How Heroes of the Fourth Turning became a vision of what theater can be online. Director Danya Taymor Q and A

“Heroes of the Fourth Turning,” Will Arbery’s much-acclaimed play about a gathering of former classmates at a conservative Catholic college in Wyoming, not only  worked amazingly well as a Zoom play last week; in some ways, it improved on the production at Playwrights Horizons last October.

This is a crazy thing to say, for two reasons. First, the stage production could not have been more highly praised: It swept local awards, including two Obies (one for Arbery, one for the entire team; the citation was for “five brilliant performances, four remarkable designs, and a powerfully focused vision guiding them all.”) The playwright was also a finalist for the Pulitzer Prize for Drama.

And second: Plays presented on Zoom as “readings” are generally tolerated rather than savored – an adjustment we’ve grudgingly made to an imperfect technology because of shut theaters and social distancing.

When I saw the play on stage,  however, I found it terrifically acted, intellectually stimulating, at times wondrously eerie — and also too long and too dark. And by too dark, I meant it literally; the play takes place late at night in a dimly lit backyard. Arbery has told interviewers that more theatergoers walked out of the play because of the low lighting than because they disagreed with the characters’ politics (Arbery disgrees with their politics too, by the way, which is one reason why his respectful treatment of the characters is so impressive.)

The Play-PerView’s one-time streaming of the play eliminated both issues for me, the darkness, and somehow also the length. The characters seemed to be communicating with one another together under the stars, rather than from their disparate homes. (We saw black, not their bookcases.) And even some of the long philosophical rants kept me spellbound.

The playwright himself was impressed: “It has the spirit of theater — liveness, risk, access to the hidden….a vision right now of what theater can be. Danya Taymor is my hero.”

So I asked Danya Taymor, director of “Heroes of the Fourth Turning,”  for an interview. She agreed to a remote encounter; she happens to be on a ranch in Wyoming (the state where “Heroes of the Fourth Turning” takes place!)

Taymor, the 31-year-old niece of “The Lion King” director Julie Taymor, has made a name for herself in the theater over the last few years – helming such fine and disparate works as Martyna Majok’s “Queens,”  Antoinette Nwandu’s “Pass Over” and Jeremy O. Harris’s “Daddy.” During the pandemic, she has directed short plays for Viral Monologues and one by Arbery for  The Homebound Project # 2   She also helmed a benefit reading of “Uncle Vanya,” which will be presented online soon on behalf of the Broadway Advocacy Coalition and the Actors Fund, with the starry cast Samira Wiley, Constance Wu, Mia Katigbak, Manik Choksi, Alan Cumming, Anson Mount, K. Todd Freeman, Ellen Burstyn and Taymor’s boyfriend, the Tony-winning actor (for Matilda) Gabriel Ebert. “Heroes was my first experience directing a live show, ” Taymor says, “and I think that liveness is a big part of why it felt so electric on Saturday night.”

In the interview, which has been edited, Taymor talks about what livestream can do that theater can’t, and vice-versa, how they translated the stage to screen, and how she and the playwright have a Wyoming connection, or at least a “Wyoming” one.

How did you react to the idea of mounting “Heroes of The Fourth Turning” online?

I have to admit, part of me had a gut reaction of “no.” How could we possibly deliver even close to one tenth of what we were able to deliver in the theater? Would this be a watered down version? Would we even be able to get the play across?

Then Will, the cast, the designers and I started to talk about darkness, about liveness, about how to best deliver Will’s words and expose the world of the play in a new medium. Honoring the medium of the livestream really helped us figure out what it can do that theater can’t do,

How did you honor the medium of livestream?  What could it do that theater can’t? 

I think that what we were able to do with the live broadcast of Heroes was the closest thing I’ve felt to “theater” since the pandemic started and we’ve all been isolated, and that’s in some part because we committed to making it ephemeral. It existed in this way one time, on July 18th at 8pm EST, and now it will live on in the memories and imaginations of those who saw it, and nowhere else. That gave the performance itself an exciting danger and buzz and required total fearlessness from the actors.

The biggest tool we had that we don’t have in the theater is the close-up. Access to every tiny miniscule facial movement, every whisper and sigh, every glance. I think that in some ways, the text made a bigger impact at times over the livestream because of the intimacy of the camera and the incredible expressiveness of the human face. Will and I found that this version of Heroes was most compelling when the actors played for each other. We adapted the acting styles and of course modified the staging to play into what Zoom can deliver that a stage cannot. It allowed for subtlety that is sometimes absent in the theater simply because you want to reach the folks sitting at the back of the house.

And what couldn’t it do that theater can?

The biggest difference is the absence of a live, vocal audience. In live theater, the audience is absolutely another player in the piece. Theater brings bodies together in space. It was a thrill to know that 2,200 people were simultaneously watching this as Jeb, Zoe, Julia, Michele and John* performed it live, but it isn’t quite the same as sharing space and breathing in the same air. You can’t go for a drink with a stranger that you sat next to and talk about the play afterwards. You lose the physical intensity of live theater, though I do feel that this company brought the ferociousness of their physical performances to the livestream as well.

What’s the most tangible difference between what it took to put together this play, and what it took to put together the Viral Monologue and the Homebound Project monologue?

A huge advantage we had on Heroes is that we all got to spend time in space together rehearsing and performing this play for four months in 2019. These actors fused with their characters, and they brought all that cellular memory to this process. I think it would be much more challenging to achieve something like Heroes when you are building it from day one. Not impossible, but we had the advantage of all that work and time together, a collective memory of the thing and what it felt like. The Viral Monologues were more like gesture drawings to me, quick sketches from the gut that are beautiful and powerful in their simplicity. And those were 5 minutes long maximum. Heroes is 2 hours and 20 minutes, so finding and nailing that rhythm was so important, and we worked hard to achieve it.

Can you walk me through the process of translation from stage to screen?

We did our first read through and it was clear we had to shake off the version we were doing for the live audience at Playwrights Horizons. But we also discovered gems, like the fact that the darkest, quietest scenes could be more themselves in this new medium than was perhaps even possible in the theater.  That first read was such a good diagnostic test for us to see how the camera and the performance were functioning together.

The biggest change was embracing a physical stillness, not playing everything dead on to the camera, and letting the space still feel like it was in 360 instead of flat forward. The Playwrights production had so much embodiment, so much physicality and that just didn’t translate. The end for instance, there was an incredible physicality to that moment in the production, and Julia was able to harness that deep knowing of what the monologue needs to do, and lean entirely on the text to achieve the same effect.

The prologue was another thing that needed to be adapted. In the live theatrical version, you encounter the stage in total darkness,  live with shadow and light. We knew we couldn’t have a curtain speech, and tried to adapt the prologue as best we could: When the audience entered the zoom, there was Justin (Jeb Kreager), meditative and near invisible in the darkness, pre show birdsong playing. I think we were able to translate that blinking-through-darkness-into-light thing that was so effective in the production.

Each actor also had a costume consultation with our incredible costume designer Sarafina Bush, who went into the actors closets with them on FaceTime, picking out each article of clothing and working with Isabella and myself to get the perfect visual aesthetic of these folks. Justin Ellington, our tremendous sound designer, actually ran sound live on Saturday night because only he had the equipment to make it sound good. Normally a stage manager would run these cues, and it is a real art, and Justin stepped up in a brilliant way. Another distinction was that when characters left the stage, they left their cameras rolling so that their squares could become the dark night.

One distinct difference from a regular Zoom play that anybody who watched the show would notice is that, rather than seeing the actors’ homes in the background, the backgrounds were all black. How did you come up with that, was it difficult to accomplish, is this what Will Arbery was talking about when he Tweeted about “makeshift caves” and “moonlight rigs”?

When we first began talking about doing the presentation in the first place, we knew we needed to preserve the feeling of that expansive Wyoming night. Isabella [Byrd, the lighting  designer] had some incredible ideas about how to achieve that darkness, and we scheduled lighting fittings with each member of the cast.

These actors performed that magic in their bathrooms, bedrooms, tiny spare rooms, and each of them created their own lighting setup that allowed for the unified sense of darkness. This was no easy feat, and truly amazing that they could deliver the performances they did standing alone in rooms with their laptops piled up on stacks of books, with black duvateen draped behind them.

If you don’t mind my asking, how did you wind up in Wyoming now? Is it just a coincidence that “Heroes of the Fourth Turning” is set in the state?

Great question! My pull to Wyoming began when I was directing a play by Brian Watkins for Lesser America back in 2015 called “Wyoming.” Actually that play was the first time Will Arbery saw my work too; I think that’s how I first landed on Will’s radar  I fell in love with the world of “Wyoming,” and knew that I needed to get out here and see this mystic land in person.

I think I’ve been here five times, including one trip I made the winter before we began rehearsals for [the Playwrights Horizons production of] Heroes. That trip was so important. [Boyfriend] Gabe and I drove from Jackson to Dubois, Wyoming, where good friends of ours run a ranch called three spear ranch. The time I spent at three spear directly inspired so many of the design choices we made in the Playwrights production of Heroes….that darkness, that expanse, the house with the single porch light, the charge of that land, the history of the land and the silent scream you can hear if you are listening hard enough. One night we hiked up a hill near the ranch. It was close to midnight and there was a full moon. When we got to the top of the hill I gasped because all the horses on the ranch, and there are 1500 acres here, were all together on the top of the hill together, lit only with moonlight. That was when I felt the feeling of Heroes and began trying to figure out how to translate that for our production.

The weekend before we began rehearsal [for the livestream), I drove from Dubois to Lander, Wyoming, where Will’s family lives and where Wyoming Catholic College is located. WCC is the basis for Transfiguration college of Wyoming in the play. I was able to spend a few hours with Will’s parents and two of his sisters and their kids. We spent a few invaluable hours talking about the play, about the state of the world, the future and the past. It was an incredible afternoon and it definitely inspired me in a new way right before returning to the play.

Did the Wyoming part of Brian Watkins’ play “Wyoming” have anything to do with why you and Will Argery clicked? 

The Wyoming part is definitely a part, but only one of many many things I love and admire about Will and what I think brought us together.

*Cast members Jeb Kreager, Zoë Winters, Julia McDermott, Michele Pawk, and John Zdrojeski.

Author: New York Theater

Jonathan Mandell is a 3rd generation NYC journalist, who sees shows, reads plays, writes reviews and sometimes talks with people.

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