Directors Q&A Series: Benjamin Endsley Klein
Hello Beautiful People,
To say that I’m elated to bring the newest feature in the Directors Q&A Series would be an understatement. A huge understatement. I returned to Amy’s Bread for yet another fantastic interview with director Benjamin Endsley Klein, and was blown away. He is eloquent, he is wise, and he is passionate about his craft. If I transcribed every single word of this interview, it would be a novella, as our conversation was that lengthy. As a playwright and young director, I learned a great deal. Benjamin’s credits include Resident Director of War Horse at Lincoln Center Theatre, the world premiere musical Hello Out There at The Adirondack Theatre Festival, the East Coast Premiere of Sick by Zayd Dohrn at New Jersey Repertory, Hairspray at Charlottetown Festival (Prince Edward Island, Canada), Notes to MariAnne at the Eugene O’Neill Musical Theatre Conference, and Dr. Seuss’ How the Grinch Stole Christmas at The Old Globe in San Diego, California – and that is just the tip of the iceberg. Benjamin’s current production is the one woman play ANN, written by and starring Holland Taylor, and it is currently playing at Lincoln Center. It’s a phenomenal show, and I urge you to go see it. In the meantime, get to know Benjamin Endsley Klein, ANN’s outstanding director, and someone I am so blessed to call a friend.
TWT: Did you always want to be a director?
BEK: Like many people, I was acting in middle school and high school. I grew up in Charlotte, North Carolina, and there was a lot of opportunity there, as there was a budding film industry growing. At the time, it was the third most desirable location for people to shoot things – mountain, beaches, urban settings, it was all there, and so I auditioned for a variety of different things. I also was part of the theater program at my high school; I went to an arts magnet high school. I loved acting, and originally thought I was going to be an actor and then went to St. Louis University under an acting scholarship, but after my first year there I didn’t feel like I was getting what I needed to be a professional in this industry. It’s nothing against them; I just needed to be challenged more, and transferred to the University of Michigan. At the time they had a directors program that was very much like a graduate school program, I could still take the acting courses and design courses and be in the shows, and being part of that directing program really kicked it off for me. Unfortunately, I was always that actor that couldn’t keep my mouth shut, and always wanted to make everything better. I didn’t really realize you could be a director as a young person, it felt like something only older people did after they had done more, but University of Michigan opened that up for me. Another funny tidbit is when I lost my hair, I was twenty years old and going bald and I lost confidence in my cast-ability; it really forced me to reassess my other options. I made another amazing connection at Michigan, my mentor, Jack O’Brien. He came to see a workshop production that was being directed by Mark Lamos. Mark was a visiting professor at Michigan who I assisted twice on shows. He would bring shows to Michigan that he would be doing professionally, and workshop the productions with the students. After that, I ended up working with Mark on the show at The Old Globe in San Diego. I constantly stayed in touch with Jack, long after I graduated. He first offered me a position with Dirty Rotten Scoundrels, and the rest is history. It’s been a working relationship that is ten years in the making, and he’s taught me everything – I never went to graduate school. The work I’ve done with Jack is virtually one in the same.
TWT: You worked on Hairspray for four years. What was it like working on a show for that long?
BEK: I loved working on Hairspray cause it stood for something. It looked like a big piece of fluffy piece of candy on the outside, but when you broke it down, you realized it was about tolerance and so much more than the glitz in the glam. I’m interested in telling a story that people don’t expect.
TWT: ANN is a play that has never been done before, and it’s been your Broadway debut. This show will eventually leave Broadway, and you have set the standard for what this show is; what has this whole process been like for you?
BEK: This is a story where I think people come expecting one thing, and then get something else out of it. It’s not a show about politics or a politician, but rather it’s a show about a woman who didn’t take no for an answer. She reinterpreted what her life could be. Ann Richards was a wonderful wife and mother, and like a lot of women at that time she thought that was her career. But then things changed, she got divorced, and her children were grown. She had always been a volunteer in politics, but never thought she’d be the one to lead. Within fifteen years, Ann went from being a housewife to the Governor of Texas, and that speaks to people. It’s about someone who was called to make a difference and give a voice to people who felt like they didn’t belong in government or felt like they didn’t have a say. A friend came to see this production, and afterwards told me that she felt like she could do anything. To me, that was one of the highest complements that I received and something that people need to realize. Before I came onto the show, Holland had done three and half years work of research, and spend nine months writing. The first script I got was over 50 pages long; it’s now about 31 pages . I was coming in to help bring flesh to her vision, because the one thing that she couldn’t do, being the writer and director, was watch it. I was figuring out how to help her realize how to make her vision the best it could be. The development of this show has been long and educational and fantastic.
TWT: You have spent a lot of time with productions in London. What do you think is the biggest difference between British and American theater?
BEK: It’s just different. Not better or worse, but different. I can speak about War Horse, for example. War Horse at the level it was created would probably not have been created here, and that’s mainly because of the subsidies that are available for art over in London. The National Theater of London is just that – the National Theater of London gets money from the government to support the arts. Our National Endowment of the Arts grows smaller every year; our politicians don’t place as much importance on it. There’s a different type of art that’s able to be created, due to the subsidies that just don’t exists here. It’s more expensive to do that here, on a comparable level of Broadway to The West End. It comes down to dollars and cents.
TWT: In today’s economy arts programs are being cut. What reasons would you give to a politician for preserving the arts?
BEK: It’s great to learn math and science and history, but art is what gives the ability to take all that about all that information and think about it critically and intelligently, and use it, and come up with new ways to use it. We’re all sitting here using iPhones, but that doesn’t exist without art. Yes technicians created them, but it wouldn’t exist if there weren’t artists and designers who thought beyond. I think if we had more creative politicians who could think beyond what’s in front of them, if they had music classes in schools, or went to the ballet and the theater, if they stretched their brains beyond two plus two is four and if they could find creative ways to solve programs, I daresay we’d fix many more problems.
TWT: Who is/was your greatest teacher?
BEK: I’ve had amazing male mentors in my educational career. Jack O’Brien is one of my greatest mentors and teachers, and someone I now call a close friend. I’ve also had amazing female teachers as well. When I win any sort of award, my acceptance speech will probably be just a long list of teachers that I’ve had in my life that I’ve been accumulating through the years. They deserve the credit.
Thank you, Benjamin! And Write Teacher(s) Readers, be sure to go see ANN.
Live, Love, Learn,