Michael Arden is most recently known for directing the Tony Award Winning musical revival of Once On This Island by Stephen Flaherty and Lynn Ahrens. This show tells the story Ti Moune, a young woman who is put to the test by the Gods to prove that love is stronger than death. Other notable credits include directing a production of Annie at the Hollywood Bowl, and the Broadway revival of Spring Awakening by Duncan Sheik and Steven Sater. Spring Awakening traditionally tells the story of teenagers trying to understand sexuality in a society that refuses to address the topic. Arden added the element of American Sign Language in order to bring the story to a new audience and it brought a new layer to the story. This production also awarded him a Tony nomination in 2016 for Best Direction of a Musical. Both of his Broadway revivals presented the works completely reimagined. However, he did not start out directing. He initially went to Julliard for acting; some credits of his include Deaf West’s Broadway revival of Big River, the Off-Broadway production of Bare: A Pop Opera, and the regional production of The Hunchback Of Notre Dame. His career since Juilliard has included both acting and directing and we discussed his path from acting towards directing and his process behind it.
Abbey: What initially attracted you to theater and how did you first get involved?
Michael: Oh goodness. Well, my grandparents took me to the theater as a kid. The community theatre, as well as a couple touring productions that came to my small town of Midland Texas, and I just loved it. I loved the idea that there could be another version of reality that I could look at that wasn’t in a two-dimensional plane. I guess something about the sort of dimensionality of it was really thrilling to me and I loved that it was a new way to take a story and I found it the most moving version of media at the time. So that’s why I was interested in it. And then I was lucky enough to be in a town with a community theater that had a children’s youth theatre company. And so I went after school and started doing school plays and working at the community theater and I just loved it. Not only the theater itself but also the friends and family I made doing it. I found an outlet for my creative side.
Flashing forward, you went to Juilliard yes?
And then you didn’t complete college correct?
So, as a college student, I have to ask was that terrifying leaving?
Absolutely. Yeah, it was a terrifying decision to make. Of course, I had dreamed of going to Juilliard for a long time and so the idea of getting something that I really wanted and then kind of walking away from that was taboo, but I had learned a lot there in my first two years at Juilliard. I also had, before that, attended a boarding school called Interlochen Arts Academy. So I had sort of been living away from home for four years by the end of my second year of college. Not that I learned everything there was to learn at all, but I got hired as Tom Sawyer in the Deaf West’s revival of Big River and the show extended into what would be the start of my junior year. So I had to make a decision. I was really struggling with what to do and Jeff Calhoun, who directed that show, when I went to him for advice, he said to me that any decision that doesn’t terrify you isn’t worth making. You should go in the direction of your fear. So yeah, it was it was a terrifying move, but I felt like I had a wonderful foundation and I was doing the very thing I was training for and felt that sense that I would make that leap.
Speaking of leaps, what was what was the journey for the leap from acting to directing?
I was interested in how theater was created from all sides and as a kid I used to force my friends to be in productions that I guess, looking back on now, directed in our backyards and interned as a lighting designer and then I had taken directing classes in school and then assisted directors on Broadway. So I was always really interested in all the questions that were not the actors’ responsibility to ask. I was doing a TV show in L.A. a few years back and started really missing theater, so I decided to write a play and get a group of my friends together who were also missing theater and did a site-specific production of an adaptation of La Ronde that I wrote and that spurred interest from people who came to see it. Then Deaf West asking me if I would be interested in directing a show for them and my husband, Andy Mientus, came up with the idea of Deaf West’s Spring Awakening. So we raised money on Kickstarter, and that’s how it sort of all began. And I’ve been lucky enough to work pretty much exclusively as a director ever since.
What would you say is the biggest difference in process or preparation or research when you go into a room is as a director versus going into a room as an actor?
I think going in—I think it’s easier to answer that in the reverse, which is, I think, being an actor, it’s much more important that you only see through the truth of the character you’re playing. The actor sort of has to be in a way ignorant to the things that need to be the front of where the director’s concentration lies. I think a director needs to know everything but also be open to what you might find when you release that. And as an actor, you need to know nothing and yet know everything within the world you are exploring so they’re similar and yet different.
Before research as a director, is there a specific process that you follow or is that unique per show?
I think it’s really unique per show and some things require more research than others. Everything does require research but it varies from project to project. Some are more emotionally driven, some are more cerebrally driven in terms of process. Some need to just to be in the room and with movement and some need some sort of a purpose through the music itself. So it kind of all depends on what the piece begs and the treatment of piece.
Can you talk about the difference between research and preparation for Once On This Island versus Spring Awakening? Both of which were fabulous by the way.
Thank you. Spring Awakening sort of, you know, required a lot of research in terms of—I sort of went down a rabbit hole of research in terms of deaf history during the 1890’s in Europe. So that was a heavily researched piece and then doing the research, and then the work and the translation and the design of course.
What was the process of having to translate everything and working on that?
It was really difficult because in a way I think it’s difficult to translate something to ASL because it’s not a verbatim language. It isn’t word for word, so you want to match the English with the sign so that for a hearing audience it isn’t jarring, but also the signing makes sense for a deaf audience. And then also figuring out how to—with this score and with the lyrics—to make the poetry make sense because so much of the lyric is poetry, if not all of it in Spring Awakening. So I wanted to be able to give a sense visually of what the sonic meaning of the piece is and also reflects what the music is doing with the creation of the signs. I wanted something visual to use with design elements. Like the intro to “whispering.” How do you translate how that intro—that isn’t signed—looks onstage? Through color, and through how we move, and the tempo we find. Or if we hear pizzicato, maybe we see flakes of snow. How do we translate that visually? So I wanted to make sure that the deaf audience wasn’t missing anything, even underscoring, and have it not be where they needed to in subtitles “underscoring” or “string music.” How could I make that a visual medium? Which is a really fun task to get to tackle. And they think it only helps the deaf audience, but it enhances the hearing audiences enjoyment and hopefully understanding of other people. Anyway, back to the translation question, it’s tricky, and it has to also be clear on the actor because everyone signs differently and some signs work on people and not on other people. So that was a really arduous, extensive task, but we had a team of people working on that. We had three ASL masters plus, of course, the cast and I were very involved in the translation process. Luckily, I sign. So I was coming at it from two worlds a little bit. Not that I’m an expert, I’m no expert.
And my original question that I interrupted was, what was the difference between the research process for Spring Awakening and Once On This Island?
Right. The process for Once On This Island I had more liberty in terms of the bulk of the piece. It is a story, sort of fictional story. However, I wanted to be incredibly accurate with the religious aspects as well as cultural aspects, especially in setting it in a very specific place. So I traveled with my designer to Haiti and interviewed people, took lots of photos, witnessed some celebration and dance and religious services, and took part because I wanted to be brutally honest in that representation within the structure of the script. Yeah, but, beyond that, I got to really make a fairy tale. All the tools were of the real world, so I think we got all of the right authentic pieces and then put them in this box to play with.
I know you mentioned your husband having the idea for Spring Awakening and I know that you dedicated Once On This Island to your grandparents, but how did you initially find that script?
I had heard a song or two from it in high school and I had the vocal selections. I liked the music and I really came to it through the album, the original Broadway cast album. And then I had seen a concert version of it, The Actors Fund did shortly after September 11th, but I had never actually seen a production of Once On This Island. I’ve seen mine many times, but I really came at it from a purely sonic prior experience. Which is how I wanted to initially approach the show—through how we dealt with the score, which is where we started.
You started with the score?
We started with the score. We started with the arrangements probably seven years ago now. Five to seven years ago now we made demos of acapella versions of some of the songs. My question was how could we do the show if we didn’t have anything including instruments? We only had what our bodies and what we can hold in our hands. So that was the beginning of the conversation about the show. Not Haiti actually. It was really just about the human form and what it was capable of doing and how we how we tell stories through sound.
This was seven years ago? Was it just kind of stuck in your heart all these years?
Yeah. I went to the authors and I brought them the demo and I said I want to do this and wrote them a song. They said no. And I was like one day they’ll come around. And I kept pestering them and pestering them and then Spring Awakening opened and I made sure they had tickets and I’d invite them again. And they finally gave in. Persistence can sometimes be helpful.
For Once On This Island, what made you want to play with gender? Was it because of the world we live in, or?
I think its partially because of the world we live in and because there’s such talent that doesn’t always get to find a space. And I wanted the gods to—I wanted kids to come to the show, see these gods, and sort of imagine a world where they could be anything. And being able to see a gay black man on stage sort of living his truth in a story that isn’t about trauma associated those things I think is very important. I felt a responsibility to do that.
As the production continues and actors leave the production and new actors take on their roles, are all of the gods able to be whatever gender or is there—?
I think it just depends on the combination of the four gods. That’s very important to me. That it makes sense as a collective. But beyond that, you know, I think—who knows, we have to find people who embody those energies and can provide thrilling vocals.
You also recently directed Annie and you said in an interview that you didn’t feel you needed to reinvent the wheel with that one. And, at this point, you’re a little known for reinventing the wheel and taking something and turning it on its head. Were there any challenges that you faced that you didn’t expect that came with staying more to the original intention?
No, I think it has really made me try to tell the story as clearly as possible. You know and some people noted that and in how I cast the piece I was being very non-traditional, which I guess I was. I didn’t think the story doesn’t need to withstand an enormous concept. You know, I don’t think that it all takes place in like, “Annie’s dream” or something. I don’t really know how that helps the piece. I think in its in its simplicity and its sort of earnestness it tells a really remarkable story about responsibility and reaching across a social divide. So I think it’s a pretty well-written show. I didn’t want to mess with it too much.
What about A Christmas Carol? That is a one-man show? Is that proving challenging in any way?
Yeah, I mean certainly different than Annie. It’s really exciting. I think it will be a challenge but also really exciting to get to delve in with one subject although he plays over 60 roles in the show. This sort of is a really exciting collaboration that I get to embark upon and also looking at the piece and just you know how do you tell a story without, you know, without a lot of stuff? How do you build something for an audience’s imagination? And let them imagine in ways that we can never do onstage while also providing something exciting and visual. So, I’m excited about this piece especially. I can’t wait for people to see it.
You seem to do a lot of revivals, is that is that by choice or by happenstance? And if it’s by choice, why do you feel drawn to revivals?
You know I just think it’s a great place to play because you sort of know the material works. It becomes sort of a playground for me and interpretation. I would love to do new work, and I am working on new work, it’s just people gotta write it and then give it to me. (chuckles). So it’s something that I’m excited to do. I’m doing new stuff this year and there’s obviously greater risk. There can be greater reward, but I also have been sticking to the mission of my education being able to work on revivals and I can’t wait to see what people write and ask me to be a part of.
Do you have any dream project in mind? Have you already done a dream project?
Well yeah I mean everything has been a dream and a nightmare. You know my dream stuff is creating new work or revisiting classics in new space. A dream of mine is to work on opera in a new space and sort of challenge the idea of what theatre can be building for new venues or unconventional spaces like the armory or the outdoor theater. Some idea of theatre we haven’t thought of before. So that excites me working with new writers on new material, hearing new music and being part of a collaboration. That’s really what I’m looking forward to.
Looking back on the career you’ve had so far what could you say has been some of your biggest obstacles? And how did you overcome them?
That’s tricky. I feel very lucky. I think one obstacle is a sense that as a director I’m really new at it. A lot of people knew me as an actor, so I think any time you sort of start on a new path, there are people that like to keep you in the box they’ve put you in. So I’ve tried to knock down those. Knock out of that box as much as I can in showing them my dedication to this is as an art form. And I think it’s just getting people to believe in you sometimes is rather hard because usually when you need someone to believe in you, you often need them to give you a lot of money. In theatre and in order to make things happen. So I think, right now in the world it’s a lot easier to invest in something that is tried and true rather than something that has never existed before. So I think that’s an obstacle for any artist. Adding things onto the stage. But I’ve been lucky enough with that so far and I hope to do that with new work soon.
Last question, if you could go back and have a chat with yourself at 20, what do you think you would say?
Don’t worry about not getting, you know, the guest star on the CW. It gets better. And that I think the exciting part of being a theatre artist is that we get an opportunity to forge and dissolve families very quickly. To see that as something exciting that one thing ending means room for a new thing to manifest. So beyond anything, I’d say.