Mike Lew, playwright, tiny father
Moritz von Stuelpnagel, director, tiny father
How do you each challenge each other and/or make each other better?
Moritz: Because we know one another so well, there’s a shorthand in our conversations. We trust that there’s great faith between us, so we aren’t as sensitive about criticism. And because we’re so close, we know where the other person is coming from, where the ideas in the play are coming from, and we try to make them all the more personal. It’s an intimate partnership for which I’m very grateful.
Mike: Moritz has an immense work ethic and his laser focus on the play inspires me to simply keep up. Where I might otherwise let a sagging scene slide or a half-chuckle joke remain, I truly can’t help but make the play the best it can be in the face of Mo’s constant diligence. It’s important to me never to take our relationship for granted and embrace the career and life changes that inevitably arise amidst a long partnership. I never assume he’ll direct my next play and am always grateful when he chooses to do it!
What is your history together? (When did you first meet and what was the first collaboration?)
Moritz: Mike and I were interns together almost 20 years ago at the Off-Broadway company Playwrights Horizons. We became friends and he asked me to direct The Roosevelt Cousins Thoroughly Sauced about Eleanor convincing a recently Polio-stricken FDR to put down the bottle and run for Governor of New York. Since then, we have done over a dozen productions together at this point. There’s something about the peers you gravitate toward in the early part of your career. The influence you have over one another collectively form your artistic values. You know, what you want the next wave of theater to become. And working together as often as we have, you’re seeing a partnership free of politeness or jockeying egos. We believe in one another and, I hope, lift one another up.
Mike: We both started our careers as directors. In addition to being the resident assistant directors at Playwrights Horizons for their ’03-’04 season, we both attended the 2005 Lincoln Center Directors Lab. During the LCT Lab I discovered EST’s Youngblood and decamped for playwriting, and luckily enough Moritz kept at it and directed a lot of my early work at EST. He’s gone on to direct the world premiere (and some of the subsequent productions) of my last four plays — Bike America, Tiger Style, Teenage Dick, and Tiny Father — pretty much my entire output for the last 10+ years!
What was the most unexpected thing about this process?
Moritz: That I had a child in the middle of it! Plays often take a few years of development before they reach production, so all sorts of life events happen along the way. It just so happens that I became a father while working on a play about fatherhood. In many ways, that’s been a beautiful part of the experience.
Mike: I can actually think of three! The first is that we developed this play almost entirely over COVID/Zoom, which meant having to adapt to the absence of a live audience telling me what’s working or not. It’s been a thrill going back to live audiences for this production and reminding myself why we do this. The second is that this is a big genre shift for me; I usually write satires and comedies but stylistically this is a lot more naturalistic for me (though still with plenty of laughs). I already knew Moritz as a brilliant comedic director and Andy and Jenny as seasoned comedic actors as well; it’s been cool to see them making this leap with me and matching the tone of the play pitch-perfectly even though it’s not as broad as my other stuff. And finally I do remember at one point Mo explaining one of the finer aspects of changing a diaper and feeling this rush of satisfaction and pride at his lived experience as a father complimenting his theater training.
Have either of you been to Chautauqua? What are you most curious about or looking forward to?
Moritz: I’m very embarrassed to say this, but I don’t know much about Chautauqua. Perhaps I need someone to tell me more before I answer this question! Sorry! It’s not a town, but like a convention? Or a curated community? Is it like smartypants Burning Man? Gosh, I’m sorry I’m so ignorant about it!
Mike: I don’t know Chautauqua either — just by its reputation as a stomping ground for new Juilliard grads. I can’t wait to go romping around with Mo as a couple of big village idiots.
What is it about tiny father and Mike Lew’s work that appeals to you as a director?
Mike has a great ability to find humor in any circumstance and to reveal life’s absurdities with biting wit. But what’s most exciting to me as a director is how much he respects an audience’s sense of expectation. Audiences are smart and sense where a story might be going. When a play can either exploit that expectation or subvert it, there is a sense of fulfillment on the one hand or surprise on the other. Often the unexpected forces an audience to reconcile something. And in that reconciliation a new idea is formed. That’s not an easy magic trick to pull off, but Mike is exceptionally skilled at it.
What would you say is the biggest advantage (or disadvantage) to working with a playwright on a premier of their work?
It’s a great asset to have the playwright in the room. If you’re working with a dead playwright, say Shakespeare, it’s all guesswork and interpretation. But imagine turning to Shakespeare in rehearsal and asking, how are we doing? Any tips? There’s a clarity of intention which makes the work sharper. And I believe new plays, generally, have greater urgency because they speak to the moment. Of course, a premier also bears great responsibility for the director and cast, because future life for the play is sometimes dependent on our getting it right the first time. So come see us fly or fail!
How much input do you have on the script?
It always depends on the writer. But Mike and I have such a close collaboration that you’re seeing the trust of close partnership. And by now, we’ve done an audioplay version of this script for Audible, three readings, and the co-production staging at Barrington Stage Company. What you’ll see is hopefully a fully fleshed out translation of the playwright’s intentions to the stage.
Moritz, you are a new father and weren’t a parent when you directed this as an audio play — how has life changed how you come to directing and this play in particular?
Do you know, I suppose it’s cliche but I feel a deeper responsibility for the world I’m helping co-create and leaving to the next generation. This is a play, not only about fatherhood, but about implicit bias in the health care system (which is of course a stand in for bias in various other systems). It’s something for the sake of equity and empathy that I hope becomes more commonplace in our collective consciousness. Having now been through the healthcare system by having a baby — albeit, I’m grateful to say our son was born full term and healthy — I’m aware of the tension between the personnel who desperately want the experience to be sensitive to the humans that go through it, and the institution guided by economics behind it. That can’t help but be fraught.
What is it about Moritz’s directing that makes him ideal for tiny father?
Um. To be honest it’s less what makes him ideal for this play (though he is) and what makes him ideal for my work and life more broadly. It’s SO many things; it’s a little like a marriage? I can’t get into it, it’s gonna sound like a wedding speech.
What have you learned from working with Moritz that might shape your future work?
I talk a lot about how to be a rehearsal playwright, which is a separate skill from being a playwright generally. It’s one thing to create a vision alone in your living room and another to articulate that vision to collaborators, especially during tech/previews when there’s time pressures and factors of production outside of just the text. Moritz is one of the most effective people I know at utilizing the preview period – gauging audience responses, pushing me to go for big changes, but also being sensitive to when big textual changes might frustrate the actors/designers and actually harm the play. So mirroring his intuitive sense of how to use previews is something I’ll certainly carry forward.
How do you determine how many and which characters belonged in this play?
I wanted to challenge myself to write a two-hander. At Juilliard Marsha Norman — author of Night, Mother and essentially the queen of the two handers — used to say that two handers are really hard because they inevitably become three-handers. Which at one point actually happened to this play! But I wanted to zero in on Daniel’s emergence as a father and this strange relationship between parents and NICU nurses — so that’s the focus here.
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