Old Dog, New Tricks
An interview with director R. Hamilton Wright about coming back to Sylvia.
By Joanna Horowitz, associate communications director
Imagine if you could re-live a moment from your past. But instead of just being a part of it, this time around you could direct the whole thing: choose the music, change the lighting, make the whole thing funnier—or sadder?
Only a fantasy, right? Maybe not for R. Hamilton Wright (Or Bob, as he’s known to his friends). Fifteen years after playing the part of Greg in Seattle Rep’s production of Sylvia, Wright returns as the play’s director.
It’s likely you’ve seen Wright on stage before. Most recently at Seattle Rep he played Ricky Roma in Glengarry Glen Ross. He has appeared in over fifty productions here, and countless others around town. But Sylvia marks his first turn at the helm at Seattle Rep. (He has directed primarily at ACT, including A Christmas Carol, Souvenir, and Jekyll & Hyde.)
The following is an excerpt of a conversation with Wright about revisiting Sylvia and what it’s like to transition from an actor to director.
Joanna Horowitz: Take me back to 1996 when you first did Sylvia. What stands out for you from that production?
Bob Wright: When Jerry [Manning, artistic director] asked me to direct this play, I think he probably imagined I had a specific memory of it. But as is my wont, when I close a play I tend to forget it. Of course, I remember working with Barbara Dirickson as Sylvia. She was a longtime colleague and had been a member of the company back in the ’80s and early ’90s.
And I remember the audiences enjoying it a good deal.
I know that some of our subscribers will say, “I saw this play when you did it fifteen years ago, why see it again?” But it does seem like a play you can revisit many times.
I understand that. But—and I’m not comparing Sylvia to Hamlet—we rarely question the decision to revisit many of the plays we consider classics. That’s because we know there is always something in those plays—at least potentially—that is waiting there to be discovered in each successive viewing. One thing I’ve learned from revisiting Sylvia is not just how funny it is, but how touching it is. Gurney has written some wonderful roles for each actor. Sylvia is a really well constructed play that is worth taking another look at.
This is your first time directing at the Rep, right? How does that feel?
I was initially really, really thrilled just to be given an opportunity to come to a theatre that I’ve worked at so many times over the past thirty plus years. It’s fun because I get a chance to work with some people I’ve known in the shops for a long time. Like Jolene Obertin, who’s the props director. I get a chance to work with her in a different way than I have as an actor. And just looking at the Bagley Wright stage from a completely different standpoint. You essentially don’t concern yourself with that as an actor until you get on stage. So, it’s a great opportunity to work from just a different angle in a building I know pretty well.
What is it like, especially in the rehearsal room, to switch gears? I’m sure you’ve worked with some of the actors you’ve cast as a fellow actor. How does that feel then to be on the other side of the table?
More often than not, it’s a good thing. It doesn’t seem to be too big a problem for other actors to be directed by someone they’ve worked with as an actor. Whether it’s founded in reality or not, we tend to think that directors who have acted are slightly more empathetic or at least knowledgeable about what actors go through. The thing I’m becoming more and more fascinated by, frankly, is finding out ways to let go of influence. I did this play at the Children’s Theatre many, many years ago. It was a comedy, and it was very funny, and I had a lot of talented actors. Someone came up to me on the opening day and said, as a great compliment I guess, “It’s amazing, it’s like they’re all Bob Wrights.” And it kind of took me aback and I thought, “Oh God, I’ve just been making everyone perform like me,” you know my responses to something and my rhythms and what I thought was funny. I have to be careful, I think. I imagine every director does, but I tend to ask myself before I give any note: “Is this me responding as an actor or is this something that might be helpful for another actor?” So that’s always an intriguing tension.
When did you start directing with more frequency?
Essentially when I turned 50—I’m 58 now. I directed a bit in my 30s, and I hadn’t had a very good time. I mean, it was OK and the projects went fine, but ultimately in retrospect I didn’t feel like I had a whole lot to offer. I think I was in fact too nervous about being under the gun all the time, always being able to answer questions or keep people entertained. And so I think some seasoning as a human being helped me get to the point where I wasn’t anxious on that level so much.
Is there a particular type of play that you’re drawn to as a director rather than an actor?
I guess more than anything else, I’m trying to stay open. I tend to be drawn to comic material. And when I say that, I don’t just mean plays that are called comedies. In fact I find most plays—except maybe the most tragic of Shakespeare’s plays and a few others—because they’re about human beings, they all have humor in them. But I haven’t really directed a play that is considered a real drama, a play that isn’t known as having a comic rhythm, and that would be interesting.
Perhaps that will be next. OK, last question: you don’t have a dog, right?
We don’t, but over the last year or so, we’ve really been playing around with the idea of getting a dog. Since beginning this thing with Sylvia, I’ve been stopping at the dog park at Golden Gardens and watching people and dogs and how they behave with one another. As an adult, I’ve never had a dog, but I always have this fantasy that a dog is going to adopt me. You know, some stray in the park is going to demand to be taken home.