The Challenges and the Joys of Directing The Last Five Years

Tuesday, May 24, 2016

An Interview with Director Michael Berresse

By Cecilia Padilla


Michael Berresse came to A.C.T. in 2012 while performing in the national tour of The Normal Heart, and he is delighted to return to the Bay Area—this time as an accomplished director. “Looking back at my directorial career,” says Berresse, “I see that a number of shows I’ve worked on have had complicated or nonlinear structures. There’s something about the puzzle of them and the way my own mind works that draws me to that kind of material.” With its unique structure in which one character’s story is told from ending to beginning, and the other’s from beginning to end, The Last Five Years has been another puzzle for the director to solve. We sat down with Berresse to talk about the challenges and the joys of directing.

Director Michael Berresse in rehearsal for A.C.T.’s 2016 production
of The Last Five Years. Photo by Shannon Stockwell.
What’s it like being both an actor and a director?
I love them both for very different reasons. As an actor, my responsibility is more limited, and I can relate to an audience in a very visible, personal way. As a director, I have more comprehensive responsibility but without the direct relationship to an audience. Nevertheless, directing comes with a very different kind of personal investment and reward. And my experience with and empathy for the whole process of acting informs many things about the way I direct. For example, when I start a new project, it helps me to imagine how it might feel to speak the words or live the circumstances before I start exploring how to tell the story from the outside.

How are you bringing your music and dance experience to the show’s direction?
My experience as a musical theater actor makes me especially conscious of rhythm and movement, not just in terms of songs or steps, but also in terms of the story as a whole—the connective tissue, the transitions, the music of how the pieces fit together. In addition to its glorious individual elements, I think of the entirety of The Last Five Years as a dance that has a consistency and continuity all its own.

This musical has been produced many times. How do you go about making it feel original and fresh?
Whenever you look at telling a story, whether it’s a new idea altogether or something that’s been done many times, you have to invest in some relevant big-picture priority. Whether it’s friendship or freedom or loss or redemption, when I risk exposing those personal priorities in the context of a story, it shows up in the production in a unique and original way.

Specifically for The Last Five Years, I believe that regardless of how a love affair plays out, the risk is as important and powerful as the outcome. “Better to have loved and lost than never to have loved at all,” as the adage goes. I hope to show a little nod toward the future in the arc of Cathy and Jamie’s relationship, a moment of perspective at the end of the play that’s not necessarily written in the text.

Why is Jason Robert Brown’s work so beloved and enduring?
I had the extraordinary experience of working with Jason while appearing in a production of Parade at the Mark Taper Forum. I will never forget the day he sat down at the piano in the rehearsal room and started playing his own music for us. He stopped being the composer/lyricist, the pianist, and he started being the music. He puts his whole soul into his work. I think the listener can feel that instinctively.

The Last Five Years is playing at The Geary Theater until June 5. Read more of our interview with Berresse, along with other articles about the cultural context of this musical, in Words on Plays.


 
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