First Look at “Tuesdays With Morrie” with Director Anna Pileggi

The New Jewish Theatre has been bringing quality theatre to St. Louis for over 20 years. They continue their mission by launching their 2017-2018 season with the time-treasured Tuesdays With Morrie. I had the opportunity to chat with the Director of the show, Anna Pileggi. I have to say, Pileggi’s passion and enthusiasm for this production inspired me as a theatre lover. We talked about her impressive career, the show’s challenges, and her efforts to work with social injustice.

Jim Ryan: How long have you been directing?

Anna Pileggi: Oh wow, thirty years.

Thirty years? What was the first show you ever directed?

Oh my gosh. It was a children’s theater show. Gosh, I don’t even remember the name of it. That’s kind of how I got started was working in children’s theater and then I taught high school so I directed there. I teach at Wash U, so I direct there, but I also taught at a couple of other universities so I started in earnest when I got my first college teaching job and just kept going from there. My training is acting but I stopped acting professionally a while back just because directing was far more enjoyable. I just really enjoyed the process of working with actors and then not having to go to the theater every night and do it. [laughs] I got sick of that rule.

Do you direct musicals or just plays?

I have done both. I actually did Grey Gardens last year here in town. I had such a wonderful experience with that group of artists, they were terrific. It was the first professional musical I’ve done here in town. I’ve done a lot of musicals on the college level, but I had never done one in town professionally so that was a real treat. It was such a wonderful experience.

How long have you been collaborating with the New Jewish Theater?

This is my second show with them. I did a play, oh gosh, probably ten years ago now called Sabina. That was a play about a woman who was one of the first female psychotherapists. She was originally a patient of Karl Jung. Jung and Freud sort of fought over her. So that was the first show I ever did with The New Jewish Theatre. I’ve been doing other things and working elsewhere and hadn’t had an opportunity to come back and then Kathleen [Sitzer] asked me to do this show and I jumped at it because I had such a good time working there last time.

Tuesdays With Morrie is a classic story. It only has two actors in the show. What challenges did you face with such a small cast?

I’m actually really looking forward to working with a small cast. There’s a level of intimacy being in a black box theatre. It’s also true when you have such a small cast there is a wonderful collaborative energy that you can feel and you can really hone in on specifics and detail. These two actors are terrific so I’m really looking forward to working with both of them.

As a director, how do you keep that emotional tension just between two actors for an entire production?

Well, I think a lot of it is up to the play. This play is really quite lovely because it ebbs and flows. I don’t think you can maintain one level of emotional tension. But the play helps chart that course. I would say in everything that I do, the play is another character—that’s your guiding force. You have to listen to where it’s taking you. So it’s kind of nice when you have [just] two actors, because you don’t have so much to keep track of, like with a big musical. You can just really focus in on the interactions between the dynamic between these two men, which is really quite beautiful, and I think the play does a nice job of bringing us through that because there’s so much humor and there’s so much back-and-forth. This is incredibly difficult material…I mean, watching a man succumb to the ravages of ALS, that’s tough. But the way this play was written, it’s quite lovely and very human and it pulls you in with that humor and intimacy and camaraderie and friendship. It’s just really a lovely piece.

The book that’s this show is based on is celebrating its 20th anniversary this year. How are you taking an approach to this production to make it fresh?

I honestly believe, and I don’t mean this to sound pretentious, but I really do believe that you commune with the story. You come together because of the work on the page so you get human beings in the theater. With these actors and my human sensibility—that’s what’s going to make it fresh. We’ve never told this story, so the challenge is how do we authentically, honestly, and with humility encounter this story in a way that we can share it with other people? If we can find the authenticity in the rehearsal room, that’s going to translate to people and that, I think, will make it fresh. To me, that’s a privilege, to be able to sit in a rehearsal room with people and find our voices through this material. It’s just such a great way to make a living, I gotta tell ya.

The play is about a student reconnecting with his professor. You being a professor, have you ever had that kind of a relationship with a student or have you ever re-connected with any of your professors?

I haven’t re-connected with old professors but I do have students reconnect with me and I will maintain relationships far beyond their undergraduate experience. I have to say Facebook makes it easier. I am really fortunate in that way. As a matter of fact, I am directing Blackbird at the Saint Louis Actor’s Studio in the Spring. A former student of mine is going to play the woman in that show. She graduated in 2008. When I found out that I was directing this show, I emailed her because she’s a playwright now but she’s also an actor. She lives in New York—she’s from St. Louis originally—and I said I would love for you to come and read for this. She made arrangements to come into town to read for it and she just blew everybody away. So I’ll be able to work with her again after ten years.

I think being a theater professor makes those connections more possible because you work with students in a way that it is not like a lecture class. You’re working with them quite intimately, in an acting class especially. What an opportunity that is and a responsibility and an honor, quite frankly. I really related to that in this play—that was really a hook for me.

What kind of theatrical professor are you?

I teach acting and movements and musical theater. I also teach theater for social justice. I developed a couple courses in that over the last six years.

Talk about what you do for social justice.

Well, there’s a Brazilian director named Augusto Boal who in the 1950s and ’60s created an approach that he calls “Theater of the Oppressed.” Basically, it’s using theater to combat social injustice. I introduce students to this work and we explore the games and exercises and the theater-making that Boal pioneered. We look at social injustice in our community and at Wash U and perform in what’s called “form theater” where the audience actually gets to stop the action of the play and take the place of the other character to try to resolve the conflict. It becomes this interactive form of community building. In the Spring semester, I teach them to become facilitators of the work and they do six-week workshops in area high schools around St. Louis. So they take the work out into the community.

Do you have a favorite scene in Tuesdays With Morrie?

Wow, that’s a great question. Debbie Lennon actually played Little Edie in Grey Gardens and she was also Next To Normal this past summer. There’s a scene in the play where Mitch’s wife—who’s an opera singer—comes to visit Morrie and she sings to him. You never see her, she’s just on tape, so Debbie graciously agreed to tape that singing. There’s just something about that scene. I think it’s so beautifully written because you never see her, you only “see” her through Morrie’s unadulterated enjoyment at this music. He’s a shell of the man that he used to be so he can’t move and he used to dance. We start the play by seeing him dance and by this point  he’s almost bedridden. And yet, he’s so free in the moment of listening to that music that you get to watch Mitch watch him. It’s just such an intimate moment.

It’s amazing to me because the person who’s doing it—you don’t ever see her. You see her through the two men on stage and each of them has a relationship with her in that moment that has nothing really to do with their relationship. It’s probably my favorite moment now. I’ll get there with the actors and who knows what they’re gonna do to me. That’s the other thing: I’m so excited to get in the room with them because I have an idea of what the play is, but that’s not what’s going to end up being on the stage. What will be on the stage is what the three of us do together over the next four weeks.

What’s the message you wish the audience take home with them after seeing Tuesdays With Morrie?

I just want them to believe in the power of human connection. And that it’s possible that you can always give something to someone of value and receive something of value from someone. No matter how infirm, no matter how seemingly limited you may feel that the human spirit is meant to connect.

Wow. This show kicks off the 2017-2018 season of The New Jewish Theater. Any pressure?

[laughs] Well now there is! You know, I honestly just want to tell a good story and I hope people come and enjoy it. Beyond that, I don’t know. It’s beyond my control. I want to go in and work well with these guys, I want to have a good time, I want to tell a good story and I want people to come and enjoy what we share with them.

I’ve always wondered about this—as a director, did you attend every performance?

I don’t go to every performance—especially professional theatre. I think there’s something important about letting go and I think that’s another thing this play teaches us, you know, that you’ve got to know when to let go. There comes a point you rehearse, you’re in the room, you help guide to a certain point. Then you have to let the play be theirs and let them enjoy what they’ve created, and let them keep track of how it continues to evolve. I’ll stop in, but I won’t go to every performance.

What do you have coming up after Tuesdays With Morrie where people catch you at?

Well, as I said, I’ll be doing Blackbird at Saint Louis Actors Studio – that goes up in February. Then I’m directing at Wash U later in the spring, in April. It’s been awesome, I’m kind of kind of booked up this year and I’m loving it looking forward to a nice full year. | Jim Ryan

Tuesdays With Morrie plays The New Jewish Theatre October 4-22. For show times and ticket prices, please visit: Never miss a moment of The Arts STL! Follow me @TheJimRyan.

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