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A Road Map to Gentleness


Director Robert Egan at the first rehearsal for "The Mystery of Love & Sex" at the Mark Taper Forum.

Photo by Craig Schwartz

Steeped in anti-war and civil rights movements as a young man, Robert Egan was first drawn to theatre because it could help combat the racial and political injustices of the social world in which he found himself. So he threw himself in. He was a Producing Director here at the Mark Taper Forum for 20 seasons. He launched the Taper’s New Work Festival, where he produced and helped develop the Pulitzer Prize-winning Angels in America and The Kentucky Cycle.

He’s currently the Artistic Director of the Ojai Playwrights Conference, which fosters work that explores challenging social, political, and cultural issues. He’s been involved in hundreds of directing projects over the years, and he’s developed hundreds more.

Egan has often been drawn to stories that reflect urban violence, social upheaval, and intellectual fissures that confront contemporary America. The Mystery of Love & Sex, which plays the Mark Taper Forum February 10–March 20, 2016, is different. Bathsheba Doran’s piece finds a quartet of likable, fragile characters trying to negotiate, then renegotiate, their bonds with one another. It’s fortuitous timing that Egan gets involved in their story now. He’s long been in touch with life’s brutality. What he’s fascinated with now, it seems, is its gentler side.

Kristin Friedrich: Tell me about your first reaction to The Mystery of Love & Sex?

Robert Egan:

I thought it was remarkable in that it covers so much human territory with such ease and grace and economy. It’s very much about life transitions. Its characters are constantly searching, seeking, and in many ways trying to connect in some deeper and richer way with the people they love. They’re trying to find trust and belief in each other. How do you find that kind of tenderness in a brutal world? Somehow in these two hours, Bash [Doran’s nickname] shows you the quiet seismic shifts that go on in all of our lives, whether we’re dealing with our sexuality, trying to create family, or trying to love. The play meditates on how we negotiate those kinds of connections. But this isn’t just about lovers and friendship and marriage—it’s also beautifully existential. It’s about the ongoing mysterious symphony of life.

How has running the Ojai Playwrights Conference, which nurtures a new group of established and emerging playwrights every year, changed the way you direct?

Our focus is to collaborate with a writer to help them fulfill their vision of their play. We’re not helping them develop their play for any specific theatres, which have their own agendas. There’s a purity about the work at Ojai. It’s similar to what you do in the rehearsal room. You explore the play together, and then you guide the room directorially to help the actors bring to life the demands of the play. I’m doing the same thing here as I do in Ojai. But I have to go way beyond, because this is a fully realized production with sound, sets, and lights.

Is playwright Doran involved in the rehearsal process?

Yes, Bash is here with us. She was here for casting. Every actor was chosen with her. And as a dramatist, she’s extremely meticulous and disciplined. I love having the playwright in the room because we sit for about a week, examining the play page by page. We’re talking about the story, the structure, the characters, what inspires them, what lines actually mean, what the backstory is. Then we drill down to moment-to-moment actions. It’s a very involved process.

The play has tension, but it’s also clear that the characters love each other. How do you approach that kind of tone? 

It’s challenging to get the balance right.  It’s hard to define the form that Bash writes. You’re moving along with the characters and then suddenly the history they’ve been living, the things they’ve been repressing, the silences they’ve endured—come out and they send shock waves through the four main characters. A lot of plays, from the first scene, there’s drama, fissure, and conflict. This play isn’t like that. I don’t think life is like that. Most of us experience life as a daily process to create peaceful waters. Then there are little tidal waves that hit and we try to return to the calm. What’s beautiful in this play is that all of the characters are operating from a place of care, even when they’re screwing up.

as a dramatist, she’s extremely meticulous and disciplined.

It also fast-forwards through a few years in their lives, through great change, without a lot of exposition. It’s thrilling when you’re engaged in a play as an outsider in the same way you engage in life. You re-encounter people. In the play when we jump five years, you experience through Bash’s writing and action that these relationships have changed. Then you reflect on previous scenes and you realize why that person was silent, that they didn’t want to reveal something.

A lot of your background, and your work, is steeped in activism and politics and social issues. How does the intimacy of this play feel?

I’m older than when I started out directing plays downtown 30 years ago. I’ve lived a lot more life. I’m divorced, I’m remarried. I have two sons and two step-sons. You’re not aware of it, but as life moves inevitably forward you become different. Bash’s play Kin and this play have some similar elements and structures—there are marriages, then disillusion, then reconnections. We tend to think of plays about marriage, like Who’s Afraid of Virginia Woolf?, with vicious pyrotechnics from beginning to end. But in a lot of our relationships, things go silent, things go to sleep. It’s a slow shifting of the tectonic plates, it’s not a big earthquake. I think that’s the way many things happen in life. But Bash’s characters go on, they keep trying to reconfigure their connections. There is something quietly noble and courageous about them.

It seems as if this play came your way at an interesting time, that you’re identifying with its ideas.

I think it’s taking me to places in my own life that I’m exploring and trying to embrace and live fully within. It’s surprising and good that I’m encountering this play right now. It’s also surprising and good that I’m encountering Bash right now. I am a very disciplined guy, I’m rigorous, I work hard, I take it all very seriously. Bash is all of those things and more. She has a big, tender heart. I like to think we share that, too. It’s great to be working with a like-minded artist and human being.

You’re not aware of it, but as life moves inevitably forward you become different.

With Bash and the play, it’s a glimpse into a better world. How do we negotiate toward a better world? I think some of the most powerful plays are plays that examine that question not through grand, big issues, although those plays are great too. What Bash does is explore all of those larger issues through very specific relationships, through two young people and two parents, who oddly and ironically are both trying to find the same things. There’s not some deep-seated pathology to them. They’re together in the big struggle of life.

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