On a Roll: Arabian Night, now in previews at the East 13th Street Theatre, marks the fifth show Trip Cullman, above, has directed this season.
Off-Broadways It director
By Rachel Fershleiser
If youre the sort of person who pays attention to theatre directors, heres a name you must know: Trip Cullman. Only a few years out of Yales directing program, the 31-year- old has assisted Mike Nichols and Joe Mantello, worked with top New York theatre companies, and directed five shows this season alone.
His latest production, Arabian Night, is an experimental German play by Roland Schimmelpfennig thats billed as an erotic urban fantasy. Now in previews, the Play Company production runs through July 2nd at the East 13th Street Theatre.
Cullman couldnt be happier to be living and working downtown.
Downtown is more my energy, he says, over something pink and iced at Tea Spot on MacDougal. All the restaurants and arts that I love are down here. I couldnt possibly imagine living on the Upper East or Upper West Side even though the Upper East Side is where Edgar Cullman III was born. Hes been called Trip his whole life, and lived in the Village ever since Ive been an adult. A self-proclaimed king of high school musical theatre, he studied acting as an undergraduate at Yale and began to direct at Off Off-Broadway houses like Nada and The Piano Store soon after.
They were both on Ludlow, Cullman says, and unfortunately now theyre both fancy bars.
Cullman is friendly but intense, with dark eyes that are difficult to look away from when hes speaking. Dressed in a tuxedo shirt, jeans, and trendy blue sneakers, his style is as quirky as his choice of words to describe the current state of theater. Rinne Groffs play The Ruby Sunrise, he says, was an amazing, amazing, amazing, amazing experience. American playwrights are the ur-artist, the big kahuna. And some good ones? Elizabeth Meriwether, Adam Bock just gobs and gobs of great young writers.
In short, he says, I dont buy that whole theatre is dying thing.
Hes especially optimistic about opportunities for theatre artists in present-day New York Pianos and Nada be damned. Places Ive worked this year, like Playwrights Horizons, Second Stage, and MCC are really amazing institutions that nurture artists and arent as dependent on great reviews or getting a big TV star in the cast. They just want to support work.
He also applauds corporate sponsorship of nonprofit theatre, citing Signature Theatres partnership with Time Warner, which makes all shows this season $15. Price can be a huge stumbling block, and now its affordable for young people to go.
Though Cullman is well-respected and well on his way to becoming well-known, its only fair to say that his recent productions like the Peanuts satire Dog Sees God, the fantastical folktale The Wooden Breeks, and the culturally charged mother-daughter drama Manic Flight Reaction received mixed reviews from critics. Cullman, though, was hardly mentioned in those reviews.
Hes trying to learn not to read them, but he also thinks that 99.9% of reviewers have no idea how to asses the directors contribution to a production.
I always find they just say well-paced or crisply directed by, he says. These adjectives that are sort of meaningless and have nothing really to do with what Im actually contributing to the work.
So what is he contributing? If a playwright is the author of the text, the director is the author of the production anything you perceive on stage is part of a long and arduous decision-making process, he explains. Id venture to say that the more problematic texts directors are given, when they then make [them] into viable productions, thats the incredible amount of work on the directors part.
Cullman certainly doesnt shy away from material that is strange or difficult. (This is the same director, after all, whos taken on a Peanuts satire and an erotic urban fantasy in the same season.) He also collaborates with actors in a way that leaves them wanting more. A few months ago Keith Nobbs, a frequent Off-Broadway actor and Dog Sees God star told me Trip is unbelievable in how he creates an environment, how he lets us create our own characters and then guides us. I definitely think hes on the brink of becoming the next important theatre director.
Logan Marshall-Green of OC fame, and also a Dog cast member, added, Hes one of the best directors Ive ever worked with. Hes got his own style, and it works for actors of any ability, experience, or type. Hes really an actors director.
Working almost exclusively on new plays, Cullman prides himself on being something of a playwrights director as well. Id like to think Im someone a playwright would like to go to, he says, because Im not going to impose my own directorial vision at the expense of the play itself. I try to find a marriage.
In order to take on a new play, Cullman needs to fall in love with something about it. Often its the playwright. In the case of Arabian Night, it was what the playwright left out. Part of the way Roland has written the play is to give a blank canvas to a director. Its quite open for directorial interpretation, he says. Im staging something thats abstract, almost like a dance piece, and pushing some boundaries and envelopes that I havent been able to before, so its really exciting for me.
This summer, hell be directing a new Keith Huff play at New York Stage and Film; in the fall hell helm Dark Matters (such a cool play!) at the West Villages Rattlestick Theater. And next year hell direct his first musical, a garage rock show hes currently developing.
Im definitely interested in moving on to Broadway at some point in my career. Cullman says. And I want to pursue film and television, but only with the right project. Im hanging out til then.
Arabian Night is at the East 13th Street Theatre through July 2nd. For tickets, visit www.ticketcentral.com or call 212-279-4200.