In 2008, Sam Buntrock took Broadway by storm with his innovative revival of Stephen Sondheim and James Lapine's Pulitzer Prize-winning musical Sunday in the Park With George, a production that brought Georges Seurat's pointillist masterpiece painting to life without any paint at all — just a generous dose of 21st century ingenuity: projections and animation. The director views this production, which transferred to New York (via Roundabout Theatre Company) after an acclaimed run at London's Menier Chocolate Factory and on the West End, as the passport to his career. Since then, the Tony Award nominee (and former animator) has worked extensively in the United States off-Broadway and regionally. He is even trying his hand at opera.
Buntrock, who recently made his opera-directing debut with Benjamin Britten's The Turn of the Screw at Brooklyn Academy of Music, has returned to his London roots by way of off-Broadway's Page 73 Productions at The Wild Project. He's at the helm of Kara Manning's new drama, Sleeping Rough, the story of an American woman who leaves her family and flees to London, unable to forgive the United States for a grave offense. In the midst of previews, TheaterMania talked to Buntrock about working on and off-Broadway, the differences between American and British audiences, and how that production of Sunday in the Park With George turned a page in his career.
So you've been in previews for a few days. How is it going so far?
It's been going great: Audience meet show, show meets audience, please mingle. It's a very particular kind of play. One of the reasons I responded to it in the first place is that I've never read anything quite like it. It's a lot of direct address that bleeds seamlessly into scenes into direct address. It's very theatrical. I suppose I respond more and more to that kind of thing, and things that are overtly theatrical interest me. Meeting an audience with a play like this is very particular. It does rely on the audience for the direct address — the audience is the final part of the puzzle.
How did you get involved with the production?
It was sent to me… [and they thought] this is something [I'd] be interested in, predominantly because London is a very strong part of this play. When I first heard that it was an American playwright, I thought "I'm not going to like this." I take what London is and what London means for granted, but I probably don't know it well as a person who comes in from the outside. Kara [Manning] managed to capture London in a way that really, really surprised me. It's very much the fourth character. I didn't know how to do it. That was sort of my initial response: How do you put this on stage? And that's it for me. If it's clear from the moment I read the play how to solve the puzzle, that's half the fun gone.
As a British director working in America, can you tell me some of the things you've noticed about the differences in audiences?
I have to be careful, because I like my home. (Laughs) I always say about American audiences that you get the first laugh for free. American audiences are responsive. Directing comedy here is a joy. They respond in a way we don't — we sit back with our arms folded and say "entertain me." American audiences sit much more in the middle of the chair, sometimes even at the front, which is crazy. It's like going to the movies in Times Square — the audiences are a part of it. It's a riot. I've recently become obsessed with Alistair Cooke's essays. Are you familiar with him?
He writes as an Englishman in New York, in 1946, and you can read an entire essay and think he's describing now, regarding what the American and British sensibility is. Audiences like making noises here. They like responding, especially during something [that] is supposed to be funny, and that is great. Not that British audiences aren't great — the experience of doing Sunday in the Park With George…A British person has an emotional response in an auditorium and they try to hide it. Americans…there's an honesty about an American response. I remember standing in the back at Studio 54 after the lights came up and watching people picking themselves back up, having really, really let themselves go. I found that quite beautiful and moving.
That production is one of the great revivals of the last decade.
It was a gift. I was at a certain point in my life. I worked as a director and animator, and it came together in a way you couldn't have predicted. It seemed like the simplest and most straightforward thing. It's a testament to the material that so many people came on board, because it's almost less than no money. People worked on it because they believed in it. I meet people all the time who I have this conversation with. It's like a passport for me, and it's allowed me to do what I want to do with my life. I owe it an extreme amount. It literally changed my life.
You haven't done a musical in a while, and yet you recently did an opera: Britten's Turn of the Screw at BAM. Can you talk about that experience?
It was my first opera, so it was like being shot out of a canon slightly. It couldn't have gone better as far as I was concerned. The most distinctive part of the experience is working with people in that environment: The director is sort of the only person in the room who is engaged in storytelling. The conversations you have with actors are so different than the conversations you have with opera singers. The music is kind of a mountain, between learning and performing it. The last thing [the singers] were thinking about is storytelling. It was a really great experience — I wasn't beholden to anybody, I didn't have a collaborator, I was in my own little world. At night, [if I was] aware I had a problem staging scenes, I would literally sit on a coffee table and arrange mugs while listening to the recordings. It was sort of like directing a film from a soundtrack, and you could never overtly do that with an actor. It would have to be the most strategic covert operation to get them to perform that way, which I would never do.
Was going from BAM's nearly 2,000-seat Gilman Opera House to the 89-seat Wild Project for Sleeping Rough a challenge?
There's a real shift in thinking. [In theater], you always think of more is more. But doing something in a small space…it's a privilege to tell a story to just 89 people, which is something you rarely get to do. Being able to create something for such an intimate auditorium is such a joy for a story [that] is so internal and intimate.
What else is on your list of things you'd like to direct?
There's a lot. I haven't done a musical for a long time, and that's a bit intentional. I've got a number of musical projects in the works, and there are plays…my list is so specific. What's been so great about the opera experience is that it has opened up the opera world for me, and that's going to be a big part of what I do going forward. I loved how it was doing the same job, but exercising a different muscle. I'd love to do more Shakespeare. I did a Much Ado About Nothing in 2011 with Michael Cumpsty and Kathryn Meisle that was the highlight of my professional life. I'd like to find a musical to revive, as well…Taking a piece you know works and finding a way of interpreting it, which makes it fresh, but also honors it.