David Cromer | Interview
The stage director of Our Town and Adding Machine talks to TOC.
At one point during our phone call, as theater director David Cromer searches for just the right words, he laughs and says, apologetically, “This is the worst interview.” I assure him it isn’t. But he insists, laughing: “The title of this is gonna be ‘The Worst Interview Ever.’ ” Having seen several of Cromer’s brilliant productions—including Adding Machine (which began in Chicago before going on to Off Broadway success) and Our Town (ditto)—I imagine the Skokie native applies the same careful, exacting, un-self-forgiving precision to his work. Known for being meticulous to the point of interpersonal friction (although “the friction thing is a little bit of a myth,” he says), Cromer will participate in Columbia College’s Conversations in the Arts series February 23.
Two years ago, The New York Times asked if you’re the most talented theater director Americans have never heard of. What’s it like now that you’re perhaps the most talented theater director some Americans have heard of?
Oh, I don’t know. Your legs still hurt, your apartment is still messy, you’re still confronted with all your own inadequacies on a daily basis. It’s just, you can get a reservation at Centrale.
Since you won the MacArthur “genius” grant last fall, have people been calling you genius?
Yeah, people say it all the time. The joke I wanted to do was “Finally it’s official,” but I started to realize that people didn’t really think I was joking when I said that, so I stopped saying it.
Did you buy anything extravagant when you got the news?
Listen, I’ve always blown money. I’m the guy who gets paid on Friday and was broke by Monday. Like, let’s get sushi! And let’s have drinks! And look at these pants I’m not gonna wear!
My favorite of all your press is The Advocate’s headline: “Gay Theater Director Wins Genius Grant.”
[Laughs] Yes. I don’t remember officially coming out. Obviously I was never in for a minute since I was 14 or 13 years old. I can’t remember where it was written or if they just: Look at him.
You called yourself “a terrible homosexual” in an article.
Oh, that’s right. I outed myself.
Do you miss the struggle of Chicago theater at all, working so hard and getting paid little to nothing?
Yes, I do. Yes, absolutely I do.
Yeah, well, it’s very romantic. There was a real safety in underdog status. I have no reason to complain, I should not complain, I am not complaining. But the other thing I miss about the struggle is the lowered expectations.
Something that’s come with your move to NYC is star power: This year you’re directing Ben Stiller in The House of Blue Leaves, Nicole Kidman in Sweet Bird of Youth. Is it trickier dealing with the egos of movie stars than those of Chicago actors?
I’ve spent a lot of time with Ben Stiller, and Nicole quite a bit on the phone. All the conversations are just about work. I know that people at that level have a lot more people around them. So there’s trappings, and then there’s just work. So far, these two actors are just workers.
So Kidman hasn’t insisted certain spotlights hit her in certain angles?
[Laughs] No, she has not. I don’t mean just the nose, I mean, like, Dogville—she seems to do what’s appropriate to the material. She just has a job to do, and one of her jobs is movie star.
The phenomenon of movie stars on Broadway stages has gotten some flak. What do you think about that?
I worry that I’m feeding the beast because there is a point—look, these are not inappropriate pieces of casting. Now, in terms of the need to put someone from American Idol in something, whether they’re any good or not, I still feel like I can bitch about that. Is it self-serving to say that my star casting is the right idea and someone else’s star casting is the wrong idea? It’s incredibly self-serving to say that. But I also happen to think it.
Will you advise Columbia College’s students to follow your lead and drop out of school as you did there?
Yes. I will also suggest hallucinogenics and thievery. No.… I can’t follow anything without story, so all subjects that aren’t English or drama, I have trouble perceiving them. Drop-out implies you’re blowing shit off. I studied what I do, and I studied it very hard. I was mostly gonna talk about artists’ need to be very open and vulnerable and, particularly here, incredibly tough, private and armored.
Have you reconciled those two things at all?
No, no one has, but that is the struggle because if you go too far one way, they kill you; you go too far the other way, your work isn’t any good. It’s something you have to be zigzagging back and forth forever, until you die. [Laughs]
Cromer will speak atFebruary 23 at 7pm.