“Dilly at noon?”, he emails back.
Chasing Michael Barakiva down isn’t simple, even as the Hangar’s artistic director is preparing to launch his third season (fourth if you count his tenure as interim AD).
I had suggested playing his shadow for a day, which turned out to be the first Monday of June. His Hangar day was starting atypically late (no 9 a.m. staff meeting today) with a drop-in up at Ithaca College’s Dillingham Center to the rehearsal of “Or, What She Will” by Liz Duffy Adams, a Restoration comedy-inspired romp opening this week.
After a wrong turn, I find him in Studio 4, a slightly unfinished basement space wide enough to tape out the Hangar stage. He is in the corner, happily knitting and wearing his new rainbow Crocs, as director Morgan Gould fine-tunes an early encounter between the play’s heroine, Aphra Behn, the first professional woman playwright and also a spy, with an unexpected masked visitor to her prison cell. Austin Jones (acting faculty at IC), en masque, is acting the rake, complete with cloak and plummy British accent to Behn, played with purring insouciance by Emily Kunkel. Gould tries a sequence with Kunkel pounding her writing table with each exclamation. After a re-set, Kunkel suggests a different approach and she plays the sequence facing away from Jones. Gould agrees, encouraging her to play most of the beat directly to the audience.
Barakiva is in heaven; this is the first time he’s been able to engage Gould, whom he considers a rising star among new writer-directors. Just a week ago, they had launched the play’s first read-through, then the next day he’d hosted dinner for the four new Drama League directors, and by mid-week he was a whirlwind in New York City, catching the NYC premiere of Ithacan native Kate Hamill’s adaptation of “Little Women” (coming in August to the Hangar), taking in “Hadestown,” helming a staged reading of Douglas Langworthy’s modern ‘translation’ of Shakespeare’s “Henry VI, part 2” at the Classic Stage Company (performed Saturday afternoon), and then Sunday back in Ithaca.
At lunch break, Barakiva and Gould hold a whispered conversation about how things are going. Both seem pleased. Barakiva encourages her to make sure the actors continue to play the sides as well as center for the Hangar’s thrust stage. “I think I can go about 12 seconds on the side before I need to see someone’s face,” he remarks.
We hop down to the Hangar. It feels a bit cavernous at the moment, the stage stripped down and bare of set construction. The far corner of the lobby is set up with a square of tables, complete with five young creatives deep into their laptops. As Barakiva waits for a Lab Company design presentation, he thumbs through several emails on his phone. A short, intense, lively man jumps up from the table to grab his attention. He is Ismael Lara, Jr., one of the Drama League directors, and he is readying his KIDSTUFF production, “Lily Plants a Garden.”
Lara shows Barakiva his revised one-sentence description of the story of the play. Barakiva suggests two small revisions; he explains to me that he demands each of the DL directors to summarize their story in only one sentence, and to use that sentence to judge all design and directorial decisions they make.
“Lily” turns out to be a girl’s fantasy world played out in a war-torn country. These are the revised design presentations: 24 hours earlier a presentation was made to just Barakiva and Production Manager Adam Zonder. On the hour, the corner is full of chairs and chatter, as all the various tech departments and stage management descends. Design fellows (four out of the eight early career fellows hired) show inspirations and “final” drafts of scenery, lighting, costume, and sound. This KIDSTUFF takes place on the set for Sondheim’s “Into the Woods,” which Barakiva is directing. There is some badinage about budget: can “Woods” help out? Barakiva pushes back. He draws out what he loves, he questions what seems less clear: “What is the vocabulary of the magic in this play?” “Let’s look at that vision of a camp-fire, will the oil-can fire feel the same?” He judges a thrown-together “gummy bear tree” a “design fail,” challenging the scenic designer to be as creative as he has been in his other set-pieces.
Zonder shoots through all the departments (electrics, props, sound, wardrobe, stage management, etc.), asking if they have questions. Sound is concerned about wireless mics for some masked actors.
The other four designers file in shortly afterward along with director Amanda McRaven. Her piece is for the Wedge, the experimental part of the Lab Company, to be mounted at the Cherry Arts Space. Laura Gunderson’s “Revolution” takes place in the France of liberty, equality, and “fraternity” (“sorority,” amends McRaven.) The tri-color, a public square commedia stage, and the guillotine are this design’s reference points. To be costumed: the imprisoned Marie Antoinette, Charlotte Corday (murderer of Marat), Marianne Angelle (Haitian rebel), and the playwright Olympe de Gouges.
Shortly after, a props assistant asks Barakiva about obtaining a (slaughtered) pig. He suggests they ask Mary Beth Bunge (managing director) what kind of deal they might have with the Piggery. “But don’t ask for a pig,” he says, “Tell them about the play and learn how to butcher one.”
We take a break and walk outside towards the marina. We talk of the Hangar’s history, and its purpose. I agree it’s a leader as a teaching theater. I suggest that in this region, it is also a venue for larger cast plays, which, unfortunately, usually only happen in the musicals.
That concern, and the overflowing wealth of local professional acting talent, were the germination of Barakiva’s latest experiment, The Big Play Festival; it’s the subject of our next stop, the “Insider Event.” This periodic chance for donors, board members, and others to taste of the artistic ambitions of the Hangar will consist this afternoon of a panel with Barakiva interviewing the legendary Bob Moss (Playwrights Horizons, the Hangar, Syracuse Stage) who is directing a staged reading of “You Can’t Take It With You”; Cynthia Henderson (IC acting faculty), who will play matriarch Lena Younger in a reading of the Lorraine Hansberry classic, “A Raisin in the Sun”; and Cornell professor and professional director Beth Milles, helming a reading of Tracy Lett’s “August: Osage County.” These three shows will play in rep in late August and feature largely local actors.
The event proves a delirious and warm traversal of the American theatrical past and present. Suddenly, the just-empty Hangar feels full—both of the enthusiastic audience and the ghost of legendary performances past—including the 1965 Broadway revival of Kaufmann and Hart’s play, stage managed by Bob Moss, directed by Ellis Rabb, and featuring the luminous Rosemary Harris (recipient of a Lifetime Achievement Tony this year) as daughter Alice (usually cast as a bland ingenue), which Moss claims revived the fortunes of the play and forever gave it its heart. Milles and Barakiva trade reminiscences of assisting playwright Wendy Wasserstein at different stages of her career, while Henderson relates playing the part of Ruth opposite the great Gloria Foster’s Lena, which led Foster to introduce Henderson to Lloyd Richards, the original director, who became Henderson’s mentor.
One more stop: 7 p.m., back to Dillingham and the dance studio. Full of chatter, cheese pizza, and youth with passion, this is the orientation for the 2019 Lab Company. Barakiva, a Lab alumna himself, mentions previous alumni, including Rachel Chavkin, who was both a Lab actor and a Drama League director. Less than a week later, Chavkin will receive the Tony for Best Director of a Musical for “Hadestown” and offer a wondrous, challenging speech.