Talking ‘A Walk in the Woods’ with David Ellenstein

by Jacqueline Bull June 5, 2019


david-ellenstein-jNorth Coast Repertory Theatre’s Artistic Director David Ellenstein is taking back to the stage as an actor in a two-person play. David discusses the heart of the play, balancing being an actor and an artistic director and seeing the Cold War with fresh eyes.

This interview has been edited for brevity.

San Diego Jewish Journal: We primarily know you as the artistic director, but you are not a stranger to acting either.

David Ellenstein: Oh no, I’ve been an actor my whole life. It is really how I started and for many many years was an actor all over the country and an actor and a director all over the country before becoming an artistic director, so I did it for a long long time. Every once in awhile I still get back on stage. One, because I love it. And two, because it is important for me to touch back with those roots-that whole experience of what it is that the actor does. As a director and an artistic director, it is really important to never forget that the actor is the essence of what happens to bring the play to life. It is one thing for the artistic director to pick them and hire the director, and it is another thing for the director to direct the play, and what the actors do on the stage in front of the audience every night that brings the play to life. Never losing touch with that fact and staying close to what the experience is is really important for me.

SDJJ: I think that gives you an amount of empathy and amount of understanding, too.

DE: Empathy, understanding, respect. You know I grew up in the theater, my dad was an
actor and director. He always used to say the actor is the king in the theater and I do really believe that. I try to always remember that as much as the actor lives an interient life–generally speaking–and it can be a really difficult life. Once you empower the actor, if you empower them properly to bring what they do to full bear in the play, that is what makes the magic. The director is about empowering the actor to do their best work, empowering the designers to do it as well and making sure everyone is on the same page. Really the core is what the actor does.

SDJJ: What stage of the process are you at with this show?

DE: This is week two, so we’ve had one whole week of rehearsal.

SDJJ: How is it going so far?

DE: So far, so good. This is a unique play because it is a two character play and in this case both actors are on stage 100% of the time. It is a unique experience to just be with one other person. We’re dealing with a weighty topic, but the play is not weighty. The play itself is a nuanced examination between these two men and the relationship that forges between them while they are wrestling with this potentially cataclysmic subject of nuclear arms, but really the stuff about nuclear arms is self-evident.

What makes this play work is what the actors bring to the relationship between the two people–that’s what’s compelling. You could just read a book about nuclear arms if you wanted to learn about nuclear arms. Why this play works is because these two characters are so interesting and the relationship that develops between them is really kind of fascinating to watch. So that’s what we’re working on. We’re working on who these guys are and how this relationship develops.

SDJJ: So are you the American or Russian negotiator?

DE: I am the Russian. I am Andrei Botvinnik. I am the veteran Russian arms negotiator as opposed to the less experienced and younger American arms negotiator.

SDJJ: The other actor, J Todd Adams, is he someone you have worked with before?

DE: He is. This season he has already been in two of our plays. He was in “Blithe Spirit” to open our season and he was in “Holmes and Watson,” earlier in the year, so this is actually his third play this season. I’ve known him for twenty years. I directed him in “Romeo and Juliet” twenty years ago and he played Mercutio for me and he is an awesome actor. And it is a pleasure to have him back at the theater; he is a really good actor.

SDJJ: Does having a level of familiarity with him–directing him before–help you be his co-actor?

DE: Absolutely. So because it is a unique experience for me to get back on stage, I don’t do it very often. This is the only fifth time in my sixteen years at North Coast Rep, so it averages out to about once every three years or so. I’m very careful about who else is going to be in it with me and who is going to direct it. And so when I made the decision that I was going to play this part, it was not a decision I took lightly at all who else was going to act in it and who else was going to direct it. I did not hold auditions. We asked J Todd to do it with me.

Because it is an unusual situation for the artistic director to be an actor, I needed people that knew me, knew what I was about that weren’t going to get intimidated or not do their jobs to their fullest extent because they were worried about how it would influence their future getting hired or anything like that. I need people to be honest with me. As an actor, you need a director, you need somebody sitting out there looking at you, so that’s why I asked Richard Baird to do it, because Richard knows I want him to tell me what is going on. I don’t want him to tell me something is working when it isn’t. I don’t want him to flatter me. I don’t want him to say anything other than what he would say to any other actor to make the play as good as it could be. Same thing with J Todd, he is an experienced and respected actor and he is going to hold his own. He knows how to take care of himself. He is not going to be worried about stepping on my toes or getting in my way. He is going to be my equal and my partner on stage. We have that going for us very much in this one. All three of us have healthy egos. We are working together and they are complementing one another.

SDJJ: I can see how wanting to be treated as an actor first and not as the artistic director would be very important for you feeling confident in taking on this piece.

DE: I have to be able to take the artistic director hat off when I’m working on a play. We take a break and back in my office I’m on my computer doing my artistic director stuff
which sometimes is distracting, but once we start rehearsal, I really try to put that hat to the side and be an actor.

SDJJ: I can see how it would be fun for the people you work with who normally know you as the artistic director to see you act.

DE: I think it is. And I know my patrons that come to the theater enjoy it. I’m often asked, “When are you going to back on stage? We love seeing you in the plays.” It is time consuming and disruptive to my normal life to be an actor. I have a full time job as the artistic director and I have two teenage sons who are very very active and require things from their dad. And when I try to be an actor as well which is one of the reasons I do it so rarely…. It takes me away from their sport things and attending their scholastic things. Actors have to be a little selfish with their time in order to do it properly. It is one thing when I’m a director because I don’t have to worry about preparing to do the show every night which as an actor you do, which is why I don’t do it very often, but hey, here we are [laughs].

SDJJ: That must make it special as well, too.

DE: That’s true. It does. It makes it more special because it is not what I’m doing regularly and in my routine. And because it was my first passion. I went into the theater to be an actor which I was for a long long time. So coming back to what was the initial passion of what brought me into it is always a somewhat rejuvenating thing as well.

SDJJ: You are in week two of rehearsal, what are you discovering about the play that surprised you or that you are seeing with better clarity than just reading the script?

DE: Well, I’ll say from the subject matter stand-point, you know, I grew up during this time. I was a young adult during this time. I remember the Cold War and all the arms negotiations. And doing the research into what it actually was, who the people were, watching the dynamics unfold, I learned a lot more about what actually was going in history during this time, but what attracted me to the play and what we are in the process of discovering, as I said earlier, is the relationship of these two men. And what it really comes down to is people, you know, even hearing some of the people that were real that were doing this at the time talk about the difference between sitting in the room with somebody and looking into their face changes negotiations 100%. That’s kind of the premise of the play is these two guys leave the negotiating room where the teams of negotiators are sitting and walk out into the woods and talk to each other as people.
And so discovering how that works in the play is a big part of it, why it occurs, what clicks, what doesn’t click with these two men. Also trying to understand the soviet outlook, which as I’m playing the Russian, the Soviet outlook at the time and why they were entrenched about certain issues and ideas that they were unwilling to budge on and the things they were willing to budge on.

This play was written in 1987 and performed in in ‘87 and ‘88 and done a lot. It was nominated for Pulitzer prizes, it was nominated for Tony awards, it had major productions with celebrities in it, it was done a lot as a new play and then it was done a lot in regional theaters and then it was done so much for quite awhile. And now I’m seeing [laughs] people are doing it again because unfortunately, the issues that it raises are once again relevant, once again something that needs to be thought about. If you read the news over the last month, almost everyday there is something about nuclear arms again which is really scary. And so really what these guys are talking about are coming back to the ‘fore. So the play was never irrelevant because it is about the relationship, but it has become even more relevant again.

SDJJ: I was wondering if it feels like a step back in time because the play is very much entrenched in that time and place.

DE: It feels like a snapshot looking back in time that has changed in some ways and in many ways has not changed at all. That is not necessarily a good thing. It is interesting doing this play and really looking at both sides because the people–what the play gets to–is the people are no different. What the governments do in their desire and quest to maintain superiority and power affects the world and because it has always affected the world because countries have always done that, but when you start to talk about weapons that can destroy the planet, it becomes a different conversation.

Now what you are negotiating about isn’t just, “Hey we’ll shoot some of your people,”
We are talking about, “We’ll blow up the world.” That raises the stakes to a whole new level. That is what these arms negotiations were about back in the 80’s. They were trying to get out of the Cold War, you know, “You better not or we will destroy the world.” It seemed like it got better, but I don’t know if it really did.

SDJJ: The play is trying to reckon with that by bringing it to a level that we can understand? We can understand two people, but we may not be able to understand two governments.

DE: Exactly. And it is not by accident that it is set in the beautiful woods of Switzerland–this kind of idyllic setting that they got out into–because that is what will get lost if these bombs go off. What Richard Baird, who is directing the play, likes to say, in one way it is almost like two murderers talking with their captive right there. And the captive being nature. They are out in this beautiful nature and they are discussing whether or not to keep these weapons that could actually destroy everything, destroy this beautiful environment. And here are these people who are intrinsically good people. They are human beings–everybody is flawed. They are both flawed, but they both had good hearts. But politics, the quest for power, gets in the way.

SDJJ: Definitely. Anything that we did not get a chance to talk about yet?

DE: Lee Blessing who wrote the play, who is an awesome writer and a great guy, has been in communication with me, we email back and forth and he is actually going to come down and see the show. We do a regular talk back on the second Friday, and he is going to see the show that night and participate in a talk back following the show.


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