Born in Newbury, Massachusetts, Rory Pelsue graduated from Sarah Lawrence College in 2011 and is currently in his final year of the Yale School of Drama’s directing program. I met with Rory to talk about his artistic vision, how he got into directing and, especially, his love for operettas. He has come over from a rehearsal for his upcoming play in February, a Sondheim musical aptly titled “Passion.” Here at Yale, along with his projects at the Drama School, Rory has also worked on several Yale Cabaret shows and served as the co-artistic director for the Yale Summer Cabaret in 2017 and directed plays such as “Mies Julie,” “Antony and Cleopatra” and “Othello.” For a chance to watch Rory’s work in action, catch the performances of “Passion,” showing at the Yale Repertory Theatre from Feb. 3–9.
Q: What’s your background? How did you end up in theater at the Yale School of Drama?
A: I grew up north of Boston. I’ve done theater my whole life. I did community theater as a kid, I had some acting jobs in college and, by the end of college, I was mostly directing. My directing experience in the world has been mostly classics at universities and professional experience in the operetta world, which is a unique thing. I’m a third year at [the Drama School], and I’m doing this musical for my thesis project called “Passion,” which I hope synthesizes a lot of my interests because it’s very juicy and dramatic and I love working with music and musical theater as well.
Q: Tell me some more about operettas.
A: I studied abroad at Oxford — I went to Sarah Lawrence college. There, it was kind of like all the student shows — there was no theater department, it was all people doing shows — and everybody wanted to be the star, so nobody wanted to direct. So it was actually easy to get these jobs directing an opera. I did a Benjamin Britten opera and a Gilbert and Sullivan, and through this I got this gig with the Gilbert and Sullivan society of Oxford doing a show that they did at this opera house once a year, and then recurrently I would go back there every year. And eventually my friend, who was the conductor, we started this little opera company, and it was great, it was all Gilbert and Sullivan, which was really interesting Victorian material and it was fun to do. I think it’s informed my sensibility because we were musically pretty rigorous with it and because Sir Arthur Sullivan was the preeminent musician of his day, not just writing these comedy bits. Then the tone of it was interesting because you have to play it so seriously. They have to think they’re in an Ibsen play, that they’re in these ridiculous circumstances, so that was a helpful thing to learn about tone. So I did some other things too, and then I came here. This was all between college [and the Yale School of Drama]. I came the fall of 2015 and I graduated in May 2011.
Q: Do you do any music yourself?
A: No, I’m a terrible musician. I can read music, sort of, and I’m a huge music fan. I love going to the opera and to musicals, and I love singing in the shower. I was a choir boy in church. But no, I’m very bad at that. I have a wonderful music director for “Passion.”
Q: Tell me about “Passion.”
A: We have these third-year thesis projects at the [Drama School] for directors. You get to pitch two projects to the faculty and develop them and say why they’d be a good fit for the school and the student body. I thought there were enough people who sing really, really well at the school to do a musical and wanted something to showcase that. It’s a piece I’ve always loved, and it’s really big for a thesis project because it’s a musical, but it’s just small enough for a musical to fit being a thesis project. It’s one of my favorite Sondheim pieces. It’s very Romantic, capital R. I don’t know if anyone in your readership saw “Assassins” last year, I was the assistant director on that, which was very political, spiky. And he wrote this as his next show, and it’s almost the complete opposite, it’s lush, romantic, tortured souls as opposed to crazy people we can hate laugh at.
It’s set in 19th-century Italy. There’s a beautiful young army captain who’s in love with a very beautiful but married woman, and they’re having this illicit but really profound affair. And then he is called away, as soldiers are wont to be, to a remote undisclosed alpine location. And the cousin of his commanding officer is this incredibly ill, in-the-conventional-sense ugly but brilliant woman, who pursues him with a convention-breaking abandon. In a way, it’s a gender reverse of the beauty and the beast archetype and about this fine line between love and obsession, and love and hate, and questioning what love is, and love that can be healthy, and love that is unhealthy, and how people sometimes choose unhealthy love, which doesn’t mean we have to endorse them. But it’s what the play’s about.
I presented two proposals to the faculty [members] and they picked. I think the reason it was good for the school is because the acting possibilities are really juicy. These are characters who go after what they want, and it’s about the force of love as something that makes us feel alive in a dead-end world, and love can be pleasurable but we can also pursue love the same way people might have drug addictions: love as compulsion — people who are pursuing something that may or may not be good for them, but they’re not stupid, they know these things aren’t good for them, and that’s interesting for the actors. Also, the music is gorgeous and I think it’s very itself dramatic. It was written on Broadway in 1994, and it’s Sondheim, which is kind of its own thing, but it definitely has the feel of 19th-century romantic music. Uniquely for musicals, there’s no applause, it’s kind of one rhapsody. And it’s dramatic. You can look at where the key signatures and time signatures change and figure out something that’s going on psychologically.
Q: Do you see a consistent through-line through the works you’ve done?
A: I joke that they’re all about toxic love, in different ways. They’re all about love that might not be good for us but that the characters pursue anyway. I find it interesting and inherently theatrical. I think it goes with music or heightened language very well. I think style is interesting, stakes are interesting.
Q: Have you acted yourself?
A: I acted up through college and then didn’t really between now and then. I was in a Cab show last year, “For a Lark,” which was really fun. I’m a ham as a person, I like the attention, I like the idea of performing [but] I’m too scared to actually do it. I don’t really act anymore.
Q: How do you feel acting has influenced your directing?
A: I think it does. Part of the [Drama School] is they make directors do everything — we take classes in everything in theater. At the very least, even if you have no aptitude in the thing you’re trying to learn about, you can have empathy for the person doing it. And for acting, I think it is super helpful to know what is helpful to actors and what is not. Part of the fun of theater is you’re asking the audience to use their imagination and it’s live. For me, that never gets old.
Q: What are your ideas for when you’re graduating?
A: I’m interested in a couple career strands — music theater, I’ve really loved doing Shakespeare and classics since coming here. I want to be pursuing all of those things. I also never really did new plays before I came here, and working with a living playwright is interesting to me so I hope to keep doing that. I’m also interested in artistic leadership. My experiences with the Cab were sort of transformative in that. I’m very interested in facilitating the passion projects of other people. I have two colleagues in my class, and I learn so much from them. I like talking to people [about] what five parts you want to play, what are the five shows you want to direct. Not that I have the money or power to make that happen, but I think it’s interesting.
Q: The Cab seems to be a big facilitator of people’s passion projects.
This year — I think [it] always [has been] — but this year we were like, “Let’s make that explicitly the purpose of the Cab.” It’s truly about what are the shows that [the Drama School] students want to do? Obviously, we can’t do every show that every student wants to do because we don’t have enough slots, but hopefully that’s the idea.
Eren Kafadar | email@example.com .