Noah Letscher ’20 and Aaron Telander’s ’19 Interview with Signe Harriday ’97

Noah: How did you know that you wanted to be a director?

Signe: I didn’t 100 percent know, to be quite honest. My first directing gig was the senior slot at St. Olaf. … I think I have always been — and continue to be — enamored with storytelling, as well as moved and really riveted by what the power of narrative and story can be. … After I directed Cardboard Piano, someone said to me: “I learned more in this rehearsal process as an actor than I did in four years of undergraduate training.” I get that because, particularly for artists of color, it can feel like going to a closet full of someone else’s clothes, and what are you supposed to do? Just put them on and parade around? That feels kinda phoney and inauthentic. But then, when you get the opportunity to go to someone who actually tailor-makes clothes for you, which is what the rehearsal process can feel like, then it’s like, “You are this character in this role, so now that’s going to inform the whole role. We are going to customize it in and around you. Your personal experiences are going to be welcomed and cherished and respected in this space.” I think that’s what gets me excited: when actors say things like that to me and how they miss being in rooms with me, because we really get to create and play together.

Aaron: You mentioned that you directed the spring production in Haugen Theater your senior year. What would you say, in your experience, are the main differences between theater on a collegiate level and theater in the professional world?

Signe: That’s an interesting question, because I actually went and directed a production at Macalester as a guest director last year. …When you are directing a production for paying audiences, there’s a different kind of expectation that the production be financially viable. …The other piece, I would say, is the pressure that a professional production has. I think that on some level there is more “space,” like a longer rehearsal period, when I was a student director at St. Olaf. The way that professional theater works is that things get kind of “compacted” — it’s almost like a pressure cooker to make art in. … It’s more rigid and structured around how much time there is to do the creative process, whereas in school the timeline is a little more expansive. I don’t think that there are necessarily “qualitative” differences. I actually think that some of the accoutrement you get in an academic environment in terms of resources don’t actually exist in “real” theater all the time. The scale of the work that you’re doing is a little bit like “you may or may not get all of the things that you want on your wish list because of finite resources.” And that’s not to say that universities don’t have finite resources either. But it’s a different set of finite resources. Even as you think about the theater spaces that you have at St. Olaf and at other institutions, the actual physical space: the number of lighting instruments, the number of circuits, having a shop that can build both costume and set. Most theaters don’t have those things. Unless you’re starting to get into some of the bigger places, you don’t necessarily have access to all of those things.

Noah: Do you have any favorite shows that you have directed? Are there any you can point to specifically as a great experience for whatever reason?

Signe: Because the productions have been really, really different, I think I have liked, learned, and walked away from those processes changed and transformed in different ways. I tend to direct a lot of things that are problematic, and so solving the puzzle of the problem becomes very exciting to me. For example, the first show I directed at Park Square Theater a few years ago was House on Mango Street. Since the book is a series of small vignettes that are not actually a play, making that become a play was very rewarding. Also, I did a devised piece with a group of high school students called Evolution. Revolution. Reborn. where each student got to pull text of a revolutionary artist or piece of revolutionary art. We brought it all into the room and we mashed it all together to make a play. It was really, really beautiful, and I feel like there was really good growth for all of the artists in the room. It met all of these value alignment things for me. So that’s another piece I really, really loved. I do a lot of devised work that I always feel rewarding, but they’re a little bit like your kids — it’s hard to pick a favorite. But I’ve definitely learned about myself and my collaborators in every process I have ever been in. And that I cherish; it’s pretty special.

Aaron: So who have been your biggest role models?

Signe: Laurie Carlos is probably the most instrumental and I think she worked down at St. Olaf at some point and folks have had the chance of working with her. She passed away recently, and she was a mentor to me. She was original For Colored Girls on Broadway back in the 70s and she was an art maker and teacher and director and diviser and writer and kind of an extraordinary woman. I first met her as she was working as a dramaturg for a production of For Colored Girls at Penumbra Theatre, 20 years ago at the 25th anniversary of the original For Colored Girls. And then she stayed in my life in a variety of different ways, through different projects and programs, and was someone who I think taught me the most about directing, taught me the most about being an artist. I was so deeply moved by her.

There are other people for sure, obviously, and frankly people who are younger than me and older who I find inspiration in and role models in a lot of different places.

Noah: What advice would you give to current theater students? Whether that’s directing or some other aspect you think is very helpful to know?

Signe: So there’s a couple of different things, right? In terms of being inside the world of theater, I think that no matter what you’re doing, you need to know the “why” you’re doing it. And I think having clarity about why you’re an artist, or why you say yes to a project or why you explore something is pretty important. Not that you have to always share that “why” with other people, but I think you need to know why you’re doing something. And I think something that sometimes happens in higher education and frankly in other vantage points is “Oh, I like doing this thing, I like doing it so I’m going to keep doing it” or “this was the right group of people to fit in with so I’m going and I’m doing this thing with this group of people” or “someone told me I was good at this thing, so I’m gonna do this thing.” And I think that to have life and work be meaningful, you have to have purpose, and so I think purpose is about having your reason for the why 
behind what you do. That’s one thing. And I think that applies to work in and out of theater to be honest, even if the why is “I’m doing this thing for a paycheck so I can do the things that I love.” But just know your why, know your why.

Then the second thing I would say is be prepared. Don’t expect a director or a cast member or a fill-in-the-blank to have the answers for you. I think that for me as a director, my primary job and responsibility is to actually ask great questions. I’m not coming in the room to tell you how to fulfill my vision, I’m coming into the room with a vision I’m hoping we can mold together to create, but I think part of that process being successful is everyone has to come to the table prepared. And so take preparation seriously, and do your prep. You can get by being a lazy actor for a while but it won’t work in the long haul. At some point it will come back to get you. So be prepared, do your work, do your homework, do your outside work, so that when you’re in the room, you’re ready to be a generative artist, even if you don’t have a whole lot of lines.

That’s a little bit the why, the what — I think maybe the other thing to encourage people is the “who.” Who do you want to work with? Who do you want to cultivate relationships with? Whose stories do you want to be telling? How are they connected to you and vice versa? So I think the “who” in terms of your life as an artist is who do you want to be working with? Who do you show up for? Who are you accountable to? Who are your people, so to speak? This is the other part of building a life as an artist that helps to guide your path. So you know, these are the people I f**k with, this is my posse, then you’ve got community, you’ve got a people you can create common language with. If you know you are accountable to your ancestors in a certain kind of way, if you know you are accountable to your siblings in a certain kind of way, if you know you are accountable to the place in which you live in a certain kind of way, like who are the people who you are accountable to, and who are the people you want to work with. Understanding that, I think, can also help you, and if you don’t have anyone, then that’s like other things you’ve gotta work on in your life. The why, the what of preparation, and the who.