When director Stan Wojewodski, Jr., first heard of Dallas’ Undermain Theatre, it was nearly 20 years ago and he was 2,000 miles away in New York. “It was the theater in Dallas that we all knew about.” Most of the the writers he was working with had already had their plays produced in the funny space down South, and they would talk, he says, about the Undermain and “how it championed really adventuresome writing.”
When Wojewodski came to town for the first time in 1995 for a Dallas Theater Center production, he stopped by. He continued to do so whenever his job as artistic director of Yale Repertory Theater (and the dean of the Yale School of Drama) or friendship brought him back this way. Wojewodski never had much intention of settling here, or anywhere really, after leaving Yale in 2002. After 25 years of being an AD, he was “merrily freelancing” right up until his 2004 production of The Importance of Being Earnest. It was, of course, at the Dallas Theater Center. And he was, inevitably, asked to give a talk at SMU’s Meadows School of the Arts.
“I got to meet some of the faculty there, they asked if I would be interested in doing a master class, and things kind of mushroomed from there,” he says. “So my plan was to come for a year or so…I was still living in Connecticut, and I wanted to move into Manhattan. And I thought, this is perfect, it’ll force me to get into a routine.”
As the artist-in-residence, he was working with undergraduates for the first time, a challenge he found he liked. A year become five, and in 2010, the school asked him to chair the theater department. He accepted. Around the same time, his first play at the Undermain opened: Samuel Beckett’s Endgame. In retrospect, it seems almost surprising that it took him so long to get there. But he’d run into Kathryn Owens and Bruce Dubose at a show and they got to talking and they called and asked him if he’d like to direct something. He finally had the time and the opportunity.
His second Undermain show, The Shipment by Young Jean Lee, opened last Saturday. It came at him from different directions, which he declares is often a good sign. He’d started reading Lee’s work after attending a writing workshop with her mentor, and was interested in The Shipment because of the way Lee, a young Korean-American woman, tackled the subject of race— particularly one that was not her own. The Undermain, coincidentally, had done a staged reading of the play and wanted to turn it into a production.
“It’s not only her particular way of getting at a thing, but it’s uniquely structured…the subject matter is of tremendous interest to me. I just thought that was a wonderful combination,” he says. And when prodded further about what attracted him to the piece, he gives a beautiful speech peppered with words like “dramaturgical calculation” and “indeterminate space,” noting Lee’s subversion of the traditional minstrel format (there’s a dance followed by a song, a sketch comedy routine, a stand up routine, and a one act play) into something contemporary and clever.
“Over the course the play there are any number of racial stereotypes that are introduced, that are played out, that are talked about, that are illustrated. They range from sort of…harmlessly entertaining, in a way, to really outrageous and transgressive,” Wojewodski says. “As the play progresses, the audience is asked to move into a more or less indeterminate space. I don’t mean in the theater. And at the same time, they’re being to asked to create a kind of critical perspective on what is being presented to them. And that’s quite an extraordinary approach to the questions of race in our culture. Particularly in this case, African-American history, here.”
He pauses, then relates Lee’s feeling that traditionally structured, liberally minded plays about race are becoming “not only a cliché, but a comfort.” The audience, he says, is never asked to take stock of where they sit. This production requires people to make up their minds, but where and at what point? Perhaps the end, but Wojewodski says he’s noticed that people divide at the point the play trips over someone’s personal comfort level. The answer might be different for everyone who walks out of the theater.
Wojewodski, concerned as he is with directing new work, says Henrik Ibsen’s The Wild Duck and Shakespeare’s Coriolanus are high on his to-do list, and he’s thinking about turning the latter into a workshop to see if there’s anything there. He’s interested in the questions of democracy, government, and war— all relevent. The Wild Duck, though?
“What is it people say about that play?” he asks. “How much truth can we bear? How much truth can we bear?”
The cast of The Shipment. Photo by Ashley Randall.