Libby Appel retired as artistic director of the Oregon Shakespeare Festival in 2007. She says of plays she directed, “They were controversial in a sophisticated, interesting way.”
Appel’s productions are elegant and sparse, and she approaches her work with a deep sense of conviction. This is the second of a two-part interview; the first was published in this space on March 13.
LA: People see themselves on the stage, even if it’s something from Shakespeare. I remember I directed “Richard II” outdoors in its own period. George Bush was president, and we had begun the Iraq war. David Kelly played Richard, playing up the prideful and vainglorious Richard II, who fell by his own dreams of glory. When the first act was over, a man and a woman (who I didn’t know) were talking to each other. She turned to him said, “Boy, I wish George Bush could see this.” I thought that was just incredible. Here it was, in its 13th-century grandeur, and they saw a contemporary parallel. That’s why you do it. People recognize themselves and the people around them and it changes them.
EH: What sets a play apart from other kinds of literature?
LA: Dialogue — people are talking to each other. Truth is revealed through action, not through narrative or simply imagery. A poem is imagery, and the truth is revealed through imagery. A book is revealed through narration, imagery and dialogue within it, but that’s not the principle, narration is the principle.
In a play, the principle idea is action through character, through interaction. It’s why so many people are so moved by the theater. That’s what it’s about — being so human and true to what you believe is the truth of the play that it affects the person who’s watching in a way that they feel stirred to review their life.
EH: Did you have to sacrifice family to pursue theater?
LA: I got married when I was 22 and had babies right away. I didn’t go back to graduate school until I was 30. I was home with my kids for six years. I remember graduating with my graduate degree when I was 32 and thinking, “It’s too late. I’m too old.” Look what happened. I moved up. I was given the opportunity to do the things that I felt were important. I never felt as if I sacrificed family. Both my son and my daughter have been in plays I’ve directed. We have shared creative experiences that are absolutely unmatchable. Nothing in my life has been as extraordinary as some of these moments.
I’m not as impassioned to direct anymore. I want to do my translations. I’m working on my last Chekhov translation of “Ivanov” right now. Then there’ll be five altogether that I’ve translated, and hopefully I will get it published. I work with a literal Russian translator, which is unspeakable English — you cannot speak it. Then I find what the character voices are. I have spent my life in love with Chekhov. I feel I know what he’s thinking. Chekhov would write, ‘Look at yourselves, and you’ll see how foolishly you live, and maybe you’ll change it.’ He saw inside the human soul.
Directing is hard. I loved every minute of it my whole life. Now, I don’t have the appetite. I want to keep translating and direct my own work and try to affect students in workshops and things like that. I’ve had a great journey with this place. This was an incredible inspiration and it changed my life.
My proudest accomplishment is that I’m paying for my youngest granddaughter’s piano lessons, supporting her in that, because she is very musical.