I first came in contact with Mark Finley in his role as a playwright, when he mounted his play The Mermaid with the theater company called the Other Side of Silence II (affectionately known as TOSOS), where he is artistic director. I wasn't unduly surprised to learn, during my time around that project, that Finley also directs-as in other fields with limited resources, no one can afford the blinders of a specialist. But the good noises his peers continually made about his talents piqued my curiosity.
I was finally afforded the opportunity to see his work when he took the reins of Ross MacLean's Follies of Grandeur, which recently played at Theater for the New City. With the show fresh in mind, I sat down with Finley to discuss his views on directing for Off-Off-Broadway, his take on the current state of the theater, and the pleasures of sitting outside a stage door in pink pajamas.
Offoffonline.com: How did you get into directing?
Finley: I went to North Carolina School of the Arts for acting, then got involved in a theater company called the Native Aliens Theater
Collective. One day, a friend of mine gave me a book called Young Stowaways in Space to look at. It was a young-adult science fiction book written-in 1962?-for boys between the ages of 12 and 15. It blew me away how homoerotic, how sexist this thing was. It had to be seen. I figured that, rather than hand it to a director and say, "This is what I want, blah, blah, blah," I would try to direct it myself. So I came up with a framing device for it and basically staged the book.
Was there something about the material that made you want to take that step?
MF: It was the way it was written. It wasn't just the dialogue. The dialogue was bad enough. It wasn't written to be spoken. If you tried to make it the way a human would talk, it would just be dumb, instead of amazingly, spectacularly, charmingly dumb. I hope this doesn't get back to the author.
So that was your first full-scale production as a director?
Yeah. I mean, I probably should've started with a simple,
little three-character Chekhov or something, where nobody
really moves, instead of moving nine people-who are onstage
most of the time together-through outer space.
So yeah, I kind of started as a late sophomore/early junior and not a freshman at directing. But I fell in love with it right away. As an actor, you can only control your performance, if that. As a writer, you control even less; you control the word on the page, then you just kind of throw it into the ocean and hope somebody gets it. As a director, you're absolutely responsible for what the audience sees. I love that.
Thinking about the arc of things you've chosen to direct, is there something in particular that you look for in a script?
I always look for humor. Also, the thing I love about Follies
is the total humanity of the characters. I certainly had never
seen this story told in this way, in such a theatrical, forgiving,
human way. Nonsexual, nonexploitive.
Even the topless moments are nonsexual.
A testament to your skill, I guess.
MF: [Laughs] I guess. So the quick answer would be: first, humor, then humanity. With this one, I'm also walking away going, "Wow, I really kind of realize why I like to work on comedy more," because it's just more fun.
comedy generally has a higher energy?
I think it's just less depressing. If you're working on a show, it's a world you have to live in 24/7, and my release is humor, not drama. So I would much rather live in a wacky, kooky, nutty place than a very important, serious place for eight hours a day. Personal preference.
How do you view the state of Off-Off-Broadway today?
MF: When I first came to New York in 1987, Off-Off was literally a showcase land for people to get seen, to maybe get cast in stuff. Now-and this was evidenced last year with the IT [Innovative Theater] Awards-Off-Off-Broadway is so much more diverse. It's so much more than little groups of people getting together and saying, "Let's do Sam Shepard's Red Cross for two weekends and try to get some agents in." It's people forming theater companies and putting seasons together, trying to make a go of it. There are institutions out there that have always been doing that: La MaMa, P.S. 122. But companies like Emerging Artists Theater and Women Seeking have established a watermark of "this is what we do." And people seek that out, and I think that's great.
What are your ambitions for the future? Is there something you're pushing toward?
MF: I want to be able to direct full time, all the time. Everywhere, anywhere.
Would you say that you have a philosophy that you adhere to in your directing?
MF: The way I approach a project came from my friend John Reese, whom I worked with on a project in Virginia a few years back. He stepped up and said, "O.K., this is how this works: I do my work, you do your work, then we work together, then we go home." Sounds pretty basic, but you'd be amazed how many people don't or can't adhere to that.
MF: Yeah. This is going to sound really arty-farty, but I like to feel like I'm building a machine with my actors that I can leave and they can drive. Often, I've had actors come up to me after a production and say, "You know, when those lights go up, I feel like I'm stepping on a roller coaster and we just come out at the other side." And I'm like, "Good, that's how it should be." I'm not a fan of lolling around on the floor. It's not my thing.
Do you have a story that epitomizes what Off-Off-Broadway is for you?
I don't know if this is a funny story or anything. I'd stopped
acting for a while, and a friend had gotten me into a production
of Pillow Talk, with Native Aliens [Theater Collective].
It was a stage adaptation of the movie, and I played Doris
Day. I didn't do it in drag; I dyed my hair and I ran around
in pink pajamas through the whole thing.
We had one matinee performance. It was early in the run and it was raining, so it was very lightly attended, and I'm sitting on the fire escape just out of the rain-I had maybe three scenes where I'm not onstage-just sitting there in my little pink pajamas and I'm like, "What the hell am I doing here? I'm in an almost empty theater on a rainy day in the middle of the spring, but I'm just so happy to be here. I don't even know why. I'm just so damn happy to be here."