Interview with James Yost
Director of True West by Sam Shepard
James Yost is the co-artistic director of Interrobang Theatre Project, a long-time friend of the Shattered Globe Ensemble, and director of the first show of our 2016-2017 Season. This is Yost’s first production with SGT, so we wanted to give you a chance to get to know him some more…
What inspired you to get into theater?
I was an English major in college and took a theatre survey course. The instructor got me looking at plays and drama in a different way. She was so passionate about it. I read Cloud Nine and The Zoo Story and Glengarry Glen Ross and was hooked. I started to visualize how the characters looked and moved and talked.
What memorable responses have you had to your work?
I recently directed a production about college rape called Really Really, and the playwright was intentionally ambiguous about what really happens between the two characters–one having accused the other of raping her. It was such a well-crafted story, and hit a lot of triggers with people who saw it. One women sought me out afterward to tell me how affected she was by the play and she brought her daughter who was about to start college back the following weekend. It was like a cautionary tale in a way. People were visibly affected by the play. That’s the most important thing theatre can do. Affect people.
What memorable experiences have you had as a director?
I directed an amazing production of one of my favorite plays, A Midsummer Night’s Dream, with High School actors. I utilized aerial fabric artists who played fairies and the entire show was magical. The students were amazing, too. It was one of those rare occasions where everything I imagined conceptually came to fruition. And, it’s the perfect example of why I love working with high school people.
What’s integral to the work of an artist?
Constant inspiration. And never ever comparing yourself to others. I think I am my own worst critic, as all artists are. But, I always try and learn something from everyone I work with.
Name three artists you’d like to be compared to.
David Lynch: He is a personal hero both because he is a visionary,and also because he continues to the make the films he wants to make without compromise. And, some of them aren’t “good”.
Roman Polanski: Another favorite. Also a true artist in the sense that every film he makes is different yet yields his visual aesthetic. He also makes the kind of films I think I’d make if I were a filmmaker.
Raymond Carver: He only ever wrote short stories. But everything I’ve read (which is everything he’s written) explores human affliction in the simplest and most economic language. He also writes about people I am interested in: middle class, afflicted, and damaged.
What do you look forward to when starting a project?
Working with my fellow artists. I love working with other people, especially when they are so passionate. Greg Pinsoneault (Scenic Designer) and Morgan Lake (Sound Designer)–both of whom I often work with at Interrobang Theatre Project– are two amazing artists. They energize and inspire, and they are easy to talk to and work with (they are also both DePaul grads). It’s like a drug, especially when we can “nerd out” about a play.
Why are you excited about working with SGT?
I have gotten to know many members of the ensemble primarily because the first show I ever directed in Chicago featured Joseph Wiens (Lee)–for which he was Jeff Nominated. He and I became fast friends and I started seeing him in all the SGT shows. I love how warm and friendly everyone at SGT is, in addition to being incredibly talented. Joe and I are always talking about shows we want to do together. I would direct him in ANYTHING. He is one of Chicago’s best actors.
Why did you want to be involved in this production?
I love SGT, and I really really wanted to work with the ensemble. I also love True West. And, after seeing several SGT shows, I thought True West was a perfect example of the kind of work I’d seen. It is edgy and raw and requires a certain caliber of actor.
What sort of research do you do when starting a project?
I read the play several times. And I also read other plays by the same playwright. I’ve read most of Shepard’s plays, and True West is one of my favorites (even more than Buried Child). I also read reviews of other productions which helps with perspective (what did other people love/hate about it). And, I read a lot about Sam Shepard. He is Austin as much as he is Lee.
What’s challenging about bringing this script to life?
The play is an incredible challenge for actors. It’s a character study that requires so much physical and mental preparation. In addition, it has a history in Chicago thanks to Steppenwolf. In some ways I want to “reimagine” this play the same way one might reimagine Shakespeare or Moliere. What about it speaks to audiences today and how does it withstand time? The 80’s are not that far in the past, and there are things about this play that are even more relevant today. Lee and Austin are still out there in the world. The duality of the artist. The struggles of addiction. How our families fuck us up. Violence. It has made for good drama since the Greeks.
What is going to surprise people about this show?
How funny it is. It’s certainly intense and can be very dark, but it is very funny. Joe (Lee) and Kevin (Austin) are naturally funny guys, and there is no way that humor could get lost (and, a good thing too). Shepard’s writing is so sharp and economical, but also smart. He makes you cringe and smile at the same time. Few writers can manipulate you as skillfully as he does.