Interview with Michael Emans on Clybourne Park.

Michael Emans discusses his choice to produce Bruce Norris's Clybourne Park and how its theme of racial inequality still resonates today.

Why did you choose to direct “Clybourne Park”?

Well…the last full length American play I directed was Tennessee Williams’, A Streetcar Named Desire and, acting on Williams’ own stage directions, which state that in the suburb of New Orleans where the play is set, there was a “free and easy intermingling of the races”, we decided to evoke the world of the play by casting black actors in central roles.  We thoroughly researched the appropriateness of this decision – establishing that “inter-racial” marriage, for example, was possible in America at that time, and that there were black people of Polish descent in America, at that time – and consequently, to evoke Williams’ vision, we were delighted to be able to cast three outstanding black actors in central roles. 

But it was rather depressing when our valid, well-researched decision was met with strong negative reactions by some people who seemed to object in principle, to black actors playing such iconic roles, while others assumed we’d carelessly carried out “colour-blind” casting; in other words, that, by casting black actors, we’d, somehow, flouted Williams’ intentions; yet, in reality, our decision was made deliberately to fulfil Williams’ vision for his play.  After all, Williams included a part in Streetcar for a black actor to ensure that there would always be a black actor on stage in his play, and refused to have his plays performed in theatres which didn’t allow black audience members. The parts he wrote were written for people – not specifically black or white people – and he was quoted as saying that he looked forward to seeing his first “all-black” production of Streetcar. We deliberately cast black actors to evoke Williams’ vision and reflect his reality – it was not “colour-blind” casting which, while valid, is a different process altogether.

Stunned as we were by some of these negative reactions, sadly our black actors were not. They described their personal experience of the pervasiveness of “white exceptionalism”:  the idea that some parts should only be played by white actors. It struck me that this attitude seemed to be a throwback to the 1950s. Perhaps our use of language has become more sensitive, and there’s legislation to prevent overt discrimination, but there’s still an underlying negativity towards equity which hasn’t disappeared, but is simply concealed by political correctness. In reality, attitudes seem to have changed very little. We might be much more aware of our use of language and our behaviour, but too often that awareness only serves to cover up our underlying thoughts and feelings.

I’m sorry – that seems to be a very long answer to your question but that’s why I wanted to direct Clybourne Park.  The play exposes the hypocrisy, particularly of educated, middle-class people who will happily uphold the principles of fairness and equality – unless and until those principles impinge on their own ideas or interests.

Was this a new idea for you then or is it something an idea you’ve returned to?

Unfortunately, it’s not new.  A few years ago I directed The Sash by Hector Munro, because its central message about the idiocy of sectarianism in Scotland was one which had a deep personal resonance for me. Lyn and I always research our plays thoroughly and, sadly, we discovered that sectarianism – particularly towards Catholics of Irish descent – was very much alive and well in Scotland, with anti-sectarian organisations receiving over 20 complaints a day! There was a book published by Glasgow University last year called “No Problem Here” which totally backed up some people’s reactions to The Sash.  The play is set in the 70s and I saw it as being a poignant reminder to modern audiences about how little has changed, yet some people saw it as an “out of date” historical piece believing that modern Scotland has transcended such sectarian attitudes. Unfortunately, Glasgow University confirmed what many of us know already – that tolerance, fairness and mutual understanding are not always the norm in Scotland.  However, I believe that theatre, of all art forms, challenges us to examine our core beliefs and attitudes, especially when it comes to discrimination in all its forms, and again, I suppose, it’s that awareness that led me to want to direct The Sash and, of course, Clybourne Park.

How do you tackle a play like this which doesn’t follow a conventional form?

My aim is always to make a play’s characters seem as real as possible. To me, that’s what makes an audience connect closely with a play – they have to care about the characters. That’s a challenge in this production because the play is a satire – it holds up aspects of reality to inspection in order to ridicule them – so it’s important that, at points, the characters seem larger than life.  But when you’ve seen the play, you’ll realise that, at other times, the acting has to be absolutely truthful and naturalistic. We move: from heightened reality to absolute sincerity; forwards and backwards through time; from shockingly outrageous humour to poignant personal insights. It‘s a challenge for a director who works in the way I do. I focus on naturalism and on bringing out the themes and ideas through the acting, rather than imposing external constructs on the work, which can have the effect of distorting a production, and consequently distancing the audience. However, having discussed my vision for this production with the writer, at length, I think Bruce and I are both on the same page, and I’m loving the rehearsal process.

It sounds as if Clybourne Park has a deeply personal resonance for you.  Is that the only reason you wanted to direct it?

Not at all! It’s a hilarious play – witty, well written and deeply moving – a play which speaks to audiences very directly and that is important for us, in Rapture Theatre, because we have always focused on the experience of the audience. I’m certain it will be impossible for anyone to leave the theatre untouched by this play’s complex characters, its fiendishly clever plot, its ascerbic but compassionate wit, and its darkly powerful message.  There is a very good reason it’s won all of those awards, you know, and it’s no surprise to me that so many people who’ve seen it, love it. It’s studied widely in schools, colleges and universities all over America, not just because of its important themes but also because of the strength of Norris’s skilful writing, as well as his artistic and theatrical vision.  There’s not a single area of discrimination or prejudice it doesn’t touch upon – racism, sexism, gender, disability, class.  In other words it has something to say to everyone.  Hopefully it will disarm audiences with its humour and by doing so, open them up to a deeper engagement with its central ideas. We have a mega-terrific cast and a super-talented artistic team working on a wonderful play – what’s not to love?  Thanks, Creative Scotland, for making it possible. I’m thrilled to be bringing it to Scotland.

Interview courtesy of F Mitchell

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Clybourne Park

By Bruce Norris

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