We love chatting with artists across the spectrum – writers, visual artists, performers, and more. Everyone has a unique story about why they create and what speaks to them. And we all love a good story.
Welcome this week’s artist, Doug Oliphant, an LA-based theatre director, movement director and fight choreographer who serves as Artistic Director for Drive Theatre Company. He’s directed full productions of 44 Plays for 44 Presidents, Bluenose, his original show There is Truth, Love is Real, Christopher Durang’s Betty’s Summer Vacation, as well as music videos for 44 Plays for 44 Presidents co-author Karen Weinberg and alt. rock band Sleep Well. At the Kennedy Center, he was awarded the 2009 regional and national SDC Directing Fellowship Award for his achievements in the American College Theatre Festival. Doug received his BFA in Theatre at Central Connecticut State University, studied theatre at the Eugene O’Neill Theater Center’s National Theater Institute and the St. Petersburg State Theatre Arts Academy (Russia).
What was the impetus for the great move out west? What was intriguing about the LA theatre scene vs. that of the East Coast?
There were many reasons that prompted my great move out west. Growing up, I would travel with my family in CT to visit my family in Gilroy/San Jose, CA every other year, and California always had this vacationland/dream-like aura about it. And of course, when you live in CT, there’s no real difference in your head between SoCal and NorCal (I’m much wiser now). So there was the childhood dream-fulfilling about moving out here going into the decision. But another major factor was the group of friends I had already out here. While I was in college, I took a trip one summer and spent four days in San Francisco and four days in LA to just hang out in both cities, see theatre in both, and as best as I could, evaluate which city I’d rather live in/make a living in. I LOVE San Francisco, but after my four days in LA where I spent a good amount of time on the beach, amazed by the endless stretches of sand (people in CT fight dirty just to get a good spot at the beach), the dedicated bike trails along the beach, the playground-for-adults at Santa Monica Beach, etc… Plus, I was staying with an actor friend of mine, who I could watch leaving for an audition and hear his stories about his career thus far…that was inspiring to me. I liked the vibe. I liked the fact that things were more laid-back, and that I–as the very intense/focused person I am when I’m working on something–could excel with my driving work-ethic. Add to the list the beautiful hikes I took while there, the pet-friendly environments, and the fact that it was on the opposite side of the country as where I grew up and LA was looking pretty appealing. Though I do love NY, I think we’re better off just as friends. I liked the idea of LA having a smaller, underground theatre community that I could integrate into, making myself a bigger fish in a smaller pond while still having that pond be filled with amazing talent with which I could collaborate.
When did you decide that making theatre was going to be your life? What led you to this decision?
I knew that making theatre was going to be my life in March, 2011. That was when I was 100% sure–when I specifically decided that I want to pursue a theatre directing career as my primary career goal, and that all other interests and talents would fall into secondary categories around it. For the first year or so I lived in LA (Aug. 2009 – Dec. 2010), I was trying to actively pursue every one of my interests and advance a career in each of them. Those pursuits included acting in theatre, film, tv, commercials, performing utility stunts and parkour in the entertainment industry, directing theatre, film, music videos, choreographing and performing fights, and movement through all mediums. And it was exhausting. By the time March 2011 rolled around, I took a great trip to the beach (so glad I moved to this city!), sat on a bench overlooking the water and wrote out all my thoughts on what was most important to me. That’s when I really came to terms with my passion for directing theatre, and after that point it felt like a giant weight had lifted off my shoulders, and I started making visible progress now that I set just one direction to head in. Clarity in one’s life, like when you’re telling a story, is soo important.
Tell us a bit about your time with the Eugene O’Neill Center’s National Theatre Institute. How was your time there formative to what you do now?
If it wasn’t for my tendency to always try to do more than I’m capable of, my time at the Eugene O’Neill Theater Center’s National Theater Institute would have been the deciding factor in my devotion to a life in making theatre. I attended the program the second semester of my junior year in college, and entered the program confident that I was going to be a professional actor for the rest of my life. Before going there, I had never directed (I thought that was for old people who were either failed actors or had serious Type-A personalities) and never knew that any actor movement beyond traditional dance techniques existed. The program consists of 14 weeks, where students from colleges across the country come to the O’Neill’s campus, a simple, multi-building farm-turned-theater center. During those 14 weeks, you work 7 days a week, starting at 7:30am with a warm up and ending your final class at 10pm, before then working on homework. Two of those weeks are spend abroad, and I went to St. Petersburg, Russia where my classmates and I studied at the St. Petersburg State Theatre Arts Academy. There’s never any time for anything, so you’re always under extreme pressure. You’re constantly creating, as an actor, director, designer or playwright. You don’t have time to think, let alone sleep, and your only support system are the other students, so you’re taking a whole additional class on collaboration. The system inevitably makes you experience some of your highest highs and lowest lows in theatre, perhaps even in your life. I’ll never forget one scene I was acting in, from a classical play called The Rover, which one of my closest friends from NTI was directing and I wanted so badly to give him a great performance. But I’m horrible at memorizing classical text, and you’re only given 3 days to prepare for each scene presentation, and come the day of the performance, I still couldn’t get my lines to stick, and the more I was aware of it, the less I remembered. Right before the performance, one of the O’Neill staff members came as the audience was filing in the room, and she had a camcorder! I asked if she was going to film it, and she said, “Yes, we want to start documenting all the work you guys put up!” I was so mortified…and we performed the scene, and I was horrendous, I forgot all the lines I was having trouble with, I was never even close to “in-character” and was never so disappointed in myself for letting my co-actors, director, and entire class down. Just one of many, many vivid, life-changing memories during my time there. On a more positive note, on one of the last days of the semester, all the teachers gather in a room to give individual reviews on each student. It was a day dreaded by most, where teachers no longer have to be kind and encouraging to you, but would speak the cold truth of how they felt you did that semester and where they see you excelling in the future. I went in not sure what would be said, and was surprised to hear among many other positive things that every one of my teachers felt I’d make an excellent director. “Keep directing” was the message they all spoke at one point or another, and it was largely from the confidence I got from them that I did exactly that.
You were selected as the national winner of the SDC Directing Award in 2009. What was the process like applying for the theatre festival associated with the award and how did that experience shape the way you approach theatrical directing?
Before that semester at NTI, I had never directed. After, I directed several scenes, a 1-act staged reading, and received support from the entire faculty to keep directing–and of course, I really wanted to and was thrilled by this new-found passion. So first thing I did after I finished NTI was return to my school (Central Connecticut State University) and spoke to my adviser about what I could do to direct as much as possible in my last year before graduation. Among other things, she gave me permission to direct a one-act play in the fall semester. So I set out to find a play to direct, and ended up talking to a friend of mine who also had permission to direct a one-act. We flipped through a bunch of different plays together, before he came up with an idea where if we find a full-length we like, we could each direct one act in a two-act play. He pulled out Betty’s Summer Vacation by Christopher Durang and pitched it to me. Before this, as we were both actors in the school’s BFA Acting program, we were encouraged to act in each other’s play. So in looking at Betty’s, we decided I could play a character that only appears in the second act, he could play a character that dies before the end of the first act, and we could each direct the act we don’t appear in! We pitched the idea to my adviser, got approval, and put up the show in the lobby of our theatre department in September 2008. The faculty of our theatre department loved it and told us they would pay to enter the production into the Kennedy Center American College Theatre Festival and nominated my friend and I for directing. With that nomination, you were then eligible to submit yourself for the regional festival directing competition, which involved you writing a cover letter on why you’re interested in competing in the festival, your resume of past work, and two letters of recommendation. So I submitted and was one of three total who were accepted in a record-breaking year of submissions. Those accepted then had to prepare a scene. A selection committee at the Kennedy Center chose five different plays and a specific scene–or multiple scenes–from that play, and the competing director had to choose one, cast it with actors from their school, rehearse at their school and then take the scene up to the festival to be performed in front of a panel of judges. We also had to keep a director’s notebook, noting specifics about the story, character arcs, scenic elements, time period, etc. and logging our progress, reflecting back on each rehearsal. I chose Quake, by Melanie Marnich and after much rehearsal, brought the scene to the festival and had it performed/judged. I, and the two other directors competing adjusted our scenes and presented them one last time in an open-to-the-public presentation. Then at the end-of-week ACTF awards ceremony, I was announced the winner (horray)!
So then after winning the regional festival, you head to Washington D.C. for a week and the Kennedy Center and where you compete with the winning directors (there were 9 of us) from around the country. This time, we were asked to prepare two things. One was assigned by Ming Cho Lee, a quite legendary scenic designer who asked us to present a portrait gallery of the characters in Shakespeare’s A Winter’s Tale. A portrait gallery in this context asks you to look through photographs of people, via magazines, the internet, etc. and find people who seem to best portray each character. The other assignment was to give a 3-minute pitch on how you’d direct the opening scene (with the 3 witches) of Macbeth. This was assigned by SDC member John Dillon, and in my pitch I set the world in 2009 (the year, then) or perhaps the slightly distant future in Afghanistan/America, where right before the play, Osama Bin Laden was be killed by Macbeth, and Macbeth was then deemed a national hero. The three witches were representatives of the press who were planning on planting false ideas of fame into his head in hopes of his corruption…all for the best news story. This would make the witches, in fact, not magical, but real people, and Macbeth’s downfall truly tragic, as he never wished for all the fame that came upon him for loyally serving his country. Besides that, I took workshops with a variety of other artists in the industry and was given a great window into the professional world of theatre. At the awards ceremony at the end of the week, I was announced the winner and received $1000 from the SDC, associate membership into the union, and fellowships at the O’Neill’s National Playwrights Conference and the Kennedy Center in the summer. The O’Neill fellowship was obviously so great as I just was there as a student, now returning on fellowship from the Kennedy Center for directing…which I wouldn’t have done if it weren’t for the O’Neill. Needless to say, that place has a very special place in my heart.
How did your company Drive Theatre come about? Who did you collaborate with to make it a reality?
Drive Theatre Company came about in October 2011 when I sat down with my friend and fellow young director Tim Koch and expressed my feelings of frustration in not directing enough. I was concerned that I was spending too much time assistant directing, associate directing, production coordinating, movement or fight choreographing, but not enough time actually in the director’s seat, seeing your vision out from start to finish. In particular, there was an Ira Glass quote that made its way around Facebook that went like this:
“Nobody tells this to people who are beginners. I wish someone had told me. All of us who do creative work, we get into it because we have good taste. But there is this gap. For the first couple years you make stuff, it’s just not that good. It’s trying to be good, it has potential, but it’s not. But your taste, the thing that got you into the game, is still killer. And your taste is why your work disappoints you. A lot of people never get past this phase; they quit. Most people I know who do interesting, creative work went through years of this. We know our work doesn’t have this special thing that we want it to have. We all go through this. And if you are just starting out or you are still in this phase, you gotta know that it’s normal and the most important thing you can do is do a lot of work. Put yourself on a deadline so that every week you finish one piece. It’s only by going through a volume of work that you will close that gap, and your work will be as good as your ambitions. And I took longer to figure out how to do this than anyone I’ve ever met. It’s gonna take a while. It’s normal to take a while. You just gotta fight your way through.”
THAT is why I started Drive Theatre. Where it will continue from here on out is evolving, as Tim ended up moving to NYC when he got an assistant director job on Broadway, but producing a lot of work remains my personal mission with the company, so that by the time I’m in a position where I’m directing somewhere with a lot more visibility, I won’t fail from lack of experience and have it cost me my career.
What kinds of shows does the company produce? What is it about these kinds of stories that speak to you?
To quote our mission, “Drive Theatre Company produces bold American plays that explore what it means to be an American.” Now, that doesn’t just mean that we do patriotic plays, but rather we do plays by American playwrights and look to examine different aspects of our culture, what makes us a country, what are our problems, how can we laugh at them, is there hope, etc. That’s the umbrella we’re operating under for content, but HOW we operate is also in our mission, “We support and encourage our artists in their pursuit of national theatre careers and endeavor to collaborate with like-minded companies in Los Angeles and major cities nationwide.” 44 Plays for 44 Presidents, our first show, was a part of a national festival where over 44 other productions from around the country happened this past election season. Through the offerings of the festival staff, we were connected through Facebook, Twitter and emails to these other productions, and I personally had contact with people from many of those productions. As someone looking to further my freelance career through this theatre company, it’s my mission with Drive to never produce a play that stays no larger than the production itself. That doesn’t mean we only produce when we can be a part of a festival, but it might mean we look forward to doing co-productions with other companies, do some kind of residency in another city, find a play we feel passionately about producing, identify its themes, and find a common pre-existing event, facility, or company that we can team up with to share business and take away something larger than what we have to offer ourselves. This all comes from my desire to NOT start the next Steppenwolf. There are a lot of other small theatre companies in LA, and many of them are great, I’d love to work with them! But I have no need to try to create my own rival company, producing a full season of shows when that’s being done already by so many wonderful LA theatre artists.
Why theatre? What can theatre do that other art forms cannot?
Theatre is the epitome of storytelling. If we can all agree that a good story can change the way we do things, the way we live our lives or the way we look at the world, then a good theatre production can do just that, while at the same time bringing people together and connecting with them face-to-face. The magic of live performance can never be created through film or television. Other forms of art are so solitary, no other brings people together in the full-communal way theatre does. And for me as a director, to be able to sit in an audience while actors genuinely connect, revealing deeply personal truths in serious or comedic contexts, and being present with a whole audience that’s being affected by that…it’s just the best.
What are the challenges of running a theatre company?
The challenges of running a theatre company…ha! There’s many, from the bigger issues of why this theatre company? Why now? How are you different? Why should a donor give you money and not someone else? To the practical issues of simply how do I raise money? How can I keep this company sustainable? Where do I see it going in 5 years? Who’s a part of this other than me? What’s the trade-off for them? What compromises will I have to make to keep everyone happy? How do I find new plays? How do I develop an audience and then keep them engaged, coming back for more? How do I keep people donating? This rental theatre sucks, what’s a better one? Why do all rental theatres suck?! *sigh* the list goes on 😉 That’s why you gotta love it!
Sources of inspiration?
Ira Glass is the biggest one, I’m influenced by a wide array of theatres, artists, nature, MUSIC, successful friends, unsuccessful friends and much more.
What advice would you give to someone who wanted to pursue a career in the arts and theatre?
To anyone who would like to pursue a career in arts or theatre–DO IT! I heard far too many times from guest speakers in school, “If you can do anything else [other than theatre], do it” and it’s the worst bit of advice I’ve ever heard. For the love of life, do it. Too many people live life with regrets, all the what-ifs and if-onlys…and that’s the worst. Say you want to start a theatre company but have no idea how to fund-raise…give it a shot anyway! If it means something to you, do the research! Talk to people! If you want to give acting a shot in the industry, but you’re not sure if the crazy auditioning and getting shut down all the time lifestyle is for you, take a year of your life to do exactly that as best as you can, and if by the end of that year you’re miserable, not sure of who you are anymore, what you believe in, if there’s any hope left in this world, then stop! Don’t do it anymore! Do something else, and rest easy knowing that you did it and learned it wasn’t for you, rather than staying safe by never trying and always wishing you had. One of my close friends from Connecticut set out to be an actor, graduated with his theatre degree, went to NYC and joined a bunch of improv troupes. Worked a bit in film, joined SAG, and after a few years, realized he wasn’t happy, and loved his girlfriend a lot more than he loved the business, so he left NYC, proposed to his girlfriend, they got married, have a kid, a dog and a house in CT and are completely happy. He went for it, realized he loved something else more, and changed paths, no regrets. He inspires me.