“Brilliant Adventures,” staged this summer at Chicago’s gritty, storefront Steep Theatre Company, had an all-male cast, a Tarantino sensibility, foul language and a bloody scene involving a tooth extraction performed by a drug dealer who’s definitely not a dentist.
I was surprised that the director of that brutal, critically lauded U.S. premiere was a woman. I was dumbfounded to discover she teaches in Charlotte.
“That was a very muscular play,” director Robin Witt said. “Male muscular,” she clarified.
And a little unusual for her. “I’m always aware of my responsibility as a female director to female actors and playwrights,” said the 45-year-old. In 2014, she directed three plays by female playwrights with strong female roles.
When Witt isn’t in Chicago – America’s second-biggest theater city – she’s probably at UNC Charlotte. The assistant professor of directing (with degrees from NYU and Northwestern) knew she wanted both an academic and a directing career. She landed her UNC Charlotte job in 2010 and “loves being affiliated with a research university that supports all (I do.)”
Her students benefit from her A-list connections. This semester, they’ll learn from “Brilliant Adventures” playwright Alistair McDowall when he Skypes into their classroom from his U.K. home.
Simon Stephens, the Tony-winning English playwright of “The Curious Incident of the Dog in the Night-Time,” will also Skype in. He’s a Broadway darling and associate playwright at Steep, where Witt is a member of the company. “This is a way for students to see the world is smaller than they think it is,” Witt said of the sessions.
Kara Foster, 23 and one of Witt’s former students, said, Witt “doesn't just teach you how to direct a show, she teaches you how to run production meetings, how to find funding to put on shows of your own and how to get rights to plays. When you leave her class you have the tools you need not just to be a part of theater, but to create your own.”
Both theater and teaching are in Witt’s DNA. Her dad, Howard Witt, worked at Arena Stage in Washington, D.C., taught acting at St. Albans School there and was Tony nominated in 1999 for his role in the revival of “Death of a Salesman” starring Brian Dennehy.
Like her father and her mentor, the Tony-winning (“August: Osage County”) director and professor Anna Shapiro, Witt straddles two worlds. She’s as devoted to her actors as she is to her students.
“We should all honor actors for their courage,” she said. While the play starts with the playwright, actors are “the primary purveyors of the experience. They’re on the front lines. They’re the ones confronted with fight or flight each time they walk onto the stage.”
Under the radar
She’s as well-known in Chicago as she is unknown in Charlotte, where few theater leaders were familiar with her work. Her direction of the 2014 revival of “Men Should Weep” at Griffin Theatre Company earned her a “Jeff,” Chicago’s version of a Tony.
Peter Moore, Steep Theatre’s artistic director, said Witt’s in high demand in Chicago. She directs two or three plays each year in the Windy City, and each is a seven-week commitment.
Despite her academic pedigree, Witt isn’t interested in plays about people who have education and options. “People who have run out of choices fascinate me,” she said. “When you have your back up against the wall, how do you respond? That’s a very ennobling moment.”
She’s always trying to bridge the worlds of teaching and directing and the two cities she calls home. “She never stops actively seeking opportunities for her students, even after they graduate,” said Foster, her former student. “Last summer, she invited me to be her assistant director for ‘Commons of Pensacola’ … in Chicago and sought grants to help me afford the trip.”
Witt puts it like this: “My life as an artist and as a teacher are inextricably linked.”
Check Witt out
Robin Witt will direct just one play in Charlotte during the 2015-16 academic year: “Hamletmachine”by Heiner Müller. The play will be staged at UNC Charlotte in March 2016.
She describes it as a “deconstruction of ‘Hamlet’ with feminist themes. It deals with, she said, the hypocrisy of politics, the failure of communism and capitalism and the fact that we’re destined to repeat our mistakes.”
She’ll direct two plays in Chicago next year: “London Wall” by John Van Druten at Griffin Theatre Company in January and “Wastwater” by Simon Stephens at Steep Theatre Company in July.
Follow her work at Steep at steeptheatre.com.