Daniel Talbott: A Brave and Vulnerable Theater

I first saw one of Daniel Talbott’s plays one night in LA. I took an Uber all the way across town hoping to get a rush ticket to a play showing in North Hollywood that night, it was Charlotte Miller’s play, ‘Thieves’, Directed by Talbott. Fortunately, I got the ticket and to my surprise, for pretty cheap. 15 minutes into the act, I wanted to know who this Director was and why I felt his work was different to much of the previous theater I had seen. I began following his work and have since been inspired by his dedication and commitment to an honest and groundbreaking theater.

Daniel Talbott is an actor, director, playwright, artistic director of the Lucille Lortel and New York Innovative Theatre Award winning Rising Phoenix Repertory, Artistic Associate of Rattlestick Playwrights Theater and the Associate Artistic Director of Your Name Here.

What do you hope for in the future of Theater?

Daniel Talbott: That’s a huge, huge question that brilliant folks like Todd London are tackling in beautiful, specific, complicated ways right now, and writing incredible books about, read all his books. I feel it’s so intricate and important, and we all have to be asking it on a ton of different levels right now.

So, I wanted to throw a few personal hopes below, things that move and inspire me. Things that I already see a ton of, but also, always want more of. Things that I’m throwing out because I see it in somebody’s work, or in a play or a moment, or in the work a theater company is doing, and I’m like, I want more of that! I’m throwing them below because it’s what I want every time I go to the theater and it’s what I’m trying to think about and strive for in my own work. It’s a wish list. A mantra list for my ass. Reminders. They’re the first things that popped into my over-caffeinated, sleepy, scattered head.

  • I hope for a theater that I feel in my heart, my back, my balls, my guts first and my head last.
  • I hope for a theater that scares me. Not in a cheap, shocking way, but in a deep and profound way.
  • I hope for a theater that belongs to everyone. That is owned and inhabited by everyone, not just the liberal arts class.
  • I hope for a theater that incites action, violence, upset stomachs, spasmodic laughter, fucking and that feeling you get in every part of your body when you’re in love, the type of love that you don’t have control over and causes you to act badly with the best intentions.
  • I hope for a theater that rejects being cool, over-marketed, geared toward glowing reviews, or smug.
  • I hope for a theater that surprises me and is brutally active and responsive. That the artists are as surprised and present in the creation of it, alive and in front of us, as if for the first time, as we are watching it.
  • I hope for a theater that honors the past, and actively opens a door into now and the future that cannot be closed.
  • I hope for a theater where we can stop talking about money and just talk about work and at the same time that my friends and family and fellow theater artists can earn a living wage doing the beautiful, essential, and important work that they’re doing, not just 9 to 5, but pretty much 6 till fucking 2am, every day. I know that’s not realistic, but these are hopes and wishes, so I’m going to say it.
  • I hope for a theater where we own our actions and ourselves, and we demand culpability for and from our work and the choices we make. A brave and vulnerable theater.
  • I hope for a theater that’s both ugly and beautiful.
  • I hope for a theater that discards social and career politics and popularity.
  • I hope for a theater that feels like a family at its best. A place that holds you up and has your back, just as you are, whether you fail or succeed. A theater that encourages you to fail as well as succeed.
  • I hope for a theater rooted in loyalty. Theater people should disagree, fight it out, and extend a hand at the end of the scuffle.
  • I hope for a theater that tackles a culture of narcissism and self-service, and does so first and foremost by being selfless.
  • I hope for a sacred theater.
  • I hope for a theater that feels like a best friend.

Sam Soule and Chris Bellant in Gray (Your Name Here)

Sam Soule and Chris Bellant in Gray (Your Name Here)

Can you share a most inspiring moment you have had as a director?

Daniel Talbott: There are so many things that have inspired me getting to work as a director, and I feel really lucky to be one. I would say a few of the things that have stuck with me deeply and that I cherish, and that will always be really important and special to me, are getting to be part of The Hill Town Plays and the whole Hill Town family with Rattlestick, and especially Lucy Thurber.

Working with Sam Soule, Will Pullen, Chris Bellant, John McDermott, David Anzuelo, Tristan Raines, Kia Rogers and David Macke on GRAY.  And with Will, Sammy, Jimi Stanton, David Van Asselt, John Zalewski and a bunch of the same folks on What Happened When.

Cino Nights and almost all of the projects we’ve gotten to do with Wendy vanden Heuvel and piece by piece productions.

Those projects are (so far) what have stuck with me and meant the most and they are the ones that I’ve grown and learned the most from.

What has been a turning point in your life as an artist, what memory do you have that made you decide, this is what I have to do with my life?

Daniel Talbott: My first real experience with theater was when I was a little kid and I saw Peter Pan with my Grandma Lou in San Francisco. I guess when the pirates started coming for the kids I jumped up on my seat and started screaming, “They’re coming! THEY’RE COMING! Run! RUN! They’re going to get you! HIDE!” and then basically fell apart because I was so worried about them. It took a bunch more years though for me to find the theatre and in my junior year of high school I took a class at A.C.T. in San Francisco at their wonderful Young Conservatory with the brilliant Andrew Dolan. I got in the elevator at 30 Grant Street and something made sense for the first time in my life. It was before the class even started and I was like, I’m going to do this.

I know it sounds crazy but something in that elevator ride just made sense and I was basically like, if I’m shit at this or I’m good at this, I’m going to do it. I had horrible stage fright and I was really bad, I was really terrible. I couldn’t memorize a fuckin’ line. I over muscled everything. I was horrible and I was terrified, but I was just like, I’m going to do this. This is going to sound so hokey, but some people say, “I had a calling to go into the priesthood” or “I had a calling to be a firefighter” or something, but it was the first time in my whole life that I felt whole. It made sense and I just knew…and I can’t describe it more than that, but it was like, this was going to be my life and I just made a decision. Also seeing Cherry Jones in The Heiress and Zoe Caldwell in Master Class. They changed my life too and they’re two of my heroes.

Will Pullen and Jimi Stanton in What Happened When (Rattlestick/Your Name Here)

Will Pullen and Jimi Stanton in What Happened When (Rattlestick/Your Name Here)

How different is the process from directing a play of your own, versus directing a play written by another playwright?

Daniel Talbott: I think every process and play is different. I think you always go in with a strong game plan and a ton of clarity about what you have to work with at that given moment, in that given time and space and then it always shifts or is different than you thought it would be. Everything changes and that’s great. You’ve got to dance and pivot and that’s one of the biggest joys of theater. The unknown is such a huge part of what’s beautiful and sacred about theater.

I think one thing that’s different when I’m trying to direct one of my own plays is that I make sure a lot of people I trust immensely have signed off on the text of the play before we go into rehearsal,  just so I know I can do my work as a director and that there is enough of a foundation there that we can all work from. I want the play to be in really strong shape so that the whole rehearsal doesn’t get eaten up with me having to rewrite in a way that could be detrimental to anyone else working on the play. In both circumstances, with my play or someone else’s, I try to do the best, most dynamic, lived-in, alive, vulnerable and dangerous version of that play that I can, taking in the style, world of the play, the resources we have, space and the playwright’s intentions. I really try to help create a room that’s alive, funny, and fun as fuck, honest without bullshit power games, and a place where we’re all going to try to go further and further into the play, further than we thought was possible. I love trusting the folks I’m working with and I have no interest in being the guru, parent, or solver of all things. I want to be pushed and push everyone in the room out of our own little islands of comfort, and dive into the unknown together. I love actors like Sam Soule, Will Pullen, Chris Stack, Wendy vanden Heuvel, Seth Numrich, Katie Erbe, Chris Bellant, Didi O’Connell, Gordon Weiss, Jerry Matz, and Chris Abbott to name a few of so so so many, who are always driving you to be better and wanting you to push them to do the same.

I want to work with actors who love working and are professionals, whether we’re making zero dollars or are making a really solid living. Actors who are generous, fearless, non-judgmental, selfless, hungry, dangerous, full of laughs and humor, dirty and always there for everyone else in the room. It’s deadly being in a room with people who are there for themselves, their careers, or ego. If you’re great and your work together is great, sooner or later all of that stuff will work itself out.

Sam Soule in What Happened When (Rattlestick/Your Name Here)

Sam Soule in What Happened When (Rattlestick/Your Name Here)

What kind of failures have you experienced in your work? How have these shaped you as an artist?

Daniel Talbott: I’m constantly experiencing failure on every level in life and work. I constantly fuck up. There is no theater or drama without failure. How you deal with failure and grow and create from it, is such a hugely important and essential part of being a theater artist. There are projects that other folks might think are successful and for you they were massive failures. I really think it’s how you bounce back and grow from falling down that is the most important thing. Everyone fucks up. Everyone’s who’s been lucky enough to make a living in theater, film, and TV – everyone’s been an asshole or done bad work, and hopefully great work too. You’ve got to hope that people will be forgiving and kind, and loyal, and that they’ll allow you be human and fuck up many times. You have to give the same respect, generosity, and benefit of the doubt to everyone you work with. You have to embrace and celebrate failure or there is no growth and ultimately no theater.

Do you have any plans to direct for film?

Daniel Talbott: I do for sure and I always want to work in all three – theater, TV, and film, and I’m busting my ass to do so.

How would you like to be remembered for the work that you do?

Daniel Talbott: I want to be defined by the work I do and for that to be what folks remember about me. I hope they also remember that I’m flawed, fucked up and that I’m attempting to be as big hearted, generous, loyal, loving and kind as I can be. I want to be remembered for working insanely hard and trying to create home, family, friends and work opportunities for others and especially for the people I love.

In the end, what makes a theater artist is action; it’s the work. We all have to live and feed our families, we have to build opportunities for ourselves and each other. Sometimes it seems like there are set paths or doors that are only open to a select few. There’s absolutely incredible theatre being made on Broadway, Off-Broadway, Off-Off Broadway, regionally and everywhere in between. We all have our dream shows, productions that would require a big budget to fulfill our intended vision. But again, in the end, what makes a theatre artist is the work – period. Theatre is in the doing and the creation of theatre. I don’t believe you can ever sit around waiting and complaining about why you or I can’t do these “dream” shows, or why you or I don’t have enough money to be making work. If one day the money’s there, great, let’s do it and hopefully it won’t be a total disaster. But if the money is never there and there’s a good chance it won’t be, we’ll all hopefully have worked on hundreds of other shows in the time in between. I want to be remembered, again, by the work that I do.

Can you tell us about your work as Artistic Director?

Daniel Talbott: That’s another huge question and there are so many roads to go down in talking about it, but something I’ve said before in talking about our company Rising Phoenix Rep and the work we’ve been trying to do, especially with Cino Nights, I think encapsulates it the best:

I’ve seen gorgeous, alive, ferociously vital theatre that cost millions and also equally as extraordinary theatre that cost a subway swipe downtown and a few days of a talented group of folks’ time. You can make theatre anywhere at anytime and there’s nothing stopping any of us except our own limitations about what professional theatre should or should not be. What makes us theatre artists is not whether or not we work at a theatre with a million dollar plus budget, but that we’re working and making theatre and through our work and work ethic, creating theatre professionally.

You can always create theatre. Whether you’re on Broadway or in a LORT B house, or struggling your heart out in a small back room in Queens. Theatre is theatre and we’re all equal on the boards. I don’t think anyone would call the work that Lanford Wilson or John Guare did at the Caffe Cino insignificant or unprofessional, simply because they weren’t paid and the budgets were tiny (if there were any at all).

Tons of money or none at all, the work on each play is always different but also the same.  In the pure theatre, there’s no tier system, no one is better than anyone else. There’s just the story, the “unworthy spirits”—your collaborators, exploded imagination and physical action in space. No amount of money will make your heart bigger, your fight hotter, or your imagination the size of a solar system and beyond. Belief in yourself and others will lead you down that path much further and more surely. Nowadays, if you can’t afford the rent on your own Cino, build one in your bathtub or on your roof, or under a lamppost on a corner in Harlem, or in the flatbed of your grandma’s truck. Build it. Trust. Open your heart and start working with others, and they will come. Theatre is always possible; it’s infinite in its possibility. The commercial, institutional theatre is wonderful, but those theaters are only a few of the restaurants in this wonderful city of many. If you’re starving and for whatever reason those restaurants won’t let you in, you are starving find a restaurant that will let you in, or learn to grow your own food and make your own dishes and invite everyone over to eat together.

That, hopefully more than anything, describes my work as an artistic director and what I’m trying and hoping to do.

Will Pullen in Gray (Your Name Here)

Will Pullen in Gray (Your Name Here)

Rising Phoenix Repertory, Artistic Director


Rattlesticks Playwrights Theater, Associate Director


Daniel Talbott’s Plays:
Yosemite (Rattlestick)
Afghanistan, Zimbabwe, America, Kuwait
What Happened When
Someone Brought Me
Mike and Seth
Extraordinary Things
F**king Immaculate

Daniella Alma

Daniella Alma is an Actress / Producer, born and raised in London, UK and now living in New York City. She is also the Creative Producer/Journalist of Monologue Blogger, wherein she conducts interviews with filmmakers from around the globe. Her leading film work as an Actress has premiered in Festival de Cannes, Tribeca, Renaissance Film Festival and BIFF. Upcoming projects: Daniella Alma's next role will streaming in a new Hulu Original in late 2017.

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