Q&A with Windsor Terrace resident Evan Cabnet: New artistic director of LCT3
This past May, Lincoln Center Theater named the director Evan Cabnet to run LCT3, Lincoln Center Theater’s program for producing plays, its program for producing plays by new artists. Cabnet, 38, has an impressive resume: on Broadway he has directed Helen Edmundson’s riveting adaptation of Zola’s “Therese Raquin” starring Keira Knightly and the Superstorm Sandy-cursed “The Performers starring Alicia Silverstone.” His off-Broadway credits include “Gloria” and “Outside People” for the Vineyard Theater; “A Kid Like Jake” and “All-American” for LCT3; and “The Model Apartment” and “Poor Behavior” for Primary Stages. In addition, Cabnet directs often for the Goodman Theater in Chicago, where he will direct “Gloria” in January 2017. Cabnet has also written adaptations of Alfred Jarry’s “Ubu Roi” and Salman Rushdie’s “Haroun and the Sea of Stories.”
Cabnet was born in Philadelphia and raised in the suburbs of South Jersey. He graduated from New York University and currently lives with his family in Windsor Terrace. He started his theater career as an actor but quickly realized he had more interest in directing than performing. He is meticulous in researching the plays he’s going to direct and in fostering a participatory and relaxed atmosphere. Surely this is one explanation for why he is universally liked and respected among his theatrical compatriots. Another could be his calm and disarming manner, which puts one at ease immediately. He also possesses a virtue that, in our social media-saturated world, is at risk of extinction: he’s present. And self-effacing. He’s the anti-Oscar Jaffe.
Edmundson, whose recently co-written screenplay for a film on the life of Mary Magdalene, starring Rooney Mara, Joaquin Phoenix and Chiwetel Ejiofor, is in pre-production, tells me by email, “I thoroughly enjoyed working with Evan and have great admiration for him. Where we collaborated most was on mining the depths of each character and the meaning and resonance of Zola’s story.
“Evan was determined to discover every nuance and subtlety within the script, to uncover all the subtext, so that he and the actors could make informed and complex choices about what to reveal and what to hold back…We worked together on this — no stone was left unturned,” Edmunson continued. “Evan has infinite patience and sets up a truly honest, open and collaborative atmosphere within the rehearsal room.”
Robert Falls, the artistic director of Chicago’s Goodman Theater, in a recent telephone conversation, said of Cabnet: “One of the many wonderful qualities Evan possesses is his clarity, his ability to be very focused, very clear in expressing to his collaborators, what they are all going for. And to be a forceful presence, but in a gentle manner. For example, we had commissioned Chris [Shinn] to write ‘Teddy Ferrara’ for us, and I asked Chris who he felt should direct it. Without hesitation, he recommended Evan. And it wasn’t an easy early experience for Evan because Chris was sick and was not able to be as involved as he would have liked. Evan stepped in and he was the calm center in the midst of what could easily have become chaos. We are so excited to be working with him again on Gloria.”
Finally, Knightley, who made her Broadway debut in “Therese” under Cabnet’s direction, graciously took time off from pre-production on her next film “The Nutcracker and The Four Realms” to write in an email: “Evan is one of the most kind, fearless directors I have worked with. He has an incredible intelligence and curiosity about the work he does. It’s really rare to work with a director who chooses such difficult material but who is so unflappable and totally caring of the people around him. It’s a joy to be in his company, and when you’re working on something that is so relentlessly dark, like “Therese Raquin,” that can be a lifesaver.”
Recently, over coffee on the third floor of the Lincoln Center Theater complex on West 65th Street, I sat down with Cabnet to talk about his beginnings, his busy career as a successful off-and-on Broadway director and his reasons for taking the LCT3 artistic director position. The following are excerpts from the conversation.
Eagle: You have quite an eclectic list of theater-directing credits. What do you look for when deciding what play to direct next?
Evan Cabnet: First, it’s got to speak to me on a gut level, as when you hear a song that you love and listen to over and over or read a book that stays with you. The second thing is — and it’s hard to speak about this without sounding clichéd — but really, it’s the presence of a clear voice. Reading a writer who is thinking about something, wrestling with something, questioning something in a way that feels new and individual. The theater, unlike film, is someplace where the writer really is king or queen. It’s their voice that we’re all here to serve. So someone who doesn’t sound like anyone else, formally or thematically, or both, is exciting for me. Especially for someone like me who’s been in the new play trenches for almost 15 years now, it’s very exciting to find a new voice — when the writing is so original and unique that you feel you want to have as many people as possible experience it.
Eagle: You also tackle many different genres. Is that deliberate?
EC: It’s a totally deliberate decision. A director friend of mine gave me this Ang Lee interview to read in which he [Lee] said that he always tries to do the opposite in his next film from what he’s done before. So there was this period were he did a chamber piece like “The Ice Storm” and then a superhero, franchise movie “Incredible Hulk” and then the western with Tobey Maguire “Ride with the Devil” and then the Kung Fu film “Crouching Tiger, Hidden Dragon.” And I think that’s great!
I mean, we work in this field where everybody is quick to put you in a category, and I think it’s our responsibility to avoid that as much as possible. For example, this past spring, I was doing “Encores” with Stephen Sondheim at City Center, which was something I had never done before, on the heels of Zola’s dark and claustrophobic “Therese,” which was on the heels of directing Brenden Jacobs-Jenkins’s “Gloria, ”which was about working in a toxic office, which was while I was in development for Wendy Wasserstein’s “An American Daughter” at Williamstown.
I love that mix; it stimulates me, keeps me on my toes. And believe me, I’m not an auteur; I’m very deferential to the writing on the page. So the thrill for me is to wrap my mind around the material and discover what I can bring to it while still honoring it.
Eagle: Did you have any reservations about taking the LCT3 job because it would interfere with your own directing assignments?
EC: You know, it’s funny, because I get that question a lot. But the truth is it doesn’t really feel like I’m jumping off the grid. Instead, it feels like an extension, or an expansion, of what I have been doing for the last ten years. As a director, I always try not to meddle. I didn’t write it [the play]; I don’t perform it. I’m the vessel. So once we get out of tech and previews, I disappear. If the work is good, you, the audience, shouldn’t be thinking about the “invisible hands” that brought it to the stage — in other words, the director and the producers. So, in a profound way, I think that the discipline I’ve been trying to hone as a director is exactly the same as what I will need as an artistic director.
Eagle: So there’s not really that much of a learning curve?
EC: Well, we’ll see. But that’s certainly the hope. The impulse is the same: I’ve got to get this in front of an audience. It’s always been that way. Whenever I read a play I love, it’s not, “Eureka, I’ve got to direct this!” It’s “How do I get this play on the boards so people can see it?”
Eagle: You have the instincts of an impresario.
EC [laughing]: Well, we’ll see. Come back in a year and let me know!
LCT3 began previews Oct. 8, at the Claire Tow Theater, of the world premiere of Samuel Hunter’s “The Harvest.”
For a schedule of performances and to buy tickets go to www.lct3.org
Among the Brooklyn locales Cabnet and his family go to often are Terrace Bagels on Prospect Park West (“best bagels in Brooklyn”), Taco El Catrin and Buffalo’s Famous on Church Avenue below the parade grounds. On weekends they love the LeFrak skating rink, making the trek to Greenlight Books in Fort Greene and Jane’s Carousel near St. Anne’s.
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