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Celebrated Alumnus Theater Director Shares Advice with Students

Leonard Foglia ’76, a renowned director of plays and operas, returned to his alma mater on Wednesday, September 14, to talk to students about what he looks for in actors, issues of race on stage, and how to survive in the theater business.

Foglia is currently directing actress, playwright, and academic Anna Deveare Smith in her one-woman show, Notes from the Field: Doing Time in Education, at American Repertory Theater. He joined Performing Arts Chair and moderator Melia Bensussen on stage at the Semel Theater.

The conversation kicked off with some advice. He started his career in New York by signing on as an assistant director on Terrence McNally’s off-Broadway play Frankie and Johnny in the Clair de Lune, making next to no money but working with a talented director on a successful show. At the same time, he was doing his own work with The Barrow Group, a small, then-new, downtown theater company.

“Do your own work downtown and try to get in the room and assist people, because you just learn so much,” Foglia said.

Foglia said he owes many of his career highlights to McNally; he went on to direct McNally’s Master Class on Broadway, as well as his operas Dead Man Walking and Three Decembers. Other Broadway shows Foglia directed include Thurgood; The People in the Picture; and revivals of The Gin Game, On Golden Pond, and Wait Until Dark.

Foglia has also written the libretti for and directed two mariachi operas, as well as directed a number of English-language operas.

Working with Deveare Smith—whose social justice-related shows often consist of multiple real-life characters drawn from direct interviews, all played by her—was a completely novel experience for Foglia, who recalled meeting her and hearing her describe her process.

“When she was done explaining how she works and how characters come…I asked her, ‘What’s my job?’ and I had to try to figure it out,” Foglia said. “I realized it was, in a way, like directing a documentary, in that you go out and film footage, and then you…edit it together, but you’re not going to change what people say.”

Bensussen asked Foglia about being a white man who frequently directs predominantly black casts, and what kind of reaction that’s received.

Foglia said the only time he was challenged on it was when he was directing Laurence Fishburne in Thurgood, a one-man show about the first African American Supreme Court justice. At a forum that followed one of the performances, a young man asked why a white man was directing the show.

“I said, ‘As a director and a creative person, if I limited things to my own life experience, I wouldn’t work much. My whole career is exploring other people…’” Foglia said in response to a later question about casting and race.

Foglia added that he also understands that people of color need and deserve more opportunities to represent their own experiences on stage.

Jonathan Acorn ’17, a Musical Theatre major, asked Foglia what he looks for when he’s casting roles.

“For me, it’s usually simplicity and honesty,” he said. “Acting is an incredibly simple thing, and incredibly hard, because you’re asking a human being to strip everything away and just speak from this incredibly vulnerable place.”

He said to get to that “simplicity and honesty,” he often makes actors audition seated.

Foglia said among his fellow Emerson alumni and the theater people he worked with early in his career, he’s seen people drop out in waves—after one year and after five years.

When asked by a student, Foglia said those who stuck it out had determination, the “belief that [they] have something to offer,” and an unwillingness to wait for other people to make things happen for them.  

“Nobody cares whether you have a career in theater except for you,” he said.

Acorn, who said he writes as well as acts, said he found Foglia’s advice on casting really valuable, as well as his insights into writing libretti and the business in general.

Nick Tsangaris, a graduate student in Theatre Education, said he was studying Notes from the Field in one of his classes, so he wanted to see what the director of the show had to say.

“I thought it was revealing, I thought it was enlightening, I thought it was refreshing and candid,” Tsangaris said. 


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