Skokie native David Cromer directs ‘Rent’ in Chicago
American Theater Company, 1909 W. Byron St., Chicago
Through June 17
$45 and $50
(773) 409-4125 or visit www.atcweb.org
Updated: May 22, 2012 9:18PM
After dropping out of Evanston Township High School in his junior year, then proceeding to Columbia College, Skokie native David Cromer began his theater career as a Chicago actor around 1980 — and then made a quick and successful segue into directing.
Following noteworthy productions in Chicago including Jeff Award-winning stagings of “Angels in America” (in which he also acted) in 1998, “The Price” at Writer’s Theatre in 2002, and “The Cider House Rules” at Famous Door in 2003, Cromer transitioned to New York with a Steppenwolf production of “Orson’s Shadow” in 2005.
His subsequent work there includes a long-running 2009 production of “Our Town” (another Chicago transfer, in which he performed as the Stage Manager”) that earned him Lucille Lortel and Obie Awards for directing, and his most recent staging of the family drama “Tribes,” for which he has been nominated for a Drama Desk award.
At the moment, Cromer is back in Chicago, directing the 1996 Pulitzer Prize and Tony Award-winning rock musical “Rent.” The American Theater Company/About Face Theatre production, about the lives and loves of young struggling artists in New York’s East Village, runs through June 17 at the ATC.
Pioneer caught up with him near the end of rehearsals for a quick chat.
Q: At what point did you begin to think directing might appeal to you more than being an actor?
A: I studied acting at Columbia and I started working as an actor, but then I found a play that I wanted to direct, and the chair of the department at Columbia let me come back and audit the directing program. So I was able to kind of go to a grad school situation where one didn’t exist for free. And I really got into it. It was a better fit for me. I still acted occasionally and I act once in awhile now, but I consider myself a director, mostly.
I act as a lark sometimes. But I never thought my abilities were ... Let’s put it his way: I’m a good 28-year-old actor. Unfortunately, I’m 47. (Laughs.)
Q: You have a reputation for being a novel, even a visionary director. When you’re working on a play, how do you approach the text? Do you purposefully try to bring it to life in a novel way?
A: That can’t be the goal. Looking for a new way to do something should never be your motivation. The goal is always to make the play seem as if it’s really happening. You look at the text and figure out “This is what it’s asking for, this is what it’s saying, this is what it does.” People tend to think it’s somehow less worthy, just to try to do what’s there. I think the job is to understand the circumstances that are laid out for you and try to create forces around them that will cause those things to happen organically.
We’re supposed to do what the play is asking us to do. The first note I give and the last note I give is always to lead with the words, because they’re telling us what’s going on.
Q: Are you approaching “Rent” as a spectacle or as a fairly realistic story about the lives of young struggling artists?
A: I wouldn’t say it’s going to be realistic. After all, they’re singing. (Laughs.) We’re approaching “Rent” as something that is truthful, though that’s not to suggest it hasn’t been approached truthfully before. People associate truthfulness with realism and that’s not necessarily the case. Realism just seems like it’s really happening, that it’s believable — you understand why the person sings. You believe for a time in a world in which people sing.
For plays that require realism, I try to be very aggressive about making them seem literally real — plays like “Come Back, Little Sheba,” or “Picnic.”
Something like “Rent” calls for a heightened reality. There’s really no particular take to consider about “Rent.” They talk about cold they are, they talk about how poor they are and how scared they are. They have moments of great joy, they fall in love. You just try to go moment by moment and make people believe in it, then just ride the story.
Q: Does working on “Rent” remind you of your own struggling days in Chicago theater? A:
Absolutely. That’s one
of the things everyone loves
about this show. It offers a very personal reminder of a point
in your life when you were
young and just starting out in
the world. That’s the universality of it. We’re trying to honor the experience of the characters as written by Jonathan Larson and interpreted by the characters playing them, but I’m certainly bringing as much of my own experience as I can, as much as will be useful.