Nearly a week after seeing his otherworldly examination of death, love, and regret, I had the opportunity to speak over the phone with The Salesman is Dead and Gone director, Paul Budraitis. I sat in my car – the rain pounding down – outside of the Seattle Center, while Paul moved toward the class he was teaching at Cornish College of the Arts.
Seattle Star: What brought you back to Seattle from Lithuania, and what is it about this artistic community that you find attractive?
Paul Budraitis: I was working in Lithuania and I had been having some difficult times working there and just connecting with people, especially middle aged actors. It’s a long story, but they weren’t picking up what I was putting down. And I came back to Seattle to direct a production of King Lear that my friends were producing, this was in the fall of 2008 and it was a really positive experience with the actors, they were actually picking up what I was putting down, so to speak. I started wondering: why would I go back to Lithuania just to be slamming my head against the wall? So I decided to stick around. In Lithuania, the roles that people perform there are very strict. You are either a director or an actor, or you’re neither. You can’t really cross over; they won’t take you seriously in whatever it is you are trying to pursue.
I guess to answer the second part of your question, the reason I stayed is because I started getting excited about the potential I saw in this community. I saw a lot of opportunity to create new work, which was particularly interesting to me, I also just saw how much talent there was in this city, especially acting talent, there are a lot of good people up here. I just found myself wanting to work with them. But I also saw the folks who were my peers before I left, when I came back they were working in regional theaters, so that had changed, and it gave me more hope that I could actually try and make a career here, or at least start and try to, or whatever. Because, when I left the climate was very different, and the regional theaters were not hiring local artists very much at all and apparently the economy collapsing contributed to a new assessment of how to do things, and it was a pleasure to come back and see people I knew up on the regional stages, and go “Oh, things have changed.” So it’s a mix of opportunity and talent, as opposed to New York, where you really have to scramble every minute just thinking about how you are going to make your rent. It is more affordable to live here. And that whole combination of being able to focus on your work without dying while you are scrambling around to make ends meet, the talent and opportunity I saw here — that’s what excited me about it, and that’s what still excites me about it.
Seattle Star: Can you tell me about the Splinter Group? How did it get started?
Paul Budraitis: Splinter Group actually started when I directed Hamlet at Cornish back in 2011. And the designers working on it were Montana Tippett, a young woman named Heidi Hunt, and a man named Josh Tillman. I got lucky. I think because Richard ET White was supposed to direct it at first, all the hot shot, all-star senior designers were assigned to the project. That’s just a guess on my part, but I was hearing it from all corners that I got the best designers for the show, and it turned out to be true. They were amazing, and we had an amazing collaboration. Once the show was over and they were going to be graduating – this was Spring of 2011 – I said “Hey, you guys are about to graduate, why don’t we keep working together?” And they all were interested in that. I was interested in having some sort of group, like a more steady kind of group of people to work with. I saw all the potential that those three individuals have – and the four of us together. It was a nice combination of my experience and connections, and their sort of raw enthusiasm for the work, and their talent.
So we did our first workshop at West of Lenin for this project — for Salesman — in September of 2011, and it was really good. We pushed ourselves to make it as full of a production as possible and I think we got to a really good result. But in the meantime between then and now, Josh Tillman got married and moved to Germany – that son of a bitch always wished he was European and so the first chance he got he abandoned ship, you know what I mean? Heidi unfortunately got sick and actually ended up having surgery and chemo and stuff and so she had to leave. She was down in Southern California dealing with all of that. She was at opening night, and she is cancer free now, but she wasn’t able to take part in this project. And so Montana and James Cowan, who is the assistant director, were the two points of continuity. They really helped to continue on from the workshop, and bring what we learned from that into this process.
Seattle Star: So does the name come from the fact that the group splintered a bit?
Paul Budraitis: (Laughter) No, that is just apropos. I guess it was meant to be more like we were doing our own little thing, and it’s maybe not the way most people do theater in this town. I appreciate what the stream is doing, but we are going to be doing our own little thing on this side. One of the goals of this project, and of this company, is to inspire other people to think about their own work differently, and I hope to be part of the dialogue that way.
Seattle Star: Can you tell me about the source material, and what it was that interested you about Death of a Salesman, and the death of Willy Loman, specifically, and maybe what you felt was either left unsaid, or what you thought there was more to be said about?
Paul Budraitis: I don’t want to say that the play needs my help. I don’t think the play has anything more that needs to be said. When I was overseas I experienced very often directors taking classic works, classic plays, and strongly interpreting them, reinterpreting them, almost to the degree that they were performing almost like a playwright function. While I was there, I was thinking “What about other plays?” Over there doing Chekhov and Shakespeare, and all that kind of stuff, and I’m thinking, “OK, what are the plays in America that have that same kind of resonance?” This play came to mind almost immediately. I actually almost directed it while I was over there. I considered it for a while, but I didn’t. And I always had it in my mind that when I got back I was going to direct this play, and do it in a way that people don’t do it usually. I thought I was going to do the play itself, but, before I actually met with the original members of Splinter Group to talk about what we could do together, I went to Spain for a while to watch bullfights with my stepfather. I went to the Prado a couple of days, and was completely mesmerized by the work there. I’ve always been a strong believer in image-based theater, but I walked out of that museum wanting to do it more than I ever had before.
Do you know the director, Romeo Castellucci? He’s one of my favorite directors. I’m constantly inspired by the new work that he is putting out. So the combination of things all came together: wanting to do image-based work, wanting to do non-verbal work, wanting to deal with some kind of classic material in a new way. On a personal level, my father was a salesman. At the end of his career he would drive eight hours from Atlanta to fucking Alabama visiting these fucking travel agencies — and at the end of his career he was Willy Loman. They were even forcing him into retiring early and stuff like that — he was getting all the same shit. So for me, the material is just as relevant today as it ever was. The group was enthusiastic about it, too. Part of it was wanting to do some kind of work that was accessible and not just, you know, feigning experimental. Something that people could look into, even if it was abstract in some ways. I always say that I’m not interested in making theater for other theater people. I want to make theater for people who are maybe coming in for the first time, and I don’t want to make it so obscure that someone just feels insulted, like we don’t even care that they are there or whatever. So I think grounding the play in this iconic character really helped with that.
Seattle Star: Your reinterpretation is a play with barely any dialogue, a very image-based piece. What was it about this text, where you felt like that was the most appropriate way to approach the story you were trying to tell?
Paul Budraitis: I don’t actually know. The things that I just mentioned to you — like the impulse was to start making non-verbal work — probably came more from an artistic philosophy that I was trying explore, rather than like “Oh, we should do Death of a Salesman, but it needs to be non-verbal.” It was more like “I want to do non-verbal work, what would be interesting material to try that with?” and it felt like this material made sense. Part of it is that I’m certainly not going to get into any new text for Willy Loman. For me that’s a bit too far. If you want to take that character and explore, you can’t write anything better than Arthur Miller, so that takes away the impulse to even write anything at all.
Schematically, we are trying to sort of take this iconic character who is so burned into our brain as a tragic figure because of his inability to free himself from his own mythology and lies he’s been telling himself his whole life. And I guess I’ve had this impulse before – I’ve done it with Hamlet, of taking these tragic figures and giving them another chance. Like our Hamlet walked off into the sunset with Ophelia and with Horatio calling after him “Good night, sweet prince!” So that’s Willie’s path in this play. We are trying to help him purify himself so that he can let go of all the bullshit that he has been clinging to all these years, that bullshit that brought him all that misery – we are trying to free him, as it were, from all of that.
I also want to make sure to talk about the designers and their input, because it was definitely a collaborative effort. I might have been the one filtering all the ideas, but it was a collaborative effort all round. The way that this play’s world came about was very much from people contributing their own thoughts. A lot of the stuff from the workshop carried forward into this version. It’s been a long collaborative process and I’ve been lucky to work with the folks that I have worked with on it.
Seattle Star: What were some of the differences working on a project — such an interdisciplinary project — working with all these designers like you talked about, and how did that compare to working with such heavy narrative such as a show you just finished at the Seattle Rep, Bo-nita?
Paul Budraitis: I think that Bo-nita was also a very collaborative process — that’s usually how I work, so I can’t get away from that. I think the main difference was in working with the actors. Mark and Hannah both had to hold the space for a long time by themselves, but of course Hannah had the advantage of all these great words and stories where she didn’t have to do much other than be honest and simple, and tell these stories. With Hannah, we had to think about how to switch in and out of characters and blocking and blah blah, but in Salesman Mark is having to do all of that with nothing. With Bo-nita we had a little bit more of an advantage, it’s just a little bit harder to try and communicate things just through gesture. So a lot of this process is getting him to trust that he can do very little and still get across the ideas that we are trying to get across. It has been really beautiful to watch that happen. I started out by saying that both shows are tech heavy, but it depends on how you look at it. The tech in Bo-nita helped tell the story, too, but I don’t know. I feel like in this show the tech is even more interwoven into the way the story unfolds.
Seattle Star: Yeah, I think it’s pretty integral. It always is, but in your last two plays the tech just serves slightly different purposes.