ELYSA GARDNER: Welcome to Stage Door Sessions, by Broadway Direct. In this podcast, we have in-depth conversations with Broadway’s brightest, bringing you what’s new, what’s noteworthy, and what’s coming next to a stage near you.
I’m your host, Elysa Gardner, and this season we’ll be speaking with some of the artists and insiders who are continuing to help Broadway rebound and thrive after the shutdown. Today I’m lucky to be joined by Lileana Blain-Cruz, the director of Lincoln Center Theater’s stunning new production of Thornton Wilder’s 1942 Pulitzer Prize winner The Skin of Our Teeth with additional material by Obie Award winner and Pulitzer Prize finalist Branden Jacobs-Jenkins. It’s now playing at the Vivian Beaumont Theater.
Lileana is a resident director at Lincoln Center Theater, where she has staged such acclaimed new plays as Dominique Morisseau’s Pipeline and Jackie Sibblies Drury’s Mary’s Seacole, for which she earned one of two Obie Awards that she’s collected so far, the other one being for Suzan-Lori Parks’ The Death of the Last Black Man in the Whole Entire World. Lileana’s work has also been seen at Yale Rep, Atlantic Theater Company, Theatre for a New Audience, New York Theatre Workshop, Soho Rep, the Mark Taper Forum, the Guthrie, Signature Theatre, Oregon Shakespeare Festival, Opera Omaha, and Opera Norway, among other places. She’s a graduate of Princeton University and the Yale School of Drama and she made her Broadway debut as assistant director in Bartlett Sher’s highly praised 2009 revival of Joe Turner’s Come and Gone. Lileana was later named a United States Artists Fellow and a Lincoln Center Emerging Artist.
Lileana, thank you so much for joining us today.
LILEANA BLAIN-CRUZ: Thank you for having me, I’m so happy to be here!
ELYSA GARDNER: Well, how have you been, first of all, how have you gotten through the past few years?
LILEANA BLAIN-CRUZ: Yeah, that’s the question of the hour! [chuckles] Um, it’s, it’s been, um, it’s been tumultuous, you know, like there’s been a series of ups and downs, but I will say that joining, Lincoln Center Theater as a resident director has certainly been a highlight and being able to work on The Skin of Our Teeth has been truly, truly a joy. It’s been a profound re-entrance into the theater and, you know, a new entry into the Broadway space and that has been really, really thrilling and I feel so grateful for the wonderfulness that has surrounded this production this far. So it’s been good! Ups and downs, craziness– [chuckles] COVID is not a joke, but it has put a light on how powerful it is to gather and what that means and being able to do that in a space like the Beaumont has been, has been truly remarkable.
ELYSA GARDNER: Yeah, yeah. And this is your Broadway debut as lead director and as I mentioned, it’s a stunning production. I saw a preview and it’s funny and profound and just beautifully and revealingly served. This is a play that was groundbreaking in its time, highly allegorical about a New Jersey family that endures these epic catastrophes with biblical references and nods to the ice age and war. You’ve described it, I believe, as a play that’s been in your consciousness for a long time…
LILEANA BLAIN-CRUZ: Mhmm.
ELYSA GARDNER: …and tracing this family going through apocalypse after apocalypse. I’m wondering at what point you started thinking about this project, particularly since we’ve been through this pandemic and certainly had our share of other natural and manmade disasters in recent years.
LILEANA BLAIN-CRUZ: Yeah. I mean, it’s a great question. I think when I had first encountered it, I was, I was in grad school and I was looking for a thesis production, and an advisor there, Tim Vasen, had been like, “Have you read Thornton Wilder’s The Skin of Our Teeth?” And I picked it up and I was like “What is this?” [laughter] And I, and I wasn’t quite ready for it yet. So I closed it and I put it down. But I hung out with his friend, Gertrude Stein in Doctor Faustus Lights the Lights. And so I, and it’s funny in doing research for that play I had realized that he and Gertrude Stein had written letters to each other. And so Thornton, Wilder, and the way that he wrote and the conversations that he had with Gertrude Stein kind of stayed with me, right, because you had two artists who were reckoning with a world in the midst of World War II, you know, and, and what that meant and what does it mean to be an artist? And so when we were looking for what play would be my Beaumont debut at Lincoln Center Theater, one of the things that I had been wrestling with was what, what, what is a show that’s big enough to take on the enormity of emotions that we’ve experienced in these two years away from the theater, right? Like what is something that can speak to us about this moment without speaking to us about the moment, if that makes any sense. Like to not have it be literal, but to have it be emotionally cathartic for the rollercoaster of emotions that we’ve experienced, like the rollercoaster of like reckoning, the rollercoaster of just the emotional ups and downs of what it’s meant to be in a pandemic. You know, I think for many of us that, you know, I’m speaking for myself and my younger siblings and family members and friends like, to see the world shut down like that was terrifying, you know. And then you look at history and you’re like, “oh, the world has shut down before,” you know what I mean? The world has reached, you know, cataclysms before. And what’s remarkable actually is the story of survival, what’s remarkable is actually that people find a way to persist. And what is that? What is that, what is that human urge to continue forward? What is that human urge in the midst of so much darkness to keep living? And I thought The Skin of Our Teeth was, was grappling with that question. And so it felt like the right play to do right now because in its unique way, in the time that it was written, and the way it resonates now just felt really, really palpable and a visceral – a visceral questioning, which is something that I always look for in the work that I’m choosing to do.
ELYSA GARDNER: Oh, yeah, it is very viscerally compelling and incredibly thought-provoking as well. I should say the fourth wall is already way down in the original text.
LILEANA BLAIN-CRUZ: [chuckles] Mhmm, yep.
ELYSA GARDNER: You work with Branden Jacobs Jenkins, quite an accomplished playwright, in this production. How did you come to seek him out and how did his input shape the new production?
LILEANA BLAIN-CRUZ: Sure – so, you know, Branden and I, you know, having grown up together in the theater a little bit, like Branden loves Thornton Wilder and has loved The Skin of Our Teeth. And in some ways, if you think about it like, Thornton Wilder was breaking the fourth wall way before Branden was even conceived of being born, you know, and yet it is, it has made a way into his work. And so in thinking about how to, how do we make this production feel like the wall is breaking for the first time, even though we know, and even those who don’t know, you know, how to make it feel alive in the present moment and how to make sure that there are certain tweaks and language to kind of help us connect to, to our contemporary moment with somebody, that I thought Branden could do with a kind of surgical wit you know about it and a kind of precision. And, you know, Branden loves the play and that love for the play means that he knew how to create just the right adjustments to make space for the people that I had decided to put at the center of it, you know. Like there are certain ways in which placing, in particular, a Black family as the Antrobus family, means that certain words or language resonate differently and I think Branden was able to kind of hear what the intention was and shift it just enough to keep the intention while also keeping the integrity of the fact that this family is Black. And that felt important to me as well, to honor their specificity inside of this particular universe while embracing the largeness of Wilder’s landscape that he’s provided for us.
ELYSA GARDNER: Sure, yeah. And it is quite a landscape visually. I should say this production is stunning visually as well, you know, in every sense. And you’ve assembled certainly a very diverse cast for this, with Gabby Beans and James Vincent Meredith, Roslyn Ruff, and, of course, the great Priscilla Lopez.
LILEANA BLAIN-CRUZ: Yesss!
ELYSA GARDNER: I would think it was a particular priority in casting the new production of this play that really kind of seeks to represent humankind, to fully represent humankind. I mean, that’s, that’s part of what I took away from this production that made it, part of what it made it meaningful for me.
LILEANA BLAIN-CRUZ: Yeah, that was essential to me. Like I think if we’re going to – if we’re going to try to do a play about the whole entire world, we should see the whole entire world on stage, you know? So that was a goal. And I, you know, I, I feel so grateful because this cast is so incredibly wonderfully representative of all of our complexities. And what’s amazing is that those complexities live inside of a place like America [chuckles]. And that for me was also significant, right, because I do think that the Antrobus family is a particularly American archetype family and that, and that, that expansiveness of what it means to be a part of the world and to be part of this particularly American universe was, as being embodied by a company from – from everywhere and that’s, that’s, that’s exciting to me too that they get to live in that space. And you mentioned before, like the visual world of the design of the show, and that also was really important.
ELYSA GARDNER: Yes.
LILEANA BLAIN-CRUZ: I just, I just want to highlight that because I think Adam Rigg, and Montana Levi Blanco, and Palmer Hefferan, and Hannah Wasileski, and Yi Zhao, you know, who are also so unique and in their own ways have like, contributed to that, to that feeling of vastness and that feeling of, of pulling from many different influences in order to kind of represent that world on stage. So it’s just been, it’s been an exciting process because everybody in the creative team, in the company, is so unique and they bring that uniqueness into the, into this landscape that we’ve created together.
ELYSA GARDNER: Yeah, yeah. No, I definitely wanted to mention the design, but I didn’t want to be too specific because I didn’t want to give any spoilers.
LILEANA BLAIN-CRUZ: [chuckles]
ELYSA GARDNER: There are things about this production, they’re very special and that add to the humor and the resonance of it. So, I won’t say anything that you don’t say but I did want to mention how important the design is. You’ve been in previews as the war on Ukraine has been underway along with the usual other very disturbing developments in the news. As a director, do you keep an ear to current events when working on a play like this, particularly that is so encompassing?
LILEANA BLAIN-CRUZ: Yeah, it was, it was impossible not to, I mean, as we were in rehearsal, we were literally watching the news unfold about Ukraine and it was terrifying and, and devastating. And you know, you have members of the company who are like, “yes, and there are other wars that were started before this that are still going.” You know, it was a, it was a particularly moving rehearsal day, as we all reckoned with the fact that this…
ELYSA GARDNER: Yeah.
LILEANA BLAIN-CRUZ: …play speaks to a moment where people are in the midst of devastating conflict. You know, like it’s, it’s not hard to see the, the resonances between what was happening, you know, in 1942, you know, and, and the ways in which the world is being called upon to wrestle with…
ELYSA GARDNER: Oh yeah.
LILEANA BLAIN-CRUZ: …itself, you know, like, and what we do and what, what is the action that we take, and what does it mean to live inside of this space and what do we do like that? That question hasn’t stopped, and that question persists, and that question lives inside of the production. There’s, there’s small references and Easter eggs in relationship to a consciousness about that happening, but I don’t think we wanted to do anything blatantly to point out, you know, it’s resonance because I think that’s already so clear and I think the, one of the questions that we continue to ask as we do the play is how to, how to keep our hearts open for the people who are actually currently experiencing it, right? You know, like as you do theater and you do a show that the third act is about, you know, the first act you have an iceberg and the second act you have a hurricane, in the third act, you have war, you know, how does reality impact the world of the theater and when those two are in conversation with each other, how do you do that? With a sense of honesty and earnestness while people are actually suffering is, is a big… is a big question. But I think the scale of this text and the heart with which Wilder wrote it and the heart with which these actors are embodying it, I think allow for that conversation in a really profound way without providing any concrete answers, you know, and that’s for me, is where it should be.
ELYSA GARDNER: Do you generally find yourself drawn to and choosing projects to works with greater social residence, certainly the plays that I’ve singled out have had that.
LILEANA BLAIN-CRUZ: Yeah. I mean, it’s, it’s, I think I’m drawn to plays that wrestle not only with a contemporary moment, but a moment that resonates throughout time, you know, so a play that comes to mind a lot for me is The Death of the Last Black Man in the Whole Entire World, you know, that Suzan-Lori Parks wrote and that, you know, we were working on that in the midst of news about police brutality – it was right before Trump was elected, you know? And so the violence with which that play deals with, you know, the murder of Black men over and over and over again, or Black people over and over and over again. And yet their persistent survival is, you know, I couldn’t have planned that. I didn’t plan like, “ah, this is the show that’s going to happen when this happens.” It’s just, when history and theater collide, it’s because the theater is a space that actually allows for two different times to co-exist, you know, and for us to wrestle with our history and to wrestle with our present. And those are the kinds of shows that I, that I gravitate towards because it allows us to really think and feel together what we’re currently processing and I find that to be true with The Skin of Our Teeth. It’s, it’s about all of human history… [chuckles] which is insane, which is so insane to think about somebody trying to tackle the entirety of human existence. And yet when we’re in these moments of such extremity, when we’re in the moments of like watching history as it unfolds, we can’t help but grapple with what has come before and what will – what is to come, you know. I’m so grateful that there’s a space for us to think about and to be together and to collectively feel together what it means to, to work through and, and survive.
ELYSA GARDNER: Yeah. As a female director of color, does your identity influence your choices in your directorial work? I mean all the issues that you’ve brought up are all like of universal concern, I think. You know, talking about racial injustice, that’s something that we should ideally all be concerned about, but does identity affect your choices?
LILEANA BLAIN-CRUZ: You know, I think as a director, I feel like I help direct attention to what I think needs to be seen, right? And so it’s a way, the other beauty of theater is elevating who and what we pay attention to, right? And so I think for me, I’m – I’ve always been excited by elevating folks who may not have occupied certain spaces in certain ways, right? So when we think about older productions of The Skin of Our Teeth, I don’t think anybody has imagined this play in the way this play currently exists. And for me, that’s really exciting, right? Like that there can be this particular group of people inside of this zany, wild, massive, epic piece, and that as a director is really thrilling to me. And I think I, I enjoy, yeah, I enjoy placing… [chuckles] I don’t know, I love working on a myriad of projects. I think my goal is to always remind us that the world is complex and vaster than we sometimes allow it to be, right? And that there are people that we sometimes don’t see that get to be seen. And in this case, and in the case of The Death of the Last Black Man in the Whole Entire World, those are Black folks, right? But like, say in the case of Anatomy of a Suicide by Alice Birch, it’s a group of people that suffer with the haunting of suicide, right, that maybe we don’t understand, or maybe we don’t get to understand how that relates to a family context and so we get to watch a family over the course of time wrestle with the legacy of that particular disease existing inside a family dynamic. So I guess for me, it’s not just about – it is about centering Black and Brown people, it is about centering and uplifting women because I want to celebrate them, but it is also saying, “wow, human beings are so fascinating. [laughs] We’re all so crazy. And we’re also much wrestling with what it means to be alive. And, and maybe you’ve seen that in one way, but let me show it to you in this completely other different way that you haven’t seen before.” And sadly, because of our history and sadly, because of the way the world works, we haven’t seen that many stories to this degree around folks of color, except now there has been, and in the past also there’s been a proliferation, which is really exciting and thrilling, but they haven’t seen it through my eyes and I think that’s, that’s also thrilling, cause we’re all so unique and this is me harping on the joys of directing right in that directors…directors do get to share a particular and unique vision. And that, that vision is what allows us to, to see people anew. So my answer to you is yes and yes, but also yes and this and yes, and chaos and yes and people are complex and yes! [laughter]
ELYSA GARDNER: [laughs] Well following that up, are you encouraged by the greater diversity in artists we’ve seen this particular Broadway season, do you think that’s going to endure? Do you have a sense that we are at a, at a point now of, of reckoning and of more inclusion?
LILEANA BLAIN-CRUZ: I think that we have definitely experienced a reckoning. I think the question that you, that you have at the center of there is what is going to endure, right? And I think that’s like, what have we learned from this experience, and what are the changes that we’re going to take with us? And my hope, my hope is that by, by this wonderful proliferation of artists that are, you know, in the midst of this reckoning being supported, that that will grant the more possibilities in the imaginations of the younger artists that are coming up and getting to see this that they think, “yes, I’m invited here too,” and “yes, I can play,” and “oh yes, this looks like me,” or, “oh no, they got it absolutely wrong, this exists too!” you know, and that’s exciting to me that we are as human beings able to exist in our multiplicity, in our infinite variability and that, that there will be more opportunities to kind of keep pushing at the form and to keep pushing at who gets to play inside of that form and I hope that only continues to expand as we continue to move forward.
ELYSA GARDNER: Did you know, from a young age that you wanted to be a director, did you have a director’s temperament or instincts?
LILEANA BLAIN-CRUZ: My brother said, “oh, it makes perfect sense, you love telling people what to do.” [laughter]
ELYSA GARDNER: I wasn’t going to be that blunt about it! [laughter]
LILEANA BLAIN-CRUZ: [laughs] He was very blunt. But I didn’t know it, I was an English major in college and I thought I would read books and talk about them and one lady was like, [chuckles] “don’t, don’t do that. I don’t, I don’t think that’s what you want in your life,” [laughter] even though I loved it. But I came, I came across theater in college and I came about it through the English department, actually, and so the ability to activate language in real-time and space through multiple mediums was always really thrilling to me. I had seen shows, I had seen, you know, dance. I had gone to museums and stuff, but I didn’t know that I myself, would be an artist until later, you know, later in my studies and so I get excited, you know what I mean? Like my little college self is like, “look at you! You’re being an artist. Wow. How thrilling.” And I don’t, I don’t take it for granted.
ELYSA GARDNER: Right. And I know you’ve worked already at your young age on a range of stuff. Are there any particular projects coming up you’re excited about in theater, opera, anything?
LILEANA BLAIN-CRUZ: Yeah, I have, the next project I’m working on is Dreaming Zenzile about the life of Miriam Makeba with Somi [Kakoma] at New York Theater Workshop and that’s gonna premiere in the spring, later on in the spring. And then I have an opera that’s happening in Norway called The Listeners by composer Missy Mazzoli, which I’m really excited about. And, yeah, those are, those are two things – I’m developing a TV show in the midst of that so I’m trying to, I’m trying to keep my infinite variabilities open! But yeah, it’s exciting times.
ELYSA GARDNER: I’m always amazed at the way that theater folks multitask, it’s astonishing. I mean, I guess all people in the arts do, but it just seems to me that when I’ve talked to theater people like yourself who are accomplished and in demand are always working on like four or five things at once.
LILEANA BLAIN-CRUZ: Yeah, yeah.
ELYSA GARDNER: Good for you! Well, I hope we get to talk to you again, related to one of those projects. Thank you so much for joining us today. And please stay safe and healthy and congratulations on this wonderful production of The Skin of Our Teeth.
LILEANA BLAIN-CRUZ: Thank you. Thank you so much again, thank you for having me.
ELYSA GARDNER: For all things Broadway, and to find tickets to your next show, visit BroadwayDirect.com. And if you liked our show, please follow us on Apple Podcasts or wherever you listen. And don’t forget to share and rate Stage Door Sessions so fellow theater fans can find us as well. This podcast is produced by Broadway Direct and the Nederlander Organization with Iris Chan, Erin Porvaznik-Wagner, and Paul Art Smith, and hosted and produced by me, Elysa Gardner. Thank you for listening, and we look forward to seeing you again on Broadway.