No director is an island

by | May 2, 2018

As an artist, I have two responsibilities: telling a good story, and changing the world. Great art has the power to do both simultaneously.

My goal is to challenge audiences to work harder and look more deeply into all material. Every story, no matter the subject or medium, is about communication. Our characters are on a stage speaking/singing/dancing/signing – communicating – their story. The common link that aligns us all, regardless of race, religion, orientation, or ability, is that we are all human beings.

American theatre should reflect the American experience. Audiences need to see themselves in the stories and characters on our stages. We need to stop normalizing this tradition of only inviting certain voices and perspectives to the party.

It is one thing to desire change, however, and entirely another to make it happen. Progress is met with many obstacles. For some people an obstacle is an easy reason to turn and run, but I am not one of those people. For me, there is no greater motivation in this world then the sound of the word “no.”

My goal is always to serve the story and I’m not afraid to take a risk and try something new to make it happen. Tell me an audience can’t believably accept a multi-racial family and I will prove you wrong. Tell me the deaf community will never want to come to an opera and I will get them there. Tell me there’s no room in the budget for accessibility and I will go find the sponsors myself.

Don’t say we can’t do it because it’s hard or breaks convention. We cannot grow as an industry, as a society, if we don’t reach beyond what has historically been done.

When the opportunity arose to direct a production of Aaron Copland’s The Tender Land a couple years ago, the naysayers started to rise. Talk of mounting a new production of the show had come up in the past, and each time I’d been told that it was a terrible idea. I was told the book doesn’t hold weight and the plot is ill-conceived. That the family dynamics don’t make sense and there’s no pay off for the audience. That I should never try to tackle this opera because even the most seasoned directors couldn’t figure it out.

I spent a long time reading the libretto over and over, trying silence the external negative voices and parse out why I thought this opera was more than just beautiful music and a piece of Americana. I discovered a way to refocus the problems in the family dynamic and approach the show from a different place.

I had an idea but I knew would be deemed risky and expensive, so I kept it to myself and started to devise a plan.

Directing can be a very lonely task. There is only one director on a project and it’s not easy to establish relationships with other directors. I was looking for a community of like-minded dreamers who believed that the future of American theatre was not the status quo.

Enter DirectorsLabChicago, which provides a setting through their annual Lab for directors to meet, learn and collaborate with each other. Everyone has their own specific reasons for being at the Lab, but the sharing of ideas between fellow directors seems to be a common link among us all.

What attracted me specifically to DLC was their reputation for interesting programming and topical themes. The 2016 Lab theme was un/spoken: The Language of the Stage. I applied because they were planning to explore, among other things, the use of non-verbal communication in theatre. The theme complemented my “crazy” idea for The Tender Land, the one I hadn’t yet shared with anyone.

I wanted to cast a deaf actor in an opera.

In attending the Lab, I was interested in learning not only about accessibility, but how to create an environment in which a deaf actor and hearing opera singers could work together on stage. The Lab had a fantastic session on ASL and accessibility lead by people who had been on both sides of the table; a deaf actor with an interpreter as well as a Director who had fused the two worlds successfully. The more I learned from them, the more I wanted to know.

One of my fellow “Labbies” asked why I was so interested in this particular session. I was about to give some half-hearted response when it struck me – this was the entire reason I was there. We may only have known each other a few days, but I felt if anyone would give me honest feedback, it was another director. I shared my idea, and she quickly became even more excited about it than I was. She offered to put me in contact with people she knew at Actor’s Equity to help get the ball rolling and find the resources I needed to make it happen.

I told more of our group about my idea, and everyone jumped on in support. They offered to provide names of people they knew who might be able to help, suggested applicable grants, and simply listened while I talked the idea out and tried to solidify the story I wanted to tell. Throughout the process of bringing this version of The Tender Land to the stage, my fellow Labbies were there to listen and help navigate the bumps in the road.

The Tender Land was one of the most difficult and gratifying experiences of my life. I learned so much about deaf culture from my ASL team. The excitement surrounding this project caused me to feel constant pressure to ensure we were being honest and authentic. I wanted to do right by everyone who supported this show. It took a village (and a brilliant grant writer), but we made it happen.

I reached a crossroad in my career after The Tender Land closed last June. I wanted to expand my horizons and learn more about how to make this type of work happen on an even larger scale. But more than anything, I craved that same connection with other directors that I’d had at the Lab. My entire career to that point had been trial by fire. My path has been nontraditional. I have never had a mentor. I wanted to connect with someone on a project we could both feel passionate about.

I applied for the SDCF Observership Program, but had no idea what was about to happen. I was accepted as an Observer and opportunities started to come in, but I did’t feel I was right for any of them. I was starting to get discouraged when an e-mail said there would be an Observer opportunity with Kenny Leon for Children of a Lesser God on Broadway.

When I first spoke with Kenny we talked about my experience on The Tender Land, and at length about inclusivity in theatre. He is one of the biggest champions there is of putting the American experience on stage. From his work with August Wilson’s American Century Cycle to Holler if Ya Hear Me, his mission is to reach people who would not necessarily go to the theatre and show them why they should be there. That they too can see themselves reflected in those on stage.

We live in a time where we are not listening. We’re each pushing our own agenda, and in our quest to get ahead we forget about others.

We are so focused on competition that we forget about collaboration. Kenny wanted to change the game on Broadway with Children of a Lesser God, to show the world that communication is multifaceted and if we don’t start listening to each other, it is at our own peril. His mission was to tell the story of two people from different worlds confronting life together and the challenges that lie in the wake of that.

I spent two months being Kenny’s shadow, picking his brain about his choices and learning more and more about life through someone else’s eyes. We had challenging conversations and more often than not they were not about theatre, they were about life. We may have lived different lives, through different times and with different struggles but there is one place we definitely agree: a life lived in regret is not a life worth living. You must work every day to be a better citizen of this planet and you need to bring that love and passion to everything you do.

A director’s job is to facilitate humanity on stage. How can you bring life to a character if you do not spend every day trying to better understand life yourself? No matter our race, orientation, identity or ability, we are all on a constant search for truth. We need to communicate and collaborate. No person is an island, not even a director.

Editor’s note: Applications for the 2018 DirectorsLabChicago are due Sunday, May 6. Applications for the 2018-19 SDCF Observership Program are due Tuesday, May 8.

Kristy Chambrelli has mounted productions throughout the United States and Europe. She is the former Associate Artistic Director for Hartford Opera Theater and a previous resident opera director for the Asolo Art Song and Aria Festival in Asolo, Italy. She has taught and directed at New England Conservatory, The Hartt School, Worcester Polytechnic Institute, Florida State University, Clark University, and The College of New Jersey. Her production of Jekyll & Hyde was awarded the 2014 Moss Hart Award for “…fresh, imaginative, creative treatment within the intent of the playwright”. (NETC)

​She recently directed plays at 13th Street Rep, Leela NYC Festival, NY Summerfest, The Network Theatre Company, Kraine Theatre, and Manhattan Rep. Kristy recently finished directing for the Writer’s Workshop at BroadwayCon 2018. She was named to the SDCF Observership Class for  and will be serving as the SDCF Observer for Kenny Leon on Children of a Lesser God on Broadway this year. Kristy has been nominated for several Broadway World CT & RI awards in Directing. She was a semi-finalist for the 2017 American Prize in Opera Direction. She was an SDC Respondent for KCACTF Region 1. Kristy served as the Youth Director assisting Maxwell Williams on A Christmas Carol (Hartford Stage). She worked with Michael Bolton, Shelton Becton and the New Haven Choir in preparation for BBC/NBC’s Clash of the Choirs. Kristy has been directing music videos with Ten Out of Ten Pro for a crossover concept album by Michelle Murray Fiertek. The first two were released in August 2017 and the third is currently in production. ​

Kristy is a Co-Founder and Artistic Director of IN MEDIAS ARTS – a new media and performance art collective. She has a BM from The Boston Conservatory. She studied Film Scoring and Composition at Berklee College of Music and Opera Directing at Florida State University.  She is a Directors Lab North and Directors Lab Chicago Alum and is a proud associate member of the Stage Directors and Choreographers Society.

Want to know more about DirectorsLabChicago’s future Labs and other events and resources for directors? Add your name to our mailing list at the bottom of this page!