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INTERVIEW: Elena Giannetti, The Last Five Years, and Creating Directing Spaces

A promotional photo for Artistry’s upcoming production of The Last Five Years showing Cathy (Aly Westberg O’Keeffe) and Jamie (Ryan London Levin). Photo by Devon Cox/Artistry.

One of the archtypical cult musicals of the early 20th century is Jason Robert Brown’s The Last Five Years. This two-person show tells the story of a couple falling in and out of love two ways: in chronological order (Jamie) and in reverse (Cathy). The two actors share the same stage and scene for the briefest of moments when they become engaged and married, and otherwise carry the show on separate shoulders. Exquisitely beautiful yet extremely difficult to perform, the show challenges actors and directors to work outside of the traditional structure and arc of a musical.

Director Elena Giannetti spoke with the Arts Reader‘s Basil Considine about directing Artistry’s upcoming production of The Last Five Years, her directing career, and creating spaces and roles for mature female actors.

What process led you to direct The Last Five Years at Artistry?

Director Elena Giannetti.

Artistic Director Ben McGovern invited me to consider the script to direct. I spent some time with the material before giving him an immediate yes, because its not an easy or predictable story to tell, and I wanted to be sure that I was going to be able to do it justice. The story, the music, the entire show has a controversial history, and I can remember about 6 years ago, when I first saw a production of this show, I had a knee jerk reaction that was biased against Jamie (the male character).

I wanted to be sure that if I took on this show now, I wan’t going to have that past opinion color my treatment of the script. Instead, I found myself really being pulled in by both of their stories/journeys and that was when I knew I would be able to approach the material without judgment. An actor has to be aware: if you have an attitude against a character, or play, that will influence decisions – and I wanted to avoid that. After I was confident that I could come to the material with a more open mind, I was all in.

Even now as we are in rehearsals, there is so much we are continuing to discover together that continues to open up new ideas and revelations about the characters and the story. That tells me I made the right choice to do this.

Are you performing this show with a pit ensemble, or with piano only?

From the very start, I knew that I wanted the musicians to be present onstage because the music is so integral to the story. So when I started meeting with the scenic designer last summer to start generating ideas, I made it a priority that we find a way to incorporate the band into the set. The Black Box [being used for the show] is an incredibly intimate space, but so is this play – so we always kept the musicians in mind. At one point, we had a design that would have put them behind a backdrop and I knew immediately that it didn’t feel right (even if it would have solved a few technical challenges).

Anita will be playing on a grand piano, and Joan Griffith, will be playing guitar, bass guitar, and mandolin. That [strummed] musical element, added with the piano, is going to help color the music in such a beautiful way – I’m very excited about that.

This musical has a notoriously difficult score with a lot of the plot progression taking place during songs. How have you parceled out the rehearsal schedule with music director Anita Ruth?

It is a difficult score and has quite a wide range of musical styles. Our rehearsal schedule first dealt with getting the actors comfortable with the music – so all we did was sing and do table work. But the actors also came to the first rehearsal well-prepared and clearly having done their prep work, which made the first week so productive for all of us. Then we worked with putting the songs into a realistic and consecutive timeline (which is not how the show progresses). It was important that we all be on the same page when talking about what happens when and to whom, thus giving each actor the background they needed to inform their characters reality at any given moment in their respective timeline.

While we took the time to block the show, the music has always been integral to that, because sometimes the music segments that don’t have singing in them can inform what’s happening on stage. Anita is at every rehearsal, and I have blended our process together so that the musical element is always front and center.

A promotional photo for The Last Five Years showing Cathy (Aly Westberg O’Keeffe) and Jamie (Ryan London Levin) in a happier moment. Photo by Devon Cox/Artistry.

Productions of this show can vary wildly in terms of demonizing or humanizing the different characters. What tact are you taking and why?

I was aware of that from the first time I ever saw this show many years ago. So, I knew I had to listen to the score without that influence if I was going to be able come to the material unbiased. I told Ben that I wanted to avoid the cliche or easy way out of telling this story.

It would be too easy to demonize and too predictable to sugar-coat. Instead, I’ve chosen to focus on making these characters real and all the messy and flawed reality that comes with falling in and out of love. It’s a challenge for all of us as we work it through in rehearsal, but my goal is that the final product will leave the audience not necessarily ‘choosing sides’, but instead recognizing the painful reality of both their stories.

With each passing week of rehearsal, the actors and I continue to discover new layers to the characters which is what I hope will make them more human and real.

You closed a show that you were directing, Coney Island Christmas, at Lyric Arts just a week ago. When did you start preparing in earnest for The Last Five Years? Was there any downtime?

I started meeting with designers in July once I was hired – which gave me the jump start of honing my concept and ideas for the show early on. The scenic designer came to the table with great questions and we had conversations that helped us both understand more of what we wanted this show to not only look like, but also feel like, and how we were going to tell this non-traditional form of storytelling in a way that would make sense.

I also had a lot of commuting time going back and forth to Anoka for the rehearsals for Coney Island Christmas, during which I was able to listen to the score a great deal, and immerse myself in the story and visualize the play on the stage. Because of the uniqueness of the set, and the divergent storytelling format of The Last Five Years, I knew that I’d have to visualize it that way in order to get a feel for it. Certain things trickled to the surface – like I knew how I wanted the beginning and ending to look like, others were more challenging. Having started developing my concept back in July gave me a lot of time to play with and tinker with things before we got into rehearsals.

In your Minnesota Playlist profile, you’ve chosen to present an acting-only resume – but this is hardly your first foray into the world of directing. How do you compartmentalize the different aspects of your theatre career and why?

Ha – you caught me! I kinda forget that the profile is out there – and I keep forgetting to update it!!! I’ll have to fix that!

But seriously…yes, I decided to move into directing about 6 years ago. I started off with a few small Fringe shows and a lot of assistant directing in order to learn the ropes. I’ve been in theater for over 30 years (since I was a young child) and while I knew a lot of what happened on one side of the table, I had to sort of create my own “apprenticeship” in order to learn a lot of the process from the other side. I was very fortunate to do much of it in a professional setting at Park Square Theatre.

I’ve been pursuing a lot of the other theatres in town to generate more directing work, which is how Lyric Arts and Artistry fell into place this year; I will [also] be returning to Park Square next November to direct their A Midsummer Night’s Dream for a second time. The last stage acting I did was at Artistry in Other Desert Cities in 2015, but since then, I’ve actually been doing more ‘on camera’ acting with independent films and a role on the ABC show In and Instant.

Why do I compartmentalize? Well, I’ve been learning that its all part of the creative journey I’m on. Right now, I am incredibly fulfilled by directing, I love working with actors, and with both of these shows, I’ve discovered that I really enjoy creating a show from nothing.

I’ve also become more discerning about the material I choose to work on, either as an actor or director. If I’m not connecting to the material on a first reading, if there isn’t something that draws me in, or it’s a story that only adds to the dissonance of our collective society, then I’m not interested. What I am interested in is what someone I admire helped me define: I want to work on material that sparks an “unexpected empathy” in the viewer, because I believe that that is what is missing from so much of the dialogue in our communities and society at large.

Vanessa Gamble (Lillian Helman), Sue Scott (Alice B. Toklas), and Candace Barrett Birk (Gertrude Stein) in PRIME Productions’ 2017 production of Little Wars. Photo by Joseph Giannetti.

You’re one of the cofounders of PRIME Productions, which had its debut with Little Wars last winter. What’s up next with PRIME?

Thank you for asking! It’s been an exciting year for PRIME as we continue to find more ways to celebrate women in their second act. In fact, its been an exciting year for women on a whole, speaking out and raising their voices to be heard and included. We’re proud to be contributing to the movement.

We’ve been graciously welcomed by the theater community and so many people are eager to help us grow and move forward. After Little Wars, we launched PRIME Voices: A Series of Staged Readings this past fall, with the support from the Jungle, History, and Park Square Theatres. It was an opportunity to do three staged readings, with more actors of a certain age, telling more stories for and by women, and keeping our new audiences engaged. And, through it all, we continue to read, read, and read more plays as we face the ongoing challenge to find relevant, intelligent, and well-written plays that don’t simply perpetuate more stereotypes of the mature woman. It’s a lot harder than you might think!

We do have a number of things in the hopper including producing another series of staged readings during Women’s History Month this coming March. We also have our next play chosen, which is incredibly timely and relevant that will be produced in fall of 2018… Plus, we are already in talks with two high-profile theaters to co-produce plays in 2019.

Artistry’s production of The Last Five Years runs January 13-February 11 at the Bloomington Center for the Arts’ Black Box Theater in Bloomington, MN.

Basil Considine