PUBLISHED: January 31, 2017 at 8:45 pm | UPDATED: February 1, 2017 at 5:45 pm
The original article can be found HERE.
Sally Wingert makes her directorial debut this weekend with “The Whipping Man” at Minnesota Jewish Theatre, but one person knew 40 years ago that this was her destiny.
“My daddy, since I was in high school, said, ‘Sal, you’re a director. You’re going to be a director.’ Probably because I’m such a bossy, bratty, know-it-all-y person,” says the veteran Twin Cities actor, noting that her first role was a production of “You’re a Good Man, Charlie Brown” in which she played bossy, bratty, know-it-all-y Lucy.
Wingert has, indeed, been directing for the last month. The evidence is “The Whipping Man,” a post-Civil War drama in which three Virginia men reckon with the grotesque irony of Jews, with their legacy of slavery, who owned slaves. It opens Saturday at Minnesota Jewish Theatre Company in St. Paul, fulfilling a prediction from Dad and the continuing nudges of MJTC’s founder, Barbara Brooks.
“Barbara continually gives me fantastic acting opportunities and, for the last couple years, she would say, ‘You should directing something,’ ” Wingert says. “She had suggested one play and I said, ‘I can’t. The skill set to make that play work — I can’t do it as my first piece.’ And then she handed me this one. It is such a good play!”
“The Whipping Man,” which St. Paul’s Penumbra Theatre produced in 2009, spoke to Wingert because it immediately suggested images, because “it’s a good yarn” and because “it deals with how this legacy of slavery has f—ed us up as a country.”
The truth is that Wingert has been preparing for this job for a long time. Working with directors, good ones and bad ones, has taught her a lot about the way she wanted things to proceed in “Whipping Man” rehearsals.
“Most of the time, if you don’t like a performance, that’s the director’s fault. They cast the play, for one thing, and then they clearly couldn’t get the actor there,” Wingert says. She lists Theater Latte Da head Peter Rothstein as a current inspiring collaborator and former Guthrie artistic director Garland Wright as an early influence. Wright supplied her favorite piece of direction in a production of “A Woman of No Importance,” suggesting Wingert study mid-century fashion photos and telling her the dandyish Lady Allonby “never smiles with her teeth and sounds a lot like she’s speaking through whipped cream.”
“For a long while now, I’d sit in a rehearsal room and watch the process of the director, going, ‘Why don’t they move that person there? That doesn’t tell the story very well.’ If there is a blocking issue, I often have an idea how to solve it because, intuitively, I think I have a physical sense of the spaces. I don’t mean to toot my own horn here. I just think it’s a strength of mine,” Wingert says.
Openness to ideas in the rehearsal room informed Wingert’s direction of “The Whipping Man,” as did a design team she praises effusively.
“The worst is when a director is intimidated by my skill set, when they don’t want to hear a suggestion, when they’ve already decided exactly what it’s going to be and there’s nothing to add into that process,” Wingert says. She’s not sure what effect gender has on directing, but she does praise her Guthrie “Sense and Sensibility” director Sarah Rasmussen for creating “the most female rehearsal room I’ve ever been in. She was egalitarian, non-patriarchal, completely un-defensive about anyone saying, ‘Could we try this?’ ”
Being an actor and knowing the three characters in “The Whipping Man” well does not make Wingert want to play them, though. Her cast is Warren C. Bowles, who directed Wingert in “The Tale of the Allergist’s Wife” at MJTC, as well as Riley O’Toole and JuCoby Johnson, who next appears with Wingert in Latte Da’s “Six Degrees of Separation.”
Still, when Wingert described the action of the play and slipped into one of the roles, it was clear she had thought a lot about playing the parts.
“You’re about to have a part of your leg removed and there’s no anesthesia and they’re trying to get you drunk and, all of a sudden, it just comes out of you: ‘No, no, no, NOOO!’ That reality. You just have to be able to access the terror of that pain, of maybe dying in the next 30 minutes,” Wingert says. “Theater is so immediate. If it isn’t grabbing you, if you can look at a piece of theater like this (she leans back into her sofa in her St. Paul living room), then it doesn’t work.”
Wingert joins quite a few female Twin Cities actors who, approaching the midpoint of their acting careers, have become interested in directing. Austene Van has directed several shows. Faye Price is the co-artistic director of Pillsbury House Theatre. Shanan Custer’s production of “Deathtrap” opens at Theatre in the Round Feb. 17. Angela Timberman recently made her directing debut at Bloomington’s Artistry with a production of “Talley’s Folly.”
“For me, it was a little bit of trying to re-evaluate and going, ‘OK, I’m getting older and, even with all the diversity going on in theater now, there’s still an ageism thing,’ ” Timberman says. “I feel like women of a certain age can’t sit back and expect people to hand you opportunities. You have to sniff them out like a pig, looking for truffles. You have to knock on doors.”
Timberman, like Wingert, got the directing job because she had a collegial relationship with the artistic staff (Artistry’s Ben McGovern). And she had such a great time that she can’t wait to do it again.
“It was a really magic experience, almost like, ‘Oh, my gosh. I should have had it harder so I could get a little callused from this,’ ” says Timberman, who is lining up a yet-to-be-named directing gig for this summer. Another key factor for her is figuring out how directing fits with acting, since she’s paid more as an actor and since her health insurance is through the acting union, Actors’ Equity.
Fans don’t need to worry that they will stop seeing Wingert on stage, either.
“I’m not saying there aren’t fewer and fewer parts, but this is not about that. This is not, ‘Oh, as my acting income fades, I can add to it with directing,’ ” Wingert says. “We’ll just have to see how it goes. It could turn out that I get into rehearsal rooms (as a director) and this is exactly what my skill set is.”
As Wingert spoke about the play just before rehearsals began, the word “listen” came up a lot. That’s not surprising, since being a great actor has a lot to do with being a great listener.
“Listen” was there when Wingert spoke about being a generous actor in the rehearsal room. It was there when she spoke about listening to the characters as she first read “The Whipping Man.” It was there when she spoke about auditions, where she made sure not to be one of those directors who’s thumbing through scripts or checking iPhones while the actors are pouring out their hearts. And the word “listen” was there when Wingert talked about how she’ll know if she did a good job as a director.
“I feel critical enough when I see other work that I should be able to tell on myself. I’m sure I’ll be disappointed about some things I’ve done, but I’ll try everything I can do to make it great. And then, I will rely, anecdotally, on people who see it,” Wingert says.
She will rely on lots of people, in fact.
“I will read the reviews. Timmy (Danz, a St. Paul history teacher), my husband, is a great eye. Barbara (Brooks) has a great eye. And Warren (Bowles) is an old friend. I know him both as a co-actor and as my director. I feel like he would completely take me aside if something was going wrong,” Wingert says. “And I would listen.”
IF YOU GO
- What: “The Whipping Man”
- When: Through Feb. 26
- Where: Minnesota Jewish Theatre Company, 1978 Ford Parkway, St. Paul
- Tickets: $34-$20, 651-647-4315 or mnjewishtheatre.org