Friday, June 14, 2013

Interview - Jordana Williams of "Frankenstein Upstairs"

By Byrne Harrison

Jordana Williams has directed numerous plays by Mac Rogers, including Sovereign, Blast Radius, Advance Man (2012 NYIT Award-Outstanding Premiere Production), Viral (2009 FringeNYC Award for Outstanding Play), Hail Satan, and three seasons with Vampire Cowboys’ episodic, genre-bending Saturday Night Saloon. Other recent directing work includes Kill Shakespeare at NY Comic Con 2012 and The Particulars with The Bridge Theater Company, FringeNYC 2012. Jordana has directed a number of strange and wonderful projects for such companies as Flux Theatre Ensemble, Boomerang Theatre Company, Piper McKenzie, GroundUP Productions, kef Productions, Impetuous Theater Group, The Brick Theater, The 24-Hour Plays, and The One-Minute Play Festival. She is a founding member of Gideon Productions and a 2012 Person of the Year.

Today she talks about her current project, Frankenstein Upstairs.

I understand that you and Mac Rogers, the playwright behind Frankenstein Upstairs, have been working together for years.  How did the two of you meet?

Acting in a play Mac wrote was the very first thing I did in college. It was wildly ambitious, mildly pretentious, and one of the best things that has ever happened to me. 

Mac once said that you had a "near-instinctive understanding" of how to direct his work.  Where do you think that comes from?  Is it due to your having known and worked with Mac for so long, or is it something about his work that really resonates with you?

Our years together certainly help, but it's more than that. We're both fascinated by extreme or transgressive behavior, and trying to figure out what's behind it. Mac and I are both pretty well-behaved ourselves, so I'm sure there's some wish fulfillment there. We're also both fiercely protective of the dignity of our characters. They may do things that border on the unforgivable, but there's always a reason. 

We also both like our smart, challenging plays with a healthy serving of entertainment. And pace. We like things to move, and we try to make sure we're earning every minute of our audience's time.

For you, what's the best thing about bringing a show to life?

I love when you invite the designers to rehearsal, you get to a break and they're just exploding with ideas, inspired by what they've seen the actors do.

How would you describe your directing style?

Protective. I want to make sure the actors feel safe, and the playwright feels respected, and the play is done justice. I talk a lot in the beginning, to make sure we're all know what's happening and we're in the same world, and then try to ease off and let the play belong to the actors.

Turning to Frankenstein Upstairs, can you tell me a little bit about the show?

Mac's never going to do just a straightforward adaptation of something. The themes, characters, and many key plot points from the original Frankenstein story are there, but he's kind of put them in a blender. There's life and death and gore and genius and the thrill of creation. Most of all, there's loneliness and the particular madness that comes from loneliness--or the fear of being alone. If you know the book well, you'll recognize many things, but you don't need to know the book to understand everything that's happening.

Have there been any challenges to directing it?

There are some unusual technical challenges, which I can't really describe without giving stuff away. Let me just say that Sandy Yaklin (our set designer) and Stephanie Cox-Williams (our special effects designer) are brilliant and endlessly inventive. The challenge is to get those effects integrated smoothly enough that the actors can just relax and play the scenes.

What has been your favorite part of the rehearsal process for Frankenstein Upstairs?

These actors. They're just so good. They're funny and focused and smart and heartbreaking and incredibly generous with each other. I actually had one rehearsal where I worried that they were too charming. One great thing about directing a small cast (4 character) play after three large cast plays is that there's a lot of room to create full, complex relationships between every combination of characters.

What advice do you have for anyone who is starting a career in directing?

Treat your collaborators well. 

Any advice about directing sci-fi?

World building is what directors do. Sci-fi just exists on a somewhat wider, brighter canvas. Make it clear, make it internally consistent, and make sure the actors are fully invested in the truth of what's happening--however extreme. If the actors buy in, the audience will too.

What else is coming up for you this year?

Right after Frankenstein Upstairs, I'm directing another play of Mac's called Ligature Marks. It's a strange, noir-ish two-hander that will feature Mac and Becky Comtois, for The Brick’s Game Play festival. I'm a lucky lady.

Frankenstein Upstairs will play a three-week engagement at The Secret Theatre (44 02 23rd Street, Long Island City), June 14-30; Thursday through Saturday at 8pm and Sundays at 3pm with additional performances on Monday, June 17 and Wednesday, June 26 at 8pm. Tickets ($18/$15 students & seniors) may be purchased online at or by calling 866-811-4111. The show runs 2 hours and 20 minutes, with a 10-minute intermission.

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