Interview with Dead Poets Society’s Director John Doyle
Production: DEAD POETS SOCIETY, 2016-2017 Season
Q: DEAD POETS SOCIETY is the first play in your first season as Artistic Director. Tell us why you’ve chosen to begin your tenure with this project. What makes it a “classic?”
A: The stage adaptation of DEAD POETS SOCIETY came my way a couple of years ago. I was intrigued by how such an iconic movie could transfer to theater. Bear in mind though that Tom Schulman won his Oscar for a movie script that is in itself a terrific text. It has brilliant situations and highly theatrical dialogue at its core. When Tom and I started to work together, I was delighted by how open he was to finding ways to truly remake the piece for the stage.
When I was appointed Artistic Director of CSC, I was keen to find titles that had classicism at their centre, but were not necessarily only European classics written centuries ago. DEAD POETS felt like it fit the bill. Mr. Keating’s philosophies are classical by nature – he promotes classical inspirations amongst the boys. So here we are. A premiere of a great story written by a first-class American writer, looking at how classical ideas can influence our whole lives.
Q: Along the same lines, how do you plan to interpret the definition of “classic” while at CSC?
A: I am interested, whilst still exploring the great works that we immediately think of as “the classics,” in presenting the classics of many cultures. Let’s start with America’s own culture. I would like to find room for the classic writers of this country, as well as for those of the rest of our world. Classics don’t have to be solely the works of dead men from Europe. There will always be presentations of Shakespeare and his contemporaries here, as well as Chekhov, Ibsen and all the great voices that come immediately to us, but I am also interested in adaptations of classic stories, from all cultures. At the core, though, will be an aim of accessibility. A modern New York theatre presenting the classics, whilst always looking to develop new audiences for those great stories.
Q: When adapting a beloved film to a new medium, what do you need to take into consideration? Does the audience’s memory of the film help or hinder the way the story is told on stage?
A: One will never get rid of the audience’s memory. My job is quite simply to find a fresh way of telling it, and a way that uses theatrical techniques as its methodology. In my job, I believe one must always tell a story as if it has never been told before.
Q: You’ve directed some legendarily innovate revivals during your career. How do you go about telling a familiar story with a fresh perspective?
A: Gosh, the word “legendary” always seems like an overwhelming responsibility. I suppose the key issue is that I never set out to make something “legendary.” I simply try to find a way of telling it from my own point of view. I have to look at the material and figure out “what am I trying to say?” Simple really, and yet, very complex. I suppose my current revival of THE COLOR PURPLE is a fair parallel to the challenges of DEAD POETS. A famous, much-loved movie. In the case of the musical, it was also an iconic novel, so even more of a hurdle. More difficult though is the reinventing of shows like SWEENEY TODD or COMPANY which had iconic stage productions by a great director and designers. Then there are stage images in the audiences’ minds, and those are tricky to challenge with new visual language. I just have to close my mind to any inner voices that are reminding me of the artistic predecessors. I firmly believe that it is the job of the director of revivals to approach the story afresh – as if it were a new piece.
It’s also worth saying that most of my more successful revivals have been made in theatres where the primary resource is the imagination of the audience. Either because of lesser financial resources or because the physical spaces where the work was made was not of the same scale as the original. So, fingers firmly crossed that a little of that history will repeat itself. This is a story that deserves to be experienced by the widest possible audience.