Utah Repertory Theater Company continues its 2015 season of “Levity and Consternation” with David Lindsey-Abaire’s Pulitzer Prize and Tony Award winning drama Rabbit Hole opening May 8. Director JayC Stoddard is a familiar face to local audiences due to his work onstage at Around the Globe Theatre, Utah Repertory Theater, The Hive Theatre, The Grand Theatre, and most recently in Pygmalion Theatre Company’s Spark. Here, Stoddard discusses his transition behind the scenes and tackling difficult subject matter.
What brought you to theatre?
Stoddard: I was in my first production over thirty five years ago. I don’t remember what it was, I only remember the feeling. From that moment on, it’s all I’ve ever wanted to do. I pursued it throughout school and studied it in college. Since 1978, there have only been three calendar years that I haven’t been on stage.
Have you always wanted to direct?
Stoddard: I took my first directing class in 1997, and absolutely fell in love with it. It’s an entirely different beast than acting. I was fortunate to direct a number of different productions while I lived in Vegas, but this is my first since moving back to Utah in 2008. It’s been a while, but it feels great to be doing it again.
Who or what are your major artistic inspirations and influences?
Stoddard: Music is huge. It’s nice to sit down with a script, put in the headphones, and imagine the world of the play. Also, photography and art. I think that some of the greatest inspiration comes from allowing myself to get caught up in the result of someone else’s imagination and hard work.
What is your directorial process like?
Repetitive. I probably drive my actors insane. I don’t find a whole lot of value in running an entire show from top to bottom and then giving notes at the end of the night. I’m much more about each individual beat. My poor actors will work so hard, get into a strong emotional moment, working the arc of that particular beat, and I’ll stop, and go over, and do it again. It is not unusual to spend an entire rehearsal on a 3 page scene.
What do you feel your results are? How does the repetition pay off?
(The goal is that) through repetition, by opening night, we have explored every possible option in how to play each moment and ,through the search, discovered the best possible option. It’s fascinating to rehearse something over, and over, and over again and by the time we present to an audience, still maintain an emotional honesty. I’d say that’s really what it’s all about though, not so much crafting a moment, but by going over each moment over and over again, discovering it.
What are the best “tools” in your director skill set?
Stoddard: Adaptability, I think. Also a realization that I don’t have all the answers, but a readiness to try new things and new approaches. I know from the beginning that I will get things wrong in the beginning. The hope is that through the rehearsal process, we’re able to find all the wrong things, and get rid of them.
I love script analysis. I love to explore each line of a script. I understand that by the time a script reaches my hands, it’s been written, revised, workshopped a thousand times, performed, and published. When it finally reaches me, each line has been scrutinized countless times and was intentionally left in the script. No matter how much a line may seem weird, a moment seem awkward, a word seem out of place…it becomes my responsibility to discover the intent. Because by that point, each word in the script is absolutely intentional.
Why Rabbit Hole?
Stoddard: I first saw Rabbit Hole sometime around 2008, or 2009 in Las Vegas. At the time, it was a new play and hadn’t really received a lot of attention outside of New York. I completely fell in love with it. It was one of those plays that I simultaneously wished I could both perform in and direct. I knew from the first time I watched it that it was a play, no matter the capacity, I would want to work on someday. When I joined the board for Utah Rep, it was a play that had already been announced for the next season, but at the time still didn’t have a director attached. I immediately threw my hat in, and they graciously accepted to take a chance on me.
How do you approach the grief around the loss of a child in the play?
Stoddard: Ironically, with a lot of levity in rehearsal. This is an incredibly heavy show and sometimes in order to go into the dark, we need to turn on the light. Obviously, once we are in the words of the script, we treat those words with great care. I am so fortunate to have actors working on this project,who are able to navigate this course in a way that both gives the highest respect and treatment to the story, and when necessary, step back, take a breath, and help lighten the overall mood. I can’t imagine trying to carry this show for this many weeks without some laughter to get us through. The best part is that through this, we have also been able to find the light in the script itself. This play is full of love and laughter. Although it is wrapped up in the grief of these characters, we are able to see that they truly are people who love and care about each other.
Has the 2010 movie version influenced your process at all?
Stoddard: I saw the film when it was released in theaters, and I confess, I was a bit disappointed. They had watered down the words of the script in order to get a rating that would allow for a greater audience. In doing this, I felt they really took the edge off of the script as it was originally written. I have no interest in taking that edge off. I want to stay true to the story that was written and the spirit of the characters in it. I have only seen the film once, and never really considered going back to it for any type of inspiration. It was never my intention of staging the movie, but simply honestly telling the story as originally written.
How has the Utah theatre scene changed since you joined it?
Stoddard: I think more companies are becoming more brave with content. For decades, Utah has had a reputation of running away from anything that wasn’t family friendly. Everybody wanted to play it safe, afraid to offend potential audiences. When I first arrived in Utah, there were only one or two theatre companies that strayed from that mindset. Now, although we still have more than enough of that family fare with plenty of companies still doing only the tried, tested, and audience approved fare, we are finding so many more companies taking risks, telling different stories, and branching out. It’s absolutely thrilling to be part of that.
How did your relationship with Utah Rep happen? What is it like working with them?
Stoddard: I think I first heard of Utah Repertory Theater when they were doing Rent. At the time, they were a company doing most of their work in Utah County. Just over a year ago, Utah Rep board memeber, and director of Grace, JC Carter, asked me if I would be interested in doing that show with him. I had worked with JC before, and was familiar with the play, so I agreed without hesitation. It was during Grace that I met Johnny Hebda, artistic director for Utah Rep. Over the course of the show we became friends. He explained to me the mission of Utah Rep, a philosophy that I am 100 percent on board with. He asked me to join the board, and it’s been a wonderful ride ever since. I absolutely love the vision of the company and look forward to an incredibly promising future with them.
What do you think Utah theatre needs in 2015?
Stoddard: The same thing that all theatre has needed since the first storyteller performed for the first audience. Bravery, honesty, a willingness to explore the things that delight us, thrill us, entertain us, provoke us, and make us uncomfortable. We need audiences willing to take those risks with us. We need to stop pre-judging our audiences, and basing our decisions on what we think will sell tickets or not offend, and instead find the stories we want to tell and that transport us.
What do you hope audiences take away from Rabbit Hole?
Stoddard: Discussion. Thought. Perspective. Grief is such an interesting thing, in that it is both universal and intensely personal. Although we will all experience grief, there is no answer in each individual person should properly process it. Everyone finds comfort in their own way, in their own time. My greatest hope for a takeaway is not that we will provide answers, but more of a way for people to find their own path to their own answer.