People Who Make NY Special

How Daniel Fish Reinvented “Oklahoma!”

The Tony-nominated director talks about his first time at the Broadway rodeo. (Hint: Folks are nice!)

Photo by Little Fang Photo/Courtesy of “Oklahoma!”

Although director Daniel Fish has been plying his trade for almost two decades, Broadway folks didn’t know squat about him until this spring, when his experimental remake of the Rodgers & Hammerstein classic musical Oklahoma!deromanticized and dripping menace—hit the scene. Most critics greeted the modernized play rapturously, and audiences have made it one of the hippest tickets of the season. Its ingenious bluegrass band arrangements (by Daniel Kluger); canny deployment of modern dance and night-vision cameras; and a diverse cast of low-key, alluring performers have people seeing the show with new eyes. The production proves that commercial viability and artistic daring can, like the farmer and cowman, be friends. What Should We Do chatted with Fish about keeping tabs on the show and meeting colleagues during the busy Tony season.

daniel fish
Photo by Te Blow/Courtesy of Daniel Fish

What Should We Do: Oklahoma! is the longest-running production you’ve ever had. What’s it like to know that your work is playing to thousands of people, eight times a week?
Daniel Fish: It’s great. Surprisingly, it’s been very easy to step away from. The stage managers and actors are all stellar, so I go back usually once a week, and so far, I’ve been really pleased with how it’s maintaining itself. I thought it might be harder, because that’s how it tends to be at most of my shows.

WSWD: So the show is “frozen”?
Fish: I know that that term is used, but I refuse to use it. I don’t tinker, but I do give notes if something doesn’t feel right, or if I feel like something can get better.

WSWD: A lot of critics, myself included, love what you did with this classic piece. But purists could get pissed off. Have you had to deal with disgruntled traditionalists in the lobby?
Fish: Not personally. I’m sure house managers have had to, and maybe some of that gets back to the producers, but I’m pretty sheltered from it. If someone were to come up and talk to me, I would gladly talk about it. Some people respond well, and some respond negatively. I think that’s OK.

WSWD: You’ve been working on versions of this concept going back 12 years. Have your goals with Oklahoma! changed?
Fish: Sure. I’ve changed. The world’s changed. I’m older. When we first made it at Bard College, Bush was president; and when we made it again for SummerScape in 2015, Obama was president and marriage equality had just passed; and when we made it at St. Ann’s last year, the Kavanaugh hearings were going on. Right now, power and gender issues, particularly the roles that the women play, are resonating in a way they had not been resonating before. And the violence resonates now in a way that it didn’t quite before. But, you know, guns are a part of the country, and we’re a pretty violent country and always have been.

[As a child] I stood on the side observing things. I think I saw through stuff as a kid that I thought was fake.

WSWD: As a Tony nominee, have you been checking out the competition?
Fish: The only thing I’ve seen is Taylor Mac’s Gary, which I really liked. I tend to hunker down and go to movies when I’m not working. I spend a lot of time at Film Forum and Metrograph.

WSWD: I never know if it’s torture for theater artists to see one another’s work.
Fish: No, I like it! One of the things I’ve discovered is how collegial everybody is. And not just in the Tony season, but working on Broadway. The number of directors who’ve done it before and texted me or called or given me advice has been really great. I saw Rachel [Chavkin, director of Hadestown] today at lunch and I was very happy to see her; I saw Des [McAnuff, director of Ain’t Too Proud]; I met Scott Ellis [director of Kiss Me, Kate!] for the first time. Everybody’s out there doing the best work they can do.

Photo by Little Fang Photo/Courtesy of Oklahoma!

WSWD: Not bad for a kid from Tenafly, New Jersey. Were you the sort of inquisitive child who liked to take apart clocks and gadgets to see how they worked?
Fish: I did kind of look at things from the outside, from one step removed. Wasn’t someone who liked to be in the center, more stood on the side observing things, observing things from more than one point of view. I think I saw through stuff as a kid that I thought was fake.

WSWD: Did the fakeness attract you or repel you? Did it make you angry?
Fish: Yes, maybe angry and rebellious, but it also fascinated. They go hand in hand, right?

While I don’t have the courage actors need to make themselves naked in front of a group of people, I do understand intuitively what it is they’re doing.

WSWD: Many years ago, I reviewed your early work—a production of Ibsen’s Ghosts at Classic Stage Company and Charles Mee’s True Love at the Zipper—and they were exciting, but there was no multimedia. When did video become part of your toolkit?
Fish: I started going to the Volksbühne in Berlin and seeing the work of directors Frank Castorf and René Pollesch, and their use of live video is pretty extensive. Most artists who use live video in the theater right now owe a huge debt to them—whether they know it or not. The Wooster Group excepted: It has been using video for 40 years now. That work was hugely influential for me. But also television was part of the fabric of my growing up, of the culture.

WSWD: Since you incorporate such expansive—and beautifully shot—video projection in your scenography, have you ever been tempted to make a stand-alone film?
Fish: I did make a film—a very rough, amateurish one—called The Dollar General. It is something I’m interested in.

WSWD: So you don’t have any artistic resistance to directing film as film? You can separate it from a live theatrical context?
Fish: I think what stops me in some ways is my huge admiration for the filmmakers whom I like, feeling that I could never do as well as, say, Chantal Akerman or Rainer Werner Fassbinder. But I should get over that and try. I find going to movies to be kind of performative. What transpires between the screen and the viewer can feel very live.

I find going to movies to be kind of performative. What transpires between the screen and the viewer can feel very live.

WSWD: During your lean, early years, what did you do to pay the bills?
Fish: For a long time I worked as an assistant director to Michael Kahn at the Shakespeare Theatre Company in Washington, D.C. When I was in my 20s I was doing that, and it was a full-time job. And then I started freelancing. I did a lot of regional theater work, so for a while I was making more money doing regional theater than when I started producing myself. And then I got the Herb Alpert Award two years ago, and that was hugely helpful. And fortunately, I own my apartment in Brooklyn so my monthly costs are relatively low.

Photo by Little Fang Photo/Courtesy of Oklahoma!

WSWD: You direct a lot of opera. How is that different from musicals or multimedia work?
Fish: The interesting thing about opera is, I’m working with classically trained singers; it’s very different than working with actors. With actors, I can groove with their process, I understand it, can get inside what they’re doing. And with a singer, I can’t because there’s this thing that they know how to do that is foreign to me, constricting the muscles in their throat to hit a specific note. While I don’t have the courage actors need to make themselves naked in front of a group of people, I do understand intuitively what it is they’re doing. But if it’s a singer, I don’t get it. And so there’s this kind of mystery and this barrier, which I find totally interesting.

WSWD: Are producers pitching you classic musicals, to do the Daniel Fish thing with them?
Fish: I don’t know what the “Daniel Fish thing” is, but look: I really believe we’re just trying to do the best work we can do on a given project. There are two projects, actually. One is a classic and the other isn’t. But I can’t say what they are because they may not happen.

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