Artist Interview Series: Oklahoma! Stage Director, Mary Birnbaum


You put together our semi-staged La traviata in less than a week -- are you looking forward to having three weeks of rehearsal?
It's fun now! Yes, I am very much looking forward to having three weeks of rehearsal! It's enough to try things, to change things and also to really work together to build the world of OKLAHOMA! 

Oklahoma! was composed 75 years ago -- how does this piece resonate today?
In 2017, we are hungry for work that discusses what it means to be American - just look at the success of Hamilton. In these times where national identity is in question and ever-changing, it's interesting to look back at a time before we were official, when a community was making up the rules as they needed them, and having to decide on right and wrong among themselves. I love the scene where the entire town rules Curly innocent because it seems so ad-hoc and fundamentally Democratic. Another big point of resonance is how independent and willful the female characters are. Both Laurey and Ado Annie know their value and exactly what they want. 

Although you work mostly in opera, you're a big musical theater buff!
What I love most about modern musical theater is its subversiveness and daring in the face of social norms. Oftentimes, musicals deal in characters that are struggling - to fit in, to accomplish their out-of-reach goals, to survive - and through the amazing superpower of music, we understand and empathize with the internal lives of these folks. People like Jud, who are pariahs, have songs like "Lonely Room", and immediately we understand them better. Musicals really are American Opera. 

 Shelby Rhoades (Principal Coach), Mary Birnbaum (Stage Director), and Michelle Krisel (Artistic Director)

Shelby Rhoades (Principal Coach), Mary Birnbaum (Stage Director), and Michelle Krisel (Artistic Director)

Tell us a bit about your journey from Harvard to Paris to Juilliard....
I started directing at Harvard, which didn't have a formal theater department at that time. After college I thought I needed some formal training. I applied to Ecole Jacques Lecoq, where some of my biggest directing heroes (Julie Taymor, Simon McBurney, Ariane Mnouchkine) had gone, and got in. It was really special to return to Paris, where I had taken a year off before college to study voice, and I love the french language and aesthetic. I worked with my classmates to create physical theater pieces and work on design projects, which were all about using space and bodies to tell story. When I came back to New York, I started working for Stephen Wadsworth, whose work I admired in opera and theater. He brought me to assist him at Juilliard, and at that time, James and Ellen Marcus had given money to start a directing fellowship, for some lucky director to study with Stephen and alongside the talented members of the Vocal Arts community. Jacqueline Schmidt and Brian Zeger, the administrative and artistic heads of the department offered me the first fellowship and also asked me to teach an acting class for sophomore singers at the same time. I have been there for 7 years, and many of my most fruitful working relationships have come from being a member of that community. It's a privilege to work with Jennifer Zetlan and Tobias Greenhalgh on OKLAHOMA!, both people I met at Juilliard. And Jen was in the first opera I ever directed - Down in the Valley by Kurt Weill!