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Interview: Water for Elephants Director Jessica Stone on What the Circus Can Teach Broadway

Nominated for her second Tony Award, Stone proves that the old way of learning to direct still garners thrilling new ideas.

2024 05 02 TM Tony Awards Meet the Nominees 137
Jessica Stone is nominated for a 2024 Tony Award for her direction of Water for Elephants.
(© Tricia Baron)

Jessica Stone took a fairly traditional path to the director’s chair — albeit one that has come to seem strange in the age of the MFA. She was an actor for years, appearing on Broadway in Grease, The Odd Couple, and Anything Goes. But by the 2011 run of the latter, she knew she needed a career change. So she spent a decade directing smallish shows all over the country. Only recently has she catapulted into the inner circle of Broadway’s most exciting directors.

She was nominated for a Tony last season for helming Kimberly Akimbo, which went on to win Best Musical. And she’s nominated again this season for Water for Elephants, the spectacular circus musical by Rick Elice and PigPen Theatre Co., which is also a contender for Best Musical. She really didn’t expect to get the job when she threw her hat in the ring.

“I thought of my first meeting with the producers of Water for Elephants as my own version of graduate school,” Stone admitted, recalling her early vision of a circus spectacle that materializes out of the hazy memories of Jacob Jankowski, the elderly veterinarian at the center of the tale. She was going to show the producers (and herself) that she can take on a show with big themes and even bigger practical challenges — bigger than anything she has previously directed. “And to their credit, they said, ‘OK, go away and come back and talk to us about how you imagine what this thing might look like.’”

I spoke with Stone about how the director of a quirky chamber musical like Kimberly Akimbo found her way into the giant circus musical now performing at the Imperial Theatre.

This conversation has been condensed and edited for clarity.

The cast of Water for Elephants performs at Broadway’s Imperial Theatre.
(© Matthew Murphy)

Water for Elephants feels like such a sharp departure from Kimberly Akimbo — but is it?

There is something that is exhilarating and humbling in any single moment in life and that dichotomy is always something I’m interested in chasing. We’re not always comfortable with ambivalence. But that’s basically life, right? That exists in Kimberly and in Water for Elephants. There’s pain and cruelty and deep humanity in both pieces.

There are just so many more moving parts in this one, though. Is it true that one’s ability to successfully direct a musical entirely hinges on one’s ability to delegate?

It is, and that was true of Kimberly as well. You want to make sure that you’re all telling the same story. But when you have circus and puppetry and dance and book scenes and a score and all the design elements —  I don’t think I’ve ever been in so many meetings for one show. It was six years of meetings. I spent a lot of time on Zoom.

And it’s your job to become, if not an expert, at least fluent in everything. What is something that you’ve learned a tremendous deal about in this process?

I’ve learned so much about rigging. Also, circus has a really different rhythm in terms of process, training, and trust. You have to build in training every day, and we had a company of people at the beginning that hadn’t all worked together. So their training sessions sometimes would look like they were just hanging out or messing around. A lot of that had to do with building trust and rapport. If you tense up or get in your head as a circus performer, you’re not going to jump as high or fall from as high. You need to know that the person holding their arms out is going to catch you, and that can only be built through play, community, and trust. That’s something I will always take with me.

Isabelle McCalla and Antoine Boissereau appear in Water for Elephants on Broadway.
(© Matthew Murphy)

The most remarkable thing about Water for Elephants is how the circus acts all contribute to the storytelling. How did you go about incorporating those elements with the choreographers, Shana Carroll and Jesse Robb?

We use circus to illuminate some of Mr. Jankowski’s most important memories. So if this memory is vibrant for him because it’s the moment he falls in love with the woman he’s going to spend the rest of his life with, why does he fall in love with her? It’s not because she’s beautiful, although she is. It’s because he watches her calm an animal in pain. Once we knew those parameters, we had to determine what that looks like visually.

I had this image of an aerialist sitting in a hoop that was shaped like a horseshoe and I showed it to Shana who suggested we think of this moment as an aerial act. So we asked this performer to work with that: You’re in a hoop. You’re in pain. She’s going to start singing and we’re going to slowly bring you into the air and see what happens. And she just improvised it the first time, and we all started crying. So that’s when we knew we were on to something.

Memory was my way in. When you remember something, you remember the feeling it gave you, but not necessarily specific details. That leaves a lot of room for the imagination and abstraction.

Takeshi Kata’s set follows very similar rules in that it’s fairly bare-bones (scaffolding on castors) and asks the audience to fill in the details. There’s a dramaturgical reason for this, but are there also practical reasons?

The frame is Mr. Jankowski visiting a circus that is striking set before moving on to the next town, so there’s a bit of scaffolding there and it’s triggering ghosts. That’s how it becomes the train in his mind. Now, there are practical reasons when you have a show that’s got so much aerial stuff. It’s not just to leave room for rigging. You’re hurling people into the air and you need a lot of room up there. You can’t fly in a lot of set pieces.

I really wanted the experience to feel analog. There’s a fragility to the circus and it requires an interdependence of people to survive. Those people become your family — your everything. So I wanted to make sure that the star of this show was our people and not a piece of scenery.

I imagine that makes this show somewhat tour-friendly. Is there any talk about making that happen?

I can’t confirm or deny that anything is specifically happening, but of course, nothing would make me happier than to take this show on the road.

The Broadway cast of Water for Elephants.
(© Matthew Murphy)

 

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