The Director as Puzzle-Solver

Tania Thompson
 | Mar 07, 2017
Casey Stangl

Director Casey Stangl.


​Emily James and Nicholas Mongiardo-Cooper in SCR's Theatre for Young Audiences production of Flora & Ulysses.  Photo by Christine Cotter.


​Jaimi Paige and Graham Hamilton in ​the 2014 production of Venus in Fur. Photo by Debora Robinson.


​Kathleen Early and Andrew Borba in ​the 2010 production of In the Next Room or the vibrator play. Photo by Henry DiRocco.


​Gina D'Acciaro and Justin Figeroa in ​the 2016 Theatre for Young Audiences production of The Light Princess. Photo by Debora Robinson.

Director Casey Stangl is drawn to new plays.

“They are like a giant puzzle,” she explains. “The pieces include the script, the writer who has a vision, the actors, the creative team and me, as the director. Together, we have the opportunity to discover what this play really is. In a way, we are like the artist who reveals the sculpture that’s inside the stone; with a new play, we are trying to reveal that wonderful thing inside.”

Stangl directs two back-to-back world premieres at South Coast Repertory in the 2016-17 season—the young audiences production of Flora & Ulysses adapted by John Glore, SCR’s associate artistic director from the popular book by Kate DiCamillo, and The Siegel by Michael Mitnick.

Stangl and Mitnick started their collaboration on his play with a NewSCRipts workshop and reading in 2015. A naturally collaborative worker, Stangl says that she and Mitnick hit it off and found “the rhythm of working together,” which is so vital.

The story, too, was a big draw for Stangl. The Siegel follows Ethan Siegel, who’s in love and is going to ask Alice's parents for permission to marry her. Timing is everything, though: Alice is reeling from working on a lost election​—not to mention that she and Ethan broke up two years ago and now she’s seeing someone else. But Ethan is undaunted. His journey makes for an irresistible comedy about modern love, uncertain times and the need to go back in order to move forward

Part of what attracts Stangl in the story is the discussion of how certain people come to be in our lives.

“Do we choose them? Do they choose us? Is it circumstance? Is it fate?” Stangl asks in rapid fire. “What appeals to me is the aspect that, if you regret the past or chase after the future, you don’t see what is—or who is—right in front of you.”

Stangl has a strong dramaturgical sense as a director of new plays.

“I’m good with story structure—how we are telling the story,” she relates. “Are we saying enough, not enough, too much or too little? It goes back to looking at it like a jigsaw puzzle and figuring out how the pieces all work together.”

As for the lead character of Ethan Siegel, Stangl says Mitnick wrote him as a “Ben Feldman-type

The theatre reached out and got Feldman for the role.

From Choreography to Directing

Stangl saw a lot of theatre as she grew up. A touring production of Godspell is an early and strong memory of innovative ways to tell a story.

For the opening song, the actor came walking down the aisle and I thought, “Oooh! People can come down the aisle—that’s cool!’ I mean, I was young, right? (laughs) But, I remember the vibrancy of it, and the fun and the music. It was the first time I remember thinking, ’This is something I want to do.’”

She started out as a dancer and then became interested in theatre during high school, where she did choreography and eventually got into the bigger picture of directing.

“I think I bring to directing a kind of movement-influenced aesthetic,” she says. “The physical relationships between people and the space on a stage can communicate as much as the words do. That’s one way in which I approach staging.”

Previously at SCR, Stangl directed Venus in Fur and In the Next Room or the vibrator play; Theatre for Young Audiences (TYA) productions including Between Us Chickens, James and the Giant Peach and The Light Princess; and numerous readings. She was the founding artistic director of Eye of the Storm Theatre in Minneapolis, a company devoted to new work.

Stangl finds young audiences to be “wonderfully pure—they let you know if they’re not with you!” She credits SCR’s approach to producing plays for young people, which is professional and high-quality.

Theatre for young people has a strong pull for Stangl, in part because of very imaginative elements.

“There’s a theatricality to these works and a scale, in terms of the way they’re thought out, that I really appreciate,” she says. “TYA plays explore themes like loneliness, disconnection or aspiration in a very metaphoric way—like talking animals or giant peaches floating across the sea.”

She’s a firm believer in the importance of fostering the audiences of tomorrow by providing kids with early theatre experiences to create lifelong theatre-going habits.

“When I sit with school kids during a matinee performance and the question is asked of them, ‘Is there anyone here seeing a play for the first time?,’ nearly half of the hands in the house shoot up in the air,” she says.

Back in the Rehearsal Hall

Stangl has a commanding and collaborative presence during rehearsals. That’s evident watching just a few minutes as rehearsal for The Siegel begins.

“But I’m really an introvert!” she says, laughing. “I have a job that requires me to be in charge and run a room and, because I’m a freelance director, I constantly put myself out there to find new work. But in terms of the classic introvert/extrovert—extroverts get their energy from other people, introverts need alone time to charge their batteries—I very much need some alone time. I suppose I am an introvert in extrovert clothing.”

Even as rehearsal gets underway, Stangl is aware of another piece to the jigsaw puzzle: what the play may ultimately provide to audiences.

“I hope The Siegel brings up memories of their own ideas of how they have met people in their lives or how people in their lives have come to be,” she muses. “It’s the two doors idea: ‘I could’ve gone through this door or that door.’”