Peering out the window of a train from London to Stratford Upon Avon, Adam Marple, a young American director, admires the passing English countryside and puzzles at the ‘festival culture’ so important to the traditions of British theatre. “It’s strange,” he says, speaking in a typically slow, drawn out manner, his usual thoughtful tone bringing the conversation to the brink of a full stop. “These cities like Stratford are packed pull of theatre-goers for, say, one month of the year, and then what? What happens to the city when everyone leaves?”
I guess it’s left there, devoid of the things that give it an identity, waiting for the next round of artists to come and give it life again. The trouble is that this reality could just as adequately apply to Marple’s life. As a theatre director emerging from Columbia University’s Master of Fine Arts program, he is consumed by what he considers to be his vocation — making theatre necessary. Theatre is not simply his job, nor his art. It’s his life and his foremost priority. Marple’s dedication to his craft can start to seem a little strange if one looks closely and it is clear that theatre is the most vital component of the director’s existence, taking precedence over food (he didn’t eat for three days while working on Chekov’s “The Cherry Orchard”), water and human relationships. Without it, he is a little like an off-season Stratford — a man without a self.
Etched upon his body to prove his dedication are tattoos- six of them- all saying theatre in different languages. The first, he got when he was eighteen. Literally translated from Japanese, it means ‘play place’ and rests over his heart appropriately scaring off anyone who dares compete for attention. The second is in Russian on his lower back. The third, in Greek, snakes down his right leg. Across his freckled shoulders and framed by an arching hairline is an enormous ‘Amharclann’ — the Gaelic. Down his left leg is the Persian language, Farsi. Inscribed across his right bicep is Hebrew. When he goes to teach in Singapore later in the year, he tells me, he will get Hindi on his left bicep. “It solidifies the commitment to what I do and love.”
In his quest to make great theatre, Marple has trotted the globe- well, some of it at least- in search of some of the most talented theatre artists of our generation. Working with Lawrence Sacharow in Italy, following Romeo Castellucci to northern France, he has waited patiently for them to throw theatrical tit-bits his way and has absorbed all that they’ve said. Along the way, women have fallen in love with him, and he considers that fine, but it’s not what keeps him going. Marple pursues his theatrical calling and lets the other dirty pieces of life crumble in his wake.
* * * * * * * * *
Imperfect but by no means rugged, Marple has the kind of face that gets more handsome the longer one looks. From under his freckled complexion and loosely groomed moustache, and the traditional pallor of a serious artist, pokes a boy with peachy cheeks and a mischievous grin- the class clown that played Santa in the elementary school play. The twenty-nine-year old Adam has a moustache and a John Wayne swagger that instantly make you want to categorize him as a McCain supporter and a wardrobe that reeks of Marietta, Georgia, his birthplace and his first home on Daffodil Lane where he pulled down his neighbor’s bathing suit, exposing her breasts in the backyard pool. Despite his accent — which still contains rare but distinct traces of the deep south — and his uniform of leather jacket, jeans and cracked red leather boots, it doesn’t take long to figure out that, as a theatre director living in New York City and working all over the world, Adam doesn’t exactly figure himself as a cowboy and “the big chicken” — a six-storey chicken attached to a nearby KFC — is certainly no longer his first and foremost cultural reference.
He made the trip to London with only one item on his agenda- to see the director Katie Mitchell’s version of Shakespeare’s “Henry V1.” The archives of the Royal Shakespeare Company have the one and only copy and, in order to see it, you have to watch it on the company’s television set. He left on an impulse- something that his friends suggest speaks of a habit of following his whims. “I just wanted to see England,” he says, “to get a general feeling from it, to see the people and hear the voices.” As he travels, he makes note of images that might be useful in his own production of “Henry,” his final thesis production going up some time in June or July. A tree standing alone in an empty field, a crow flying against a dark and gloomy backdrop, ice and rain. “Looking out of the train window has been by far the most useful part of my trip,” he reflects. “I like images — they’re how I begin my process.” With intense passion he describes the opening of his own production which, he says, will start with no announcement, no welcome. “Then, a chair will fall from the sky, smashing on stage. The audience won’t be expecting it at all — it will take them out of their world and put them somewhere else. Then, when they’ve recovered from their surprise, two more will fall.” Marple’s voice gets progressively louder and faster as he talks and his hands suddenly seem separate from his body, gesturing wildly, profusely.
To the untrained ear, Marple is just another arts student, full of ideas and reveling in the sound of his own voice, but in fact he’s just the opposite. He barely talks at all — just like John Wayne, he’s the silent type, the one who arrives early just so he can get the lay of the land. Unlike many of his kind, spouting half-baked proverbs and radical world-views, he is hesitant to say anything without a base of knowledge to back him up. “Adam knows more about theatre than anyone else I know,” says Adriana Baer, his college colleague and friend. “He’s always one step ahead in terms of knowing what’s happening theatrically all over the world.”
If anyone should have a great knowledge of global theatre, it’s Adam Marple. Starting his life in the theatre as an actor at age seven, he went to stage school and attended Wright State University where he was awarded the inaugural Martin Sheen scholarship for excellence in Theatre. After working with Lawrence Sacharow in Italy, he joined The Workcenter of Jerzy Grotowski in Pontedera, an experience he defines as the second worst cult he’s ever been in, losing out by a hair to his first marriage. “We would work for eighteen hours per day at least, sometimes more. We only talked to each other and had no idea what was going on in the outside world.” It was as a result of his experience there that Marple decided to leave acting and made his move towards directing, his decision fueled by the desire to make great and important work and feeling that he would never be able to accomplish these goals as an actor. He began teaching for the Actors Theatre of Louisville, Cincinnati Playhouse in the Park, The Children’s Theatre of Cincinnati and the Ohio Board of Education. Following his divorce, he made a long desired move to New York with the hope of living his dream on a bigger and more international scale and started his M.F.A. in 2007.
Marple is desperate to make me understand that his apartment in Washington Heights is not his home- he calls it a way station on the road to somewhere else. Singapore in January, New York for the summer to stage Henry, then a different bed somewhere new. Shared with three roommates- friends of friends but ultimately not friends of his- the Tudor style building is perched on a hill in what used to be a decidedly Dominican neighborhood, now more mixed. Iron gates and high piled barbed wire give the foreboding impression that there’s been trouble in the past but Adam insists that he’s always found it safe and wonderfully quiet. He seems ill at ease in his surroundings, lingering in the hallway for what seems an age. “I don’t spend any time in the living room,” he tells me awkwardly shifting his weight. “That’s the girls’ space mostly.” His room, separated from the common space by a flimsy curtain, is a conglomerate of Ikea furniture and ‘random crap from the street’ and has the embarrassing feel of a student dormitory sparsely furnished with a bookcase and a bunk bed. His one prize find — a beaded leather rocking chair discarded by his next-door neighbors. He’d like to make it a permanent fixture but it will probably have to go in the next move.
After all the travelling he’s done, Marple says, it is strange to go home. “It’s funny. I always have to adjust my step when I get off the plane in Atlanta,” he says, admitting that the idea of home has always been a little unsteady. Not a run of the mill divorce story, his mother and father had a relatively amicable separation of ways when Marple was three and Debbie’s been married four times since, most ending badly, one involving a secret stash of crack cocaine. His own marriage to Heather (a stage manager from his days at Wright), which he tried so diligently to sustain, ended shortly before he began the program at Columbia. “Heather’s father was a really traditional man and I think she expected Adam would become that when they got married — a provider — but anyone who know Adam knows that’s not his priority,” said Raynelle Wright (a friend of the former couple). Adam is definitely not in and of his situation — living in thirty-eight different houses with no father figure or a sense of home — but it has definitely played a significant part in what he has become. An itchy-footed wanderer that has made theatre the one constant in his life, the thrill of the stage has become the driving force of his existence, and his conversation.
Adam Marple’s most notable work includes his own adaptation and translation of Dante Alighieri’s “Inferno,” “Cherry Orchard,” and “The Tempest,” all produced under the heading of his theatre company, Necessary Theatre. The company was founded by Adam and a few of his colleagues in Atlanta in 2005 with funding from Marple’s wealthy real estate developer uncle (perhaps more as a result of tax breaks than familial ties), and was imagined in light of the fact that so much of theatre is actually unnecessary. “American theatre,” Adam says, sitting in a diner near his home on 158th street “is defined by what’s on Broadway. If you go to Europe, there are many kinds of theatre — devised work, improvised work, revolutionary work.” “We didn’t want actors to have to audition for a Neil Simon play because that’s the way things were going. We wanted to make a new kind of theatre here in the U.S. and we would only do what was necessary to make that happen. We wanted to engage the imagination of the audience viscerally, spiritually and physically, all at the same time. To make use of what is unique about our medium. To create a living theatre, expressing the spiritual and social concerns of the world today. To provide a chance to escape the loneliness of American life, into a group inspired by a shared ideal. A center. A refuge. A Home.”
“Adam’s strength,” says Anne Bogart (his teacher and an extremely accomplished director), “lies in his genuine curiosity about the audience/actor relationship and all of the potentialities that surround that issue.” “I am very definitely interested in an audience” — Adam hesitates — “but not in a casual here-today-gone-tomorrow audience that visits the theatre when there is nothing better to do; but in an audience sincerely interested in plays that reflect the contemporary human comedy, the passions and problems of our world.” The young director is fixated by the notion of a “buy-in.” What brings a person to the theatre? What sparks their interest in a specific play? What’s in it for them?
After watching Tina Landau’s production of “Anne Frank” in Chicago in 2007 — Landau being an American director and playwright — Marple was inspired to open up his rehearsal process of Eugene O’Neill’s “In The Zone” to potential audience members. Inviting cameras into a usually sacred space and making the process open source- what Marple calls ‘bastardizing the temple’- was a strange experience for both director and cast but ultimately very fulfilling for the audience who was able to watch interviews with cast and crew, deliberations between the director and the design staff and observe the general evolution of the piece. They were also able to ask questions of those involved and take a kind of participatory role. After watching all the clips and asking questions of their own, Marple explains, the audience was so invested that they couldn’t possibly miss the show. They wanted to see how everything had turned out, to see what decisions we had made and be able to determine in their own minds, whether they were the right ones. They had turned a typical theatrical experience into a much more exciting one and made it valuable for their audience.
As to fitting in to a general trend of participatory theatre, which I tell him is “so hot right now,” Marple doesn’t see it like that. “Talk backs and information booklets … what I’m trying to do is more than that. To get an audience invested in the artistic process. I don’t want them to come on stage or to invade the actor’s space. Just to bring an open heart and to give the actors something in return for their work.” While Necessary Theatre company is most likely doomed to fail as a result of geography (all the founders are in different American cities) and lack of commitment, Marple will continue to follow the mantra of the necessary, something he’s still trying to figure out.
When composing a piece of theatre, Marple’s tendency is to think of design first. “I’ve only used a stage designer once,” he admits. “I’m such a control freak. I don’t trust people enough so I just do everything myself.” His aesthetic as a designer is minimalistic, clean lines and pure colours. Images of the “Cherry Orchard” are defined by white linen and dark wood. A single branch painted against a white backdrop, mortal energy existing in beautiful space. In “Inferno,” piercing ocean blue and deep burning red seep through an industrial wasteland setting, scaffolding and plastic sheeting creating shadows which hide corners in a veil of darkness. A bare-chested man trapped behind caging is selectively lighted, a monster in the distance. People lose their humanity, becoming shapes and silhouettes against a demonic red backdrop. Every piece of the picture is positioned to the millimeter. Strict choices have been made and nothing is thrown on stage without justification or intense thought. Nothing is accidental or inconsequential. “Sometimes I’m criticized for wanting to make things beautiful,” Adam says, “especially when it doesn’t serve the story in a critical way. But I don’t see the problem with trying to give the audience a wonderful aesthetic experience.”
“If Adam has one fault,” Mikhael Garver — a fellow M.F.A. student — reluctantly discloses, “it’s that he sometimes creates space and then puts the actors in it. He loves to create these epic designs and then struggles to create the work that should live within those designs.” In his work with actors, the director hangs back, reluctant to tread on their process, knowing from his acting background how difficult it can be. He has to be careful of allowing the space to become too vast, he realizes, and letting the actors flounder. Directing, designing, managing sound- Marple is a one man band in terms of his process, something that will have to change if he is to work on a more high profile platform. He’s giving away some of his control in “Henry,” inviting a both set and sound designers into his process. It’s scary but it has to be done.
The curtain won’t go up on “Henry” till the summer so Marple is still in the research stages. Still the very promise of the show keeps him on a steady footing. “When I’m not working I go into these funks and I just won’t leave the house for weeks … two, maybe three,” he explains. “Some people just can’t deal with that. Like my last girlfriend Alli, it drove her crazy.” Marple says that everyone in his family has an addiction of sorts, his mom’s is marriage, his is the stage. His ideas about theatre dominate his thoughts throughout the day and he picks out images from magazines, newspapers and other miscellaneous sources that he might want to use in the future. The penciled notes on his yellow legal pad are beginning to fade so he’s rigorously typing them out at home, much to the amusement of his classmates. “Adam is really selective about what he writes down,” tells Baer, “but when he does write it’s in the most tiny handwriting in the corner of his legal pad. His notes are extremely important to him.”
While others go home to their families or the comfort of their lived-in homes, Adam Marple takes solace in his ideas, and in the promise that one day he will make world-class theatre. He won’t have a family, he says, because he couldn’t be a great father, only a distracted one with messed up priorities. The theatre will always come first and yet he will never be content, always planning another performance and searching for new ways to articulate the world. “What holds Adam back is simply the fact that he has not connected the dots between what he knows, who he knows and the projects that he dreams to actualize,” says Bogart. Once he has done these things, he will be able to forge his path with more assurance. One thing is for certain though, the mantra that he lives by — making theatre necessary — has worked beautifully on its creator.
Filed Under: Portraits
About the Author: