Darko Tresnjak, Shakespeare director
“I fell into it.” Director Darko Tresnjak’s four-word explanation for how he got into puppets and masks is, at the least, an unexpected one, given that he’s known for precisely those devices. But that response pretty much sums up how Tresnjak, 40, talks about his career—as a series of serendipities.
One piece of happenstance: After reading The Devil in the White City, Tresnjak, who’d never been to Chicago, “went to my husband and I was like, hon, we have got to go to Chicago.” One week later, he got a call from Chicago Shakespeare Theater’s artistic director, Barbara Gaines. She asked him to mount the Bard’s last (and least-seen) work, The Two Noble Kinsmen—a play that, in 20 seasons, has never been on CST’s stage.
Apparently, accidental discovery has been the one consistent element in Tresnjak’s happily inconsistent career. As a Swarthmore College undergrad, he studied theater, literature and (why not) dance—the latter of which led to his cofounding a dance-theater company in west Philadelphia. Then, partly thanks to his agility, he first got his hands into puppets at Mum Puppettheatre, also in Philly.
So how did Shakespeare become Tresnjak’s thing? The director—who a few years ago became artistic director of the esteemed Old Globe Shakespeare Festival in San Diego—responds as if baffled by his own career trajectory: “It’s so odd because now it is, isn’t it; it has become my thing.” It happened to become his thing when he staged The Winter’s Tale for his M.F.A. thesis at Columbia University—which happened to get him noticed by an opera agent, leading to his directing about 15 operas across the country.
Then there was his Rosencrantz and Guildenstern Are Dead at the Williamstown Theatre Festival in 1999 (starring Jefferson Mayes of I Am My Own Wife fame). As chance had it, that was the same summer that Gwyneth Paltrow (fresh off her Oscar victory) graced Williamstown’s stage, which then brought more media attention to the fest, Tresnjak says—and, by extension, to him. He credits that production with turning his career from opera to theater: “That was the show that did it.”
The serendipity all started in Tresnjak’s hometown of Zemun, Yugoslavia, when his older sister married an American diplomat who took her to Washington, D.C. Tresnjak, then just ten, and his mom tagged along. (In Yugoslavia, Tresnjak learned English from the folk songs played by his family’s American exchange students. “I started singing in English before I ever spoke it.”) Chance even extends to the director’s love life. Two years ago, on the spur of the moment, he and his partner, costumer Josh Pearson, bought $10 rings from a street seller in Manhattan, boarded a flight on (appropriately enough) Frontier Airlines, then flew to Oregon to get hitched.
But an openness to the unexpected doesn’t mean an absence of intention. Artistically, what Tresnjak intends is epic theater. Tresnjak is particularly unimpressed by the surfeit of “you, me, our apartment and our problems plays,” he says (paraphrasing experimental director Anne Bogart). “I’m just so tired of all of those mama-and-papa-didn’t-love-us plays,” he says. A theater prof at the University of California at San Diego, Tresnjak tells young playwrights, “How do you know that a theater won’t produce your epic play? Why do you always think you have to write for two or three people? If everybody thinks that way, then theater will shrink.” Tresnjak, who’s crossed borders both national and artistic, tells his students, “What should you be doing? Everything. Everything that you can get your hands on.”—NP
The Two Noble Kinsmen is playing at Chicago Shakespeare.