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A Director Comes Home to the Taper

Lisa Peterson Discusses Returning to L.A. and Tackling the Modern Struggles of America in 'Sweat'

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Director Lisa Peterson at the first rehearsal for “Sweat” by Lynn Nottage.

Photo by Craig Schwartz.

Director Lisa Peterson is happy to be back in Los Angeles and at the Mark Taper Forum with Sweat. The Obie Award-winning director has collaborated with some of the best playwrights in the world, including Tony Kushner, Beth Henley, David Henry Hwang, Donald Margulies, and Caryl Churchill, at regional theatres across the country. She also spent a notable 10-year stint as Resident Director at the Taper from 1995–2005, during which she directed The House of Bernarda Alba (adapted by Chay Yew and featuring Chita Rivera in the title role), Luis Alfaro’s Electricidad, and the World premiere of Culture Clash’s Chavez Ravine, among numerous others.

Since then, Peterson hasn’t been a total stranger to Center Theatre Group, returning to direct the 2015 revival of Chavez Ravine at the Kirk Douglas Theatre. She has also come back as a playwright, as part of a completion commission she and Denis O’Hare (with whom she co-wrote the critically acclaimed An Iliad) received for The Good Book, a theatrical, semi-historical exploration of the Bible. (The Good Book premieres at Berkeley Rep next spring.)

Los Angeles, like the rest of America, has changed since Peterson lived here last—which in her opinion has only made theatre, and this particular play, more important.

We are hungry to be in each other’s actual presence. So much of our lives can and do happen through a screen, mediated by technology. We’re watching a movie, Skyping into work, FaceTiming with our loved ones, said Peterson. While those things give us the freedom to work from anywhere, a lot of people are realizing that they are hungry to be in a room where other people are breathing along with them, watching real actors with the danger that anything could happen or go wrong. I feel that the more technology embeds itself into our daily lives, the more theatre stays necessary.

That’s particularly true in Los Angeles. There’s an abundance of great actors and writers and in L.A. people who love theatre, really love theatre, she said. Theatre in L.A. has this very special place. It’s this hand-crafted art that people are hungry for. Also, L.A. is so spread out and you have to get in your car to get anywhere, so the packed feeling you get when you sit in a theatre with a bunch of strangers is really special. She added, When you can really pull from a variety of neighborhoods in L.A. and gain a wonderful blend of folks interested in a show, that’s exciting. L.A. audiences are really enthusiastic about good, live art.

She is excited about what these audiences are going to take away from Sweat. I want them to get swept up in the story and in the lives of these characters, she said. It seems especially timely to be bringing Angelenos a play that delves so deeply into what has gone wrong in recent American history; how the economic fallout faced by so many communities has bled into every aspect of people’s lives and psyches. Peterson emphasized that one of the main triumphs of the play is its ability to take all these amazing characters and let you in to their lives and show their desperation, so by the end you really have to empathize with everybody. Peterson commended Nottage for creating a play in which absolutely every character can immediately seem like a person you know.

In a time of such political divisiveness, Peterson emphasizes this relatability and empathy the play forges onstage: The main thing that Sweat can do is that it can sort of shake up your expectations and judgements of people who are not like you, she explained. I hope audiences leave the theatre understanding that you have to really dig in to people around you and not just make assumptions about them.

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