SDNN: Artist of the Month Feature on DARKO TRESNJAK
By Pat Launer
The Lighter Side of Darko: Old Globe Resident Artistic Director Darko Tresnjak
Dance and puppets, theater, opera and masks. Darko Tresnjak’s path hasn’t been your typical American director’s. But then, he’s not typical. And he wasn’t born American.
He began life in Zemun , Yugoslavia (now part of Serbia ). The first play he ever saw, at age 7, was “King Lear.” Not exactly kiddie -fare. The first English he learned was the song, “Oh, Susannah!” Another quirky introduction to a lifelong passion. But his flair for the dramatic officially began when he felt compelled to entertain his mom.
“My family wasn’t in the arts,” Tresnjak explains, with a faint trace of an accent that has diminished significantly in the six years he’s been in San Diego .
“My father was an engineer. My mother had lived many exciting, adventurous lives. My sister was ten years older, but when I came along, my mother became a full-time Mom. I felt I had to do entertaining things to keep her entertained. I still do.
“A few years back, I went skydiving, and she was the first person I called. Of course, she’d already done it. The last time I was in Maryland for a visit, she and I played Wii golf till the middle of the night. And she beat me!”
His mother grew up on a riverboat on the Danube ; her father was the captain. During the WWII occupation, they were imprisoned on their own boat, forced to take food to the Germans.
“At night,” Tresnjak says with a wicked smile, “she and her siblings would boil water under the vegetables so it would rot. They’d also bake things and throw them down to the concentration camp prisoners.”
After the war, his mother led a “vagabond existence,” working on the railways throughout her 20s. She became a midwife, worked in a chocolate factory, skydived. Now 83, she’s still “very lucid and very active in her mind,” though she has health problems. She lives with Darko’s sister and brother-in-law, niece and nephew.
“I did the American thing and moved away. They did the Yugoslavian thing and stayed together.”
His sensibilities have always been multinational, with one foot in the U.S. and one in Eastern Europe .
The American Connection
In the 1970s, when Darko was seven, the family took in a series of American exchange students. They had one from Iowa , one from New Mexico . One was a kind of hippie folk-singer, and that’s when Darko first heard and learned “Oh, Susannah!” (He can still do a pretty mean version of it).
“I absorbed English from them, and American culture. When they returned home, they sent me American toys from the States. That was all the rage in Yugoslavia . I became a director so I could play my way with my American toys!
“The first play I saw was ‘King Lear,’ performed by a great Yugoslavian actor. I remember seeing Feydeau’s ‘A Flea in Her Ear,’ and thinking it was the funniest thing I’d ever seen, in a way that film or TV could never be.
“The first show I directed was when I was 7 years old. I had seen the opening ceremonies of the Olympics, and I organized my own on the street, with opening and closing ceremonies and a contest for long-distance spitting. I won. At the end, the kids had to carry me down the street, loaded down with cardboard medals. We lit a torch on my grandmother’s stoop and she freaked out. We could have burned down her house.”
He didn’t only think on an Olympian scale. Small things fascinated him, too. Like puppets.
“I was always making theaters out of cardboard boxes, and creating sets out of Legos . I built a little Baroque theater and I used plastic Coca Cola bottles for the characters. I figured out a way to turn their ‘heads,’ and realized that, with magnets, I could move them around from underneath.”
Years later, he would spend five years touring with the U NIMA Award-winning Mum Puppettheatre of Philadelphia, honing his skills in mask-making as well as puppetry. He maintains that fascination, and introduces a puppet at the beginning and the end of his current Old Globe production of “Coriolanus.” He very consciously uses puppets sparingly, but employed them to excellent effect in his 2005 Old Globe production of “The Comedy of Errors.”
Dancing under the stars
Thinking back to his childhood, Tresnjak says that for awhile, Belgrade , which was across the river from Zemun , was “the cornerpost of the Austro-Hungarian empire .” His grandmother was part Austrian.
“When I was a kid, it was a very social time for my family. They took me out; I never had a babysitter. People sat around and told great stories, where I learned much more about human interactions than from TV or video or games. I come from a family of storytellers. In the evenings, in addition to the stories, there would be waltzing, polkas, dancing. I took ballroom dance classes at 17.” When he grew up, he studied under Martha Graham.
Life changed dramatically when he was ten. His sister married an American, and the family moved to the U.S. , arriving in Washington , D.C. at the height of its theatricality — two weeks before the bicentennial.
“We traveled across the country, from D.C. to L.A. and hit all the hot-spots in between. It was an extraordinary summer, and it was instant love affair with this country. My brother-in-law was a diplomat, a great historian, a human encyclopedia. Two of his ancestors had signed the Declaration of Independence. I learned so much. After that, we tried going back to Yugoslavia but I just missed the U.S. so much. By the time I was 11 or 12, we’d come here permanently.”
On the recommendation of his sister and brother-in-law, he was put into a Montessori school, which was a godsend.
“It was the Barrie Day School , and it was idyllic, with ponds, creeks. Everyone had to take care of an animal. There were camping trips, the Appalachian Trail . Each of us got so much individual attention. Which was great since, among other things, the concept of English spelling bewildered me. In Serbo-Croatian, everything is phonetic. I couldn’t figure out the spelling and pronunciation of words like ‘colonel’ or the spelling/pronunciation difference between Arkansas and Kansas .”
He finished high school a year early, at a college prep school, Edmund Burke. He “didn’t feel socially ready for college,” so when his sister got a job with the State Department and was given a post in Poland , he went along, and stayed for a year.
“It was the time of the Solidarity movement. I saw some great theater there. And I learned that censorship can have a marvelous effect on theater. It’s a challenge: What can you slide in past the censors?’
That lesson still stays with him.
The Eastern European Influence
“Eastern European theater has shaped my work a lot. I, too, try to sneak things in. What interests me is a kind of act of seduction. You lure them in, and then you can give them a little smack in the face later on.”
Over the years, Tresnjak has danced, choreographed, used puppetry, and directed operas and Shakespeare, dramas and comedies.
“Storytelling is the biggest common denominator for me,” he says. “Within the story, the act of seduction can be narrative or visual, and through that, you take the audience to a place they didn’t think they were going to go.
“I’m attracted to voices that are subversive. Even ‘The Pleasure of His Company’ [the comedy, he stunningly presented at the Globe last season] subversively attacks complacency; a comfortable family is shaken up. In that play, it’s the period and setting that are seductive. Theater can do it in different ways.”
Even “The Women,” the Claire Booth Luce classic he directed outstandingly in 2008, is “ seductive/subversive . It’s very glamorous and it’s a satire. Luce is telling us all we should do better.”
Which brings him to the two plays he’s directing for the Summer Shakespeare Festival at the Globe: Shakespeare’s final tragedy, “Coriolanus,” and the Edmund Rostand masterwork, “Cyrano de Bergerac. ”
“’Cyrano’” shows the best of human nature. It’s who we want to be. But the characters in ‘Coriolanus are often who we really are.
“’Coriolanus is an interesting narrative; it unfolds in the form of a political thriller. But why should we follow these unsavory characters? There’s just enough humanity that we can recognize something within us, and we do go along with it.”
He considers his favorite compelling-but-flawed characters in theater and film to be examples of “alluring revulsion.” Revisiting movies like “Notorious,” “The Manchurian Candidate” and “ Grifters ,’ all featuring terrifying females, prepared him for Coriolanus and his overbearing mother.
The Lesson from Swarthmore
Another seminal experience – “astonishing,” as he calls it – was Tresnjak’s time at Swarthmore, the progressive college near Philadelphia .
“It was an intellectual pressure-cooker,” Darko recalls. “But I knew what I wanted: English literature. For any theater person, that’s my number one advice: Study Shakespeare, great literature, learn how to break it down. First and foremost, you have to learn to be a good reader to be a good theatermaker. The clues are always in the text.”
Tresnjak also studied dance and choreography at Swarthmore. He and his artistic/creative roommates, who lived in a West Philadelphia mansion they restored, held “huge multimedia parties. We started a collective of all original pieces. We could build sets there, and hold rehearsals.”
It was great for a while, until everyone fell in love. “We all decided that romance was more important.”
Romance is still important in Darko’s life. He married his partner, Josh Pearson, four years ago in Oregon . “When the law was annulled,” he says, his piercing blue eyes flashing, “we got our fifty dollars back.”
They married again in the State of California last summer. So far so good on that one. They have a great life. “We cook elaborate meals; Josh is an amazing chef. He takes care of me. I couldn’t keep the pace I do without his support.”
The Road to the Globe
After his graduate work at Columbia University, Tresnjak began directing at regional theaters across the country, including T he Public and the Vineyard in New York, the Williamstown Theatre Festival and The Huntington in Massachusetts, the Long Wharf and Goodspeed in Connecticut, and UC San Diego, where he taught directing for a year and mounted a gorgeous production of “La Dispute” (2005). He directed several productions for New York ’s Theatre for a New Audience, one of which, “ The Merchant of Venice ,” traveled to the Royal Shakespeare Company’s Complete Works Festival.
His opera credits include Florida Grand Opera, Opera Theater of St. Louis, Virginia Opera, Florentine Opera Company, Sarasota Opera, Opera Theatre of St. Louis, and Los Angeles Opera.
Along the way, he has commanded rapturous reviews and numerous accolades. He’s won the Alan Schneider Award for Directing Excellence, a TCG National Theater Artist Residency Award, a Boris Sagal Directing Fellowship, an NEA New Forms Grant, two Pennsylvania Council on the Arts Individual Artist Fellowships, and several local Theatre Critics Circle and Patté Awards.
He made his first, indelible, mark at the Old Globe in 2002, with a mind-blowing production of “Pericles.” He was invited back to direct “Two Noble Kinsmen,” which he’d done to acclaim at The Public Theatre in New York , and then “The Winter’s Tale.”
He especially likes to dust off neglected plays, what he calls “bruised beauties.” As a 2006 feature in American Theatre magazine put it, “ At 38, Tresnjak has made his reputation on pieces at the margins of theatrical literature.”
He also has a silly side, which he gleefully exhibited in a 2005 production of “The Comedy of Errors” at the Globe, and followed that up with a knockout, often amusing production of Shakespeare’s gore-fest, ”Titus Andronicus.”
When he arrived here, then-artistic director Jack O’Brien called him “a new and authentically visionary talent.” In 2007, as O’Brien left for New York and became Globe artistic director emeritus, Tresnjak was named co-artistic director of the Globe, sharing the mantle with Jerry Patch, who was nationally known for developing and shepherding new work. But then, Patch left unexpectedly for an offer he couldn’t resist, becoming Director of Artistic Development at the Manhattan Theatre Club in New York . Darko was left holding the reins of the artistic end of the theater ( Lou Spisto continues as CEO/Executive Producer) and the Summer Shakespeare Festival. It keeps him pretty busy.
“Everywhere in the country, because of the economy, artistic directors are directing more. If you do that, more gets put onstage. This summer, I’m directing two shows. Last summer, I directed three in succession (Shakespeare’s “All’s Well,” and two American comedies, “The Pleasure of His Company” and “The Women”).
What’s Next ?
There are still many items on Tresnjak’s Wish List: Dürenmatt’s “The Visit,” “Ibsen’s “ Hedda Gabler , ” Lorca’s “House of Bernarda Alba.” He loves plays with great roles for women, especially “mature women with strength and character.”
“I’m scared of doing Chekhov,” he admits, “but that’s no reason not to do it. If I do what I believe should be done – much faster, more economical, effortless and funny – I’ll probably get torn to pieces.
“I thought I wanted to do every single Shakespeare play. I don’t. They don’t all speak to me. But I do want to do all of Mozart’s operas. That is a genius that’s unfathomable and unreachable.”
He’ll undoubtedly continue taking long-forgotten wallflowers for a revivifying spin. He’s also likely to continue to make surprising dramatic choices. That’s what makes him unique, and what’s shaped him into an exciting director and a San Diego treasure.
WHAT: The Old Globe’s 6th annual Summer Shakespeare Festival, under the artistic direction of Darko Tresnjak, features three plays: “Coriolanus,” “Cyrano de Bergerac” (both directed by Tresnjak) and “Twelfth Night” (directed by Paul Mullins)
WHEN: in repertory, through 9/27/09
WHERE: The Old Globe’s outdoor Festival Stage in Balboa Park
CONTACT: (619) 23-GLOBE (234-5623); www.theoldglobe.org