AMERICAN THEATRE | Arin Arbus: The Core of the Play’s the Thing

Arin Arbus. (Photo by Amir Hamja)

For more than a decade, Arin Arbus has directed classical productions of engaging clarity and warmth, notable for scrupulous attention to the text and a welcome absence of gimmicky contemporary trappings. But the performances shaped by her hands, chiefly at Brooklyn’s Theatre for a New Audience, where she is resident director, never seem like museum pieces; on the contrary, they have a freshness and vitality that stems from her conviction that however long ago the particular piece was written, it has something to say to audiences today.

“She always treats the playwright’s ideas as absolutely of the moment,” said TFANA’s founder, Jeffrey Horowitz, with whom Arbus worked for 10 years as associate artistic director. “Whatever she identifies as driving her to do this play, whatever she feels is at the core of the play, she sees in society right now.”

Her interest in speaking to the moment has prompted Arbus to branch out from the classics in recent years, first with 2019’s Broadway revival of Terence McNally’s Frankie and Johnny in the Clair de Lune, and now with the New York premiere of Des Moines by Denis Johnson, which begins performances at TFANA’s Polonsky Shakespeare Center on Nov. 29. Johnson, best known for the novel Tree of Smoke and the short story collection Jesus’ Son, has also written a number of plays, though this is his first major New York production. Arbus said she’d been interested in directing Des Moines—a five-character play about an impromptu gathering in the city of its title that becomes something much deeper and stranger—since she read it in 2013. She said she thinks the play shows evidence that its author “was thinking about Chekhov and Shepard and even Shakespeare; he leans on those writers, he borrows from them, and he makes something that is utterly his own.”

Arliss Howard and Heather Alicia Simms in rehearsal for “Des Moines” with Arin Arbus. (Photo by Hollis King)

But before she got around to this departure, Arbus was building something of her own. She came galloping right out of the gate with a 2009 production of Othello that garnered a rave from The New York Times, which said that Arbus handled Shakespeare “with the kind of artistry we always hope for but rarely find.” Added Horowitz, “It was the most potent debut of an artist we’ve ever done. The response was electrifying and immediate; the entire run sold out literally in a couple of hours.”

Arbus helmed six more Shakespearean productions at TFANA over the next 13 years, plus an Obie-winning revival of Thornton Wilder’s The Skin of Our Teeth and a double bill of Strindberg’s The Father and Ibsen’s A Doll’s House. She did fine work on all of them, but she demonstrated a special affinity for the Bard. The complications and contradictions of such notoriously difficult plays as Measure for Measure and The Winter’s Tale were embraced rather than tidied up; standards like King Lear and Much Ado About Nothing felt newly minted, their themes quietly emerging from the characters’ personal relationships.

Still, she told me that when she first came to TFANA in 2007, “I had no interest in Shakespeare. I knew nothing about Shakespeare, I had never studied Shakespeare in high school. I thought Shakespeare was for scholars, highly educated people who specialize in Shakespeare. And I sort of thought Shakespeare onstage was boring.”

It was the Royal Shakespeare Company’s legendary voice director Cicely Berry, a longtime TFANA collaborator, who shattered those preconceptions. “She did an annual workshop exploring how actors and directors could work together to bring Shakespeare’s words alive through language,” Arbus recalled. “She was a Marxist, she hated snobbery, and she believed that Shakespeare belongs to everyone—that everyone can access the meaning of those words even if they don’t understand the literal meaning. There was a deeper meaning in the sounds of the words; you had to speak the language aloud in order to fully grasp the poetry and meaning. It was a shocking discovery to me that actually Shakespeare is writing about the world we live in, the people that I know, and me!”

Before she arrived at this revelation, Arbus went through the apprenticeship period familiar to most fledgling directors, assisting more established directors while applying what she was learning in tiny Off-Off-Broadway productions. Assigned to assist Gerald Gutierrez while she was a directing resident at Playwrights Horizons, Arbus found her first mentor. “He taught me so much; he was amazing at text analysis, and he was amazing with comedy,” Arbus said. “I took notes for him, and they were so technically precise; they taught me about what an actor needs to do to land a line, to get a laugh. He was a great teacher and friend.”

She followed Gutierrez to Lincoln Center for a production of Dinner at Eight and was slated to assist him at Theatre for a New Audience on Engaged, a 19th-century farce by W.S. Gilbert, when Gutierrez died suddenly from respiratory failure due to the flu.

“It was devastating,” Arbus said. “It was a total loss of my friend, my teacher, and my employer; he had productions that I was going to assist him on for a couple of years in the future. I was in a fugue state.” Horowitz, honoring Gutierrez’s insistence that Arbus be his assistant on Engaged, kept her on to assist the new director, Doug Hughes, then hired her for general office work and to assist other directors. “I kept saying, ‘Arin, if you want to direct, why don’t you come to me and say, “I want to do a showcase?”‘” he recalled. “She said, ‘I want to do something that’s meaningful,’ and one day she told me she was volunteering on weekends at this theatre program [Rehabilitation Through the Arts] at an all-male prison a three-hour drive from New York and directing a play there!’”

She had been disenchanted by her experiences in the fringe and commercial theatre, Arbus said of that time.

“I was directing these little productions that nobody really wanted to be in, and nobody wanted to attend,” she said. “I was also assisting on some Off-Broadway shows, and I saw great work that would get a bad review and then nobody would come, or it wouldn’t be good and it would get a great review and everyone would love it. There was something about the capitalist structure that was sucking the life out of it. The amazing thing about working with Rehabilitation Through the Arts at Woodbourne was that the men who were in that program were there because they wanted to learn about themselves and the world, and they were giving up a lot of time and a lot of other things to rehearse a play. I thought maybe if you take capitalism out of the equation—you can’t take capitalism out of the equation in a prison, but just in terms of doing theatre—and if you are coming to it to discover something about yourself and the world, it would be alive in a different way.”

It certainly was, Horowitz discovered when he attended Arbus’s electrifying production of Of Mice and Men in the prison lunchroom. “I still get chills talking about it,” he said. “The power these prisoners conveyed to those watching! During this play, where they’re talking about an accidental murder, about losing a home, about a mercy killing—this audience of prison guards, administrators, and inmates, they knew what this play was about. It was incredible, and afterwards I said, ‘If you can do this, you’re ready to direct a play for us. It must be Shakespeare: pick a play.’”

Arbus picked Othello.

“I read a lot of Shakespeare I had never read before, and I remember thinking, ‘I wouldn’t know what do with that, I wouldn’t know what do with that,’ and then I read Othello,” she said. “I didn’t know how to do it, but I connected with the territory. I felt I understood his predicament: When the person you love and are anchored to in life betrays you, then everything comes apart. I had some core suspicion about that.”

It’s characteristic of Arbus’s style that it was a connection between a personal and an existential dilemma that attracted her to the play, and that she describes her initial insight into it as “a core suspicion.” She is not a director who arrives at the first reading with a vision of the play that she wants her cast to execute; her guiding principles are investigation and, above all, collaboration.

John Douglas Thompson in “Othello” at Theatre for a New Audience in 2009. (Photo by Gerry Goodstein)

“Arin comes to a play with the right questions,” said John Douglas Thompson, her Othello in 2009. “Sometimes they don’t have answers, but the question is posed, and we will find the answer as a cast. It becomes a collaborative effort, which to me is the main principle of doing theatre.”

He was skeptical, Thompson admitted, when a novice director attempting her first Shakespeare asked him to play a role he had performed five times before. “But Arin brought this newness that gave the play more possibilities than I had imagined. She opened up the play in different ways. She recalibrated and shifted the focus to the women in the play in a way that I thought was unique and absolutely necessary. It gave Othello more of a focus dramaturgically and allowed me to expand my performance as I never had before.”

Thompson went on to do four more plays with Arbus (so far), describing himself as “her No. 1 fan.” He continues, “Arin gives all the actors in a production great liberty and great agency—not just the leads, but the whole cast. Everybody gets to participate in the story-making, and that creates really interesting productions. When I am working with Arin, I always feel that I am going to have a huge encounter that is going to make me a better artist. She is very much focused on clarity, and she knows she’s responsible for that, but she gets to that clarity by allowing the artists to go places with the role and the material they may not have gone before. Then she looks at the raw material you put out there and helps you sculpt it so it’s clear and concise and plays into the larger ideas of the piece.”

“The thing I’m interested in is collaboration,” Arbus said. “I feel you have to not know the answers in order to make discoveries. A good process for me is when we are all unearthing what is at the core of the play.”

To her mind, the audience is a part of that discovery process, and she enjoys learning from New York City public school students’ responses to her Shakespeare productions. “If it’s good, they are the best audiences; if it’s bad, they will let you know. I believe that if the work is really good, it will reach out to everyone. Theatre is a public forum; I’m not interested in making work for a limited group.” Creating theatre in a prison for six years, as well as directing The Tempest at a refugee camp in Greece in 2019, were important to her as ways to reach out to audiences without access to commercial theatre.

All this work has prepared Arbus for her trip to Des Moines, a play she described as “beautiful, startling, raw, theatrical. Without a doubt, the play is challenging.” While she noted the influence of Chekhov and Shepard, she added, “The form itself is filled with mystery; Denis keeps pulling the rug out from under us. Des Moines refuses to comply with traditional dramatic structure, but that I think was Denis’s point: Life isn’t like that.”

Likewise, so far Arbus’s career has only seemed to follow a recognizable pattern. She told me that she feels “a little bit pigeonholed” by her reputation for directing classics, adding, “I would like to direct a musical, I’d like to direct for film and television, I want to work more with living writers. I’m hungry to be doing all kinds of work.”

Wendy Smith (she/her) is a writer based in Brooklyn.

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