- November 18, 2009
It’s rare for a director of a production to get face time with a playwright outside of the world premiere. But Director Melissa Kievman has a long history with Nilo Cruz, the Pulitzer Prize-winning playwright of her new venture, Asolo Rep’s “Sotto Voce.”
Kievman served as the former associate artistic director at New Dramatists, a writers colony for playwrights to sharpen their work in New York City. Kievman worked at this play haven during the time when Cruz was a resident playwright from 1994 to 2001.
“Playwrights are given seven years of space and time to develop their work on their own terms,” says Kievman. “I put together about 80 to 100 readings and workshops of new plays and musical theater pieces every year there, and Nilo was a company playwright at the time. I got to cast some of his earlier work, pre ‘Anna in the Tropics’[his 2003 Pulitzer Prize-winning play] and got to know him quite intimately.”
“Sotto Voce” (running through April 26 at the Historic Asolo Theater) is all about time and memory. Depicting the unlikely meeting between an elderly German-born novelist who lost the love of her life during World War II and a young Jewish-Cuban man searching for answers of the fate of his great aunt, “Sotto Voce” presents this relationship as they both deal with memories and loved ones long gone.
This latest production is a passion project for Kievman, who says she feels honored to be working with Cruz again (the two have had long conversations about the newest production). But she’s approaching the show not only as a director but as a collaborator, producer and fan. To Kievman, Cruz is part of her creative family.
Kievman, who teaches at Brown University and Trinity Repertory Company’s joint M.F.A. program in Providence, R.I., feels at home in Sarasota. She directed “Searching for Eden: The Diaries of Adam and Eve” in 2009 and “The Blonde, the Brunette and the Vengeful Redhead” in 2008 at Asolo Rep.
She first got involved with Asolo Repertory Theatre thanks to her professional relationship with the theater’s producing artistic director, Michael Donald Edwards. The two share a mentor in Robert Moss, founder of Playwrights Horizon in New York City and Syracuse Stage’s artistic director from 1996 to 2008. Kievman directed “Bug” by Tracy Letts in 2005 at Syracuse Stage, where Edwards was serving as associate artistic director at the time. After striking up a friendship, Edwards has reached out to Kievman throughout the years to bring her in for Asolo Rep productions.
Having directed past productions at the Historic Asolo Theater, Kievman is familiar with the challenges the theater presents — but also the possibilities. The U-shaped theater is a former opera house from Asolo, Italy, designed in 1798 and reconstructed in 1857. It was moved in 1955 to Sarasota.
“It demands a certain kind of staging for a play,” Kievman said. “My goal for this was to provide a space for the words in the play, and the Historic Asolo really does do that. With the designers, we knew we wanted to push the space quite forward and to be as close to the audience as possible.”
Kievman isn’t shy in using every inch of possible space. In her first production in the space in 2008, she incorporated the loading dock door and the space outside the stage door in the staging of “The Blonde, the Brunette and the Vengeful Redhead.”
“I would say it’s my favorite place to work,” says Kievman. “The audience here loves their theater. They seem so passionately engaged on every level from the choosing of the work, the making of the work, to the exploration of the work. As an artist, it’s an ideal situation. I would love to be back here.”
Along with numerous accolades, including the 2003 Pulitzer Prize for drama for “Anna in the Tropics,” playwright Nilo Cruz was the recipient of the Hermitage Artist Retreat’s annual Greenfield Prize in 2014. There will be a rehearsed reading of Cruz’s new commissioned work, “Bathing in Moonlight,” as a part of the Greenfield Prize weekend and the Asolo Repertory Theatre’s Unplugged New Play Festival at 7 p.m. April 19, at the Jane B. Cook Theatre. It’s a rare opportunity to see a playwright’s most recent play along with a current dramatic project. Admission is $7.