Barbara Damashek is a slight woman, with a passion for playwrights who are “bad boys.” She teaches at SF State, and freelances as a director on Bay Area stages. Most recently she led productions of Enda Walsh’s The New Electric Ballroom at Shotgun Players, and David Mamet’s American Buffalo at the Aurora Theatre. Both the productions made San Jose Mercury News critic Karen D’Souza’s top ten list for last year.
Now she’s directing The Lyons, at the Aurora, Nicky Silver’s ruthless comedy about a dysfunctional family that won rave reviews on Broadway in 2012. KQED's Cy Musiker talked to Damashek about the play and her working style during a break from rehearsal.
(Interview has been edited for length and clarity)
You’ve said you like to work on plays that are provocative. What do you mean by that?
That’s what theater is about. We go to the theater to be provoked.
I think that theater allows us to open doors into experiences we wouldn’t have ourselves. When we can be admitted intimately into an experience, it’s always an opportunity for some kind of transformation. Mr. (Bertolt) Brecht said that he thought theater was there to make the familiar strange and the strange familiar. So I’m accessing centuries of theater theory. We’re going to see ourselves in extreme circumstances.
You’ve had great success with playwrights like Neil Labute (Fat Pig), and David Mamet (American Buffalo). Labute has been accused of being a misogynist, and Mamet a misanthrope. Why are you drawn to their work?
I don’t naturally gravitate toward misogynist plays.
I think Labute’s as critical of men as he is of women. More so! A lot of his plays are about impossible men and their misogyny. But it’s part of a larger psychological complex that they have about not growing up, and having very shallow values.
Mamet’s world has something similar in it. There’s a comment, not an advocacy of the world of these men.
I like plays that are edgy. They’re bad-boy plays. But I think that as a culture our heroes are anti-heroes. We are a country of émigrés, of people who ran away from persecution, and most of our heroes are renegades. It’s the lone cowboy in the west fighting the law.
It’s hard to imagine The Lyons as a western, but playwright Nicky Silver is kind of a “bad boy,” in that he writes wonderfully funny, and rude dialogue for his characters. So how do you find the emotional warmth in a play where everyone seems at first to be so cruel to each other?
I have two ways to answer that. One is a quote from one of his (Silver’s) own writings, where he said, “no matter how manic or absurd the people behave, it’s always based on a deep need. Otherwise, when the dark underbelly of the play comes out”—I’m paraphrasing—"it would fall flat.”
You know, it’s but for fortune go I. I don’t think this even pushes the envelope that much. Though there are actors in the cast who kept saying, “Do people really talk like this to each other?” (laughing) And some others in the cast said, “Yes.” They could testify to the fact that they did.
But I always feel there’s humanity under it. I don’t look for a tidy thing in a bow. I also respect vitriol and the toxic stuff.
One of the reasons I know it is a great play, is because you can keep digging and digging and find more underneath. Everything is carefully considered. And there is humanity under it. I don’t need my humanity to be shiny and easy to digest. And I think most audiences know that.
It doesn’t have to be a big hug, it can be abrasive.
I’m not particularly interested in big-hug plays.
The first act of The Lyons features a dying man, and his wife and kids gathering around. And there’s a lot of funny lines, that almost have a sitcom rhythm to them. How do you avoid that feeling that The Lyons is just rude comedy we might find on TV?
I hate the word sitcom.
The difference between sitcoms and what we see in a play, is the stakes are higher. In sitcoms, there’s a laugh track. In theater, either the audience is going to laugh or not, and the stakes are higher, it’s more dangerous.
Also there’s something that Nicky Silver has in common with David Mamet. Mamet thinks that plays are all about lies. People lying to each other. Nicky Silver’s plays are all about denial. And he calls the grand mechanism of denial in theater, farce.
I think these rhythms that you’re talking about [Damashek snaps her fingers three times, in rhythm] actually go back to Greek theater. It’s when the lines come like a shotgun. Boom, boom, boom, boom. The Greeks knew it and we know it. There are some kinds of musical composition, when you want to excite the audience more, such as modulating the key. And when the key goes higher, it creates excitement. And when the rhythms go faster, it creates excitement, and it creates impact.
Nothing is for effect. It all comes out of some truth that’s underneath.
This is a play about caring for an dying spouse and parent. And so many baby-boomers are going through this now with spouses and parents. Are there lessons for audience members in The Lyons about how to find death with dignity?
How not to behave in the presence of someone terminally ill. That’s one. I don’t think that’s the subject of the play. Although mortality is the subject of the play.
I think this play has particular insight about family dynamics and baby boomers. And I would say in terms of the Nicky Silver agenda, in many ways, what happens in this hospital room, involves denial of the fact that this elderly parent is dying.
There are no homiletics coming from this play.
There’s a line in the play, “Can’t we talk about something pleasant?” And I believe that the line is followed by a big pause. What does that tell us about this family?
That they’re unable to talk about something more pleasant. And in the face of someone who is terminally ill, isn’t the agenda something more serious than talking about pleasantries? What are you going to do with the last 10 minutes of your life? Shall we talk about things that are pleasant?
Tell me about how you work. You’ve used the term “pressure cooking”—loading up your actors with lots of notes. What happens when you do that?
This isn’t like a soup that has too many spices and has no flavor. This is just a way of making sure they haven’t taken anything for granted. That everything is there, that has been carefully, laboriously arrived at. The play is the bible, everything’s in it. That’s not a religious statement, that’s how we respond to the text. And it deepens the process for them. All the notes may not surface in anything tangible. But it’s a way of covering the vision of the play from as many degrees as we can.
I don’t know if it works, sometimes it drives the actors crazy. But actors like challenges and they love specificity.
What will surprise us in The Lyons?
What is surprising is this is a play that’s hopeful. At the end of the play, all (Nicky Silver’s) characters learn something. They embark on the first day of the rest of the lives, in some way. It’s probably his most hopeful play.