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“Can you lift that chair like you’re gonna throw it at him?”
It’s 9:00 p.m. on a Friday; in the west lobby of the American Repertory Theater’s Loeb Drama Center, temporarily transformed into a makeshift stage, the cast of “Little Murders” is heading into the night’s third hour of rehearsal. Director Shira Milikowsky, artistic associate at the ART, is instructing actors Juliana N. Sass ’17 and Matthew J. Bialo ’15. The three have spent the last two hours enacting and reenacting a single scene—each word painstakingly analyzed, each gesture calculated for greatest effect, each line tried dozens of different ways.
“Okay, let’s start again. Let yourself go—see what comes.”
“Little Murders” is the outcome of this year’s Visiting Director’s Project, a collaboration between the Harvard-Radcliffe Dramatic Club and the ART. Since 2003, the VDP has brought accomplished directors from the ART and beyond to work alongside Harvard students; past productions run the gamut from “Romeo and Juliet” to “Accidental Death of an Anarchist.” Participating in the VDP show offers Harvard undergraduates exposure, experience, and the chance to perform on the Loeb Mainstage, but most crucially, the opportunity to learn from a seasoned professional.
Each of the student actors, directors, and producers interviewed for this article cited this opportunity as one of the most rewarding aspects of being involved in the show. Due to its lack of a dramatic arts concentration, Harvard can be a difficult place for aspiring actors, producers, directors, and theater technicians who face the dual challenge of succeeding academically in one field while seeking to become proficient in another. The Visiting Director’s Project is one attempt to counter this issue. Expectations for the production are high and the time commitment formidable, but for the students involved in this year’s VDP it is well worth it—the closest thing to a pre-professional experience they will get at Harvard.
TWISTED, DARK, AND COMEDIC
“Little Murders,” written by cartoonist Jules Feiffer, takes place in a slightly dystopian New York City in a not-quite-dystopian near future. The play tells the story of one family trying to hold it together in the face of anarchy, violence, and crime, with disastrous results. “We’ve been calling it ‘the darkest of dark comedies,’” co-producer Magdalene M. Zier ’16 says.
In many ways, the Newquists are the traditional mid-century sitcom family—mother, father, son, and daughter—but Feiffer’s script and now Milikowsky’s staging work to upend that paradigm. In one twist, Elizabeth Leimkuhler ’15 plays the role of the father, Carol, while Mark J. Mauriello ’15 is cast as Marjorie, the mother. According to Milikowsky, the decision was entirely unexpected. “It wasn’t like I had this thought, ‘Oh, let’s have a man play the mother,’” she says. “What happened was that we did callbacks, and I thought, ‘The person who essentializes Marjorie for me, in my gut, is Mark. And the person who’s kinda feeling like Carol is Liz.’” Milikowsky initially resisted the idea, concerned that it would feel like a gimmick or fail to mesh with the fabric of the play; it took the support of co-producer Garrett C. Allen ’16 and the rest of the production team to solidify the decision. “Garrett looked at me and said, ‘It sounds like you want us to talk you out of this, but that you want to do it, and we just want you to know that we’re up for it. We’re behind you. Let’s do it.’”
Milikowsky’s decision compelled Leimkuhler and Mauriello to push themselves as actors. Both express complex relationships to their characters, born in part of the challenge of depicting a different gender. “I had to learn a new approach to identifying with a character,” Leimkuhler says. “I didn’t want to get up there and be a caricature of a man.”
Mauriello offers similar sentiments. “I know that part of the humor is because of the cross-dressing—‘Hey, there’s a guy in a dress’—but I want the audience to feel like it goes beyond that. Maybe it doesn’t matter if Marjorie is actually male or female; the point is that she’s trying so hard to hold on to that mother role, just to keep her family together.”
KIND OF A FUNNY STORY
When “Little Murders” premiered in 1967 on Broadway it was a flop, putting on only seven performances before closing. When revived off-Broadway in 1969, however, it became a huge success, running for 400 performances over two years. “The play is not of its time; it was actually about five seconds before its time,” says Milikowsky. “The difference between those two productions is that 1968 happened in the middle, and with all the assassinations of that year and the riots and the violence and the escalation of Vietnam, people who came to see that show in ’69 were like, ‘Oh yeah, we totally get this.’”
While things have changed between 1967 and 2014, Milikowsky believes that many of the social issues broached by “Little Murders” persist in various forms to this day. “[The play’s] examination of gender and who has the power, and how status is divided among gender, and how that is being shaken up between genders is still very present in our conversation,” she says.
Zier points out another way in which “Little Murders” is relatable for modern audiences: “A big theme is gun violence. We associate it with this world of anarchy, but it’s clear that it infiltrates our own lives. The play really takes a hard look at that problem. What happens when violence becomes the norm?”
These are serious themes to take on, but “Little Murders” tempers its graver concerns with a hefty helping of comedy. “It’s a really fast-paced humor,” Milikowsky says. “In art, I’ve always liked getting to serious things through laughter.”
Comedy is notoriously difficult to get right, though. “It’s hard, because we have characters in these very farcical situations, but we never want to let the characters themselves become farce,” Leimkuhler explains. “Even when the situation is funny and obviously ridiculous to us, it’s life and death for that character.”
Milikowsky’s experience in comedic staging has proven vital to helping the actors navigate this tricky theatrical territory. “Shira is very, very specific with every single beat that happens throughout the show,” Samuel B. Clark ’15 says.
For Milikowsky, this kind of exactitude is essential for a comedic production. “Comedy is timing,” she says. “There have been times that we’ve spent 45 minutes on a double take—who does the double take, in what direction, and at what tempo.” The hope is that all of this work will result in a production that is as precisely staged as a dance performance and devastatingly funny without losing any of its bite. “We want this to be the kind of performance where you laugh, and then you feel slightly uncomfortable about having laughed,” Leimkuhler says.
"We want this to be the kind of performance where you laugh, and then you feel slightly uncomfortable about having laughed."
Theatrical skills like the comedic accuracy described above can be learned—but not as part of a Harvard student’s primary field of study. On a list of concentrations that includes Germanic languages and literatures, folklore and mythology, environmental science and public policy, and five kinds of biology, perhaps the most surprising absence is dramatic arts. Harvard students who want to go into acting, production, directing, design, and other performance-related careers are obligated to write papers, study for midterms, and keep up with all the required work for their concentration while using their free time and elective classes to pick up the skills and experience they need.
Weeks spent rehearsing for upwards of six hours a day likely means that some work is left undone, some tests not studied for, some sacrifices made. Yet despite the challenges of the situation, there are also benefits to pursuing theater at Harvard. “This is an amazing place to be if you want to be in the arts,” Sass says. “It might not be an obvious place to be, but the most important thing is to be around people who inspire you and are passionate about what they do.”
"This is an amazing place to be if you want to be in the arts. It might not be an obvious place to be, but the most important thing is to be around people who inspire you and are passionate about what they do."
Assistant director of “Little Murders” Joey R. Longstreet ’16 describes the Harvard-Radcliffe Drama Club’s status as a thriving, student-run group as another asset for those interested in careers in the arts. “There’s a crazy number of shows put on each semester, so there are always chances to be involved,” he says. He also speaks highly of the few dramatic arts classes offered each semester under the aegis of a dramatic arts secondary, particularly a directing class he took during his freshman year that was taught by Diane Paulus, artistic director of the ART (Milikowsky is teaching a directing class this spring). The Visiting Director’s Project, of course, is another valuable opportunity. “It’s as close to a professional experience as you’re going to get,” Longstreet explains.
Others on the cast, including Leimkuhler and Mauriello, highlight the ART’s contribution to Harvard student theater. “The ART is the best regional theater in New England,” Mauriello says. “I’ve been interning here since sophomore year, and it’s taught me so much about acting, production, and the theater world as a whole.”
“I think that [the difficulty of focusing on theater at Harvard] can be a positive thing,” Leimkuhler says. “You can’t just sign up for the major, make your way through four years, and then graduate and realize ‘Hey, I don’t actually want to do this.’ It’s a constant process of re-affirming that decision; you have to keep going out and auditioning for things, getting involved. You have to find your own path.”
"The ART is the best regional theater in New England. I've been interning here since sophomore year, and it's taught me so much about acting, production, and the theater world as a whole."
The process of finding that path is familiar to Milikowsky. As an undergraduate at Yale, she was originally a history major. “I loved acting and theater, but I never saw it as something I could do with my life,” she explains. “I thought I’d go to law school.” It wasn’t until her junior year, when she directed a play as a favor to a friend, that she decided her future lay in theater. “‘Just come to the auditions,’ he said. These women were coming in and reading these parts, and I started working with them, and it just felt so good. It was like acting, which I loved, but all the parts that made me uncomfortable were gone.”
“All the things I was good at—seeing the big picture, and communicating storylines, and getting other people excited—were part of directing, and it was clear pretty immediately,” Milikowsky continues. “So that changed everything.”
Following this experience, Milikowsky stopped acting, switched her major to theater studies, and “started directing like mad.” After graduating, she got an MFA in directing from Columbia and then stayed in New York. “I was working all the time, having day jobs, assistant directing on productions, and then putting on shows in basements with my friends at night. It was a lot of fun, but it was tiring.” Then she heard about the Luce Foundation’s Luce Scholars Program, which sends young Americans to countries in Asia for a year. The age cutoff was 30; Milikowsky was 29. She applied.
“At the time, when I said I was moving to Korea, everyone in my life was like, ‘What are you doing?’ I just needed something—it’s important to have a career path, but it’s also important to deviate from that path,” Milikowsky says.
Milikowsky ended up spending a year in Seoul, working as a visiting director at a theater and teaching a class of students. Partway through the year, she received an email from Diane Paulus, with whom she’d worked on the Broadway production of “HAIR,” encouraging her to come to the ART. Three days after returning from Seoul, she packed her things and moved to Boston, where she’s spent the last three years.
“I don’t think we’ve dug all the way into the complexity of what she’s saying here,” Milikowsky says. It’s late on Friday night, and rehearsal is in full swing. “This play just keeps reinventing itself, and that’s what’s so exciting. I think you guys should be looking at each other when she says that line—do you feel that too?” Nods go around the room, actors reset, and the newest interpretation of the line is tried.
This collaborative, discussion-based approach is the cornerstone of Milikowsky’s style. “Shira is the kind of director who will have a conversation with you about why your character does what they do,” Clark says. “She’s really good—more than any other director I’ve had—about sitting down and having those talks.”
“Shira just knows what to say to actors to get them to understand the story they’re trying to tell,” Bialo says. “She has an amazing way of asking exactly the right questions to help you access that story.”
For Longstreet, who hopes to become a professional director, working alongside Milikowsky has been a particularly valuable opportunity. “It’s been a really exciting experience, and I’m just trying to learn all I can,” Longstreet says. “It’s so great to work with someone who’s had so much experience at the professional level. Directing is such a hard thing to describe, since it can mean a lot of different things, but Shira is really just amazing at interacting with actors—not coming in and saying ‘This is what I think it is,’ but making it really a discussion between her and the actors about these characters.”
"Directing is such a hard thing to describe, since it can mean a lot of different things, but Shira is really just amazing at interacting with actors—not coming in and saying 'This is what I think it is,' but making it really a discussion between her and the actors about these characters."
In lieu of a dramatic arts concentration, technical training and experiences that approximate professional theater work can be difficult to come by for Harvard undergraduates. But the VDP presents a unique opportunity to help resolve that deficit, providing students with a valuable window into the world they hope to enter. Though Milikowsky’s particular directorial style is unique, the experience of working with a professional director is a more general reward—one that these students can carry with them as they pursue career ambitions not reflected by their diplomas.
—Staff writer Lien E. Le can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.
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