By Shanel LaShay Smith

Tyler Dobrowsky (top right) & playwright Brian McEleney (center), along with actors, staff & guests at the first rehearsal of A Tale of Two Cities.

Shanel LaShay Smith: What does theater mean to you? Why is it important?

Tyler Dobrowsky: I’ve been making theater for 25 years, and it’s probably meant different things to me at different times of my life. I think I can say, now, happily, that theater is in many ways both my vocation and my passion. It’s something I work on every day, it’s something I think about and talk about almost all the time, and it’s something that takes skill, time, patience, and hard work, just like any job. It’s also the thing I get the most excited about. (My wife is a director, as well, so in some ways it’s the family business.)  I think theater is important for a million reasons: there’s a sense of communion and community among the audience when they’re watching a play that is elemental and necessary. I think it’s the most foundational piece of storytelling humankind has come up with, and after the internet, TV, and movies are all gone, we’ll still have theater. I think for all those reasons theater remains essential to our society.

SLS: As the former director of education at Trinity Rep, what began your shift from education to directing?

TD: I’ve loved directing since high school! That’s when I directed my first scene. When I went to college, I took some directing classes, and LOVED it, especially being able to work on all the different parts of the play, not just acting, but the set, the costumes, the lights, the sound…it really fired all the neurons in my brain, and I got such a rush from it. Then I did a lot of work teaching and directing young people here at Trinity Rep, and that led me to assist on a few shows. I was doing a lot of scene study work with children and adults, so I was figuring out how to be an acting coach, which is part of what a director does. I would often have to direct various children’s shows (Super Babies Save Halloween was a personal favorite), but I was still directing, and working with no money and very little resources, trying to make these small kid shows into something special. All the while, I was observing and assisting Curt Columbus, Brian McEleney, Laura Kepley, and Amanda Dehnert on their shows at Trinity Rep, and trying to absorb as much as I could. In the winter of 2011 Curt asked me to co-direct a production of It’s a Wonderful Life: A Live Radio Play with him and when we brought it back the next year, I handled the remount with a new cast. That was my first time directing on the mainstage. After that I worked on Deb Salem Smith’s production of Love Alone, and then after that — the big one — A Christmas Carol. Those were my first professional shows.

SLS: How would you describe yourself as a director? 

TD: I think I’m collaborative. I used to think directing was being very authoritative, or telling everyone what to do, and over the years I’ve realized it is actually about listening to everyone else’s ideas. It’s always good to have a firm, clear idea of what you’re going for, of course, but often, if you have good actors and good designers, they will generate a lot of even better ideas for you, so you should listen to them! 

SLS: What is it like directing a show for the same theater where you are also the associate artistic director and director of new play development? 

TD: I love working at Trinity Rep. I know the actors and the staff so well, there’s shorthand for how we get things done that makes things quite easy. I get to sleep in my own bed every night, so there’s a lot of positive factors! The downside is that I keep doing my day job while I’m directing, and that can fry my brain a little. When I work somewhere else, I’m keeping an eye on what’s happening back here, but I can mostly focus on the show I’m directing. Working on a show at Trinity Rep means I’m doing both jobs at once. They are both FUN jobs of course, but they are still both JOBS. 

SLS: Why was A Tale of Two Cities programmed into this season? How do you plan to tie the themes of the story to our current world? 

TD: Curt and I both saw Brian McEleney’s production of A Tale of Two Cities at Bread Loaf in Vermont in 2018 and thought it was an excellent adaptation. We knew we wanted to do a classic play in this slot, but after doing Shakespeare the past few years we wanted to take a break from the Bard. Plus, it’s a rip-roaring adventure, full of romance, revolution, and history! Who could resist? As far as tying it to modern day… honestly, I didn’t have to work that hard! The set and costumes are modern, which always helps, though with nods to the period of the late 18th century, and then I think the themes present in the book: revolution, division, or societal upheaval, all feel VERY familiar to our modern audiences. We’re living through incredibly, historically divisive times! It’s not QUITE as bad as the French Revolution, but some of the language in the book and in the play doesn’t sound too far off from cable news these days! 

SLS: How do you prepare to direct a show?

TD: I read the play a few times, and in this case the book as well, then I talk with my designers about ideas I have, and ideas they have. I usually like to do some script analysis, so I can be helpful for the actors when they have questions about a line or a scene, and I also like to have a sketch of the transitions as well… nothing can sink a show like bad transitions, so I like to work that out beforehand.

SLS: What piece of this production do you feel will help propel your version of the story forward the most in the eyes of the audience?

TD: I think the music will be the thing people talk about the most: the original songs written and performed by Joel Thibodeau.