Portrait and a Dream is a darkly comic memory play that rebounds across time and space. It follows three young people as they navigate the treacherous waters of relationships, careers and brunch. Written by Columbia student Jacob Marx Rice and originally produced by the undergraduate group NOMADS (New and Original Material Authored and Directed by Students), it has been reworked as a new, professional-level production as part of the upcoming New York International Fringe Festival (FringeNYC)!
Katie Lupica, Director of Portrait and a Dream, graduated this May from Columbia College Phi Beta Kappa and summa cum laude, with majors in History and Drama and Theatre Arts. I managed to pin down this incredibly accomplished (and extremely busy) young woman for an interview.
Q: When did you first become interested in theatre and what made you want to become a director?
KL: I first became interested in theatre in fifth grade, when an actress and director from a local theatre came and worked as an artist-in-residence at my school. From elementary school into college, I focused primarily on acting in plays and musicals as a passion if not necessarily a long-term pursuit. In my sophomore year at Columbia, I was having vocal health problems that kept me from performing, so decided to try directing.
I was lucky enough to work with Anne Bogart at a SITI Company summer intensive, where I started approaching theatrical composition and the wonder of live presence from a director’s perspective. I realized that the things that excite me most about theatre – collaboration, story-telling, shared spaces, human physicality – and my own assortment of creative and intellectual strengths fit well together in the craft of bringing a script and a team of co-conspirators to life. I eventually decided I wanted to direct professionally because of these experiences, and because I believe strongly in theatre’s potential to connect individuals to things larger than ourselves.
Q: Describe your Columbia experience and how it has influenced certain decisions you’ve made in your career.
KL: I think the best and briefest way I would describe my Columbia experience would be as four years of continuous opportunity, change, and growth in every aspect of my life. I majored in history and theatre, but classes in all departments helped me maintain a significant intellectual hunger for virtually anything that gives some insight into human experience and the universe containing it. Generally, these kinds of liberal-arts-student yearnings are not that helpful in career decisions, but the richness of my academic life did actually provide a good background for pointing myself in the direction (so to speak) of theatre.
My decisions to pursue theatre and specifically directing professionally primarily came out positive experiences working with Columbia student clubs and the theatre department. I eventually found a creative home with NOMADS. In coming together with fellow students to put up completely new works of theatre, I came to love directing as a way to focus on a real craft with specific goals, responsibilities, and necessary skills.
Q: What is your approach to directing?
KL: As a director, I am most interested in theater that embraces and expands the possibilities of live storytelling and communal experience. Practically, this means that I like to use rehearsal with actors to really interrogate a text and make sure all details are accounted for and then, perhaps more importantly, to find a physical place of truth from which actors can speak and act while trying to share that text with an audience. I direct with the goal of enabling full-bodied, full-voiced, and fully imagined rehearsal processes that remain porous to the participation of audiences. These interests have been shaped largely by my extended study of movement-based theater training, specifically Viewpoints and Suzuki, and my lifelong exploration of human spirituality.
Q: How has the industry treated you thus far as a young director, fresh out of university? How competitive is it out there?
KL: The unfortunate reality is that there is really no obvious path from graduating from college to having an actual career as a director. Three months in, it’s hard to say how this is going for me so far, but I do know that I’m incredibly lucky to have this Fringe show as my own, fully produced project right out of the gate. I have also found that although explicit opportunities for rookies to actually direct or even assistant direct in established theatres are extremely rare, that does not mean that already established professionals are uninterested in our plight. I have been the grateful recipient of incredible advice and support from many working directors, administrators, and other theatre artists who are genuinely interested in nurturing the next generation of theatre makers. And while the industry is competitive in the sense of few opportunities for many qualified people, I have found a climate of much more collaboration than competition among my fellow recent graduates.
Q: What is your favorite play / theatrical performance of all time?
Q: What made you choose to re-work Portrait and a Dream rather than develop a new play for Fringe?
KL: Jacob is actually the one who applied to Fringe with the Portrait script and nominated his own creative team. Jacob asked me to direct, and I was thrilled, because I had already seen the potential of the script in the Columbia production and was excited to be part of the play’s continued development. I am really passionate about new play development, and in those terms Portrait still is a new play, because it is still in the process of changing and being somewhat re-written.
Q: How different is it from the original version? What sort of changes can the Columbia audience expect?
KL: There have been major structural changes as well as cuts, additions, and wording adjustments to the new script, but the essential story and vibe is the same. Basically, the Columbia audiences can expect the play to move differently – quicker and with more intentional fluidity. Many of the biggest changes come from setting the play more explicitly within Nick’s, the central character’s, mind. This required some adjustments of the text before we got into rehearsal, and as Jacob started to see the actors work with the script, he was able to see further ways in which the story, structure, and language could develop. Additionally, the transitions between scenes and woven a bit more directly into the action of the play, so Nick really does have no more control over where the play goes than does anyone else.
Q: What is the biggest challenge you’ve faced thus far in your attempt adapt Portrait and a Dream as a professional-level production?
KL: I think a big challenge at the beginning was casting – we had 600 people submit for auditions, saw 140 of them, called back 40 from that group, and cast 3. It was pretty humbling to see that much talent wanting to join our process, and the three actors we ended up casting are pretty phenomenal. Working with these actors has been a huge gift, but the beginning weeks of rehearsal when we were still establishing that relationship were somewhat terrifying, to be honest, given all the experience and talent they brought into the room. Finding a groove of how we could all best collaborate together took some time but has been incredibly rewarding. The other challenge, coming to a point this week in particular, is working in technical elements with very limited time in our actual theatre and resources – but that’s Fringe! Portrait and a Dream is a really great blackbox show for the way it travels huge emotional, spatial, and chronological distances in an intimate space, but there is still much work to be done necessitated by the frequent transitions inherent in the play’s non-linear structure.
Q: Any advice for other amateur directors (particularly those at Columbia) looking to break into the professional industry?
KL: Having just graduated I hardly feel qualified to give much advice, but I can encourage students just entering or still at Columbia, who are interested in directing, to really pursue all the opportunities the university setting and the city provide to both boldly experiment and learn specific skills. My first project at Columbia, The Yellow Boat, was actually turned down by every student group as too ambitious, because I wanted to bring the production to NYC public elementary schools students – but thanks to my stubbornness I stuck with it, found a way to self-produce (thanks to a non-Columbia grant), and over the course of nine months eventually convinced Columbia’s Community Impact club to help actually tour the show.
I also would like to highly recommend the Barnard/Columbia Theatre Department’s directing track – which provides really great mentors as well as a thesis opportunity to direct a show in a more professional, well-funded situation than most directors under 30 ever experience. Also, the undergraduate club NOMADS is doing amazing things on campus in the way of supporting new student-generated work for theatre. They are more or less eager to dedicate themselves to making any vision you have a reality!
Lastly, professional internships with theatre companies in the city during the year are a great way to feel more connected with the larger NY theatre world, especially when a Columbia course-load can often keep you from going out and seeing everything there is to see. The internship I got with the help of CUarts with Signature Theatre Company helped me start to build connections with professionals in the city and taught me a lot more about how theatre companies actually work and what a professional production processes looks like.
Sponsored in part by the Arts Initiative at Columbia University. This funding is made possible through a generous gift from The Gatsby Charitable Foundation.