Need To Know: Tina Landau

9.17.2009

By Dustin Fitzharris

Tina Landau is a rarity on Broadway. Not only is she a female director; she's a lesbian. But Landau does not let labels or the so-called "gay male mafia" in the New York City theater community stop her.

Tina Landau is a rarity on Broadway. Not only is she a female director; she's a lesbian. But Landau does not let labels or the so-called "gay male mafia" in the New York City theater community stop her.

To prove her chutzpah, she's returning to Broadway for the first time in almost a decade to direct Superior Donuts. Set in a Chicago donut shop, it's the first play from Tracy Letts, who received the Pulitzer Prize for his Tony-winning August: Osage County. She's also writing and set to direct Beauty, an adaptation of the Brothers Grimm's Sleeping Beauty, which will feature music by Regina Spektor and lyrics by Michael Korie, and should hit Broadway during the 2011-12 season.

We caught up with Landau, who gave us the backstage tour on her directing techniques, her struggles as an outsider, and how she came out to her parents.

Out: Your last Broadway show was Bells are Ringing in 2001. Why did you wait so long to make your return?
Tina Landau: I did not need to or did not want to be on Broadway just for the sake of being on Broadway. I said if and when the time and the project was right, I'd come back. It wasn't worth it for me unless I knew it was a project I cared about and one I could do on my own terms. I've never been a person constitutionally capable of doing a project that I don't feel in my bones. I literally get sick. I just learned early on in my career that I have to work for the love of the art and truly nothing else because when I don't, the work suffers and so do I.

Is there more pressure doing Superior Donuts on Broadway than when you did the show in Chicago earlier this year?
It costs more money and you feel more responsible. I'm not going to lie and say that I don't want the thing to be a hit because it can help me -- a poor starving artist still at my age -- become more solvent. I also feel pressure on Tracy [Letts]'s behalf. I want the world to know that he was not a one-shot deal and he is a great playwright. I want that for the actors too. Most of them have not worked on Broadway before, and this is a big deal for them. So, I also feel protective.

Will people who loved Lett's August: Osage County feel slighted by Superior Donuts?
It's not August: Osage County in scale, scope, or ambition. It's a small play that takes place in a donut shop. It focuses on two characters. Anyone coming in expecting to see August: Osage County will be disappointed if they're looking for a certain kind of size -- but not if they are looking for a similar wit and muscularity in the writing. Tracy's way of writing -- with plot twists, dialogue, and one-liners -- is astounding.

You have been with the Steppenwolf Theatre Company for 12 years. What were your first thoughts when you got the call from them to direct this show?
I thought, This is my family, and if they call, you say yes. Then I thought, Crap! It's basically a natural work in a play, and I don't know how to direct that! It's not the kind of theater I most often do. I felt a little insecure because I didn't know if I was the right director.

How did you eventually prepare yourself?
It wasn't about preparing. It was about opening up myself to it. I tend to do pieces that are more large-scale, musical, theatrical, abstract, choreographic, surreal, and logistic. This is an intimate, funny, and behavioral show. It's a donut-shop comedy with grit! The kind of conundrum you run into when directing a play like this is asking [yourself] What time of day is it? What's the weather? Where did you just come from? If you were to pour a cup of coffee, when did you make it? Do we have to get the filters? Just the nitty-gritty, realistic details that I have not done since college.

There are few female directors on Broadway to begin with, but as a lesbian you are truly a rarity in the theater community. Do you feel this is a heavy load to carry?
I just came from therapy before meeting you.

I guess it's heavy!
I cannot tell you how different I feel returning to direct on Broadway now than when I did it nine years ago. What Bells are Ringing taught me was that I must never again shift or shimmy, tower, adjust, and placate producers and writers. I played a game where I didn't hold onto my own vision of what that production was. As a result, it got watered down and didn't work in the way that I had hoped. But, whatever -- it was fine. Now I feel like I'm standing on solid ground in way that's not about second-guessing myself.

How did you come to that point?
You grow up and learn that you just have to do your own work. What will happen will happen. You can't control it. Superior Donuts is a perfect example. It's a play I didn't even expect to direct. [Amy Morton was originally scheduled to direct, but decided to extend her run in August: Osage County.] But I did it for love.

Earlier you talked about your directing process, but do you remember your 'coming out' process?
It's so amazing to think how much has changed in such a short amount of time, and how much still must change. I knew I was gay early on. I never wrestled with it. When I was in college I remember a friend and I speaking about it and we called it 'it!' Growing up I did not feel I had the language or tools to talk about it. And yet, I was at Yale at a time when it was chic to be gay.

But you come from a show business family. Your father, Ely Landau, produced the Katherine Hepburn film Long Day's Journey Into Night. Weren't they pretty open-minded?
I came out to my parents in my sophomore year of college. I didn't do it in person. I wrote them a 40-page letter. They called me up and said, 'We just want you to know that we love you and we'll talk about this when you get home.'

What happened when you got home?
I came home for Thanksgiving and it was not brought up until about an hour or two before we were leaving for the airport. Then they said, "Maybe we should have that talk." They said -- which also goes to show you how much has changed -- 'Of course we support you, but we're worried about you because we want you to be happy." They thought that being gay would lead to a life of unhappiness for me. My mom said, 'My greatest pleasure in life has been having kids and family, and we would want you to have that. We're sorry that you're not going to be able to.' It wasn't in people's horizons then that gay people could get married or even set up a house together and live happily; let alone have children.

The theater community is full of LGBT people -- from the writers to the stars to its audiences. Yet, there are so few Broadway shows with strong gay characters. Why do you think that is?
It's the same reason why we can't get married. It's just that the mainstream, hetero world, which buys tickets and spends money and brings their nieces and nephews, is not ready for it still. We need to change that and we are -- slowly.

You are currently working on a musical adaptation of the movie Clueless. What are your thoughts on the lack of original material on Broadway and movies just being recycled into musicals?
I wish there were more original projects. There was a time when plays were adapted from literary sources. I just think the source pool has shifted from novels to movies. If you look at the musicals in this country from the 1920s to the 1960s, 80 or 90% were adapted from literary sources. A new musical from an original idea has always been a needle in a haystack.

How do you handle bad reviews?
Much better than I did at first! I will admit that I read reviews. I at least have evolved enough to read the bad ones only once, which isn't to say you memorize them instantly somehow. Niki, my partner, teases me that I've memorized all of my bad reviews and can't remember any of the good ones. Reviews for artists become a litmus test. It's a constant dance to figure out where you're at with them. I'm at a place where I'm doing pretty well with them. I do not go to that place I did when I was younger. I would literally end up in bed for a week. I've gotten reviews -- and I still do -- where people will say, "This is the worst thing I've ever seen. This person should not be allowed to direct.'

What's worse than a bad review?
What's become more poisonous than reviews are the fucking chat boards! You can go online and read a thread about yourself -- person after person stating why you shouldn't be allowed to direct. I'm trying to stop reading them.

Did you always know you wanted to be a director?
I briefly wanted to be an oceanographer when I was 8. But I wanted to be a director since I was 6. My first real play was in sixth grade. I wrote and directed an adaptation of an O. Henry short story for my class. I did another based on a painting in my living room that had three old men on a bench in the middle of nowhere. I wrote this play called Love Tyler. It was about an 80-year-old man who's leaving his friends to go to Ireland to die.

That's intense. How old were you when you wrote it?
I was 12! I've gotten younger and younger in spirit since I was that age.

You seem to always be behind the scenes. Do you have any desire to be on the stage?
Are you out of your mind! Desire? I would run, hide, crawl under tables and bring out swords to avoid being on stage. I don't like being looked at. I'm self conscious about my body and speech. I've never had that kind of desire for attention.

What are you the most proud of?
That I'm a fairy master. I started when my oldest nephew, who is now 21, was 3. We'd go on fairy hunts in the forest to look for fairies and clues that the fairies had left. It's developed into a full-fledged role that I have in life. I got a message the other day from a mother. I had worked with her daughter on a musical years ago. Maybe she was 8 or 9 at the time. I took her on a fairy hunt. Now that girl has built fairy houses in her backyard and takes groups of children on fairy hunts. That makes me proud! Also, I'm proud of how I've contributed to being a citizen of the world -- impacted others in ways that are about kindness, generosity, and love.

Superior Donuts, starring Michael McKean, opens at the Music Box Theater in New York City on October 1. Previews began September 16. For tickets visit Telecharge.com or call 212-239-6200.

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