Brooklyn Heights

Riding the rails: an interview with Tyne Rafaeli on directing a new play “The Coast Starlight”

April 11, 2023 Peter Stamelman
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Tyne Rafaeli is a name I’d been encountering a lot in New York theater circles for the past few years. She is an Anglo-American director whose credits include Sylvia Khoury’s “Selling Kabul,” Ming Peiffer’s “Usual Girls,” Craig Lucas’ “I Was Most Alive with You,” Martyna Majok’s “Ironbound” and Anna Ziegler’s “Actually.” In addition, her work has been seen at The Public, Manhattan Theatre Club, the Atlantic Theater Company and the Classic Stage Company. She started her New York career as an associate director on “The King and I,” “Golden Boy,” and “Nikolai and the Others.” At each stop along the way, she has earned acclaim from critics and audiences alike.

Her latest effort is Keith Bunin’s “The Coast Starlight” at Lincoln Center Theater at the Mitzi E. Newhouse. Writing in the New York Times, Alexis Soloski praised Rafaeli’s “steady and sympathetic hand” in directing the play, a pensive and, at times, comic take on loneliness and connection.

From left to right, Mia Barron, Rhys Coiro, Michelle Wilson, Will Harrison and Jon Norman Schneider. Photo: T. Charles Erickson

Talking via Zoom, I begin the conversation by asking Rafaeli what she looks for in deciding if she wants to take on a new play.

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Tyne Rafaeli: There are three things: first, does the play move me? Second, the quality of the language, the writer’s voice. And the third thing is what the playwright is asking us about our current moment. And whether I can find a way into that.

Eagle: Your previous play, “Epiphany,” was a dinner party play, rather stationary. “The Coast Starlight” is just the opposite: a play set on an Amtrak train traveling from Los Angeles to Seattle. How were you able to suggest and capture that movement?

TR: I worked very hard with my design team to create a 36 hour train journey in 90 minutes, which was a really fun challenge. You know when I’m approaching a play in terms of design, often the way a play uses time is one of my first clues as to what the design should be. “The Coast Starlight” plays with time in a very abstract, poetic way, so we knew we had to prioritize movement and music. Those two things came together to express this strange passing of time and how time can go quicker or slower, depending on the emotional state of the characters. Also, the train journey is famously traveling through some of the most exquisite landscape in the country. So the characters are traversing both time and space in this incredibly theatrical way. Because the characters are sitting in a train carriage we wanted to express this incredible landscape in front of your eyes and what that does to your soul. So that’s how the designer and I came up with a moving space. That’s how the composer and I came up with the idea of a full underscore; the play is underscored almost from beginning to end. Also that’s how we all came up with the idea of bringing a video designer on-board, to help with the sense that the light would change so much over the course of this 36 hour journey. But as you say, movement was the important, distinctive element that the play needed.

The company of Lincoln Center Theater’s The Coast Starlight. Photo: T. Charles Erickson

Eagle: This is the fourth time you’ve worked with set designer Arnulfo Maldonado. How did you and Arnoldo crack the design for the play?

TR: That’s a great question. I think one of the first things we had to decide is how much of a train should we be on. And how abstracted can we get away with the design actually being. We played with various elements, including designing an actual interior of an Amtrak train car. But then we peeled that away and came up with the far more poetic, metaphoric idea of a life raft. We played with the Beckettian idea that these six people were the last six people in the world, and they cling to each other for dear life. If they let go they’ll fall into the void or the abyss. The audience would never experience this consciously but I hope they would experience it unconsciously.

Eagle: How has your staging changed from the 2019 La Jolla Playhouse production?

TR: Quite significantly actually. At La Jolla we were in a deep proscenium stage and the Mitzi [Newhouse at Lincoln Center Theater] is an incredibly intimate thrust. So the audience are in the train car with the characters immediately from the get-go. So obviously there’s a huge transition from a proscenium to a thrust in terms of my work, as you try to make sure the storytelling is inclusive in terms of where the audience are, which is essentially in the round. This actually suited our design because of the moving platform and because I’m always moving the actors. Every audience member gets a different show every second because you’re playing three-dimensional chess in a thrust that is that deep. As a director you are always thinking who can see what and when. It’s very iterative – you do one version, then you change it and you do another version. Then you change that and you should get to something that is three-dimensional.

Eagle: I know that you were a gymnast…

TR (laughing) Yes I was!

Eagle: And gymnastics is all about perfection, getting the 10. You’ve said that your journey as a theater director has been dismantling the idea of perfection. What did you mean?

TR: I meant that art-making in general and theater in particular, because it’s so ephemeral and live and fleeting, demands of the artist that you are in the present and allowing your collaborators – especially your actors – to find a different show every night. And as a gymnast – and the daughter of a director of photography – that’s a very different art form in a way. As a gymnast, as I’ve said previously, you’re looking for a perfect 10 and in my era of gymnastics that was attainable. And in film, in many ways, you can cut together something and it exists forever in the film director’s eyes – (laughing) though I doubt it. But in the theater you never have that fixed, finished performance. It is always changing. That’s what makes it thrilling and terrifying and exhilarating. It’s that the experience, the performance is always changing and it’s never finished. What I always say to my actors is that the rehearsal process is to build a framework so they can ask the question of the play every time they get on stage. So it’s not just to repeat what they’ve done in the rehearsal room – it’s to ask that question eight times a week, at every performance. And for “The Coast Starlight” – and, of course, it’s always hard to articulate perfectly – the deep question we were asking is how much do humans need to connect and why is it so difficult? And what stops us from connecting? And I feel, when I go back to see the show, that the actors are asking, and investigating, that question. Which, of course, is unanswerable. There isn’t one answer to that question. So the play and the process of making theater and the process of being in communion with the audience gets us into that question to explore.

From left to right, Camila Canó-Flaviá, Michelle Wilson, Rhys Coiro and Will Harrison. Photo: T. Charles Erickson

Eagle: You seem very drawn to serious plays. Do you ever have the desire to do an out-and-out comedy, something even farcical?

TR: Well, I will challenge that by saying that both the play you mentioned earlier in our conversation, “Epiphany” and “The Coast Starlight” are incredibly funny plays until they’re not. I think both plays encapsulate a great passion of mine which is the proximity of the sublime and the ridiculous. And also that laughter opens an audience up to very deep, sometimes serious, sometimes tragic, sometimes metaphysical ideas, But I think without laughter it’s very hard to open the audience up. Certainly in Brian Watkins’ “Epiphany” and Keith’s “The Coast Starlight” both those writers have this ability to move from the sublime to the ridiculous in a way I really like and which is reflective of life itself.

Eagle: I’m going to ask you a question I also asked Keith: What do you think happens to T.J.?

TR: (laughing) I’m sure I’m answering that the way Keith did, which is we all have our ideas about that but I would never impose that on a reader or an audience member.I always believe a character unless the playwright tells me not to and so I believe T.J. when he says he’s alive but I don’t want to spoil the plot for your readers.

Eagle: You’re right, that’s remarkably similar to Keith’s answer! Final question: What’s next for you? What are you working on?

TR: I’m doing some TV work right now, a show I went into right after finishing “The Coast Starlight.” Then I’m doing some more TV work this summer. And I have a theatrical production for next fall that hasn’t been officially announced, so I can’t say much about it. But I will have a production in New York in the Fall with an extraordinary actress that I am incredibly excited to work with. And it’s a really, really interesting play that, again, straddles the sublime and the ridiculous, the light and the dark and the political and the personal in a way I’m really excited about.

Eagle: Wow, your dance card is very full.

TR: (laughing) I try…I try.

The company of Lincoln Center Theater’s The Coast Starlight. Photo: T. Charles Erickson

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