Classic Conversations: Marianne Elliott and John Doyle

The Classic Stage Company continues its series of free talks between Artistic Director John Doyle and Theater creatives. Past conversations are archived and available.

John Doyle served as artistic director for regional theaters in the U.K. for more than 40 years. In 2005, he won Tony and Drama Desk Awards for his Broadway revival of Sweeney Todd: The Demon Barber of Fleet Street which transferred from The West End. The director’s Williamstown production of The Visit and his Menier Chocolate Factory debut of The Color Purple, also moved to Broadway. The latter garnered two Tony Awards. Doyle has been Artistic Director of Classic Stage Company since 2016.

Born into a theater family, Marianne Elliott had a number of different jobs including drama secretary at Granada Television. It was an assistant director role that first propelled her towards the established directorial career she created. Elliott won Tonys as Best Director for both War Horse and The Curious Incident of the Dog in the Night and a Best Revival Tony for Broadway’s most recent iteration of Angels in America.

John Doyle first met his guest when she was Assistant Director at Regent’s Park Theatre. He asks whether that was Elliot’s first theater job. Elliott had done her own Fringe shows and worked for a casting director.                                                                                       JD: “How did it feel as a young woman to work in that very male environment?”                                       ME: “I absolutely loved it. It’s right in the center of Regent’s Park and so beautiful. We used to tech the lighting through the night which was magical. I felt no more separate as a woman. There was one actor a bit tricky. You spoke to him.”

Elliott raises the importance of atmosphere multiple times during this talk . She strives to provide a safe and familial environment in her productions.  

JD: “Your dad was a wonderful director and motivator, your mother and sisters actresses.” ME: “And my grandparents.”               JD: “Didn’t you want to run away from it?”                                                             ME: “I did. I thought about becoming a fashion designer, but I was taken to theater so much as a child as you must’ve been.”

The host laughs and responds that he came from Inverness, an apparent cultural backwater. Not only did he see no theater until drama school, but it was his intention to go into the church. “My first play was Hamlet. I was terrified of Shakespeare after that. Then Ian Talbot called and asked whether I’d direct A Midsummers Night’s Dream as Judi Dench had to drop out to appear in a film.”

JD: “After Regent’s Park, you went on to The Royal Exchange, The Royal Court, and The National Theater eventually directing War Horse, The Curious Incident of the Dog in the Night, and Angels in America. How do you find projects?”

ME: “People say you make your luck by working hard. I didn’t set out to be a director. My boyfriend at the time was a playwright, so I put on his plays. I never had a five year plan, people just asked me. War Horse happened because I wanted to do something challenging. When I heard the plot of War Horse, I knew it would be a huge risk, ridiculous to do, and I thought, sign me up! The National was hugely government subsidized. It was not about making a profit, but rather making interesting art.”

Doyle brings up the changed complexities of today’s market noting a production will offer a workshop and lab, but three weeks in, money people come to watch driving the piece towards production. Elliott recalls taking days merely with the protagonist walking into his house with Curious Dog. She notes that, months later, looking at footage, she found it awful and completely rethought the scenes.

JD: “Now you’re a producer/director. There aren’t many. I can only thing of Michael Grandage. What made you take that route?”                             ME: “When Dick Hytner left The National, I had a bit of a crisis of confidence. Then Chris Harper, who had been head of marketing suggested we should set up our own company. He was a brilliant producer and I wanted more control over what I was doing. My husband had enough of acting and joined us.”

Doyle wonders at the source of Elliott’s insecurity with such critical success behind her. “It’s your own black dog demon,” she replies. “Have you had any of them?” The CSC Artistic Director suffered one in his forties. “My mother brought me up to be my own judge of who I was,” he says. Suddenly rehearsal rooms were no longer happy. He found himself thinking, what’s this all for and was seriously thinking of slowing down. “Awards raise a sense of deserving and not deserving and America is very prize conscious,” Doyle adds.

Sweeney Todd brought Doyle to America in 2005. He then directed the most recent production of Stephen Sondheim’s Company. “It was like the beginning of a second career and gave me a chance to start all over again.,”

JD: “When you came over here to work, did you find it very different?”           ME: “I did, I do. None of my shows have originated on Broadway. It’s so much more expensive and there’s pressure to get a Tony. I’ve found American actors really hard working and emotionally articulate though. There’s no question about authority and I don’t encounter British cynicism.

Doyle and Elliott share the experience of directing Company. When the pandemic kicked in, Elliott was eight previews into a newly conceived production with a female Bobbie.                                  ME: “We all thought we’d be back in three weeks. I was in denial. I thought, this can’t be right. Then I had to take a subway uptown and there was nobody on it. And my sister had it in London. We were all in shock. Everyone had to get flights out quickly. I left a suitcase at the apartment in which I was staying.”

When Doyle shut down CSC’s rehearsals for Sondheim’s Assassins, he was not, he comments, answerable to more than himself and theater supporters. As producer and director, however, there was a lot on Elliott’s plate stepping back from a Broadway run. Literally having experienced two roofs falling in on theaters, the new Company fortuitously secured pandemic insurance! “So depending on how long it lasts, like you, we’ll start again,” Elliott says.

As in his talk with critic Ben Brantley, Doyle raised the subject of Stephen Sondheim, asking Elliott whether the prospect of working with him scared her.                                                                                   ME: “It was terrifying. When I directed St. Joan, he invited me to dinner at his house, but this was something else. I went over to talk with him about the idea of a female Bobbie. He agreed after seeing the workshop and was extremely collaborative, much more than a lot of writers I’ve worked with.”                                                                                                                                 Doyle remarks that working with John Kander was like that. “They come from a school that almost doesn’t exist anymore.”

Both Doyle and Elliott love and miss the rehearsal period. “It’s what we’re all about,” Elliott says, “Being a congregation, a community. We can’t do it now, but when things open up, we’ll be needed!”

Though participants were warm and candid, I think Doyle forgot lay people were listening. Names unknown to other than theater professionals were frequent and questions for Elliott on most audience minds were never broached: What was it like to work with the puppets on War Horse? How did you conceive of the fabulous electronics used for Curious Dog?  What was the thinking behind a shredded, dark, sexual angel (as opposed to the usual chaste, white one) in Angels in America? Disappointing for that reason.

Opening Photos courtesy of CSC.

COMING UP: Timothy Douglas (Director, Frankenstein at CSC), on Oct. 22
John Weidman (Writer, Assassins), on Nov. 12
Hilton Als (Staff Writer and Former Theatre Critic, The New Yorker), on Nov. 19

Classic Stage Conversations

About Alix Cohen (891 Articles)
Alix Cohen is the recipient of nine New York Press Club Awards for work published on this venue. Her writing history began with poetry, segued into lyrics and took a commercial detour while holding executive positions in product development, merchandising, and design. A cultural sponge, she now turns her diverse personal and professional background to authoring pieces about culture/the arts with particular interest in artists/performers and entrepreneurs. Theater, music, art/design are lifelong areas of study and passion. She is a voting member of Drama Desk and Drama League. Alix’s professional experience in women’s fashion fuels writing in that area. Besides Woman Around Town, the journalist writes for Cabaret Scenes, Broadway World, and Theater Pizzazz. Additional pieces have been published by The New York Post, The National Observer’s Playground Magazine, Pasadena Magazine, Times Square Chronicles, and ifashionnetwork. She lives in Manhattan. Of course.