“It’s a very personal play,” director Oliver Butler says. “It’s actually fun, very joyful, and also heartbreaking. It’s a story that I found very compelling.” Butler is talking about Obie winner Heidi Schreck’s What the Constitution Means to Me, her one-woman show about the time she earned money for college by giving speeches around the country about the Constitution. In the play, which Butler directs at New York Theatre Workshop, Schreck, who won her Obie in 2008 for Drum of the Waves of Horikawa, focuses on the Constitution’s effects on the lives of women.
Butler is a co-founder and co-artistic director of The Debate Society, a Brooklyn-based theatre company. He won a 2014 Obie Award for directing Will Eno’s The Open House at Signature Theatre and next month (October 23–November 25) will direct a revival of Eno’s one-man show, Thom Pain (based on nothing), at Signature starring Michael C. Hall (Dexter, Six Feet Under, Hedwig and the Angry Inch, Lazarus). What the Constitution Means to Me continues until October 21.
Here, Playbill takes a wide lens to talk to Butler about his career beginnings, his directing principles, and more.
Why he became a director:
“I grew up in the theatre. As a young person, I didn’t know I wanted to be a director. If anything, I don’t think I wanted to go into the theatre at all. My mother was an actor—Pamela Payton-Wright, a well-respected American actress. I grew up backstage, as a friend to technicians and actors. I grew up listening to classic American plays over and over again, and I grew up with theatre people being my friends. I watched the plays again and again and again from the wings, where I could see the technical apparatus at work, and the actors doing their work. So even though in my mind I was like ‘I’m not going to be an actor, this is my family business,’ I think naturally I grew interest in the content of the plays, the people in the plays, and the mechanisms and designs and backstage work that made the plays possible.
I went to college as a French major, and then I was a poli sci major—everything but theatre. But I had a summer available and my mom suggested, why don’t you go to Williamstown? So I went to the Williamstown Theatre Festival as an apprentice. And while I was there I stage-managed, I also acted in a production. And I said to myself, you know, I think I want to direct. I went back to school and I designed my own program at [University of Connecticut]. They didn’t have a directing program, so I designed my own program, where I basically directed independent theatre for three years.”
His directing principles:
“Direction is for me about the balance between creative freedom and setting boundaries. I like to think of myself as a little bit like a doula who is trying to create an exciting space for people to be their most vulnerable and creative. That involves knowing how to set boundaries and create boxes that are exciting spaces for people to be vulnerable. Properly created structure can be the amount of time you are going to work, the shape of the space, the goal that you set on a given day. It could be the style of communication you say you’re going to have in the room—all the meta-choices that you make about the space. I find that’s what I’m thinking about most.
“I always have an idea of what I want to do. I believe in starting with a really well-wrought idea for the piece, and then changing it. I think you need to start with something that you think is right but also to understand how to throw things out quickly as you get smarter, and as the vision evolves.”
In the rehearsal room with an actor:
“I like to be very up front about what I’m trying to do, with the ideas I have, so I will usually start by telling an actor what my ideas are—my instinctual ideas. I sometimes speak in images and feelings, but I like to give a sense that there is a very specific feeling that I understand but that I may not fully know everything about.
When Will [Eno] and I were working on The Open House, there’s a character who is the uncle. He doesn’t have as many lines. He’s sort of peripheral. His character comes into being, but he is the outsider in the family, and I just had this instinct with him that he was always there but he never had a place to sit and he doesn’t really feel like he has a space. And that he sort of disappears and reappears, and you’re not really sure how he even got around the room. So it was like creating this idea of someone who is invisible in an internal and external way.
“And [actor] Michael Countryman took that idea to play this and he created an entire blocking for the character. You never saw him moving and you never saw him sit and he did actually almost look like he was Photoshopped into other parts of the room because you would look away and watch the play and you would look up and he would be in another spot. That was the most clear example of how I got an instinct toward something, I created some boundaries around the idea, and then the actor sold it.”
A mistake he made that he learned from:
“I’ve made so many mistakes. I think the big difference now is I feel less uncomfortable owning up to mistakes or addressing mistakes or grabbing the mistake. The kind of mistake I regret most is anytime I feel like I’ve lost control emotionally.
The one mistake I regret the most happened in the development of a play with The Debate Society. We talk about this pretty openly, and this was like a turning point for us in our collaborative process. In that process, I’m one of the creators, I’m the director, but they’re the writers. It’s a more amorphous process. We were doing a workshop out in Minnesota and I got into an argument with one of them. It was basically that I had an idea. They didn’t immediately like the idea, and I took it personally, and the conversation very quickly went from talking about the play to defending and attacking each other, which was not normal for us. I’d lost control and lost focus on what was really important.
“We’ve worked ten years since then so we’ve clearly worked it out, but I think back on that time all the time now, especially when I start feeling like I’m taking something personally in the collaborative process. Because that was a moment where I feel I almost lost everything; I almost lost a friend, lost a company. It probably wasn’t that bad, but nothing is worse than unintentionally destroying something that’s valuable to you. That doesn’t mean you can’t get angry. And that doesn’t mean you can’t deploy anger sometimes, in the right, careful way. As long as it’s controlled. As long as you have a goal.”
A good decision he made that he learned from:
“I feel that most of my decisions are put together by 30 small decisions that lead to an outcome. With The Open House, which I did with Will at Signature, I had a vision for the beginning of the play that I knew wasn’t possible in the space we were going to use. I knew that the play wanted to begin in the middle of a scene, but we were in a space that didn’t really have a proscenium. We didn’t want a curtain. So the idea of just lifting up a curtain and the scene starts couldn’t happen. But I knew that was the experience I wanted. We ended up creating this magical beginning, in which the actors seemed to teleport into their space. It was a trick of the way we faded the lights, the kind of music we used, that sort of compressed time, so that people got into their spaces faster than humanly possible. It was an idea I at first didn’t think was possible. I think my decision to stick to the instinctual inspirational idea felt like it paid off perfectly. Learning to protect the delicate, sometimes dumb, hard to explain ideas has been the most fruitful for me.”
About What the Constitution Means to Me:
“When Heidi came to me with this project it wasn’t a fully made play. It was something that she had just been doing at some open mic nights, some sort of theatre presentation. It was a re-creation of something she did as a kid, when she would give speeches at American Legion halls for prize money to put herself through college. So it’s a 40-something-year-old woman re-creating it to figure out what her 15-year-old self thought about the Constitution, and have a conversation between herself as an adult woman and what she remembers of herself as a kid.
“When she approached me with this project she just described the basic things about it, and she talked about that and the fact that her great-great-grandmother came to this country as a mail-order bride from Germany. And she talked about this incredible story of the different generations of women in her family in America, and how the Constitution did and did not provide rights to them, leading to Heidi being one of the first women on one side of her family to grow up in a home free from domestic violence. She very simply tells the story of how the Constitution relates to her body and to the women in her family. She told me these elemental things.
“I as a director work mostly with The Debate Society, where we by design start working on a piece with beginnings of ideas and inspirational influences, and let the play reveal itself to us. It’s a process more or less based on our intuition. So when Heidi came to me with her bits and pieces and ideas, I immediately saw the exciting possibilities of a story, with its speech and debate competition, that takes something that can be dry like the Constitution and humanizes it.”
About Thom Pain:
“Thom Pain was the first Will Eno play I ever saw in New York, years ago, and it was one of the things that most guided me into the kind of work and the sensibility of theatre that I like. There’s a little bit of a surreal, absurdist vibe in the work. There’s a love of language, there’s an interest in elegantly picking apart the nature of reality and meta-theatre that’s at play there. In a lot of ways seeing that play was a founding principle for me. The chance for me to go back and work on this piece ends up being a journey into my own history, unpacking the things that I love most in the theatre and more deeply understanding my own sensibility.
“In addition, every time you do a show, the time is different, the space is different, the actor is different, so we get to approach this in a totally new way and build the thing from the ground up. And part of the excitement is the chance to work with Michael C. Hall. Will and I are giddy and excited by the possibilities of the things that we don’t even know about the piece and that will reveal themselves to us.”
“I definitely want to continue working with the writers and creators I’m working with. The fact that I’m talking to Will Eno about other projects—that we are friends, that he’s just a regular part of my life, I hope continues forever. I hope that The Debate Society continues to make interesting work. I want more of that.
“I am learning French again, in part because I would love to work in a foreign language. I have found that study of French has made me appreciate English a whole lot more, and the miracle of language. I’m excited about finding a way to work in a foreign language and possibly work in a non-English-speaking country because the challenge of it will make my brain more interesting, will make my spirit more interesting, and will also allow me to travel more, which is really important to me.
“I have been interested in getting into musicals. I have done very little—don’t ask me what my dream musical project would be because I don’t have the answer for that. But I directed a City Center Encores! production of Jonathan Larson’s Tick, Tick... Boom! four years ago with Lin-Manuel Miranda, Leslie Odom, and Karen Olivo, and I was pretty amazed at just how moving, how exciting the process of making it was, and also how the audience reaction to it was so much more intense than what I expect from your average play. I grew up playing the violin. I grew up singing. So there’s a part of me that feels like I would love to get connected with something that has some great music that I love and do a music-based piece.