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By Brian Robin

Moritz von Stuelpnagel Directs His Skills to "avaaz"

There’s a reason why Moritz von Stuelpnagel is one of the most in-demand directors in the country that’s easy to understand when you go beyond the four-page resume and read his directing works—from Broadway to London’s West End to off-Broadway to regional theatres all over the country and summer stock.

There’s a reason his directing schedule is booked into the fall. He has Ava: The Secret Conversations by Elizabeth McGovern currently running at the Geffen Playhouse. Later this summer, there’s Mike Lew’s Tiny Father. In the fall, there’s I Need That by Theresa Rebeck. Tiny Father will be von Stuelpnagel’s seventh Lew production. I Need That will mark his fifth collaboration with Rebeck.

And in between them all—running through May 27 on the Segerstrom Stage—is the world premiere of avaaz by Michael Shayan, who was recently nominated for a Daytime Emmy for his work on the Discovery+ series, “The Book of Queer.” The show was nominated for six Daytime Emmys, including “Outstanding Educational and Informational Show,” and “Outstanding Writing Team for a Daytime Non-Fiction Program.” Shayan is a writer and consulting producer.

Go past the conga line of rhapsodic reviews for von Stuelpnagel’s works, some of which we’ll get to momentarily. Put aside the Tony Award nomination for Hand of God by Robert Askins, one of 27 nominations his works earned from various awards committees. And in case you can’t separate the man from the awards, von Stuelpnagel will do it for you.

Hand to God was a play we’d been working on for several years, premiering it first at a 74-seat theatre off-off-Broadway. So when we got to do it in a 740-seat Broadway theatre, it was already a tremendous reward,” he said. “Especially because all my collaborators had become close friends. The fact that several of them were also nominated was as meaningful to me as my own nod. It meant that it wasn’t simply my work being showy, but we had built something where everyone shined. That’s the sort of thing I hope for in every production I do.”

The reason von Stuelpnagel is in demand to direct everyone from William Shakespeare to Noël Coward to Lew, Rebeck, Askins and, yes, Shayan, can be gleaned from the way he described his approach to avaaz. It’s an approach that puts the writer’s vision directly in the audience’s lap, brain and consciousness.

“With any new play, there’s a special responsibility to discover the root impulse for what the writer was after when they first put pen to paper—and then to dimensionalize that for the audience,” he said. “Michael had this idea for creating an event around Nowruz, the Iranian New Year, in which he’d play his mother as host with the audience as her guests. As the evening unfolds, her past—emigrating from Iran after the revolution, establishing a new life in Los Angeles, and raising a queer son—would come to bear.

“Moving back and forth between past and present was exciting. But it brought up questions of why tell these stories now? What does it mean that she’s telling them to us? If we can bring those pieces together, the audience can really be part of her story.”

Watch a von Stuelpnagel production and, yes, you’re entertained. But von Stuelpnagel views it as his artistic mandate to make his productions challenge an audience’s collective senses.

“Storytelling, especially with smart audiences like at South Coast Repertory, is terrifically interactive, von Stuelpnagel said. “Most patrons are experienced enough with different kinds of stories that they pretty quickly develop expectations for where a story is headed. The joy is in either fulfilling or subverting those expectations. There’s satisfaction in fulfilling them, certainly.

“But when an expectation is subverted, it creates a dissonance that makes the viewer pause and have to reconcile just how these events came to pass. When we do that, that reconciliation creates new neural pathways in one’s brain, meaning it can literally change your mind. That’s not an easy feat to pull off, but when it happens, its’ exciting to be a part of.”

Judging by the critics, von Stuelpnagel pulls it off far more often than not.

  • “Bow to director Moritz von Stuelpnagel. Look forward to whatever he does next and after that and after that,” wrote the Huffington Post about Important Hats of the Twentieth Century by Nick Jones.
  • “Director Moritz von Stuelpnagel is adept at toggling between humor and heartbreak,” wrote Time Out New York about Teenage Dick by Lew.
  • “Moritz von Stuelpnagel directs with a flair for allowing the play’s little absurdities to reveal themselves naturally and a skill with onstage physicality,” the Associated Press wrote about his direction of Hand to God.

von Stuelpnagel’s artistic quest for avaaz to join that critical pantheon began with his immediate understanding of the personal nature of this play to Shayan, who wrote the play because of his curiosity about his mother’s history and journey. Because of that deeply personal connection, von Stuelpnagel finds himself as more than just a director. His great rapport with Shayan goes beyond stage blocking and direction.

“This is a project that started because Michael was curious to know more about his mother’s history, to understand her better and to improve their relationship with that understanding,” von Stuelpnagel said. “But while he’s in the midst of that process, it’s not always easy to have perspective on the root causes of the dynamics between them. So, I have to play detective and therapist as well as director.

“She’s an incredible woman with an even more incredible story. So my hope is to honor both of them with this production.”

von Stuelpnagel can pull this feat off because of his ability to fuse human dynamics with creative dynamics for the benefit of audiences.

“Michael is a brilliant collaborator. Endlessly rigorous, thoughtful and creative,” he said. “But what’s most remarkable is that we have a similar sense of humor, which helps any work relationship. But also because this is one of his first major premieres, I feel a special responsibility to help him realize a sort of dream. The whole thing is a passion project all around, and I can’t tell you how proud I am of the work he’s doing.”

Experience the creative, dynamic and engaging story of avaaz. Tickets are on sale at

About the author

South Coast Repertory

South Coast Repertory is a Tony Award-winning theatre is known for producing classics, contemporary hits and world premieres, for having the largest new-play development program in the nation and for advancing the art of theatre in service to the community. 

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