'Fun Home' director Sam Gold on working with 'no net'
NEW YORK (AP) — Sam Gold was still in college when he did something most people only dream about: He made his Broadway acting debut. But he quickly realized he was probably on the wrong side of the stage.
"I was an actor for a minute," says Gold, currently juggling two shows. "I was a bad actor because I was always a director. I was always thinking like a director."
Gold's instincts back then — as many producers and actors will say — were typically smart. He's become one of the most in-demand directors in town, earning his first Tony Award nomination at 37 for helming the poignant musical "Fun Home."
The show is based on Alison Bechdel's graphic novel memoir about growing up with a closeted dad in a Pennsylvania funeral home. While that seems like an unlikely hit, the musical hooks you instantly with its honesty and beauty.
"I've worked on some very beloved pieces before but never something that has a heart like this," he says. "Once you're in the room, it's a very special experience for everybody. But getting them in the room is a hard sell."
"Fun Home" is Gold's first crack at directing a traditional musical, and it joins a list of credits that seem to have little in common.
He's directed Will Eno's weird play "The Realistic Joneses," Annie Baker's laconic off-Broadway "The Flick," a revival of Tom Stoppard's hyperarticulate "The Real Thing" and a revival of William Inge's steamy American classic "Picnic."
What connects them is Gold's love of working with a group of actors, whether they're the unknowns in the cast of "The Flick" or A-listers like Michael C. Hall, Alan Rickman, Maggie Gyllenhaal and Ewan McGregor.
"Always I start with the ensemble and I try to put all of the pressure on them. I try to make these productions where the show succeeds or fails completely on their shoulders," he says.
"No net. No fancy set pieces. No directing flourishes. Nothing that can save the show if the subtlety of the performances isn't riveting."
Gold grew up in the New York area and graduated from Cornell with an English degree, taking time out to be a replacement understudy in Broadway's "The Diary of Anne Frank" with Natalie Portman.
"I did go on every night on Broadway and push Anne Frank down a flight of stairs," he says, laughing. Soon, he switched to directing and graduated from Juilliard.
His directing style is the opposite of cagey or manipulative. "I basically tell people what's on my mind, honestly," he says.
"I don't have a philosophy. I'm never going to write a book. I'm a pretty frank, upright, practical guy who wants to tell a good story."
He's also willing to get micromanage-y if the story requires it. For "The Flick," a play about three employees in a movie theater, Gold helped create machines that deliver an exact number of popcorn kernels in the aisles onstage between scenes. "I want you to play, but I want you to play in a very small sandbox," he says.
All his skills were on show when "Fun Home" made the leap onto Broadway this spring in a theater-in-the-round, a hard place to work since sight lines can be tricky. He wanted everyone's best work, but he didn't want it to show.
"The thing I work hardest to do — or feel the most pride about — is how rigorous can my work be and how invisible can it be to the audience," he says.
Gold credits lighting designer Ben Stanton for embracing new LED technology to make the play beautiful from all four sides and sound designer Kai Harada for inventing algorithms to let the audience hear the actors perfectly, no matter where they sit. No detail was too small, including removing the hum from the lighting fans.
Gold getting the best out of the whole team didn't come as a surprise to Kristin Caskey, a "Fun Home" producer and fan of the low-key director.
"Not only do I feel that he's a brilliant director, but he's an incredible collaborator. He's patient, he's smart and he's respectful," Caskey says.
"I do think that because he's a former actor, he understands what everyone brings to the table. So everyone's role is valued. And I do believe that shows up onstage."
Gold is married to playwright Amy Herzog, and the couple lives in Brooklyn with their two young daughters. He plans on two more projects this summer before staying home and giving his wife some time to write.
One is directing Baker's play "John" and the other sounds like a pure Sam Gold challenge — directing a production of "The Glass Menagerie" in Amsterdam.
"It's a great experiment. No one's asked me to do that before," he says, laughing. "I want to try doing a beautiful American play in Dutch."