter conversation on directing by following the #2amdir hashtag.

Meet Tony Adams

Hometown: Rives Jct., MI.

Current town: Chicago.

Currently Artistic Director of Halcyon Theatre in Chicago.

1. What attracted you to directing?

I think in some ways I’ve always done it. I grew up in a pretty sparsely populated place, and there weren’t many kids around to play with, so I’d essentially stage epic stories with the toys I had around me to fill the time when I was stuck in the house, if the weather was bad or I couldn’t be outside for some reason. I didn’t know there was a field where you could actually do that, and somehow I fell into theatre. I spent most of my twenties as a designer, and though I still design, I always was more attracted to the rehearsal and exploration part of the process than the performance. I love being in rehearsal. As a designer, that’s not something you normally get to do a lot of—working with actors is a rarity.

2. Did you receive academic and/or practical training in directing? And how has (not) having this formal education/training shaped your directing career?

I took an intro to directing class and directed a one-act in college, but the vast majority of what I’ve learned has been practical training. I think it’s been really helpful. I didn’t learn any codified system of THIS IS HOW YOU DIRECT, but instead had a decade plus of seeing different directors and how they worked, what went well and what didn’t.

3. Which director (or other theatre artist) (dead or alive) has had the greatest impact on you as a director?

Without a doubt Ariane Mnouchkine was the biggest influence. Seeing her work, and seeing how du Soleil works has shaped everything I’ve done since. My professor in college Joe Jezewski had a pretty big impact as well. Joe was really into Meisner. I didn’t realize it at the time but I studied a lot of Meisner. I think all of my work as a director has contained a variation of those two poles: globally-influenced “avant-guard” laid over a Meisner core. I don’t really know how to separate the inside from the outside. Don’t know if I care to.

4. In your personal library, what is the most indispensable text on the craft of directing? Or, alternately, have books/practical guides proven unhelpful?

I don’t think there’s a single most indispensable text. I’ve learned something from so many different fields that texts on directing usually seem silly to me.  On the other hand, I think William Ball’s A Sense of Direction and Terry McCabe’s Mis-Directing the Play both seemed fairly worthless to me.

5. Defend/Describe the importance of ‘the director’ in contemporary theatre.

Look, I think there is a massive amount of ignorance about theatre history throughout our field. I know the pervasive myth is that directing is some new thing that amazingly appeared at the turn of the last century, but in truth, there has almost always been a person steering the show into life. Whether a choragus, the writer themselves, an actor-manager, there has always been someone directing. The titles and styles have changed, of course. I think the biggest change over the last century was the rise of design.

6. How would you characterize/describe your own directing style?

Part five year old, part Jedi, part practical problem solver. I constantly ask why like a five year old. Why, why, why? What does the text say? Why do you think that is? What does that mean?  I don’t like giving easy answers to actors or telling them what to do in a way that they can just imitate me doing it. I try to help the cast find the best answer in a way that works for them. Sometimes in a “this is not the blocking you’re looking for, move along” kind of way.

Then there are times when it’s just figuring out how the hell we’re going to stage what the writer has laid out.  I’m okay with telling the actors I don’t know and coming up with the best answer as a group.

I tend to think of directing as a form of translation, both interpretative and creative impulses co-existing. To translate what is on the page into three-dimensional life is what I think a director’s job is. At the end of the day, it’s not about the director. It’s about the actors telling the writers story to the audience.

7. What quirks, habits, rituals, etc. (if any) inform your directing process?

I don’t really have a ton. Every show is different. I don’t like table work. Actually, I fucking hate it. I think sitting around a table for a week is one of the worst ways you can use your time.  Now that’s not to say that what is typically done at a table isn’t useful, but I tend to get on our feet as soon as possible and fold the “table work” part into the exploration and play.  We tend to play a lot, trying different ways, games and styles as we explore.

8. What style/type of work do you find most compelling to direct? If you have an area of specialization, what are the unique challenges/needs of directing this kind of work?

I don’t really have an area of specialization or style I tend to work in. The last five years or so I’ve done primarily female-driven works. Diversity is the core of Halcyon’s mission, and there are some unique challenges when everyone in the room comes from different backgrounds and levels of training. It takes more trial and error to find a common language sometimes. In Trickster the youngest cast member turned 21 during the process and the oldest was 67. There are few metaphors they share in common, so I’d find myself giving a similar note in several ways depending on who the actor was.

9. What is your fondest directing experience/memory?

I think there have been several, all are pretty similar. When I see an actor take off in a role, that’s the thing I love most. I tend to ask actors to do things they’ve never done. Sometimes I’ve been the only one in the room who thought they could do it. But when it finally clicks and an actor begins to soar, that’s the best moment I think a director can have. At least it is for me.

10. What is the most challenging work you have directed to date? Why?

Probably either Betty Shamieh’s The Black Eyed or Caridad Svich’s Iphigenia Crash Land Falls on the Neon Shell that Was Once Her Heart. Both started from a point of ‘how in the hell are we gonna pull this off,’ and that’s a very exciting place to be as an artist.

11. What advice would you give to a young or aspiring director?

No one wants to hire a first time director.  A director who can’t communicate to actors AND designers is half a director. It’s not about you. Remember that. If the show is about you as a director, you’re doing it wrong—you’re not the one the audience is going to see onstage.

12. What is your current directing project?

Iphigenia just closed. Right now I’ve got my producer hat back on and helping 5 new works make it up onstage. Haven’t booked the next directing gig yet. Gotta get the Alcyone fest up first.


Thanks, Tony!

  • April 26, 2011