Tuesday, May 30, 2023

An In-Depth Conversation with Matt August, Arizona Theatre Company's new Artistic Director

by Gil Benbrook

This may be Matt August's first time serving in an Artistic Director capacity, but he comes to Arizona Theatre Company with close to 30 years of theatre experience, including directing on Broadway, on tours, and in regional theatres, including two plays here with ATC.  

He's worked with many well-known names in the theatre, including assisting Jack O'Brien (who just received his 9th Tony Nomination this year) on several shows, including The Full Monty and The Invention of Love, and is probably best known for directing the Broadway runs and numerous productions and tours of Dr. Seuss' How the Grinch Stole Christmas.

I had the pleasure to sit down for an in-depth conversation with August where we discussed a wide range of topics, including his past, how he got into directing, his experiences working with Tony-winning director Jack O'Brien, and what his past and current experiences with ATC have been like, as well as a look ahead at the shows in ATC's upcoming season and some details behind their move to the Tempe Center of the Performing Arts. 

Before we get to your current position with ATC, I’d like to go back to find out more about your past. I believe that most people who have a long career in the theatre began by performing or helping out with the technical aspects in their school productions. Did you participate in any of those capacities?

Matt August: "I came to the theatre through the back door. In high school, I kept getting thrown out of my English class because I was a little dyslexic, so I was always behind everybody else, and thus, I was the class clown. In my senior year, we could get English credit for taking an acting class instead. So I did. I got encouragement from the teacher, who suggested that I continue, and I did. I met some wonderful people I wanted to continue hanging out with. It's a familiar story of people falling in love with the theater. They don't fall in love with the adrenaline of being on stage, although everybody loves that, instead, they fall in love with the people."

They found a community. 

"Yes. The people who they felt most comfortable around, and that was definitely the case with me."

Jack O'Brien and Matt August
Did you see tours growing up in Philadelphia? Or any early plays or shows you remember seeing that had a profound impact on you when you were a teen or young adult?

"In third grade my parents took me to see the tour of Annie. I was smitten. Mary Lombardi’s performance and the entire production put those first hooks into me."

You received your M.F.A. from California Institute of the Arts and a B.F.A. from the University of Colorado. What were some of the most impactful classes or moments from your academic experiences? 

"I auditioned for the BFA program at the University of Colorado, got into it, and almost immediately went to London, to the British American Drama Academy, and spent a year studying theater – acting, history, criticism, the New Wave – and seeing four or five plays a week on British and International stages. When I returned from that year, I was a pill to work with as an actor. “Why are you doing it like that? This is the costume? Why are we lighting the scene like this? This is my prop? This doesn't make any sense!” I was a nightmare to work with. I apologize to all the directors that had to work with me!

But what I didn't realize was that I was actually thinking like a director. As soon as I started taking directing classes and started directing, it was like everything in my life made sense.

Fortunately, I had a knack for it. I was pretty good, and I received encouragement. Initially, those teachers helped me find internships that led to going to graduate school, and that led to finding my voice as a director, which led to people seeing my work and inviting me to come and work with them. Following grad school, I spent a long time assisting directors I admired, immersing myself in the creative process and getting to know them as artists. I tried to get to know their institutions, as I wanted to be in the rooms where real work was happening.

One of the things that I brought back from London was this feeling that theater is a metaphor for the things in the world that you need to talk about, and it's a safe space to address those issues. "

Who were some of the people you got to work with?

"I spent a summer working with Robert Wilson, and I spent a year working at the Old Globe for Jack O’Brien and Craig Noel, the founder. I was with Libby Appel at Oregon Shakespeare Festival. I spent a couple of months working with Gordon Davidson at the Mark Taper Forum, who left me in charge of his show to move to the Denver Center with the stage manager. And I got to meet incredible directors and work at these big institutional theaters, both as an assistant and then later on as a director, where they would bring me back to direct. And I found that I developed a deep knowledge of institutional theatre and of clarity as to how I wanted my work to be produced."

When you went to London, I know you came to the realization that directing is really what you should be doing. Was there a specific moment you remember as a catalyst for that?

"There was a number of those things. One was this teacher in London, Elaine Turner, who just completely cracked open the way that I thought about all the humanities.  I had a very emotional response to seeing the play Singer by Peter Flannery, with Anthony Sher in the title role, about a Holocaust survivor who turns into a slumlord. And then there was seeing Stephen Berkoff's work, where I had no idea that you could do that kind of work on stage! And the same with seeing Robert Wilson's work and Peter Brook’s work. It was Epic yet Personal; Profound yet Immediate. Thrilling stuff!"

So seeing what all these directors were capable of doing, that was what really opened your eyes?

"Yes, it was inspiring and made me realize that I had the opportunity to create meaningful work. And it also showed me work that I disliked and found infuriating – work that I couldn't believe was getting traction – theatre where I thought, that's the biggest con in the world! "

I know you talked a little about Jack O’Brien. I know you're big on mentorship programs, that you were a mentee under Jack and several other people. Talk about that experience.

"The year I was at the Globe, I worked with everybody except for Jack, including the founder Craig Noel and Jack’s former assistant, John Rando. Jack didn’t direct anything that year. I then went to New York, and I ended up assisting John for a year. After that, I went on the road with the Acting Company as the Staff Repertory Director, where I assisted Nicki Martin. We toured the country with three shows, and then Nikki got the artistic directorship of the Huntington up in Boston, and he asked me to assist him on his first show there, which was this enormous version of Sidney Kingsley’s Dead End.

It was then that Jack came to the opening and at the after party I said, “Jack, I'm really sad I never got to work with you, but I promised myself that when I turned 30, I would stop assisting.”  And he said, “Yeah. Hold your horses. I think I've got something that you might be interested in.” And I said, “What is it?”' And he says, 'It's the new Stoppard on Broadway. Call me in the morning.' And he swans out of the room. 

So I assisted him on Tom Stoppard's The Invention of Love.  It was a Lincoln Center production, but they were doing it at The Lyceum. After opening I was bumped to Resident Director, and that was my introduction to working on Broadway. 

And that led to four years of only working with Jack on nine productions of five star-studded shows. And then I was preparing to do another Stoppard production with him, The Coast of Utopia trilogy.  And that's when Grinch reared its head, and a team of commercial producers got the rights to do it in New York. At that point, Grinch had been running at the Old Globe for six or so years. "

So then you steered the Grinch ship through several tours and holiday engagements?

“We did it on Broadway at the Hilton and then at the St. James the next year, both with Patrick Page playing the Grinch. And then we went on tour and then to the Pantages for a sit down in LA with John Laroquette as Old Max and Stefan Karl as the Grinch. And it's been on tour since then. We played a couple of sit downs at the Grand Ol’ Opry and to Madison Square Garden three times, once with Tony Winner Shuler Hensley."

You’ve been involved in several mentorship programs, both as a mentee under Jack O’Brien and also mentoring several upcoming directors through the Drama League Fellowship and the Stage Directors and Choreographers Foundation. What was the best piece of advice that Jack O’Brien gave you?

"Jack knew that I wanted to ultimately be an artistic director, and there came a point where he looked at me and said 'you're not going to get a theater until the boards recognize that you're bankable. So go out and direct. Go direct as much as you can independently.' ‘Stop assisting’ was basically his advice. 'You've learned what you need to learn. You know how to do this. You just need to get out of the nest.'”

So then flipping my last question, when you're mentoring someone, what's the most important thing you instill in them? 

"Rigor. Don't get complacent. Learn how to talk to the different kinds of people in the room. Knowing how to communicate effectively and economically, because you only have a certain amount of time. When I was teaching directing, I often said, “You have a finite number of hours to climb Mount Everest. The thing about working on a play is, no matter how far you climb, you have twice as far to go, and it isn't until opening night hits that the producers take the play away from you and say, you're done.' ”

Mark Gagliardi, Armin Shimerman, and Larry Cedar in 
The Gospel According to Thomas Jefferson, Charles Dickens and Count Leo Tolstoy: Discord
Arizona Theatre Company - 2016
Photo by Tim Fuller

So speaking of ATC, in 2016, you directed Discord to close out one season, and then you did King Charles III, which opened the 2016/2017 season. I know you were involved with Discord in previous productions before the one at ATC but what was your experience with that production here in Arizona? And I'm assuming it was a positive experience, and that's why you're here today. 

"Well, when we did Discord, ATC was our third production and it kept getting bigger and more technically complex, and as a result, it got funnier and more beautiful. When we got here, we had our most sophisticated version of the show. It was visually stunning. And then they asked me to do King Charles III by Mike Bartlett, which is written as if it's a Shakespeare play. Skip Mercer, the designer I’d been working with who has sadly passed away, took an approach to design it like a big musical, where every scene was going to be different and the scenery was going to be sliding on and off from the sides and flying in.  As we worked on it, nobody in the production department batted an eye. They had such a robust and talented, production department that enabled them to build two of the most visually astonishing shows that I've done in my career.  So it was pretty easy to fall in love with ATC."

And they were back to back shows here 

"Right and at that point, David Ira Goldstein was saying that he was thinking of leaving. And that's when I began the conversation with the board about coming in as the artistic director. "

Peter Van Norden and the cast of King Charles, III
Arizona Theatre Company - 2016
Photo by Jeff Smith

ATC is the only LORT theatre company in the US that produces shows in two different cities. What do you see as the benefits and challenges of having to manage two different performance locations?

"ATC has been around for 56 years and has historically been known for large-scale productions, high-quality work, and this model provides not only an incredible platform for artists but an incredible resource for our communities. Right now, one of the things we’re doing is returning to legacy programming and great, large-scale production value. One of the challenges that ATC has been facing for years is making sure that people know about us and the exceptional work that we’re doing in the Phoenix market."

So right in the middle of the two shows that you did here in 2016 is when ATC had a huge obstacle, a huge financial deficit that almost shut down the company. Did you feel any of the impact of that when you were here? 

"I did not. The only impact that I felt was during the designing of the show, I was told to get ready to do it, but just know that there will come a moment where we might cancel. But we had the show ready to go regardless of whatever was happening." 

So they obviously overcame that, which saw a lot of great community input and support. What do you feel is the biggest challenge that ATC has right now? 

"ATC is not alone in overcoming the challenges that have been felt on a nationwide scale from the pandemic. In the last few years, we had more community, corporate, foundation, and individual support than we’ve ever had. One of our biggest challenges is to continue to create impactful work, foster new audiences, and expand our outreach and education programming. This is why we’ve made so many strategic business shifts that started with our Executive Director Geri Wright and our Board before I was brought on."

So let's talk about the work you're doing. So next season, you're doing five shows instead of six. I'd like to find out a little bit about what was behind the decision to pick each of the different shows. 

"One of those big business decisions was to move from 6 to 5 shows so that ATC is able to produce and create a season filled with shows that are Tony Award-Winners and Pulitzer Prize finalists, including a holiday musical, perfect for all ages. Allowing us to bring top-shelf artists, powerful performances, and inspiring stories to our stages. In short, this season consists of five of the best American plays of the last 60 years.

Coming out of COVID we, like most professional theatre companies, decided to make some key strategic decisions for the sustainability of the company and to invest in the most robust productions we can. Barefoot in the Park is one of the greatest plays ever written. I think it's a nearly perfect comedy. It's a show that has a lot of meaning in it, it's got a lot of emotion in it. It's about two generations struggling to understand each other. It's about a couple where one's a cat, one's a dog, one's a Yin, one's a Yang. They go on this Bacchanalian journey through an evening on the town led by a foreign magi and everybody comes back from that journey transformed. I think it's a brilliant, brilliant comedy and, like I said, a nearly perfect play. So, I wanted to start off with that.

Scrooge is a new version of the musical based on A Christmas Carol that is going to be a perennial production. We're going to bring it back and grow it year after year into a large-scale holiday spectacle that is perfect for families."

Kind of like Old Globe with the Grinch?

"Exactly. I also did a production of A Christmas Carol that ran for five years at Ford's Theater. I've been doing Grinch for 18 years. There is value in building a show that becomes a community tradition. And that's what I want this to be. I want it to be a community tradition that families come to year after year, that they have fun reliving and celebrating. We want to become a centerpiece for the holidays in our communities in Tucson and Tempe, and one that will feature the best of our local actors and give our artist community work through the holidays."
Is this a revised or updated version of the 1992 stage adaptation based on the 1970 film? 

"This is a new version of the show that is based off a screenplay that I was given maybe about 10 or 12 years ago, that I had been in talks with Leslie Bricusse to remake. My feeling was I wanted to put it on stage before we made a film of it. We shopped it around, but it was enormous. It was a big production, and we didn't quite get the traction that we were hoping for. Leslie then got sick and passed away. So I’m very excited to have the chance to bring it to life next season. 

Next is Intimate Apparel, which is a beautiful play. I remember seeing that at the Roundabout Off Broadway with Viola Davis

"Yeah, a beautiful play that hasn’t been done in Arizona. It’s written by Lynn Nottage who is the only two-time Pulitzer Prize winner. It's a beautiful story about a black seamstress in the early 20th Century creating a lingerie business while falling in love and trying to start a family.  

After that is the Tony Winning play Master Class, about the opera diva Maria Callas, a seminal artist of the 20th century, and what she had to give and to sacrifice in order to create work that operated at an elite level. It's a wonderful story by Terrence McNally who we lost to Covid. I had worked with him early in my career on The Full Monty for a number of years, so I wanted to include him in my inaugural season. 

And then we're ending with True West by Sam Shepard, which is really a Quentin Tarantino script before Quentin Tarantino was Quentin Tarantino.  It’s a hilarious, raucous party of a play, which at its core is a knock-down, drag out, Cane vs Abel story. I hope this one will attract an audience that skews maybe a little younger."

I think this is also the 26th year of the Latine Playwright Award.  Are there any other plans for new works, other festivals, other competitions? 

"Yes, we've been administering this award for 26 years, and I’d like to see it expand into a full festival. The plan is to take the two finalists, give them week-long workshops and a weekend worth of performances each."
So staged readings of the winners?

"Yes, to get them in front of people so the authors can see how the plays land, and our audiences can participate in the development process of new work. The hope is that this festival will grow into a larger, more robust festival, and that we will be able to take these plays and put them into our main season. 
We also will be workshopping a big new musical in the spring that will culminate with a couple of performances in the studio space at TCA, and then we plan to present it the following season. So, plenty of new work happening. "

Next season will also bring the move for the Phoenix runs of the shows from the Herberger to Tempe Center for the Arts. How did that come about and what are some of the positives you believe will come from that move as well as some of the challenges you will have to overcome?

"We had 37 wonderful years at Herberger Theater Center, but this move was one of those strategic business decisions I have mentioned that we needed to make. We made the choice to move toward the fastest-growing region in the metropolitan Phoenix area. Our TCA move provides us with an opportunity to be the home company at TCA and allows us to continue our work of fostering new audiences, expanding education and outreach, and producing world-class theatre. Plus, the parking is free."

And if you want to bring your audience back, you want to eliminate as many obstacles. That makes perfect sense. How has the change been so far?

“The way next year’s subscriptions have been selling indicates that the change is resonating with our audience. We are selling ahead of past years and it’s exciting to see."

So for my final question, at the end of a job interview you're usually asked, where do you see yourself in five or ten years? Where do you see ATC in five to ten years? 

"ATC has been around for 56 years and I see us being around for another 56 years, producing in Tempe, the Phoenix metropolitan area, Tucson and beyond. We will be producing six, if not more, shows a year.  We will be producing work in three lanes:  Big Tent-Pole productions, classics that feel like a six-course meal and the best new plays from our development pipeline. New play development has always been a part of our history. We’ll have the largest Latine Playwrighting Festival in the country, and we’ll be launching work that will have local, statewide, and national impact. Most importantly, we will be an essential cultural art and entertainment provider for our communities and state. "

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