Rick Robinson directs “Dancing at Lughnasa,” now playing at the Collaborative Theatre Project in Medford. Robinson is also managing director of the Oregon Cabaret Theatre. We met at Forage Coffee in Medford to talk about Brian Friel’s Tony Award-winning play.
Rick Robinson: This is a memory play along the lines of Tennessee William’s “Glass Menagerie.” It’s a narrator telling about his childhood, and has that dreamlike feel.
The authenticity of the piece is what drew me to it. There is warmth and humor, and there are these wonderful human beings that collide. The characters feel very real. You really love these human beings. It’s lush, it’s real, and it strikes that nerve that informs us of what it is to be human.
EH: Why is Friel compared to Chekhov?
RR: It’s the absolute authenticity and believability of his characters, first and foremost. You build these absolutely real, tip of the iceberg human beings that have an unfathomable depth below the water. Character motivation is what drives the story.
EH: What do you look for in an actor?
RR: Work ethic. I like actors who love theater, who love to get into the work of it. It’s not a vanity thing for them: Someone who loves it as much as I do, and can’t imagine a life doing anything else.
I like actors who get off book as quickly as possible, so we can start the process of figuring out who these people are, without the impediment of the script in front of them.
I don’t mind being challenged. I don’t mind other people coming in and having their strong opinions about what they want the piece to look like and feel like. I don’t mind working with a room full of other directors and creators, because those types always bring their own ideas to a process. It never worries me working with that type of person.
EH: What makes a great play?
RR: I’m sort of a traditionalist in theater. I’ll enjoy going to see an avant-garde piece that breaks the bounds. But I feel, for the most part, you should follow rules that the ancient Greeks set down, where you should tell a compelling story. There’s a reason why you’re telling this particular point in this person’s life, because it’s the fulcrum upon which his life changes directions. A good play should happen in a finite number of days.
It should move you. It should enlighten you. It should entertain you. A great play does all three of these things.
As a playwright, I feel like I can tickle the funny bone of the average person or of an intellectual, someone who is well versed and loves theater. The great playwrights do both. If you watch Shakespeare, it’s his ability to inspire and enlighten, and bring to life both of those audiences simultaneously, that’s the mark of a truly great play.
EH: What influence does the audience have on a performance?
RR: When you are doing a show, as an actor you feed off their energy and vice versa. One of the exciting things about theater is it only lives for that two-hour period, and then it’s over. It’s unique. I tell my cast to let that interaction happen. You have to let the audience in, and you have to let them sometimes dictate the pace of the story. That’s absolutely essential. You can’t do theater without an audience.