From M. Butterfly at The Philadelphia Theatre Company
By Joel Markowitz
With contributions from Gene Dickerson
He’s a 4-time Helen Hayes Award winner and his direction of M Butterfly at the new Suzanne Roberts Theatre for The Philadelphia Theatre Company has audiences and critics applauding.
Joel Markowitz and Gene Dickerson attended the February 17th matinee performance and asked director Joe Calarco to elaborate on his directorial decisions and working with his team of designers.
Joel: We saw your visually stunning and powerful production of M Butterfly at the new Suzanne Roberts Theatre on February 17th. Tell us about the directorial decisions that you made that make this production so unique?
Joe: I just tried to be true to the play. David wrote such an extraordinarily theatrical, provocative piece, that I just tried to tell the story clearly. That’s the fantastic thing about directing a great play; if you just concentrate on telling the story, you’re all set. Of course the Broadway production was so iconic that my designers and I tried to look at it through our own lense, while always being true to David’s vision and story.
Joel: Why did you choose Telly Leung and Chris Innvar to play Song Liling and Gallimard?
Joe: I always say that if the actors don’t cast themselves, then I’ve made the wrong decision. Telly and Chris cast themselves. When they read at auditions, they just owned the roles. That’s what I always look for. And they both are incredibly daring and generous. And they both are amazingly likeable on stage which I think is incredibly important.
Joel: Michael Fagin’s set was beautiful. How long did you both work on the concept, and how long did it take Michael and his team to build it?
Joe: Mike and I have worked together a lot. The set you saw on stage was the very first design that Mike presented to me but then we went off in a half a dozen other directions, exploring the possibilities. And I wasn’t sure if it was right yet. It scared me honestly because it was so bold and had such specific rules to it in the sense of how the space could be used. But then ironically we were on our fifth version of the set and I looked back at his original design and it suddenly just seemed right. The strict rules of it felt freeing suddenly. I don’t think I could have reached that understanding of it if we hadn’t veered away from it to explore other options. It is a magnificent set, one of the most beautiful and thrilling I’ve ever gotten to direct on.
Joel: Tell us about the lighting by Chris Lee and the sound by Matthew Nielson.
Joe: Well, Chris and Matt are both former collaborators too so we have a shorthand. I’ve worked with Chris for over a decade and we just “get each other.” He is very bold with his choices and I knew his use of color would be perfect for this show. It’s a very complicated show. There are many scenes and many different changes of location, time, and reality so both the lights and sound help to guide the audience and tell us where we are. Their work was indispensable in regards to clarity in the show.
Joe: Well, Helen is another frequent collaborator of mine. We had many discussions leading up to the production and we finally arrived on the concept jointly that all the characters would be in shades of white, grey, and black, and that only Song would wear costumes that had color, and so Helen used really vibrant, saturated colors. It made sense to us as Song is a vision of the ideal woman and of ideal beauty. We also like the idea that when Song transforms into a man, he has been drained of color and is in a dark grey suit.
Joel: Was it Helen’s idea to use hand painting with the costumes?
Joe: Well, it’s one of the things that she is known for— painting fabric with her costumes. She is also an amazing sketch artist– the sketches of her costumes are like works of art. And when she sent me the original sketches for Song, I said, “I want the fabric to look exactly like that.” And she said, “Well, then we’re going to have to paint the fabric.” We were both very excited by it. It’s a real gift she has. And it also added to the mystery around Song and to the image of her being an ideal work of art created in the mind of a man.
Joel: What’s your favorite costume in the show?
Joe: That’s a difficult question as I love all of them. (laugh) If I had to choose, it’d be a tie between Song’s Madame Butterfly kimono in Act 1 because the craftsmanship is just extraordinary and it is painted so beautifully. I know the amount of time that went into it and it’s just stunning. I also love the robes that Song wears– they’re very sensual and the fabrics Helen picked out are just gorgeous and unlike anything I’ve ever seen.
Joel: Robert Maggio composed an original score for M Butterfly. What does the score contribute to this production?
Joe: Well music is very important to the show and we had long discussions about how music should be used. I had never worked with Rob, but after working on this, I just know that I will work with him many more times in the future. He is incredibly smart and versatile and fast. It took awhile for us to figure out the vocabulary of the music but once we did, Rob just kept pouring out material. It was amazing. Everything he wrote was a variation on Puccini— it’s just gorgeous and his conception of that is just brilliant.
Joel: Chu Shan Zhu provided consultation on the Chinese Opera and provided the choreography. How were his insights incorporated into the show?
Joe: Well Chinese Opera is a vocabulary that I had absolutely no expertise or real knowledge of. And I didn’t want something that was a pale replica or imitation. I wanted the real deal. And Chu Shan is one of the best out there. I knew I was getting the material from the someone who was steeped in the tradition as a performer, teacher, and choreographer. It was thrilling to watch him and I learned so much.
Joel: After Chris Innvar got sick and was unable to perform, Jeff Williams stepped in and did a fantastic job. How did you find him to play Gallimard?
Joe: Well, actually I didn’t have a lot to do with it. It happened so fast and I was in rehearsal here in NYC. It was difficult. M Butterfly isn’t like Hamlet. I mean, it isn’t done all that often so there isn’t a backlog of actors who can pull that performance out of their hat. We were very fortunate that Jeff had literally just finished a run of it at Capitol Rep in Albany. My stage manager Vicki Hein showed him the staging for a few hours and then he went on that night. Unfortunately I have not seen him go on because of rehearsals here in New York, but I hear he was great. We were very lucky to get him.
Joel: What was it like to work in the beautiful new Suzanne Roberts Theatre?
Joe: It was amazing! The minute I saw the theatre before it opened back in the early Fall, I knew it was the perfect space for M Butterfly. Also PTC has managed to retain the intimacy of their old space while acquiring amazing new capabilities technically. And the space is so warm. So many new theatre spaces have such an industrial feel, but the Suzanne Roberts avoids that thankfully and feels really welcoming. Also I just love working for Sara Garonzik and Philadelphia Theatre Company. There is always such great support there in every way.
Joel: How does it compare to other spaces you’ve worked in?
Joe: I’ve been very fortunate to work in many great spaces. I love the challenge of moving from space to space. And I learned many years ago when I was directing in gutted out delis that theatre can happen anywhere. But it is a joy to work in such a beautiful space.
Joel: And now about your very busy career. You’ve won the Helen Hayes Award for Nijinsky’s Last Dance in 1999, Side Show in 2001, Urinetown in 2006, and last year for Assassins – all at Signature Theatre. And your production of The Last Five Years at the Philadelphia Theatre Company won the 2003 Barrymore Award for Best Musical. Do you ever slow down?
Joe: Good question. (laugh) I’m incredibly fortunate that I am so busy and can make my living doing what I love to do. It is important to have some downtime though in order to replenish the creative juices and just to take care of yourself personally. I’m trying to make a conscious effort to be more balanced in that arena.
Joel: How would you compare working in the DC Theatre community with working in the Philadelphia theatre community?
Joe: I just feel very grateful that I get to work so much wherever it may be. I’ve worked more in D.C. than in Philly but both are incredibly vibrant theatre towns.
Joel: We’ve heard so many wonderful things about the national tour of the Johnny Cash musical Ring of Fire which you are directing. How did you succeed in resuscitating a show that NYC critics and audiences just didn’t like?
Joe: I look at every show I do as if it was never done before. And the music is just so amazing. I mean you’re dealing with some of the greatest songs ever written. And I was given incredible freedom from Richard Maltby, Jr. who originally conceived and directed the show to explore new ideas. We had incredible meetings and conversations leading up to the first rehearsal and he was incredibly encouraging.
Joel: When will we see another Joe Calarco directed production in DC?
Joe: Well, there is nothing on the calendar at the moment, but I really adore working down there and can’t wait for the next project.
Joel: What’s next?
Joe: Well, right now I’m in rehearsals for a song cycle called Fugitive Songs by composer Chris Miller and lyricist Nathan Tysen, a team I’ve worked with a lot. We’re doing it in New York for Dreamlight Theatre Company and it opens on March 9th. It’s a thrilling set of songs with a terrific cast. Then I head off to San Diego to direct The Glass Menagerie at the Old Globe with the amazing Mare Winningham as Amanda. It’s one of my very favorite plays so I’m beyond thrilled to go to work on it.
More from M. Butterfly. Listen to our podcast with Telly Leung here.