Gamm Theatre Artistic Director Tony Estrella, a Pawtucket native, has been an actor and director with The Gamm/Alias Stage since 1996. He assumed his current role in November of 2002. He has appeared in more than 30 productions including Caryl Churchill’s “A Number,” and Tom Stoppard’s “The Real Thing.” He has adapted and directed new versions of Friedrich Schiller’s “Don Carlos” and Dylan Thomas’ “A Child’s Christmas in Wales,” and has directed over 20 productions for the company since 1997. Estrella also teaches at Rhode Island College and the University of Rhode Island, where he has been on the theater faculty since 1997, and was awarded a 2013 Pell Award for Excellence in the Arts.
Here he discusses his role at The Gamm and the theater’s future.
PBN: What was the impetus for moving from actor to artistic director and why did you take on this role?
ESTRELLA: Well, in my case it was a very natural evolution with a couple of adaptations in between. I came to the theater first as a student of literature (specifically Shakespeare) then realized that his plays, as brilliant as they are on the page, are plays, meaning they reach their maximum power when “played.” Kenneth Branagh's film of Henry V helped push me to try it out myself. This led to a small role in an undergrad production of “Comedy of Errors” which led to the classroom and years of training so that I could serve this impossibly complex and beautiful writing with some measure of professionalism.
I am also a person with strong points of view on the world I inhabit. I believe Peter Hall's dictum that the theater remains one of the few places “that society can have a debate with itself.” Actors serve the play and directors serve the overall production, but artistic directors serve the theatre and advocate for the art form. In other words, if you care about that “debate,” as an artistic director, you have a better shot at setting its terms.
PBN: With Managing Director David Wax retiring what traits do you and your colleagues hope to find in the person who replaces him?
ESTRELLA: Wisdom, experience, a steady hand on the wheel. David was unflappable in the face of challenge and brought a transparency and clarity of budget management as well as a collaborative mentality that allowed our staff and board to take real ownership of their contribution to our success. While he was dedicated to the specific artistic mission of The Gamm, he understood the practicalities necessary to supporting it and was dogged in ensuring “i's” were dotted and “t’s” were crossed. He leaves big shoes, yes, but also comfortable insoles and a nice thick pair of socks for the next person who tries them on.
PBN: In your 30th anniversary season you are seeking to blend the contemporary works with the classics. Tell us about the rationale for this approach.
ESTRELLA: We like to think of what we do as “intimately epic.” The tent poles of The Gamm's artistic reputation are our work on the classics (most obviously Shakespeare) and a focus on socially and politically provocative modern and contemporary work. We tend to do a Shakespeare every other year and having just come off a big (for us) production of his “Macbeth.” There's none on next year's docket.
Ironically, though, next season will be even bigger. “Hedda Gabler” is one of the foundation stones of the modern theater and we've got a brand new adaptation, followed by “Morality Play,” which will be just about the largest production we've ever shoehorned into our space. We close the season with a provocative contemporary re-working of the story of Marie Antoinette and the French revolution that will feel like it’s happening in America today... because it is. Our two contemporary stories are a one-woman tour de force about the consequences of drone warfare and John Guare's “House of Blue Leaves,” a brilliant serio-comic examination of America as a kind of open-air mental asylum where fame is the only real ideal. So I think we've achieved the balance we look for year in and year out. Also, it's our 30th anniversary which tends to make you think about time. This season travels a long way, from 1360 to 2014.
PBN: You’ve adapted the best-selling novel “Morality Play,” by Booker Prize Winner Barry Unsworth. What drew you to a medieval murder mystery and what was the main challenge in adapting it to the stage?
ESTRELLA: I've loved the book since it was published in the mid 1990's. It's a flawless compact gem of a novel which seems to me a perfection of first-person narrative. It's also about the theater which those of us in the profession tend to love – though it can be a bit “inside baseball” for those outside of it. However, this story uses theatre to talk about the birth of modern secular storytelling and the value and necessity of art in all our lives. It's Promethean. In this case, a group of poor vagabond actors steal the fire from the gods and give it to humankind.
The greatest challenge has been translating the first-person narration into present tense drama. I learned over and over through 15 years of drafts that a line that reads perfectly on the page can be deadly in the mouth of an actor. The audience wants/needs drama, and drama means conflict. It can't have the warm, comfortable feeling of someone telling us a story from on high: In other words, when it comes to the stage, action talks.
PBN: As artistic director what do you see as the theater’s chief assets and how do you see it growing in the future?
ESTRELLA: I think we have found and developed an audience that appreciates serious storytelling, and is unafraid of complexity and tough subject matter. Most of us say we want art to help us “escape,” which is another way of saying art is the means by which we reinvigorate the imagination and keep it alive. I think we offer that but in a counter-intuitive way.
At The Gamm, we strive to provide room for the awe and wonder that theatrical storytelling can create. Rather than denying the realities around us, we hope to engage them at a deep and substantive level. Escape means the power to surprise, to allow us to reach beyond the bounds of our own point of view by challenging it with the refracted glimpse of its opposite. In other words, art isn't pretty. It's beautiful.
As for the future, space is our biggest challenge. We are bursting at the seams in terms of both audience and actual production space. As much as I love the intimacy of our theater, I think we could provide the same impact with a little more elbow room for the plays themselves. You'd be amazed at what our designers do within the limits of our little black box. I'd like to make their jobs a tad easier. But just a tad.