Behind the Scenes

Will Frears ’96 (theatre) recently made his Broadway debut, directing Misery with Tony nominee Laurie Metcalf and film star Bruce Willis.

Will Frears '96

Will Frears ’96 wanted to punctuate the end of the play he was directing with a question mark, leaving the audience to wonder what happened next, and he thought he had a way to do it. The character would stand alone on stage, at the door of her house, uncertain about whether to leave or to stay.

“So I said to the lighting designer, ‘What if we turned off all the lights one by one?’” Frears says.

The play was Where We’re Born, written by fellow Sarah Lawrence graduate Lucy Thurber ’92 (theatre) and featuring Frears’ former classmate Jason Pugatch ’96 and Sara Surrey ’94 in the small cast. Frears was directing at a small West Village theatre in the fall of 2003, a few months after making a splashy New York debut with Omnium Gatherum, which had moved The New Yorker to gush, “… For a young director, it’s a wow beginning.”

At Sarah Lawrence, Frears teaches “Directing the 20<sup>th</sup> Century: From Chekhov to Churchill.”The lighting designer understood what Frears wanted and told him, “‘That won’t do what you think it’s going to do, but I’ll show you what you actually mean,’ and then he made the stage dark piece by piece by piece,” recalls Frears, who then offered a further instruction when the actor asked if she should end on an inhale or an exhale. “An inhale, because if you exhale you’ve made the decision.”

By the time you see a play, its director is usually long gone, backstage at another theatre, shaping another play. A director’s work is done before opening night, at readings and rehearsals and previews, trying to find the best way to animate lines of dialogue in a script into the illusion of human beings moving through life—and listening to what the cast and crew have to say rather than just telling them what to do.

“The notion that suddenly I had a play on Broadway and I was next door to Phantom, and there was Bruce Willis—it was sort of incomprehensible.”

“It’s a crucial part of directing—you have to listen. You have to have the idea, not the solution. So much of directing is the question, not the answer,” says Frears, whose father is Stephen Frears, the British film director best known for Dangerous Liaisons, The Queen, and Florence Foster Jenkins. “My dad used to say, and he’s right, 95 percent of it they can do without you, and then every now and then there’s a thing that only you know how to do, and that’s what you’re there for—the five percent that only you have. And you don’t get that five if you haven’t paid crazy attention to the 95 percent.”

Frears paid enough attention to the 95 percent throughout his career, directing plays all over the country, that he finally made it to Broadway last year, directing Bruce Willis and Laurie Metcalf in a stage adaptation of Stephen King’s ankle-shattering thriller, Misery. Metcalf, who played Annie Wilkes, the villainous hostess who purports to nurse her favorite author back to health after a car crash, earned a Tony nomination this year for best lead actress in a play.

“The notion that suddenly I had a play on Broadway and I was next door to Phantom, and there was Bruce Willis—it was sort of incomprehensible,” Frears says. “Having a Broadway show, it really is everything that you want.” On many nights, before the curtain went up, Frears would peek out the stage door just to watch the line of ticketholders forming outside the theatre.

Film star Bruce Willis also made his Broadway debut, playing Stephen King's captive romance writer.Frears was in the middle of his last exam in his last year of high school in England when he had a revelation. “I just said, ‘This isn’t for me,’” he recalls. He walked out. No degree, no university. He liked theatre—“because it was an all-boys school and you met girls if you did the play.” And he had portrayed Curley in Of Mice and Men and “fourth Shark on the left” in West Side Story. So he came to America to spend a summer as an apprentice at the Williamstown Theatre Festival in Massachusetts. A friend he met there was a student at Sarah Lawrence and convinced him to apply.

The first course he signed up for was film history with Gilberto Perez. “He was teaching a class on the Western, and I was like, ‘This is available?’ and that was magical,” he says. He also studied modern literature with Danny Kaiser. “Gil and Danny between them taught me how to think.”

“I interviewed for the job when my oldest daughter was four days old, and it closed on her fifth birthday.”

When Frears was a senior he directed his first play, Nice People Dancing to Good Country Music, by Lee Blessing, and wrote a 127-page thesis on populism in Depression-era movies.

“Will has a real instinct for the theatre and what works, and he’s also a populist,” Pugatch says. They met as first-year students and later collaborated on the 2008 movie Coach. “Will’s interested in entertainment in a way that I think sometimes people shy away from.”

Frears earned a graduate degree in directing at the Yale School of Drama, where he worked on 19 plays in three years, and in the three years after his New York debut he directed 17 plays. “It was unsustainably fast,” he says. He started teaching at Sarah Lawrence in 2008 and directed plays at a more measured pace until, in 2011, he got the phone call every director awaits. Was he interested in directing a Broadway staging of Misery, produced by Warner Brothers and written by the legendary William Goldman, who had written the movie version?

“I interviewed for the job when my oldest daughter was four days old, and it closed on her fifth birthday,” he says.

Frears has contributed to <em>The Paris Review</em>, <em>New York Magazine</em>, <em>Harper's</em>, and <em>The London Review of Books</em>.He hired Jane Grey ’78 as stage manager, the same job she had done for Omnium Gatherum, and then hired a couple of his old Williamstown colleagues who had ascended stellar arcs through the theatrical world: Michael Friedman (Bloody Bloody Andrew Jackson) to compose the music and David Korins (Tony nominee for Hamilton) to design the set. And then the big question loomed: How to break Bruce Willis’ ankles?

“We were not going to cop out on it, we were not going to pull the curtain down,” Frears says. “The more important thing is that you have to train your audience to believe you, so that when you get to that point they believe that you’re really smashing his ankles.”

Korins’ revolving set (the Misery-go-round, the cast and crew called it) allowed the action to keep moving without blackouts or scene changes, heightening the claustrophobic mood, and Friedman’s piano-and-strings score built tension with a Hitchcockian flourish.

“It worked brilliantly; they screamed their heads off," Frears says of the audience. But exactly what happened when the sledgehammer finally came down? Well …

“I can’t tell you,” he says. “It remains a secret to this day.”