People Who Make NY Special

NYC’s Busiest Theater Director, Leigh Silverman

The director of “Harry Clarke” shares how flopping as an actress helped her become one of the biggest names in theater.

Donald Katz, Billy Crudup, Leigh Silverman, and David Cale. / Photo by Jenny Anderson

By her own admission, Leigh Silverman spends a lot of time on subways subsisting on egg sandwiches. Not exactly the glamorous lifestyle you’d imagine for one of the city’s most prolific stage directors, a name you see each season attached to A-list writers: She directed the Broadway debut of Jeanine Tesori’s Violet; the Broadway transfer of Lisa Kron’s Well; and, now, the sexy, noirish Harry Clarke, a solo piece written by English monologuist David Cale.

Leigh Silverman
Billy Crudup in Harry Clarke.

In it, Billy Crudup plays a shy Midwesterner who adopts a flawless British accent and Cockney alter ego, moves to New York, and reinvents himself. When “Harry Clarke” enters the orbit of a rich, closeted playboy, his life is turned upside down. The play debuted at the Vineyard Theatre last fall and has returned for an off-Broadway run, produced by  audiobook giant Audible, through May 13. (Can’t make it to the Minetta Lane Theatre? Audible sells a download of the show.) What Should We Do?! chatted with Silverman on a lunch break from—what else?—another project.

What Should We Do?!: How does a person become a director?
Leigh Silverman: I was a total theater nerd when I was a kid. And I was lucky enough to grow up in Washington, D.C., so I would go to Arena Stage when Zelda Fichandler was running the place and directing. It was always inspiring that there was this amazing woman in charge. So I did a summer theater program when I was 15, and on the first day everyone does their monologues and then we talk about the plays they’re from. Afterward the teacher said to me, “Can you stay after?” And she said, “You know, Leigh, I have to tell you: You’re a terrible actress.” And I was like, “Oh, God.” Then she said, “But you’re really smart and you said really good things about all the monologues, and I think you should assist me.” So I spent the summer in Cambridge, England, reading Ibsen and Shaw and Shakespeare and following her around. It changed my life.

WSWD: Being a director is fulfilling in a different way from acting, isn’t it?
Silverman: Yeah. It’s very stressful and challenging, but also quite extraordinary, particularly to be in the room creating new work with the writers. David Cale is one of those people. I’m in the middle of doing Soft Power, a musical with Jeanine Tesori and David Henry Hwang. It’s my third project with Jeanine, and my sixth with David.

WSWD: You have these long-term relationships with David Henry Hwang, Lisa Kron, Tanya Barfield, and others. How do you, as a director, navigate when a playwright goes to a different director for a project?
Silverman: It’s all part of the process. It’s a long trip. We’re all on this long ride together. I never feel like ego has a place when you’re trying to make work in the room. You always want what’s best for the project, and if that includes me, that’s great.

WSWD: You’ve directed many different types of plays and musicals, but not solo pieces. Is Harry Clarke sort of new for you?
Silverman: Weirdly, I had never really done solo shows. Then I did three in the course of a year: On the Exhale with Marin Ireland at the Roundabout, All the Ways to Say I Love You with Judith Light, and now Harry Clarke with Billy Crudup. That was definitely not by design. It was just a random blessing from the theater gods.

WSWD: What attracts you to a project?
Silverman: I feel like I get structurally challenging projects: shape-shifters. They start out being one kind of play or musical and then change. I gravitate toward writers who are interested in both structural and stylistic challenges, who are ambitious in terms of scope. So I haven’t directed a lot of shows where it’s two people sitting on a couch in a naturalistic play.

WSWD: What’s your least favorite part of directing?
Silverman: When you’re making a show, you are so inside of it. And there’s a moment when you put it in front of an audience. And you have no idea what you’ve made—in a sense—and that moment is exciting, and it can also be terrible. As the director, you’re the leader, and your anxiety has to be managed. That’s the difficult part about directing, which is that you have to be able to say, “I think we’re heading in the wrong direction. We need to cut this scene. We need to change this character.”

WSWD: Did that happen with Harry Clarke?
Silverman: This was a kind of extraordinary set of circumstances, because David Cale has always performed his own material. This is the first time he’s ever had somebody else perform a monologue. He was in a very different place emotionally because he was so happy that Billy was doing it. And Billy was coming at it from the point of view of someone who’s never done a solo show—the whole genre was somewhat elusive to him. Part of my work was to help David edit the script. So as the three of us worked together, the script that you’re seeing is really the story and the shape that we made together.

WSWD: For a solo piece, it’s a full theatrical experience.
Silverman: I’m glad you said that! At the start of the show, Billy is sitting; he doesn’t take a step for the first 20 pages. Then there’s a very sharp shift that happens, where the storytelling changes. We go to the bar and he’s dancing to Sade.

WSWD: Speaking of storytelling, Audible is producing this encore run: You can really feel the audio-drama vibe, like it’s film noir for radio.
Silverman: Yeah. Something we never talked about in rehearsals, until we got into the theater, was how it’s a thriller. It was important we come at the piece from the point of view of: Who is this guy? How do we care about him? What’s the story? All of those characters show who they are, what their intentions are. We wanted to do a deep dive on the characters before we talked about the kind of container the play comes in—which is, of course, a thriller.

WSWD: If we planned your perfect day, what would it include?
Silverman: As if I had a life?! I live in Brooklyn and I love it so much, and I live near Prospect Park, so probably my girlfriend and I would spend some time in our neighborhood. And we would walk to the park, eat some artichoke pizza, and go to Culture Frozen Yogurt. Exploring the different neighborhoods in Brooklyn, that’s my dream day.

Rapid Round! 
Leigh Silverman’s Faves…in a NY Minute

Bar?
The Library at the Public Theater.

Taco?
Alma in Red Hook.

Pizza?
Artichoke Pizza.

Place to take out-of-town guests?
Bond 45.

Museum?
Whitney Museum of American Art.

Bookstore?
Strand.

Place to people-watch?
The subway.

Day trip?
Putnam Valley, around Cold Spring.

Read about more inspiring New Yorkers in our People Who Make NY Special column.