Trained in his native Britain, director Les Waters finds inspiration in working with writers on new works.
Three weeks before the opening of Sarah Ruhl’s In the Next Room (or the vibrator play) at the Berkeley Repertory Theatre in January, the rehearsal room is starting to look like the set, with a Victorian parlor on one side and a doctor’s office on the other. Separating the two rooms is a white screen door cinched with a C-clamp to a cardboard wall. Les Waters, Berkeley Rep’s associate artistic director and the director of In the Next Room, is staging two scenes at the same time, one in each room.
When Waters joined the theater six years ago, he was already known for his embrace of new plays. He had an Obie Award to his credit, for his direction of Charles Mee’s Big Love. It was a good fit. Berkeley Rep had recently set a goal to commission 50 new plays in 10 years.
“Wait a minute, dears . . . .” he says, stopping the actors mid-scene. His curly, graying hair has bed-head dents, his jeans are frayed at the bottoms, and the heels of his black Converse sneakers are worn to red nubs, as if wounded. But the shoes are good luck, he says. He won’t buy a new pair until after the opening night of this world premiere.
In the Next Room (or the vibrator play) is Berkeley Rep’s 50th world premiere since its founding in 1968. The company even got a grant to produce the play—the Edgarton Foundation New Play Award.
The story of six lonely people searching for love and intimacy in the Victorian age, In the Next Room—which runs through March 15—is also a comedy that skewers antiquated ideas about female sexuality or “hysteria.” Women who experienced unrest, unease or unhappiness were routinely diagnosed as hysterical in the Victorian age, and a medical cure of “massage” was sometimes used until the patient experienced release.
“This play is about the tension between the mind and the body at a time when people were, in a sense, enormously innocent about female sexuality,” says Ruhl, who received a MacArthur Fellowship in 2006. “I’m fascinated by the fact that the vibrator was a very early invention at the dawn of electricity, right next to kettles and lightbulbs. And I can’t think of a better town than Berkeley to premiere a play about the history of the vibrator.”
Born in northern England in 1952, Waters’s blue-collar family moved to Scunthorpe, which he escaped by discovering theater in London. After starting out at London’s Royal Court Theatre, he jumped the pond and has since directed plays all over America. He now lives in Piedmont with his wife, set designer Annie Smart, and their three children.
Before coming to Berkeley Rep, he headed the master’s in fine arts directing program at the University of California at San Diego.
Waters believes a director plays an important role in the development of new plays but so does an audience. “Audiences think that the play is just working on them,” he says, “but the performers are acutely aware of an audience’s reactions.”
His sharp instincts are not lost on his colleagues at Berkeley Rep.
“Les is a natural-born director,” says Madeleine Oldham, the company’s literary manager and dramaturg. “He has the intuition, understanding and ability to work in a room with a bunch of people.”
The actors in the rehearsal room parlor start again. The scene that Waters keeps stopping and starting will glide by in an instant for the audience. But in that instant, the story leaps forward. Mrs. Daldry (Maria Dizzia) has just had an orgasm from midwife Annie’s “manual treatment” and is playing the piano. Mrs. Givings (Hannah Cabell) is drawn to the song’s sadness. Skewered to the carpet like an exotic moth, the wet nurse, Elizabeth (Melle Powers), is crying silent tears. Annie (Stacy Ross) has just entered the room, and though she is looking at Mrs. Daldry’s back, seems to be falling in love.
Two of the male actors, Joaquin Torres and John Leonard Thompson, aren’t at rehearsal this particular day. Paul Niebanck, the actor playing Dr. Givings, is waiting offstage while Waters works the scene.
“You OK, Paul?” Waters asks. “We’ll just take care of these girlie things and then bring back the men to work the heavy machinery.”
Everyone laughs, as the “heavy machinery” is a floor-model vibrator. It’s the size of something seen in a 1950s dental office, and just as noisy. They start the scene again.
As a young director, Waters reflects, he was attached to the end result of his direction and didn’t let the actors do their own work. But he’s trained himself to watch and listen.
“With Les you always feel seen,” says Dizzia, a 34-year-old actress who has worked with Waters several times, including in the West Coast premiere of Ruhl’s Eurydice five years ago. “He sees if you’re in trouble and knows whether to throw you a lifeline or let you figure it out for yourself.”
To explain Waters’s way of working, Ruhl refers to the Heisenberg uncertainty principle in quantum physics. Closely related to the uncertainty principle is the observer effect, which claims that the act of observation changes the phenomenon being observed. “You have to listen to the script and what the actors tell you,” says Waters, “and not say, ‘Yeah, yeah, I know, but I want you to do this.’”
Ruhl is delighted to work with Waters again. He’s “true to the page, and doesn’t manically look for results from actors or writers,” she says, which allows them to be full collaborators. She also admires how his dark sense of humor deflects conflict. During a tech rehearsal of Eurydice, she suggested a change that he didn’t like. When she said that she was taking a break, he said, “Take your time. In fact, I know of a wonderful little B&B in Sacramento.”
For his part, Waters likes Pulitzer-nominee Ruhl’s theatrical sensibility. When he read in Eurydice that a father makes a room out of string, and that it rains in an elevator, he thought he’d like to live in the vision of that world for a while.
He’s no stranger to addressing abstract or difficult issues. Last year Waters directed Martin McDonagh’s Pillowman, the dark comedy that involved child murders. “Pillowman had a cast to hold it steady. So does Sarah’s play,” Waters says. “Part of the job of casting is to find actors with an appetite for the kind of work you’re doing.”
After seeing Pillowman, Will Eno’s TRAGEDY: a tragedy, or Jordan Harrison’s Finn in the Underworld, it’s no surprise to learn that as a child Waters was afraid of the dark. “I was afraid of a lot of things, but I found the dark very difficult to deal with. To be honest, I’m not terribly fond of it today,” he says, “and wouldn’t want to be the last person in the theater to turn off the lights.”
Working with writers helps him to stave off the dark. “I find existence really complicated and difficult on an existential level,” he says. “I think it’s a nightmare, quite honestly. It’s not to say that I don’t enjoy my life, I do enjoy a lot of it. But we live in a world of staggering complexity, and it’s accelerating. So I look for people who write, and who have a vision of the world we live in. I find new writing, new plays, new novels, new movies, new dance, valuable maps for existence.”
In the Next Room is slippery in a great way, he says. “It’s constructed like a farce, but then it shifts very rapidly to being about relationships, class and the right to have pleasure.”
Bay Area audiences may not know what a crucial role they play in developing new plays, and may not know that they have a reputation among visiting actors and directors. Oldham says that visiting actors often comment about the smart questions asked during post-show discussions. “We’re really proud of that,” she says. “There is something special about the general mind-set of this area that lends itself to being open to new work that we don’t see in other places.”
“It’s not that they’re educated,” adds Dizzia, who has now performed at Berkeley Rep three times. “That’s not important. The most important thing is that there are a lot of people who want to come to the theater. When you perform here, you get the feeling that you’re doing something that has value, and that’s a nice gift for the audience to give to performers.”
For Waters it’s about story. “People need stories, and it’s really valuable to be told them as a group. In these tumultuous times we need them as a comfort and a challenge.”
When asked if there are any heroes in this play, Waters hesitates, and then says, “Yes, the doctor’s wife is a hero. She’s the reverse of Nora in Ibsen’s A Doll’s House. She’s relentlessly optimistic in a great way and moves from a rather naïve optimism to a position that you need optimism to save your life. She doesn’t give up. She breaks apart her husband in a way, forcing him to articulate his love for her.” Dr. Givings is generous when it comes to helping his patients by administering orgasms, but he won’t perform them on his wife. He is also reticent when she asks him for emotional intimacy.
Back at the rehearsal, Waters moves to the next scene. Mrs. Givings is alone with her husband. “Don’t talk to me about electricity,” she says. “You know how it bores me.”
They kiss. Sparks fly.
At the end of the day Waters grabs his bag that he bought years ago in New York’s East Village. It suits him. It’s a faded, black messenger bag with frayed edges. There’s a skull pictured on the front flap, but emanating from behind the skull are bolts of electricity.
In the Next Room (or the vibrator play) runs through March 15, (510) 647-2949; www.berkeleyrep.org.
Freelance writer Aleta George’s work is often seen in the San Francisco Chronicle, Bay Nature magazine, and Smithsonian magazine. She is also a part-time house manager at the Berkeley Repertory Theatre.