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For alumnus, New York theater is a Gold mine of directing opportunities

Sam Gold

Sam Gold '00

Sam Gold '00 says he remembers directing a scene from "Waiting for Godot" at Cornell in a class taught by theater professor Bruce Levitt and "starting the scene with four minutes of silence that I found hilarious, but no one else seemed to, and as I look back on it I'm sure it was quite awful."

A decade later, Gold is making a serious impression on the New York theater scene as an acclaimed director particularly talented at exploring awkward moments and silences fraught with emotion.

Gold is the director of the current New York production of Kim Rosenstock's "Tigers Be Still" at the Roundabout Theatre (111 W. 46th St.) and was profiled in a recent New York Times feature titled "Awkwardness as the Avenue to Success."

Gold won a 2010 Village Voice Obie Award for Best Director for his work on the off-Broadway plays "Circle Mirror Transformation" at Playwrights Horizons and "The Aliens" at Rattlestick Playwrights Theatre (both by Obie-winning playwright Annie Baker).

"Sam Gold is known for his ability to portray the honesty of the human experience, including the humor that often (thankfully) lives with anguish," wrote Brenda Tobias '97, Cornell's director of New York City communications, in a review of "Tigers Be Still" on her blog "CU in the City." The New York Times story stressed a similar observation of Gold: "The uneasy line between humor and pain is his comfort zone."

Scene from Tigers Be Still

Halley Feiffer, left, and Natasha Lyonne in a scene from "Tigers Be Still," playing at the Roundabout Theatre in New York as part of the Rountdabout Underground series and directed by Sam Gold '00. The show has been extended through Nov. 28.

"Tigers Be Still" stars Reed Birney, Halley Feiffer, Natasha Lyonne and John Magaro and is described as following "the spectacular misadventures of Sherry, a substitute art teacher who, in the midst of mentoring a troubled teen and dealing with a tiger on the loose, faces her biggest challenge yet … getting her sister off the couch." Performances of the play were recently extended by a week to Nov. 28.

But Gold says he isn't particularly drawn to awkward scenes or silences in a script, noting that he works on a variety of material -- although several of the plays he has worked on this year do happen to dwell on those awkward moments.

What Gold does prize is flexibility. "I love 'open' plays that allow room for collaborators to bring the writing to life without prescribing what should happen in every moment," he says.

A 'foundation' at Cornell

Sam Gold and Melissa Mortazavi in Cornell's 1998 production of Equus

Sam Gold '00 as Alan Strang and Melissa Mortazavi '01 as Jill Mason for Cornell's Center for Theatre Arts' production of "Equus" in fall 1998. University Photography file photo.

Gold "was a very thoughtful student, supremely intelligent," Levitt says. "I wouldn't be surprised at any kind of accomplishment he makes theatrically because he's so gifted."

At Cornell, Gold was an honors student and part of the theater department's Advanced Undergraduate Training Program in directing. He directed "Endgame" in 1998 and "Mud" in 1999 at the Schwartz Center's Black Box Theatre, and then in 2000 directed "House of Yes" on the main stage (a production including professional actors), a rare achievement for an undergraduate, says David Feldshuh, professor and artistic director of the Schwartz Center.

Gold was "imaginative, perceptive and persistent" as well as being an excellent actor, Feldshuh says. "I believe it is his experience as both an actor and director that has blossomed into his ability to mine the emotional resonance of the small details that define theatrical revelations."

After Cornell, Gold went on to The Juilliard School's theater directing program and spent three years as dramaturge for Elizabeth LeCompte's Wooster Group.

"We provided a good education, a wonderful foundation … and obviously the conservatory-style training deepened and enhanced the beginnings of what he got at Cornell -- a knowledge and skill base he has made so successful now," Levitt says.

Gold agrees: "I got such a solid dramaturgical foundation at Cornell, specifically in David's directing class and a 20th-century [theater] class I took with Bruce. I still refer to books they shared with me, and I recall much of their wisdom as I approach a play."

Gold returned to Cornell in 2009 to direct a staged reading of "A Kingdom of Salt" by Will Wiseheart '09, winner of the department's annual Heermans-McCalmon Playwriting Contest. He was so impressed with the play and with Wiseheart that Gold hired him as assistant director for "The Aliens" in New York earlier this year.

Gold's path to success -- which has taken a decade but has given him many opportunities to work on projects he is particularly drawn to -- is "a wonderful trajectory," Levitt says. "The professional theater can chew you up and spit you out. … All of [his] qualities make him very centered. His ego has always been in the right place -- it's always been about the work for him, not about his own reputation."

Gold will next direct "The Coward" in November for Lincoln Center Theater, and Bathsheba Doran's "Kin" in the spring for Playwrights Horizons.

Theater grads make a mark in NYC

Quite a few theater graduates over the past decade or two -- all with a similar drive and what Levitt describes as a "modesty in their work" -- have had notable success in New York City over the past year or so:

  • Maria Dizzia '98 was nominated for a Tony Award for her role in Sarah Ruhl's "In the Next Room (or the vibrator play)" at Lincoln Center Theater.
  • Antoinette LaVecchia '89 appeared in her first Broadway production, Arthur Miller's "A View from the Bridge" at The Cort Theater in a limited run (following her own successful one-woman show, "How to be a Good Italian Daughter").
  • Jenny Schwartz '95 received the 2010 Benjamin H. Danks Award for drama from the American Academy of Arts and Letters in May. The $20,000 award is given biannually to a talented young playwright. Her play "God's Ear," an off-Broadway hit, was presented at Cornell during the Schwartz Center's 2008-09 season.
  • "Punching Glass," a play by Amanda Idoko '10, was selected for the Manhattan Repertory Theatre One Act Play Series and was staged Oct. 17-23; the production also featured Alex Viola '10 and Allison Buck '09.
  • Madeleine George '96 was a 2009-10 Lark Playwrights' Workshop Fellow and is an alumna of the Soho Rep Writer/Director Lab. Her play, "Precious Little," was performed at Clubbed Thumb in New York City in 2009 and will be featured in Chicago and Pittsburgh theatres in spring 2011, as well as the Schwartz Center in February 2011 as one of this season's productions.

Other Cornell theater alumni currently or recently performing on Broadway include Jane Lynch (of "Glee" TV fame), MFA '84, in "Love, Loss and What I Wore," and Jimmy Smits, MFA '82, in the Tony-winning "God of Carnage."

"You really can never take credit for your students' talent, because you never know where it came from or how it sparked," Levitt says. "They have full ownership of it. All we can do is really give them some tools and not stand in the way."


"Tigers Be Still" at the Roundabout Theatre

Review of "Tigers Be Still" on Cornell's "CU in the City" blog by Brenda Tobias

"Awkwardness as the Avenue to Success" Sept. 28, 2010 New York Times article

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