SOFT POWER director Leigh Silverman tells Gracie Hays about building opportunities on Broadway, finding a shape for her shows, and showing an audience exactly how it’s done.
GRACIE HAYS: You directed on Broadway for the first time when you were only thirty-one years old, in 2006, when there weren’t a whole lot of women on creative teams.
LEIGH SILVERMAN: The percentages of females working on Broadway are actually still the same, which is appalling. Back then, I was the seventh woman to ever direct a straight-up Broadway play. I think the thing that’s really changed is that Off-Broadway, and regionally, there’s much more gender parity. Now it’s mainly when you get up to the big commercial scale that it’s an issue. This is one of the reasons that it feels like such a big deal that CTG and the Curran have come together behind SOFT POWER, which is essentially a show made by women and people of color. It’s an extraordinary opportunity.
For young women directors, it can be very, very hard to gain authority and status—you’re the youngest person in the room, and you’re also the one who’s supposed to be in charge. Women have adopted all kinds of strategies to overcompensate for that, and one of the great things about getting older is that those strategies can fall away; I’m not the youngest person in the room anymore. More often, I’m one of the older ones, and that brings with it another sort of authority. There’s still kind of a cult of genius around young male directors, and there’s not the same enthusiasm around young female directors. I feel like women are hired for their experience, instead, and so the more experience women get, the more jobs they can get—as opposed to young men, who I think are more often hired for their potential. A weakness of mine when I was first starting out was that I spent a lot of time trying to overcompensate for my youth and my precociousness, and I was embarrassed by my own ambition. A great benefit of being forty-three is that I really don’t care anymore. I have more than fifty shows’ worth of experience in my arsenal to draw from. I don’t have to fight for that sense of authority.
This is one of the reasons that it feels like such a big deal that CTG and the Curran have come together behind SOFT POWER, which is essentially a show made by women and people of color. It’s an extraordinary opportunity.
GH: You and David Henry Hwang have worked on several shows together before. What’s it been like to take on SOFT POWER?
LS: One of the things I love about working with David is that he’s always pushing the theatrical form, and doing it in ways that are surprising to me. It’s always strange and wonderful and unique. So when we first talked about this show, I thought, this seems truly, outrageously inventive. I was also pretty sure that it seemed impossible. I wasn’t completely persuaded until we did our first run-through, about two and a half years after that initial conversation. I think when you’re inside of something there’s a kind of thrilling and terrifying groping around in the darkness about what you’re making and how you’re making it. So, it wasn’t really until many of the pieces were in place that we were really able to see the edges of what we wanted to make. And then once we could sort of feel around the edges, we could understand where we were heading. Keeping everyone on the team heading toward that goal became the work of the last five to six months.
GH: Given that the stabbing in SOFT POWER is based off of a real trauma, how did you think through how to represent that moment onstage?
LS: David is a very low-key guy. He texted me from the hospital to say that he’d been stabbed, and then just sent some, like, unhappy face, crying emoji. None of us are particularly sentimental in any way—we wanted to make a show that was rich with emotion, but not with sentiment or melodrama. I like the way we chose to theatricalize the stabbing; it’s a hinge moment for the play, because it’s when we depart from the initial structure and break the form and teach the audience what they’re in for. And also, delight them, entertain them, surprise them. And then all of a sudden we’re in this whole new world, and so there are a lot of steps that we had to go through to make sure that people were with us. It relies on the set and the choreography and the orchestra and the costumes. Every single moment in the show relies on a million different small decisions, and that moment in particular needed all kinds of decisions from every department, and a clear sense of what our goal was. When we started previews in LA, there was a DHH speech there that happened over lots of music, and then the dancers started to come in while he was still talking, and we realized that doing everything at once did not serve us. There was a tremendous effort from all sides to sort out how to get it right, and still make it a moment of great emotional intensity for the character onstage.
I wasn’t completely persuaded until we did our first run-through... I think when you’re inside of something there’s a kind of thrilling and terrifying groping around in the darkness about what you’re making and how you’re making it.
GH: Outside of the 2016 election, how much did you look to the news cycle to inform the show?
LS: It’s funny, because we really didn’t even have to. The show has become more relevant every single day. The concept of democracy being broken was not one that people seemed to relate to on such a wide scale a few years ago. I certainly didn’t, when Obama was president—it was incredibly prescient of David, I think. And the result is that the show doesn’t feel like a far-off fantasy; right now, it actually feels like people are really contending with what democracy is, and what it means.
GH: How did you approach the switch to the section of SOFT POWER that we see as a Chinese production?
LS: The truth is that, although it’s presented as a futuristic Chinese point of view, really it’s a fever dream of David Hwang’s. I feel like I can’t go down the road of, What would a Chinese director fifty years in the future be doing?, because none of that’s possible for me to imagine. I have to take what I know about musical theater and what I know about David Hwang and the research that I’ve done, and kind of put it in my own shaker in my brain.
The show has become more relevant every single day... And the result is that the show doesn’t feel like a far-off fantasy; right now, it actually feels like people are really contending with what democracy is, and what it means.
GH: You’re also trying to strike the right balance between humor and the show’s darker undertones, it seems like.
LS: Tonal shifts are very, very difficult to execute, but they’re delightful to experience. In the middle of DHH’s last aria, which is a very intense, complicated song about identity, there are two enormous jokes—and the audience is sniffling, then they’re laughing, then they’re sniffling again. It’s quite gratifying to be able to capture an audience like that, and one of the things I love about SOFT POWER is that we show the audience the magic trick. We tell you why musical theater is the perfect delivery system, we tell you what we’re gonna do, and then we do it. A friend of mine described our show as just the most delicious chocolate, with a razor blade inside. I think that that’s always been our goal, to have an unbelievably great time, while having that searing political commentary underneath.
GH: Could you talk about the choice to cast Hillary Clinton as a younger woman with long hair, rather than going for a more exact replica?
LS: We just didn’t have any interest in trying to do an impersonation of her. It’s like if you went to The King and I, I doubt that the portrayal of the king would resemble what that real king was like. No one is looking at that show and saying, “Oh, that’s what the King of Siam was like at that time. He was a bumbling idiot.” That’s just not true. He was a powerful, intelligent man. We don’t want our audience to think that we’re trying to present the real Hillary Clinton, either. At the same time, truly, the entire creative team has nothing but love in our hearts for her. She’s portrayed here as a complicated, whole woman. In general, in musical theater, that’s a rarity. We’re hoping we’ve given her humor, dignity, grace, and anger, and that she gets to have a full experience. People were too eager to try to contain her, to decide how she was gonna be portrayed, one way or another. I hope we’re giving people an opportunity to see her in a new way.
SOFT POWER runs June 20 - July 8. A contemporary comedy explodes into a musical fantasia in the first collaboration between two of America’s great theatre artists: Tony Award® winners David Henry Hwang (M. Butterfly, Flower Drum Song) and Jeanine Tesori (Fun Home). SOFT POWER rewinds our recent political history and plays it back through a Chinese lens: a future, beloved East-meets-West musical. Learn more.