This week, I had the opportunity to sit down with Gus Heagerty, our very enthusiastic and dedicated Assistant Director for The Good Book of Pedantry and Wonder. We discussed goals, opportunities, and when it’s good not to have too much drama in the theatre. Read on for the interview!
Taylor: Tell me a little about yourself.
Gus: I grew up in Marin county and went to school at the North Carolina School of the Arts, which is a conservatory program, and I just graduated from there with a BFA in Directing. I started acting in high school, my freshman year. I had a really good theater department in high school, where I got to do everything from technical stuff to directing, and that’s what inspired me to go to conservatory training, and I haven’t stopped since and have no plans to stop.
T: Why did you stop acting and go into directing?
G: I’ve continued to act and do whenever I have the opportunity. The directing transition came because I was offered the opportunity by the Dean of the school, Gerald Freedman, who’s a very esteemed American theatre director. The opportunity let me get the most out of that training—I’d be able to take all the same acting courses and more, and I thought it’d be silly not to follow an open door. That’s where my philosophy came from: to seize every opportunity that I get, not think about what the result may be, but just see where it takes me. Because I’m young, and I don’t want to be sorry for anything that I haven’t done, so I just want to see where it takes me. I didn’t know where it was going to take me but I trusted my faculty and knew that they saw something in me that was directorial and I had potential as a director, so I followed that and continued to act. I basically used it as an opportunity to learn more about the theatre, the craft of actors and directors, and how to tell the most effective story.
T: How did you get involved with this play?
G: I was assisting John Langs, the director, at the School of the Arts, of which he is an alum also, on a play called Two Shakespearean Actors, which was the final play of our graduating class. About two weeks into the process he asked me what I was doing this summer, and I immediately said, “Nothing, what do you have?” He said, “I’m working on a new play in Pasadena, and you should come and assist me on it.” Of course I said yes, hands down, I will be there. That’s how I’ve gotten to meet Boston Court people, and Circle X people, and a new playwright.
T: Did you move here?
G: Temporarily. I’m here for the summer because I’ve got plans. I’m moving to Washington, DC at the end of August.
T: What are you doing there?
G: I am the William R. Kenan Fellow in Directing at the Kennedy Center, so I will be working as an assistant on various shows at the Kennedy Center for their season of Theatre for Young Audiences. They create these children’s musicals and tour them around DC and then around the country. I’ll be assisting the directors on those and I’ll also be assisting other directors in the DC area in theaters that I get to choose, and hopefully get positions with different theaters—Woolly Mammoth Theatre is one, Studio Theatre, the Shakespeare Theatre, the Folger Theatre—it basically affords me the opportunity to immerse myself in that community and meet as many artists as I can so that by the end of the year, I can stay there and have a career. It’s a good introduction, and it also affords me the opportunity to leave town and assist other directors around the country or around the world.
T: What are your goals for your career?
G: My goals right now, short-term, are to see as much theatre and as much art as I possibly can, to just load my computer of resources so I have lots of inspiration to draw on. And to work with as many artists as possible—light designers, set designers, sound designers, directors, artistic directors, everyone—meet as many people as I can to start building my network. And eventually I want to work freelance around the country. I love to travel and I like change a lot, so I like the idea of working for two months in one place, joining the family of a theater company and then heading out and going to a new city and doing it all over again.
Long-term, like in five years, my friend and I have plans to start a theater company. This is a friend I went to school with, was in the directing program with. That also feeds into why I want to network, so we can have a group of artists we can invite to come and work with us. Starting in a smaller city that has a lively audience that wants to see theater is the goal.
Part of my job as assistant is to direct the understudies. They get two performances after opening night. The main goal is to maintain the integrity of the performance that John has directed and the actors have created, so during rehearsals I’ve taken very detailed notes about any direction he’s taking the characters so that when I turn to my understudies I’m directing the same intention of the play with them, and not my own. Technically we start rehearsals two days after opening, but I started with them early on, doing table reads, so that they could start to interact with each other and play off of each other earlier and establish some framework of who the characters are, so that when we jump up onstage and they’re expected to know all the blocking and all the lines, they’ll have some pretty solid understanding of who the characters are and what they’re doing in each scene. We’re working around their schedules to do as much as they want to do, and these understudies have been fantastic. They’re really excited about working outside of what was already scheduled. The idea is that they’ll be ready to go on any time, even during previews. They’re playing all the same actions that the other actors are doing, but they’re different actors so it’s going to be a different performance, while hitting the same marks. But it’s coming from within themselves, so it’s going to be different, and have a different voice. Different emotions might come up.
T: How is this different from doing a college production?
G: The first marked difference is that no one is there paying to learn, so the way John directs is different. It’s all about doing the work, and there are no questions about how to do the work. Everyone has their own way of working now. In my opinion, it moves a lot faster. And there’s no personal drama, because when I was in college we were working with the same 20 people we were working with for the past four years, so every rehearsal process we were bringing in stuff from outside rehearsal. With this, it’s just about making the play better every time, there’s nothing else. I love it.
T: It’s really cool that you’ve just graduated from college and now you’re in charge of people who are much older. Has that been strange?
G: Yes. When I first heard of the idea, Jessica asked me if I’ve ever worked with older actors. I said no, maybe twenty-year-olds. It made me realize I haven’t, but I’m going to be. One of the wonderful things is that now, there’s a sixty-year-old man in the play and it’s played by a sixty-year-old man, rather than one of my friends playing much older, who never really looks very good. I was wondering if it’s going to be really weird, but it’s been great. It’s all about the work, so there’s never any, “Who’s this 21-year-old talking to me?”
T: You seem to have set yourself up really well. And you always come in to work so excited and optimistic.
G: I love doing this, but you do have those moments where you’re like, “Is this really what I want to be doing? I could be doing anything right now.” But what you have to offer, no one else has. Even if you don’t know what that is yet. And like you said, I sound so optimistic, but there are days when I think I’m the worst artist, I don’t know how I got this far. But someone once told me if you’re not doubting it, if you’re not questioning it, it’s not real. I wrote to John Patrick Shanley after I saw Doubt, which was about this, about questioning yourself, and I didn’t expect him to write back to me but he did. He wrote, “Uncertainty contains the essence of life, Gus.” And he was right, you’re never sure about things. The most important thing, though, is that you don’t beat yourself up.
T: What are some things you’ve learned from watching John Langs or being a part of this play?
G: It’s a language-heavy play, and it demands a very specific rhythm, and before we skipped right to finding the rhythm of the language we had to find the flesh and meat of what’s underneath it all: what’s happening with the relationships in this family, discovering the needs of all these characters before we lay on finding the rhythm. Because if we just find the rhythm, it’s funny and it works, but there’s no heart there. So what I’ve learned from John specifically on this one is how to craft the moments so that the audience’s heart can get in on the moment too, so that we take them on the biggest emotional journey that we can while serving the play, which is very witty British humor, and very much a wordy play.
T: What makes for a good director?
G: There are a few things. First and foremost, the director’s job is to serve the play and the playwright’s intention. The director’s first job is to understand what story is being told. What are we trying to tell the audience? If a director understands that, then you can allow for creativity to come through. The second most important thing is listening to the actors, being a director who’s collaborating and not setting things in stone. The beauty of the process is the collective discovery of moments in the play. In order to have a collective discovery, the director and the actors and the designers all need to come with their heart open. If everyone’s bringing that to the play, there’s no way the play can not be filled with heart. The director is a pretty big instigator of making that happen. If he brings an open heart, everyone feels they can too, because he’s the ringleader. Whatever impression he sets in the room will set the tone for how things work. And finally, a director must be a positive go-getter and make things happen. A director shouldn’t take no for an answer, they should be interested in finding a solution to something, collectively and creatively. That’s part of the fun of it. But ultimately, the director’s main job is to serve the play and the playwright.