On the eve of their main stage debut—a co-direction of William Inge’s Bus Stop—first-year MFA directors Malika Oyetimein and Sean Ryan sat down to talk about what brought them to the University of Washington School of Drama, Bus Stop, and what they’re looking forward to directing next.
What brought you to the School of Drama?
Sean: The UW School of Drama was one of the reasons I moved to Seattle in 1998. It just took me 17 years to realize the dream of getting my master’s here. After I moved, I started a dance-theatre company and a play reading series. I became immersed in the Seattle theatre scene, as an artist and an arts administrator. For the past 10 years, I worked in artistic development at On the Boards, a contemporary arts presenter here in Seattle, working with artists to develop their ideas and their craft. And now I’m living the dream.
Malika: In my career, I’ve been working towards graduate school for a while. When I visited the University of Washington, and got to meet Valerie Curtis-Newton (professor, head of MFA performance, directing, acting) and see the environment in which I could be spending my next three years, I knew this was the school for me. With the way the program is structured, the individual attention that I would receive, and Valerie’s mentorship, I knew it would be the push I needed to take my career to the next level.
Individually, how have you found your way into “Bus Stop"? What are you connecting with?
Malika: My way into Bus Stop is the human element of wanting to find connection; wanting to relieve loneliness. For me, I’m trying to get into the heart of each character’s desire—how they make themselves vulnerable in order to get at the thing they want the most. Being a new person in a new city, loneliness and being outside of your comfort zone is something that I’m connecting with right now. How do you make yourself available and vulnerable to strangers? Everyone needs human connection and the characters in Bus Stop expose themselves in a public place to get at this thing that they really, really need.
How do you make yourself available and vulnerable to strangers? Everyone needs human connection and the characters in Bus Stop expose themselves in a public place to get at this thing that they really, really need.
Sean: Since I direct the beginning of the play, I’m really interested in having this kind of tumultuous tempest outside contrasted with a warm interior environment that the characters arrive into. The characters are looking to find comfort and there’s difficulty in finding comfort even within that shelter. I’m fascinated with the varying kinds of love and relationships that blossom, from the innocent to the deviant. Bus Stop also has given me the opportunity to learn more about comedy. How do you play comedy? How do you encourage the actors to look at the timing that evokes the comedy?
Have you found the process of directing “Bus Stop” easy or difficult?
Sean: After spending 10 years at a contemporary arts presenter—which can be all about deconstructing an artistic idea—I came to the UW so I could really focus on telling good stories, instead of going automatically to “how do I mess this story up in order to tell a story?” And that’s the beautiful thing about Inge, and Bus Stop, and these well-made plays. You don’t need to break it down or reconstruct it. You just need to learn how to tell a really great, effective comedy. It’s all already there, and that’s my practice right now. The process wasn’t as difficult because, with my background in dance and contemporary performance, I’m comfortable with taking two ideas and putting them together and seeing how they come out as one.
That’s the beautiful thing about Inge, and Bus Stop, and these well-made plays. You don’t need to break it down or reconstruct it. You just need to learn how to tell a really great, effective comedy.
Malika: At first, the notion of co-directing sounded really broad. Are we supposed to be directing at the same time? Do we have to have the same vision for the show? Am I trying to be the director that Sean is? Is he trying to be the director that I am? Once Valerie said to do all the things that I would do in a normal production—make all the same explorations; do all the research as if I were directing the whole show—it all clicked. It was no longer this push and pull. Sean and I also came to the same conclusion to set both our productions in the same time period, the time period in which it was written. I think that helped us find a similar language with which to speak to the designers, the actors, and each other.
Sean: At the beginning of the process, we talked a lot about what a joint spine would be, which gave us a shared place to jump off of.
Malika: We came to a similar idea, but when it came time to articulate it, the ways in which we are different directors came out. Sean uses imagery to articulate his vision and has a way of saying things that feels connected to him, and I do too. We needed to have freedom to say those things in different ways, so that we could take that freedom into our individual rehearsal rooms.
Sean: Having a heart of the play that we could both see was helpful in our collaboration with the lighting and set designers, Kenrick Fischer and Lex Marcos. They had to create a versatile container that would encompass our two different versions of the show.
We came to a similar idea, but when it came time to articulate it, the ways in which we are different directors came out.
As students, what have you learned from each other while working on this play?
Sean: I’ve never directed a 1950s situation comedy. Being able to have little snippets of conversation about our approaches, and also encouraging and supporting each other, has been a great way for Malika and me to get to know more about each other.
Malika: You learn how to stay firm and how to articulate your ideas, while also embracing the “yes, and.” Saying, “Yes, I am open to your idea and I think we need to continue to explore this other idea.”
During your time here at UW, what kind of work are you interested in exploring? What gets you excited?
Sean: I want to focus some of my time here on working with playwrights and plays that allow me to explore the LGBTQ community and queer themes. As a gay man, that’s important to me, and I’ve never done it before. I’m also curious about farce. Having been a dancer for 15 years, I’m interested in exploring the rhythm and physicality of farce and using that to tell a good story.
Malika: I am really interested in making art that makes people question what they think they know about the world; making art that represents the world we live in, in all its complexities. I’m interested in art as activism. I’m interested in art as community building. I’m interested in shaking up media representation of marginalized groups, be that LGBTQ, African Americans, Asian American…what are the stereotypes and how do we subvert them? I’m interested in creating art that is on the pulse of what’s happening in our world now and not shying away from the subjects that make us uncomfortable. I want the art I make to shake up the world, one audience at a time.
Bus Stop opens Friday, April 24 with previews on Wednesday, April 22 and Thursday, April 23. Performances run through Sunday, May 3. To purchase tickets, visit artsuw.org.