NEW YORK (AP) — Not many theater directors have the range to do a play with a foul-mouthed hand puppet and then one with a whiff of film noir. Moritz Von Stuelpnagel can do both — in the same season.
Von Stuelpnagel, the artistic director of the downtown Studio 42 company, is directing two works that seem to have little in common: "Verite," a thriller starring Anna Camp currently at Lincoln Center, and "Hand to God," a gothic comedy starring a sock puppet that's coming to Broadway this month.
He originally planned for a career as a graphic designer, but soon fell in love with the collaborative nature of theater. Von Stuelpnagel got a master's from Rutgers University, was the associate director for Broadway's Tony-nominated "Cry-Baby" and has strong ties with The Ensemble Studio Theatre.
The Associated Press asked him about his process, his attitude and why he thinks the theater is thriving.
AP: What do you see as the role of a director is?
Von Stuelpnagel: A director becomes, over the course of the process, a stand-in for the audience. I have to listen and respond in the way that I imagine the audience will respond. And it is a particular skill, I think, to always be watching with fresh eyes and yet also be watching from the actor's perspective — do we feel like the actions and motivations of the characters feel truthful?
AP: How do you handle actors?
Von Stuelpnagel: I like my actors to feel very empowered as much as possible. I think that they respond especially well when they feel very clear about what they're doing. In the same way that I think a coach works with a team, the entire team needs to be clear about what their role is and then they need to be empowered in the moment to just be able to go and do it. I look for places where they feel unsure and I try to bolster them with clarity or an exciting challenge.
AP: Are you a director who likes to go big — fire, helicopters, explosions?
Von Stuelpnagel: I don't like to paint with colors that feel broader than the thing requires. There are plenty of directors who love to make these paint-outside-the-line choices but I actually feel I like to be succinct and honor the play as simply as possible. It's funny because the plays I'm doing aren't simple and yet I try to do them with as much simplicity as I can and yet have them seem satisfying.
AP: People worry about the state of theater. Do you?
Von Stuelpnagel: I don't know that I believe that it's dying. It's not in terms of the volume of work that we're putting into the world, in terms of the number of new plays, in terms of the financial statistics. I think everyone's always struggling, so it FEELS like the theater is dying and we feel underappreciated. But actually I feel like the theater is thriving.
AP: You've gone this season from noir to puppetry, drama and comedy all rolled up into one. That's quite a range.
Von Stuelpnagel: I'm always looking to balance the darkness with comedy and the lightness within drama. For example, both 'Hand to God' and 'Verite' are pretty dark, ultimately. My hope is that by investing in the characters, it actually becomes funnier. I think that, in life, everyone is on their personal battle. Obviously, some people have it worse. But everyone is out there suffering and struggling and wrestling with some degree with self-loathing. To be able to acknowledge that honestly — that, to me, lets us laugh at it, too.
AP: For you, what makes a good night out?
Von Stuelpnagel: I believe that your evening at the theater should unfold with a number of surprises throughout the evening and, when it works best, those surprises are by virtue of the virtuosity of the players — performers, designers, all of it. They should surprise you not with haphazard randomness, but with something that is a pleasing revelation.
Mark Kennedy is at http://twitter.com/KennedyTwits