Zi Alikhan, a New York City-based theater director, has recently arrived in New Haven to serve as the Director of the Yale Dramat’s Fall Mainstage, Andrew Lippa’s “The Wild Party”. After obtaining his BFA in musical theater from the revered New York University Tisch School of Art, Zi became the founder, then artistic director, of The BASiC Theater Project, a New York-based performance collective to represent social change in the millennial world. Zi has been recognized for his work by the industry’s most renowned institutions and names. He received a Drama League Directing fellowship in 2014 and assisted Tony-nominee Marcia Milgrom Dodge on a world premiere of Robert Sternin and Prudence Fraser’s “Under My Skin” at the Pasadena Playhouse. WKND chatted with Zi about his career, his involvement with “ The Wild Party,” and the casting controversy it provoked on campus.
Q: In your own words, who are you — what do you want to be, where did you come from?
A: That’s hard to talk about [laughs]. I went to school at [the University of California,] Berkeley for two years and was a sociology major there. After my first year at college, I did a season of summer performing as an actor, and it was the first time I’d ever gotten paid to be an actor. Then, I got bit by the bug. I’ve been performing all of high school but my parents, you know, being the Indian immigrants that they were, said that [I] couldn’t go to school to study theater. And then after I performed that first year, I came back to them and said, “I want to go to theater school, so you guys can support me or not.” I ended up transferring to NYU after two years of Berkeley and graduating from college having these two completely different experiences — being a total academic and going to a football school, and then being totally immersed in the world of, you know, pretty rigorous theater training. I always say that I feel like my brain is divided into two. I tell people that it was at NYU that I realized that theater has this transitive quality that is able to get people to speak about what they want to see different in the world. I always like to say that my biggest successes come from the idea that somebody might be talking about a play that they have seen of mine for three weeks after. That they feel something has hit a nerve or has made them want to do something within their own community based on a piece of art that we have made — that feels like a true success to me.
Q: Have you ever experienced that firsthand?
A: Yeah, I think, in bits and pieces. My senior year of college, I directed a production of “The Cradle Will Rock” which is this 1937 musical. It’s famous because it was the first musical that the American government shut down on Broadway. There was a time [in 2010] when the school was pulling a ton of financial aid right in the middle of the recession, and so a lot of kids had to choose whether they were able to stay in school or not. And so we imagined a world in which the Recession had kept going for two more years and a bunch of kids had been kicked out of school for not being able to pay for it. They were using this piece of theater as a sort of protest. We teamed up with the city of New York to do the same play in Washington Square Park, which was pretty cool. And it was amazing to watch these students speak for something that meant so much for them in front of thousands and thousands of people that were in the public.
Q: What’s your favorite thing about the art of directing?
A: I think it’s a really cool opportunity to create something out of a bunch of people’s brains and skill sets. “The Wild Party” is a great example. We’ve got kids in the cast who are going to be doctors, mathematicians — and even with the design team, we’ve got people who want to be consultants, directors — and what’s kind of amazing in an educational environment is that people get to use what they’re learning in class to make the play better. It’s interesting to see what our doctors, our mathematicians and our consultants bring to rehearsals everyday because it’s different from what our theater majors and our English majors [bring].
Q: What’s your vision for “ The Wild Party”?
A: The play is set in 1928 right before the stock market crash and the musical premiered in 2000, 10 months before Sept. 11, so to me, it’s contextualized by those two events in a way — they’re like bookends. I knew going into it that I really wanted to explore America at a point of total saturation and implosion. I had been inspired by the 1990s in Los Angeles and by the social climate that we live in today. Coming to auditions, I was expecting to move in one direction and after auditions, through necessity, we had to move in a sort of different direction, but I don’t think the play has lost its primary focus of telling that story of implosion and restart.
Q: Let’s talk about the casting controversy behind the role of Mr. Black. What was the conversation that led to casting Sarah Chapin ’17 — what was the vision?
A: I think the biggest delineation that has yet to be talked about regarding this casting is between what is intrinsic in the casting and what the perceptions behind the casting of a role are. Black is a particularly interesting role as he has been represented in a myriad of art forms. And just going to the three sources that I am most familiar with; in Lippa’s musical, the one that we are doing, [Black] is originally played by Taye Diggs, in LaChiusa’s 1928 musical version of the same poem, he is played by an actor named Yancey Arias who is half-Colombian, half-Puerto Rican, in the drawings in the poem, he is nondescriptively just a man. I think it’s difficult to speak of his race from the illustrations. What people have clung on to is about who played this role historically. From what I’ve heard, the whole controversy started at casting call when someone walked in and said, “Who’s playing the Taye Diggs role?” But I think there is a difference between who must play the role and who has played the role. I feel lucky to have been here because what I have learned is that a conversation in this school about the systematic oppression of people of color needs to happen, [and] I hope that the Dramat is able to facilitate this discussion.
Q: Why do you feel that this discussion is important?
A: When I was in NYU, we were doing a production set in India and it was the only time in my experience that a character who was unquestionably Indian was on the mainstage. And they called back seven Indian actors and ended up not casting any of them to cast a black actor in their place. It was difficult to swallow, so I understand where this controversy comes from based on that.
Q: In that respect, where does the initial casting stand? How is it different from your experience in NYU?
A: What sticks out about Black is that he’s an outsider at this party. To me, that can be anybody. And we were looking for somebody who demonstrated that essence, the ability to sit back and also get engaged [and] Sarah Chapin was someone who came in to auditions and demonstrated that fully. I stand by my casting of Sarah [but] that being said, the actor who is playing the role now is phenomenal and equally as right, equally as gifted. I feel really lucky to have him in the role — I think that the way the situation unfolded, as far as the bureaucracy of the Dramat, was not the most delicate, but I do feel lucky to have either actor for the role.
Q: What are some inspirations that you’re planning on drawing upon?
A: Our play is Clara Bow meets Miley Cyrus’ “We Can’t Stop” music video meets Klaus Nomi meets Jeremy Scott. It’s going to be vibrant, wild and uninhibited.
Q: What’s a moment in the show that you’re very excited about?
A: I think the opening number is going to be pretty killer. It’s going to really set the audience off into a play that they weren’t expecting. There’s [also] a dance number in the middle of the show called “The Juggernaut” that I’m really excited about. And there’s some huge moments of comedy — Delilah Napier ’19 plays Madelaine True and sings a very funny song that a lot of people in the audience will identify with, Lucy Tomasso ’19 and Nick Brooks ’17 play these characters, [Mae and Eddie], who sing another pretty funny song. There’s a lot of Vaudeville that gets explored in this show [and] I think the Vaudeville numbers are going to stick out a lot.
Q: Tell us a little about some of your upcoming projects that you’re excited for.
A: I’m going to be working on Keelay Gipson’s script in November of an adaptation of Schiller’s “Mary Stuart,” set in the 1980s drag-ball circuit. Then a 2016 retelling of “Sweet Charity” later in the winter and some big things in the spring that I can’t talk about right now.
Q: What’s on your playlist right now?
A: The first thing that comes to my [laughs] — no, I can’t say that [laughs] — I have a really amazingly, both ironic and non-ironic, obsession with Taylor Swift. She’s my favorite person in the world. I feel like we would be best friends but I’m really embarrassed about what people might say about that when they see it in print.
Q: What’s your most memorable concert that you’ve been to?
A: It was so weird — it was this weekend where I went to a concert on Governor’s Island and then the next day, I saw Lady Gaga perform at Madison Square Garden. And it was the Monster Ball, it was pretty amazing, I was there the first night that she performed “You & I” in front of an audience — and I remember hating the song which I feel so blasphemous for saying now. I was by myself at a Lady Gaga concert — I was all at the top but because I was alone, nobody stopped me, and I made it all the way down to the standing room. It was the closest thing to a religious experience.
Q: Any advice for budding directors or actors here at Yale?
A: Never be afraid to ask. I always tell people that every director I know will be willing to get coffee with you. You never know if people are going to say no unless they do. Ask for help, ask for advice, but be specific about it. And everyone should have at least five things to talk about that are not theater because nothing is worse than being in room with people who can only talk about theater — it makes me want to say, “read a book.”