Director Maria Mileaf on bringing "Feeding the Dragon" to Life

Show-Score | By Kate Leggett | Apr 20, 2018
Show-Score sat down with Maria Mileaf, the director behind “Feeding the Dragon,” to discuss how she brought playwright and performer Sharon Washington’s unique story to life. 
By James Leynse for The New York Times
Show-Score: What is it like to direct a solo-show? Do you approach the process any differently than something with a larger cast?
Maria Mileaf: The main thing about doing a one-person show is that the writer is often the performer. Your collaborator is not only performing but also writing. And if you're working on a premiere of that show, then most of the work is actually creating the show. 
It’s really fun to have that kind of intense collaboration. Sometimes it skews the time that you have to work on the production, but in this case, we’ve done the show three different times, so with each iteration we were able to give more attention to the performance.
S-S: So, did you find at times you were shifting perspectives as the director? For example, “Now I'm talking to Sharon and she has her playwright hat on. And now I'm talking to Sharon and she has her actress hat on.”
MM: Yes, she was very clear. It is very intense working on developing the script. But at a certain point, we had to say, “We're not making the script anymore, so Sharon has to be the actor.” And she was part of that decision. Having a collaborator who is so invested in every aspect of the play is a gift.
S-S: Did you find that you were still developing the script in between each of the three productions you had or did it just become more and more concrete?
MM: There was a year between Pittsburgh and Hartford Stage and there was a big opportunity to clarify and streamline the script. So we did a lot of work on the script between those two productions. 
S-S: Did you also have to change the staging much or were the spaces all fairly similar? 
MM: Hartford Stage is a modified thrust and it's a big area. And Cherry Lane is a proscenium stage and an intimate space. It doesn't look dramatically different, but it was hugely different in terms of motivating staging. So yeah, it was a lot of of work to actually make it look the same.
S-S: Can you tell us about your pre-rehearsal prep and research? Was it different, since you knew a lot of material would be crafted in the room? 
MM: Because Sharon was writing a play based on her story, I didn't do the same kind of research that I would if I entered into a text that was on subject matter I didn't know much about - or if the writer wasn't in the room. I would say that my preparation had more to do with how to create a theater event out of [Sharon’s] story. A person shows their heart, so you have to have some kind of idea about how you want to open up that world. 
S-S: So did you spend much time in the New York Public Library to draw inspiration?
MM: I spend a lot of time in my own branch of the public library, so I am pretty familiar with the public library. My research was more historical. I looked at pictures of the library where she lived and any pictures of the library that she gave me. A major element of the set is those iconic library windows. That was something that I brought to the table based on looking at pictures of many libraries.

S-S: Why do you think people should head to see “Feeding the Dragon”? 
MM: To begin with, the most salient thing about the show is that Sharon is a phenomenal performer. She really is. I've seen the show so many times and every time I’m surprised by how she makes new choices - and how she’s able to find authenticity and honesty. So definitely go see the show so you can see her act. 
And then the second lovely thing about the play is that it is a really surprising and specific New York story. It’s such a great story. She grew up inside the New York Public Library! Doesn’t everyone fantasize that? 
Plus, it's a really brave and smart investigation of growing up black in New York City. These stories are super important to 2018. It's Sharon's story and she's telling it. And she happens to be the phenomenal actress.
S-S: Any shows you’re excited about seeing this season? 
MM: “Transfers” at MCC directed by Jackson Gay. “Time’s Journey Through a Room” at Play Company. “Paradise Blue” by Dominique Morisseau (with sets by Neil Patel). Kate Bornstein in Young Jean Lee’s “Straight White Men.” Clubbed Thumb’s Summerworks. 
S-S: Is there anything else you want to add?
MM: I love Cherry Lane Theatre. It’s exciting that Primary Stages is in residency there.  It’s super fun to be downtown on those cobblestone streets as Spring is finally arriving in NYC.  It’s a great NYC adventure all around! 
Primary Stages’ production of “Feeding the Dragon” is playing at Cherry Lane Theatre, now through April 27. You can get tickets here.