Rebecca Taichman Gets a Big Palette to Fill Directing 'Twelfth Night'

By Nelson Pressley
Special to The Washington Post
Monday, December 8, 2008

Let's say you're running one of the fancy new theaters that have popped up in Washington lately. You're working on a bigger stage. You need a director with vision to fill it.

Maybe you've called Rebecca Bayla Taichman.

Woolly Mammoth used Taichman for Sarah Ruhl's "The Clean House" and "Dead Man's Cell Phone" when the troupe's high-ceilinged new digs opened a few seasons ago. Arena Stage called on Taichman last spring for "The Mystery of Irma Vep" as the company adjusted to temporary quarters in Crystal City. And now Taichman has assembled "Twelfth Night" in the Shakespeare Theatre Company's Harman Hall, the 774-seat venue that's in its second season.

"It's a huge palette," Taichman says of the Harman. "Just crossing the stage takes a long time. But I sort of think of it like a moving painting, and this feels like the canvas is operatic-sized." She laughs: "And that gets my juices going."

Woolly artistic director Howard Shalwitz says, "I think a visual imagination for all the elements of design is what many people consider her greatest strength."

Taichman's "Twelfth Night" is keyed by images of ice and giant roses in a setting designed by Riccardo Hernandez; she's also creating a prologue for the show, and using a live five-piece band and original music by longtime collaborator Martin Desjardins. The concept came to Taichman in a dream -- a dream of a design meeting, which seems to speak volumes about her measured, saturated approach to making pictures on the stage.

"Iterative" is the word the New York-based director uses to describe her process of thinking and looking and testing, and doing it all again. Shakespeare Theatre Artistic Director Michael Kahn says of Taichman, "She puts a lot of stuff in, and edits."

The inputting is time-consuming and exacting, and Taichman sometimes feels bad about that. "Because everybody is so busy," she says, "it's a lot to ask. But it's just how my brain works."

Shakespeare Theatre audiences will remember Taichman's previous romp with the Bard, a zesty, Fellini-flecked take on "The Taming of the Shrew" at the Lansburgh that featured a massive pinup billboard and a high-end storefront displaying the play's marriageable women. (If you missed it, no worries: It will be the company's Free for All offering at the Harman in September.)

"I still have the picture on my phone," Taichman recalls of that show's inspiration, concocted with designer Narelle Sissons. "I was walking by a shopping center in Manhattan that had one of those windows and domes, and I went, 'That's it! The women are for sale in the windows of the shopping mall!' But it took months to get to that."

Not that Taichman strong-arms scripts with her own Hollywood-ready concepts. She showed a deft touch with Ruhl's delicately comic, deeply melancholy "Clean House" (a play that shares a few essential characteristics with "Twelfth Night," and was also designed by Sissons), as well as with the world premiere of "Dead Man's Cell Phone."

Kahn notes that although Taichman was awash in intensive design while a directing grad student at Yale, she also brings a fresh eye to character.

"Shrew," a play that Kahn is candid about disliking (and that Taichman was itching to do), was a case in point. The notoriously prickly Petruchio and angry Kate were turned into an unexpectedly matched set while retaining all of their abrasive qualities.

"She didn't try to soften any of that," Kahn says. "I thought she solved a lot of it in a kind of fantastic way."

"She's very actor-friendly," says Christopher Innvar, who played Petruchio in last year's "Shrew" and is now the love-struck Orsino in "Twelfth Night." "She also has a very strong concept of what she wants things to look like."

Woolly Artistic Director Howard Shalwitz was banking on all of that when he used a two-year grant to make Taichman an associate artistic director as the troupe moved into its new theater three years ago. "I did a very serious national search," Shalwitz says, "and my goal was to find the most exciting young director in America."

Taichman failed her way into directing, starting as an actor (and coming to the stage very late in her Long Island high school years) but quitting after college when she realized that even though she was getting jobs, "I wouldn't cast myself." Among her college roles was Viola, the heroine at the heart of "Twelfth Night." She recently offered Kahn a brief sample of her performance, adding, "I'm not going to do it that way."

Samantha Soule is Viola in Taichman's production, and the director says that among other things, she's drawn to Soule's transparency. "Nancy Robinette has that, too," Taichman says of the longtime local favorite playing Maria (one of the cutups in Shakespeare's subplot). "True emotion just sort of leaks out of them. I always hope to love and feel for every character -- every one. So I look for people who can find the most vulnerable, most honest traces, maybe. And who can put up with me."

Does she drive actors as crazy as she does designers? (Taichman tells stories on herself, such as the one about the sound designer who saw her coming and exclaimed, "I'm in a note-free bubble! Give me a break!")

"I'm pushy in a different way," Taichman suggests. "I think it's maybe that [the performance] is going to come from their body and that I want it to feel deeply organic, and deeply connected. So I'm always on the hunt for how to do that with them, and not to force them or use them like puppets."

Although she has been keeping a healthy presence in Washington, the freelance directing life is taking Taichman around the globe. "Twelfth Night" moves to New Jersey's McCarter Theatre after its run here (Taichman is working on a new musical there), then she heads to San Francisco for Edward Albee's "At Home at the Zoo" (previously known as "Peter and Jerry"). After that it's off to East Africa under the auspices of the Sundance Institute; Taichman is collaborating with a Rwandan artist she met during a Sundance residency last summer.

Long-range, she rules out nothing, proclaiming an interest in everything from new plays to classical tragedies to Broadway larks. Especially Broadway larks.

"Music is, like, my engine," she says. (Shalwitz confirms this, noting that for years her closest collaborator has been composer Desjardins.) "I would love it -- more musicals. It just feels like there's space for that kind of frothy, splashy, delightful entertainment and much more provocative work, and that they don't cancel each other out. I would like to believe that I could stretch between those. We'll see if anyone's willing to believe that other than me."

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