Directing Moby Dick : Interview with Alex Goldrich

MOby Dick Moby Dick

Persephone Productions brings us the latest adaptation of the American classic Moby Dick. Montreal Rampage’s writer Karan Sinj spoke to the Director Alex Goldrich about the production.

Alex Goldrich

Alex Goldrich

Karan Sinj (KS):
Given that this work has been adapted multiple times, what creative thought process are you bringing to this adaptation as a director?

Alex Goldrich (AG): Honestly, I’m just trying to help tell the story as i read it in the novel and in Jim Burke’s adaptation, as faithfully and vividly as I am able.

Like any great story, different adaptations will focus on different elements: Moby Dick can be a religious allegory, an environmentalist treatise, a horror story, a psychological thriller. When I read Jim’s (the writer who adapted Moby Dick for this production) play, I saw it as a story of an outsider who finds a family and a purpose, then has to face the consequences of that purpose, weighing loyalty against his own sense of right and wrong. And in that story I saw a huge potential for fun, adventure, and humour, and a bunch of characters I would really enjoy playing with.

So, really my thought process has been how do I bring all this to life in a way that I would enjoy seeing, and that celebrates what I find really exciting about it?

KS: As a story about the American Renaissance in the 19th century, what relevance does Moby Dick have in 2016?

AG: Well, on one level this is a story about people living in hard times, doing what they have to do to get by. So, it’s not that far removed from how a lot of people live today.

It’s also a story about a charismatic leader who drags his followers on a mission he’s convinced is righteous, and which threatens to destroy everything it touches. Captain Ahab stirs up fervor and a hatred for his enemy in his crew, an enemy they have no real reason to hate. He inspires loyalty in others, then exploits that loyalty to serve his own ends. This is something we see all too often; whether it’s religious leaders or political leaders, we seem to see examples all around us of powerful people gaining power by stirring up hatred, with generally disastrous results.

All that said, though, I think there are questions and ideas in Moby Dick that would resonate regardless of time or place: questions about faith, fate, loyalty, mortality. Questions about where human beings fit in a vast, overwhelming universe that may or may not have any purpose that we can understand. It’s a story whose relevance is, I think, universal.

KS: Can you identify a few themes that resonated with you personally and that drove your engagement with the work?

AG: I’ve always been drawn to stories about outsiders and misfits, and in their different ways I think Ishmael and Ahab are both outsiders. They want different things in life, but at their core I feel like they are both defined, in some way, by loneliness and longing. However I may feel about what the characters do, their humanity is something I want to honour and celebrate.

I’m also just completely fascinated by the image of the White Whale. Throughout the story the Whale comes to mean different things to different people. Ultimately, it is that Thing that is too big to be measured and too far away to be understood, that Thing that is at best indifferent and at worst actively hostile toward us and that by its mere existence shows us how small and fragile we are. And how people respond to that says so much about who they are – who we are.

KS: Moby Dick is obviously a dramatic work of scale. Can you please reflect a little on your choice to use five actors to play 30 characters?

AG: The choice to work with a small cast was, in part, one that was made for me by the script. This adaptation was written with the intention that it have a cast of just a few actors. Logistically, having a small cast is a great way to keep a production simple (and keep costs down). And as an actor myself, I have often played multiple roles within a single production, and always love that challenge. In the cast of this show we have some great young performers who have been ready, willing and eager to dive into the challenge of creating all these characters, stretching themselves and playing together to find each one’s voice and what makes them unique. It’s about exploration and adventure and fun, which makes it very fitting to this story.

KS: You have worked in a lot of theatre productions as an actor. How different/similar is a director’s medium from that of an actor in theatre?

AG: Directing is harder, for me anyway. As an actor my job is sort of limited: I try to make sense of my character the best I can, and work with my director to portray that character in a way that supports the story. I have a director friend who once told me as an actor the only thing I can control is my own performance. The other actors, the writing, the set, all the other details are out of my hands, which frees me to concentrate my whole attention on just playing that character truthfully.

As a director, it’s my job to fit every element together to serve the story. I don’t design the set, or write the words, or decide how to play the characters, but in collaborating with actors, designers, and crew, I try to see the whole picture and, hopefully, help to make each of those elements as good as they can be while bringing them together so they support each other.

At least, that’s what it seems like so far. I’m still learning.

Directing means focusing on a lot of details at once, which is something my brain is still getting used to — fortunately I have a lot of help from an amazing cast and production team.

KS: You said that as a director your task is to bring different elements together so they support each other: how much creative liberty do you take when handling other people’s work? I am speaking from a director’s experience where as the captain of the ship you have to navigate and negotiate other people’s creative choices, yet ensure your vision shines through. In the end what’s more important for you, the retention of a collaborator’s artistic contribution or the achievement of the final vision of the work?

AG: The most honest answer I can give is that I don’t know, because I have not had the experience of having to make a hard choice between the contribution of my collaborators and the achievement of a “final vision.”  I’ve never found the two to be irreconcilable… knock on wood. But, okay, when you assemble the group of artists you’re going to work with, you look for people whose attitudes and sense of the material are compatible with your own. And in crafting your “vision,” you look at the parts you’re working with, and you look for a way to assemble them into a machine that will run. What that means I think is that the “vision” can be a process, not a static thing. It can evolve as new ideas present themselves, hopefully still retaining something of what excited you about it in the first place, but richer and more interesting for being the result of more minds than just your own.

If the show we put on next week is exactly what I thought it would be when I first started imagining it months ago, it means I’ve failed as a director, because I have not successfully incorporated the ideas of the artists I chose to work with.

Look at Ahab. Now there’s a guy with a vision; a clear goal from the start. And he drives towards that goal; despite all the doubts, fears, and protestations of his crew, he never alters course. And while I admire the tenacity, I wouldn’t consider him a role model.

Moby Dick will be playing at Studio Jean-Valcourt du Conservatoire, 4750, av. Henri-Julien starting February 11-21, 2016. $20/23/25. Tickets HERE.