Encore: Amy Mueller
Monday, July 13, 2015
Interview by Julie McCormick
Amy Mueller, artistic director of Playwrights Foundation in San Francisco, has played many roles during her artistic career: director, producer, dramaturg and proud parent. During her 15-year tenure, Playwrights Foundation has grown from an annual festival to a nationally recognized institution that provides year-round support to a diverse range of artists—and the Bay Area Playwrights Festival has become an important showcase of new work, with a number of festival plays going on to land national and off-Broadway productions.
|Playwrights Foundation artistic director Amy Mueller.
How did you first get started in theatre?
A little-known fact: I actually pursued an undergraduate degree in dance, and had done some of my own work self-producing here in the city as a very young dancer/choreographer. I was studying with Margaret Jenkins and ODC and was studying Limón technique and was very much in that world. But at all times I was also super interested in lighting and costumes, which I had done in college as well. I became fascinated with technical theatre, and started to recognize that I was more than a dancer. I wanted to tell stories.
One thing led to another. I was hired to do some work on the Olympic Arts Festival in Los Angeles. People don’t know this, but part of the Olympics’ charter is to include an arts festival of “epic proportions.” A lot of international companies come together at the Olympic Arts Festival; I was able to see Pina Bausch, and was exposed to really interesting European theatre artists, including Ariane Mnouchkine’s company. I fell in love with the work. I felt like, wow, this is really what I want to do: to create these epic movement spectacles with language and image. I stopped dancing after a year or two and focused on theatre.
Do you find that your work as a dancer and in technical theatre has informed the work you do now as a director and as a producer?
Yes, definitely. My aesthetic—both as a producer and as a director—is very visual. A play lives in time and space, and when you think about dance that’s the only place it lives, really. It’s an extremely ephemeral art form.
I feel like there’s a kind of visual dramaturgy in theatre that’s often a bit neglected. Bringing that to an analysis of a play is something I strive for in my work, and you can probably see that in some the choices that we make at Playwrights Foundation.
How did you get started with Playwrights Foundation?
Given that dance is all about new work, especially in the modern dance genre, I was mostly interested what was being created and written currently. I got involved in several new play organizations, including Playwrights Foundation, which at the time was just the festival. I got on the festival reading committee, and after a while Jayne Wenger, the artistic director at the time, asked if I would be interested in producing some special events during the festival, which I did. I got more and more involved in the organization, so when she announced her resignation I applied for the job.
How have you seen PF change since you’ve been there?
The organization existed primarily to produce one event per year: the Bay Area Playwrights Festival. So there was no office or salaried staff. Jayne had created a great upward trajectory for the organization; she had managed to secure NEA funding and Hewlett Foundation funding, and that was huge, because I was able to build on that legacy. My goal was to expand our reach and the number of playwrights that we’re able to support during the year through various programs. I wanted to create a center for new play development in San Francisco and take our place among the other new play organizations like the Playwrights Center, the Lark, New Dramatists and Sundance, primarily. Now we have an office, we have a staff of four, we have a studio that we built in our space. We have programming that exists year-round and a cadre of ten resident playwrights. It’s a much more substantial organization than it was.
What is the most exciting part of the new play process for you?
The most exciting part is discovering a play that I absolutely love, and having an opportunity to first talk to the playwright about the work. I think that’s for me the most delicious moment. Secondly, I love to see when the team really starts to cook and the playwright gets inspired to go back and dig into the work. I really believe that playwrights are the experts on their own work and that they learn the most by just being in the room, being a fly on the wall, listening.
Would you share a few words of advice for folks who are looking to direct new plays?
First of all, connect with specific playwrights. If you don’t have access to playwrights, then it’s good to volunteer to read plays for various theatres, as well as go to new play development festivals and conferences.
I would also encourage them to see as much theatre as possible. Go to New York; go to London, Berlin and Poland; travel and see as much work as possible, and see what really resonates with them.
Playwrights Foundation's 2015 Bay Area Playwrights festival runs Jul. 17-26.