Sara Holdren ’08 says she arrived on campus half overconfident and half terrified of the Yale theater scene, a confusing mix of emotions that led to her “hiding under her bed” for the first part of her freshman year. Since emerging, she has worked as the artistic director of Yale’s experimental theater company Control Group, directed four shows and been involved in almost every aspect of theater with a variety of productions, most recently directing, set designing and costume designing last week’s “As You Like It.” From Shakespeare to Stoppard to all-nighter performance pieces and back, Holdren has endeavored to tackle both the traditional and the radical and bring fun and interesting theater back to Yale’s table. This week, Holdren chats with scene about past projects, future plans and why Shakespeare is potentially spicier than your sex life.
Q: What kind of project really grabs you?
A: It depends on what my role is going to be — it’s different to choose a play as a director than to sign onto a piece as an actor or a crew member. The thing that is shared is more of an interest in the way of working — a really open ensemble with a combination of insane, joyful, anything-can-happen playfulness and specific, clear, committed work on stage. It’s a way of working that does have discipline and does have a real rigor about being true to a text and telling the story we set out to tell, but it also has that playfulness. If I see that in a director, a group or a play — that’s why I want to work with it.
Q: Why is working with an open ensemble so important? What does that mean in terms of the creative process and the performance of theater?
A: What I mean on the most basic level is that with a group of people who feel equal and intimate with each other, the potential for what can be made there is so much greater. It’s so obvious when you see a product and people haven’t enjoyed the process. The contrast is a more star-oriented mode of theater, say a version of Richard III where Richard is played by Patrick Stewart and everyone just wants to see him and no one knows who those lords or guys with spears are in the background. God help me if I ever have a spear-carrier in one of my plays. In the ideal cast, all the actors have the talent and the drive to play Richard, but also the eagerness to make the most of whatever lord that they are playing. It’s important that the actors themselves feel validity in every character they play, in every moment on stage, and that they know why they are there and what their roles are.
Q: What is one attribute of theater that you pay special attention to when directing?
A: I have found at this point in my life that I want to work physically. Always. In any capacity, not just directing. I don’t believe in working inside out, but from the outside in. I’m fascinated by modes of theater that start with the body and legitimize the body in the search for making good theater. The body is not just a thing that emotions have to be inside of. It is what you are actually seeing on stage, and the idea you would start somewhere else is silly to me.
Q: Why Shakespeare — isn’t he kind of dull? And how do you reconcile that with your involvement with experimental theater?
Experimental Shakespeare — that’s what I feel like there isn’t enough of, what I’m interesting in adding to the already full-of-theater world… I joke about having a Shakespeare crusade, you know, “Bring it back! Do it right!” And I do get defensive and picky — many shows are mediocre if not bad. So often you see these texts done with expensive costumes and expensive sets and the person in front of you is sleeping. I want to take this language that at first might seem so different and show that the scenarios are not so far-fetched and bring it back to life… A professor from this summer class I took once said, “Shakespeare is a lot like sex — people always tell you how great it is but the first time it’s really hard and you have to look up a lot of words.” My crusade is to get people past that first time — I’m like the Shakespeare kama sutra.
Q: Speaking of stuffy Shakespeare, why “Henry IV”? What was it like working with that play for your senior project?
A: That “dryness” was one of the reasons I was so interested in doing it. I have always loved the image of what it could be as living theater — it’s nothing short of tragic that it always gets relegated to stuffy lectures. The whole fact that the genre is called “histories” puts people off — they think, “Well, this is neither funny, sad, nor interesting; I can just read the facts and get the same thing.” But actually the histories have everything — they are hilarious and sad and moving and farcical stories of people growing up and finding out who they are, and growing old and being afraid of dying. There is a political aspect and a personal aspect, which is so strong and so often and sadly gets lost… My mantra to the cast was: This is an amazing story — we’re going to tell this story and always think about how to do the best we can by it, because it hasn’t been told enough. It was a chance to share with others the huge affection that I feel for it.
Q: What plans do you have for theater after graduation?
A: Honestly it’s pretty vague. I auditioned for a Shakespeare company but I’m not hopeful… The thing I’m more interested in and committed to is searching for a way to establish my own company. It’s a big scary open-ended goal, but I’m really dedicated, and I have met people here and formed friendships and working relationships with people who want to join up and be part of some endeavor after graduation. It’s great to know a team of people out there I can continue to draw on and work and learn from. Now it’s all up in air — I’ll start working and see where it goes.