Genevieve de Mahy makes a pretty awesome sauce.
Genevieve de Mahy is part of the Single Carrot ensemble. She is a superb actress. But it’s her directing of Hotel Cassiopeia, by Charles Mee, about the artist Joseph Cornell that compels me to devote a column to her. The final 15 minutes of the play was one of the most beautiful and unforgettable experiences I’ve had in the theater. Her concepts using objects, written text, and paper was clever and metaphorical. The choreography of the actor’s movements; alone, in harmony with each other, the set & props, and the space was gorgeous. While her work is sophisticated, she is a grounded authentic person.
When I work with actors my mantra is “let’s pretend bigger.” At the end of Hotel Cassiopeia, my friend and sometimes theater collaborator, Barbara Geary, turned to me and said, “That’s pretending bigger.”
Peter Davis: Do you see yourself as an actor who directs or vice versa?
Genevieve de Mahy: As a director who acts. I think directing is more creatively fulfilling. Acting is fun. Acting feels more like an outlet. In directing there’s a definite catharsis. I don’t do it as often, because it’s very stressful. Afterwards I need a break. It takes so much out of you doing it in the evenings and weekends, and it’s exhausting, so I usually only commit to one a year.
Peter: When or how did you know you were an artist?
Genevieve: I’ve always been an artsy kid, drawing, painting, and a lot of writing. At around 8 or 9 I started writing for catharsis. I was a painfully shy child.
Peter: What would you write?
Genevieve: I wrote a lot of fantasy fiction, stories about best friends where one of them would die. There was always an element of tragedy in everything I wrote. There was something to me, as a child, that was seducing in writing about tragedy. It sounds grim. I certainly wasn’t violent or had tendencies in that direction…I was a gentle child, but for some reason any sort of wrenching heart break was attractive to me. I also was the bossy kid in the neighborhood and directed plays in my basement with the neighborhood kids. At the end of high school I really started doing theater.
Actually, I wrote mostly poetry as a child and into adulthood. One of my majors was in English (emphasis creative writing) and mostly I took poetry classes.
Peter: As a director what do you look for in a script?
Genevieve: I like an element of magic or non reality. I also look for something that I can connect to.
Peter: Ideas, concepts, emotions?
Genevieve: An emotional connection! Hotel Cassiopeia was just so beautiful, and the language! That was my emotional connection. It’s not always relating to a particular character, but something about it has to seduce me. In that one, the imagery and his (the protagonist Joseph Cornell’s) attachment to objects and how much he loved collecting them.
Peter: Was your rehearsal process for that play different than the way you’ve approached other plays?
Genevieve: It was different. That script in particular is a skeleton, and even as beautiful as the language was, I really wanted to find ways to fill in the gaps. So, I had been thinking about Joseph Cornell’s attachments to objects, and how to have those objects play a role in the production. I hadn’t quite figured out how I was going to do it. In December before we started rehearsal, a theater company (Double Edge) came and did a workshop with us. A workshop geared towards physical theater and actor created work. That really inspired me to approach those gaps in that (movement) way. I hadn’t quite figured out how I was going to do it. Usually going into rehearsal I usually don’t have much of a plan. I think about things a lot. But I don’t have a solid plan because I can’t…I need to be in the room doing it to know what the next step is. So, we did this workshop and I thought, oh, that could really be a promising way to approach that. I used their structure to get actors invested in the work so it wasn’t just me saying, “OK, hold up this thing, walk over here, stand here, that looks great (!), but I wanted them generating content as well. We did a lot of exercises with props. I really wanted the actors to develop an attachment to objects.
Peter: How do you communicate with designers on a show like this?
Genevieve: I really think theater should be a collaborative effort. I want actors and designer to bring a lot to the table. When I cast this show I cast people who brought a lot. With designers, usually I might give them a little bit of guidance if they need it, but I really want to hear what they have in mind first and see if it matches, if I feel like it fits. I come into a piece with very few really solid concepts. I have this kind of very abstract aesthetic that can be difficult to articulate. I know what I want to feel. I need to figure out how to get to that place. With this one everybody was already on the same page. That made it great.
Peter: How do you prepare for an evening’s rehearsal?
Genevieve: If it’s just working a scene, I work the scene. But, I usually have a series of exercises that I’ve created. In the beginning phase, I want the cast to bond with games and such that bring people together. In this instance I had a series of 6 different exercises that we were going to do throughout rehearsals and we never got past the first one. The first one was so interesting that we just kept doing it for the rest of the rehearsal process.
Peter: What was it?
Genevieve: Somebody had a piece of paper and they had to make a trail, like crumbs to Hansel and Gretel’s house, and everyone behind them had to pick up the pieces and follow their trail. And for some reason it lasted for hours. They’d rotate. The person making the trail had to pick who they thought followed the trail the best, whatever criteria was the best way to follow the trail, if they just like the way they picked up the pieces, or somebody didn’t pick up the pieces at all and they liked that the best they picked that person.
Peter: What’s the actor’s job?
Genevieve: As an actor, put yourself into the role and commit to the role as much as possible, while making sure that you’re achieving the director’s goal. As a director I would say put as much of yourself and your own ideas into the role as possible. I guess they’re the same, but I want actors to give me more ideas. Even in callbacks (2nd round of auditions) for this show I gave people props and they had about 15 minutes to create a non verbal piece, shorter than a minute, with the props that they had. I picked love, loneliness, and other themes and they had to pick one of those and make a little étude about that. And I cast the people who came up with the most creative etudes. Gina Braden, for instance, her etude was phenomenal…I was like, that is brilliant! I instantly cast her, because it was fantastic.
Peter: What’s the director’s job?
Genevieve: Develop a deep understanding of the piece and figure out how to communicate what’s happening (to the actors and designers, of course, but) to the audience. I think it’s really important that an audience connect to the play on an emotional level. That’s why I watch theater. To see things that stun me visually, and have an emotional connection to the piece. Everyone wants to be moved. My goal is to get people as attached to the play as I am.
Peter: As someone who values the intuitive process of the actor, how do you know when to step in?
Genevieve: There was a point in Hotel, where I had to say, “Alright the creation process is done, and now we have to refine what we have.”
Peter: How deep into it were you?
Genevieve: Maybe 3 weeks out from opening. It was an 8 week process. All of my directing is based on intuition, so it’s just when it feels right. From the movement assignments, I had constructed these in-between the scenes pieces. Most were done, but there were a couple that weren’t. In the script, those were points where one of Joseph Cornell’s specific artworks is described. I was trying to tie the movement work we were doing to these specific works of art and find a different way to communicate the same ideas. It was all very abstract and it was something I didn’t really expect the audience to understand or follow. I just wanted to say, “This Joseph Cornell piece makes me think of this and these movement pieces also make me think of this, and they’re related someway, even if just in my psyche, to me only.” I do think, as much as I want the audience to feel and understand what’s going on, there also has to be an element of mystery, an element of the unknown.
Peter: We’re not in the give answers business.
Genevieve: Exactly. I don’t care if people know that this (transitional movement bit) is supposed to be a Joseph Cornell piece of artwork, it doesn’t matter, it looks awesome and that’s all that matters.
Peter: What surprises you?
Genevieve: I am constantly surprised by how much actors can create with very little. For the bathtub scene (a sensual dance on the rim of a claw foot bathtub to end the show) I was like, “Here’s a rope, do something with the bathtub, it’s about how you love each other, you’re falling in love, and here’s some music.” And they made it! Moments like that in rehearsal are astonishing to me. They fill me with such joy. The fact that I can be a part of facilitating someone else’s creation, I love that.
Peter: To witness pure creation.
Genevieve: Yeah. During rehearsals we listened to a lot of Olivier Messiaen, this crazy contemporary composer. His work just opens your brain and takes it into really crazy places.
Peter: Getting people out of the linear/literal space.
Peter: What’s your default? Is it visual, textual, emotional?
Genevieve: Lately it’s definitely been visual.
Peter: If money were no object, what would you like to direct?
Genevieve: I have this idea recently about wanting to direct Carmina Burana, a 45 minute opera. It’s epic. It has intense music and you could do incredible things visually with it.
Peter: What do you do for fun?
Genevieve: I travel a lot. I cook. I love tomato sauce. Spaghetti sauce is my favorite thing in the world. I could eat it every day for the rest of my life. I make a pretty awesome sauce. I’m trying to branch out. I roasted a chicken for the first time last weekend.
Peter: Wonderful. What’s next for you?
Genevieve: I’m directing a piece called the Poe Project, which I wrote a couple of years ago and it’s being done as part of Center Stage’s 50th Anniversary. It’s a collage play, so all of the words are from the writings of Poe but totally mixed together. Then I’m dramaturging VIP (written and directed by Aldo Pantoja) for Single Carrot.
Peter: I look forward to both of them. Thank you.
Photos by Philip Laubner.