One day, when Leigh Silverman was 15 and the youngest student in a college summer drama program, her teacher pointedly asked her to stay after class.
“She said, ‘Leigh, you shouldn’t be an actress; you’re terrible,’” Silverman, now 33, recalled with a laugh. “I was horrified. But then she said I had good insights about the plays, and that instead of acting I should be her assistant.
So I spent the summer reading Ibsen, Chekhov and Shaw and helping to put [scenes] together. And that summer quickly changed the course of my life.”
Today, Silverman has carved her own niche as a director who tenaciously develops and stages new works—plays that often grapple with issues of race, politics and identity. In 2006, she was one of the youngest women ever to direct on Broadway, with Lisa Kron’s autobiographical “Well,” about a Jewish woman’s relationship with her chronically ill mother, a civil rights activist in Michigan.
Racial strife—and the tension between the personal and the political—is also evident in Silverman’s latest world premiere: Tanya Barfield’s “Of Equal Measure,” which runs July 11-27 at the Center Theatre Group’s (CTG) Kirk Douglas Theatre. “Measure”—the first play commissioned and staged for CTG by artistic director Michael Ritchie—takes place on the eve of World War I and revolves around an ambitious African American stenographer, Jade (Michole Briana White), in Woodrow Wilson’s White House. As the action unfolds, Jade notes the paradox of Wilson’s efforts to “keep the world safe for democracy” while segregating federal employees (and thus imperiling democracy) at home.
“Measure” marks the seventh time Silverman has collaborated with Barfield.
“Leigh directed a workshop of the first play I wrote…. Over the years, she has been selfless in her contributions to the development of my work,” Barfield said. “In production, Leigh effortlessly navigates the demands of an ever-changing world premiere.”
“My charge is to give writers a production of the play they wanted to write, not to impose any kind of auteurship,” Silverman said at a “Measure” rehearsal, which she ran with the precision of a general. “In the development phase, we’re in discussion all the time; it’s a constant navigation and compromise.”
For Silverman, “the reason to do theater, for me, is because of the novel ideas that can be introduced to an audience.”
Silverman first applied this principle when she became bat mitzvah at an unaffiliated synagogue near Washington, D.C. (the religious school met in a Korean church), which she meticulously coordinated.
“I wanted to create an informal, friendly, nontraditional environment, because I’m a nontraditional kind of person,” she recalled. “I wanted it to feel like an event that no one had ever been to before—and that’s really what I’m still after in my life and work.”
At the time of her bat mitzvah, Silverman’s mother was dying after a long battle with breast cancer. When asked if the helplessness she felt at the time may have spurred her career choice, she said directing can tie into one’s desire to feel “in control.” “Everything I am in certain ways is a reaction to my mother being sick and dying,” she added. “I often wonder if I would have had the same needs and drive had she not been [ill].”
By the time Silverman was in her mid-20s, she had graduated from Carnegie Mellon University and had also begun working on “Well”—although Kron warned her that she burned through directors and could not promise to keep Silverman on board.
On why she finds Silverman unique, Kron said, “There is a large dramaturgical component to directing a new play, and Leigh set herself up for this early in a fairly unusual way when she got [degrees] in both directing and playwriting. She not only has a great understanding of dramatic structure, but she also understands the writing process from the inside.”
“Well” premiered to good reviews on Broadway in 2006; another well-received project was David Henry Hwang’s “Yellow Face”—a mockudrama that begins as Hwang’s alter ego protests the casting of a Caucasian in “Miss Saigon.”
“I loved the way David skewered himself and the community,” Silverman said of why she was drawn to the play. “I liked his anti-political correctness and his irreverence.”
Hwang initially wasn’t as enthusiastic about Silverman.
“When Leigh and I first met about ‘Yellow Face,’ I thought, ‘She doesn’t get the play,’” he said. “Then, after I thought about it, I realized that the things she didn’t understand were the things that weren’t yet clear in the text. So that made me respect her more…. She is so smart about script, and rarely ever wrong.”
It was Silverman who initially had questions when Barfield approached her about “Of Equal Measure.”
“Tanya would tell me about this World War I history, and my eyes would just glaze over,” she recalled. “But then we did a number of readings; we’d meet and talk through potential story lines and character development, and the result was this kind of parallel story between Jade, the main character, and Wilson—who both start out as idealistic, but whose ideals are tested in the course of the play.”
As for Silverman’s ideals, she said, “I love that stereotype about Jews being the liberal progressive, big thinkers. Tanya and I talk about those generalities all the time. It’s like, ‘OK, you’re not black, but you’re Jewish.’”
For more information, visit http://centertheatregroup.org.