It’s been six years since Michael Rau ’05 graduated with Honors in Theater. Since then, he has established himself as a professional theatrical and operatic director in New York. Now he is returning for the first time to his alma mater to direct the Theater Department’s production of Sarah Ruhl’s “Melancholy Play: A Farce.” Rau sat down for a brief conversation with The Argus about his time at Wesleyan, his life since, and this latest project.
The Argus: So from what we hear, the last time you were at Wesleyan you were directing a play too. Can you tell us a little bit about your honors directing project?
Michael Rau: I adapted William Faulkner’s “As I Lay Dying”—the novel—into a play. And I wrote my thesis on other theatrical adaptations of the novel because it has this really weird, rich history; the first theatrical adaptation was a mime performance in France in the 1920’s that Artaud wrote about, apparently incredible, and there have been site-specific performances in Canada, and all of these not-so-great productions in New York. And basically my thesis was that “It’s really hard to do!”
A: What have you been doing since graduating?
MR: Oh my God…ok, so when I was a senior, in addition to doing my thesis I applied to the MFA directing program at Columbia, which is run by Anne Bogart, and I got in. So that took three years of my life. I moved to New York, I was directing two plays a week, and then at the third year of the program they send you out on internships. I assisted Les Waters at A.R.T. [the American Repertory Theater], and I assisted Robert Woodruff on a new opera by Philip Glass out in San Francisco. So when I graduated in 2008, I had about eight months of work lined up as a professional director, all not in New York City. Then I got hired by NYU, so now I’ve been working there.
A: So, how did you end up back here?
MR: I mean, [Professor] Cláudia [Nascimento] just called me. It’s as simple as that. I had just gotten back from Germany where I’d directed a show, and she just—it was either Cláudia or [Professor] Jack [Carr], I honestly can’t remember who—but either way, one of them got in touch with me and said, “[Professor] Yuriy’s [Kordonskiy] not going to be directing in the spring, are you interested, would you be available?” That kind of thing. And I said, “Sure.”
A: So, you’re directing Sarah Ruhl’s “Melancholy Play.” It’s not a very well-known text outside of the hyper-theatrical world, so for people who haven’t heard of it…what is it?
MR: I’d say that “Melancholy Play” is a comedy about sadness. You know, she subtitles it “A Farce.” So it’s not a serious piece of theater, but at the same time I think that there are some really serious, interesting ideas lurking inside it.
A: What made you choose it?
MR: Well, Cláudia suggested that I do a Sarah Ruhl play because she was coming to campus, and she thought it’d be nice. So I read through all of her plays. I think that “Melancholy Play” was the play that resonated most with me. I grew up in Illinois—she talks about the sadness in the afternoon a lot, and since I grew up in that place I kind of understand that sadness. I think it’s a really great play, though, for students. It’s really fun, it’s composed with music throughout, and I teach opera at NYU so I thought this was a great opportunity for me to bring the skills I have as an opera director to Wesleyan and incorporate them with the play.
A: What’s the process been like, casting, rehearsals? Weren’t you all here over winter break?
MR: Yes. We cast in early December, and then everyone came back early from break because I teach at NYU. We had two or three weeks here doing an intensive before classes started where we rehearsed almost every day. Once classes started I had to be in New York on Tuesdays and Thursdays, and then I came here on the weekends and rehearsed on the weekends. So…grueling? [laughs] I think if you ask the cast, it seems like a lot of work, but you know, these guys have been so great. They all came, on day one they were fully memorized and resolved on wanting to make the play exciting. I think there is something wonderful about the way theater is taught here, and the way that Second Stage exists, so that people can really do so much work and at the same time get a really good liberal arts education. It’s not just pure theater all the time. They have outside interests, they understand when you talk about music or poetry or other non-theater things. So it’s been a real joy for me to work with the students here.
A: Do you think there’s anything that’s particularly Wesleyan-resonant about this play?
MR: I don’t think it’s particularly Wesleyan-resonant, but it is time resonant; it’s something that needs to be said now. I think “Melancholy Play” is great for that. I think what Sarah Ruhl asks us to consider is this idea that maybe sadness isn’t a bad thing, maybe it’s not something that we always need to medicate away. It’s part of life and should be accepted, not run away from. I think there’s a lot of silly stuff that happens in the play, but when you get down to it that’s what the play is asking. And I think that’s a valid question these days.
“Melancholy Play” opened Thursday night and has continuing performances tonight (Friday) and Saturday, both at 8:00 p.m. in the CFA Theater. Tickets are $4.00 for Wesleyan students.