Dr. N.J. Stanley is an assistant professor of theatre at Lycoming College. She has directed more than 50 plays, performed in more than 10, and is an avid theatregoer and supporter. She also has directed professionally in summer stock, regional theatre and Off Off Broadway productions. She has directed and performed in the area for the past eight years and has credits all across the United States. Recently, the Sun-Gazette sat down for a conversation with Stanley.
KRISTA STORM: When and how did your interest in the performing arts begin?
N.J. STANLEY: When I was a little girl, before I started school, my older brother and sister taught me the songs from some of Rodgers and Hammerstein's musicals and I used to sing and dance to them. I caught the theatre bug then and have been infected ever since.
Dr. N.J. Stanley
KS: Why did you start performing-acting-directing?
NS: My father always said I was a natural "ham." He used to call me Sarah Bernhardt, so I think I have always had a natural inclination to be in front of an audience. This is probably why I also ended up being a professor. My students are my audience. I always wanted to be an actor growing up. Then when I was a senior in college, I took my first directing course and I fell in love with directing. I shifted my focus and went to graduate school at Florida State University, receiving a master of fine arts in directing. Directing has been my passion ever since.
KS: What do you like about performing-directing?
NS: Directing is my primary creative outlet. I love being in rehearsal, thinking on my feet and finding solutions to the thousands of possibilities presented by every new play I direct.
KS: What play have you always wanted to direct?
NS: I have always wanted to direct Neil LaBute's "The Distance from Here." I saw it in New York, and I couldn't stop thinking about it for days afterward. It is a very disturbing drama about troubled young people. I think it would have particular resonance for students and prompts lots of questions about human behavior, but it doesn't supply the answers.
KS: Do you have a favorite playwright?
NS: For the last decade or so, I have been obsessed with the American playwrights Neil LaBute and Paula Vogel. I have read almost all of their plays, I've directed LaBute's "The Shape of Things" and Vogel's "How I Learned to Drive." I also have written essays and articles about both of them.
KS: What director do you love?
NS: The best director I have ever worked with was my mentor, Howard Jensen, at Indiana University, where I worked on my doctorate. He taught me that every choice a director makes is critical. He taught me to pay attention to every detail of the production, and he taught me how important it is for a director to do research - to learn everything possible about the world of the play before rehearsals begin.
KS: What play do you love?
NS: My favorite musical has always been "Gypsy" because I love the music. I also think Leonard Bernstein's music for "West Side Story" is the best ever written for a musical. This may be cliche, but I do believe that Arthur Miller's "Death of a Salesman" is the greatest American play of the 20th century. I have taught it in my courses what feels like a zillion times, and it always moves me to tears. It is so poignant with emotion and rich with ideas.
KS: Is there a play-musical-performer-professional director you dislike?
NS: One of the worst productions I have ever seen was called "Three Dogs and a Bone." I was living in L.A. and the cast was filled with celebrity Hollywood actors. The director also was well-known, but none of that mattered; the acting and directing were terrible.
KS: What is the best production-theatre experience you have had?
NS: I will never forget Patti LuPone in "Evita" and, years later, her astonishing performance as Mama Rose in "Gypsy." The most intellectually stimulating and emotionally moving production I have ever seen was Ionesco's "Exit the King" on Broadway two summers ago. It was the epitome of what I believe theatre can do at its best: it has the power to change lives.
KS: What is your favorite play that you have directed?
NS: I directed "Machinal" at Lycoming College a couple of years ago, and I am especially proud of that production. It is an Expressionistic play, and I was able to make lots of bold choices that resulted in a very theatrical show. The excellent design elements created by my faculty colleagues hugely contributed to that theatricality. And the students were so committed to the production we created a wonderful ensemble. It is always my goal to create a genuine sense of community and everyone seemed to love working on that play as much as I did.
KS: What do you think of the theatre opportunities in Williamsport and the surrounding area?
NS: I think many people would be surprised to learn that there is a lot of quality theatre right here and within an hour's drive of Williamsport. The Actors' Group, for whom I directed "Old Times" last year, is a community theatre here in town that does cutting edge work - mostly plays recently produced in New York. And, of course, the Community Theatre League is still going strong. We also have the Community Arts Center, our very own presenter house that hosts national tours of plays and musicals. Farther afield, we are very lucky to have two professional theatres within 100 miles of Williamsport, the Bloomsburg Theatre Ensemble and the Electric Theatre Company in Scranton. I have been to both of these theatres many times and recently directed "Parallel Lives" at ETC. These are excellent theatres that do a broad variety of classic and modern plays. Seeing their work is worth the drive. I have also seen many fine performances created by the theatre departments at Bucknell University and Bloomsburg University.
KS: If you could work with anyone, living or dead, famous or not, with whom would you like to work?
NS: Meryl Streep is my idol. I think she is the greatest living actor in America. I would die to work with her. I would love to direct Meryl Streep as Martha in "Who's Afraid of Virginia Woolf?"
KS: Who would play you on stage or in film?
NS: Well, of course Meryl Streep should play me! Who else?