We’re closing our Season with Fairview, a Pulitzer Prize-winning drama by Brown University alum Jackie Sibblies Drury. What begins as a family comedy takes surprising twists and turns, exploring themes of race and identity. Trinity Rep’s Laura Weick talked to the show’s director Christopher Windom about the play, his Brown/Trinity Rep MFA experience, and directing at Trinity Rep again.
Laura Weick: To start off, can you tell us about your relationship with Trinity Rep?
Christopher Windom: I had been working professionally in New York as a performer and choreographer, and had started to get more opportunities to direct. But I realized my experience with directing was limited. I felt like I had some potential there, but I needed technique, so I went to Brown/Trinity Rep for grad school.
I attended Webster University as an undergrad as a musical theater major, which had a partnership with the Repertory Theatre of St. Louis. What I loved about that was how we had conversations in the theater in the classroom, but we got to see examples of working in theater with professional actors and designers. Looking for a graduate program, I knew I wanted it to have a professional component alongside educational. The moment I stepped on to the Brown/Trinity Rep campus, it felt like home. Stephen Berenson and Brian McEleney were program directors at the time and made us feel like family. And the acting company had that family feel. It was very important for me to have that sort of nurturing environment.
After graduating from the MFA program in 2010, I directed A Christmas Carol in 2011 and choreographed Melancholy Play in 2015.
LW: What other projects have you been working on over the past few years?
CW: I’ve been a choreographer, director, assistant director, movement director, directing associate, you name it! I’ve been able to wear many different hats, so I feel like a little Swiss Army knife of capabilities. It’s very fulfilling to be able to work on a variety of stories in a variety of different ways from musicals to classics to new plays. I’ve worked all around the country in different capacities.
Most recently, I was at Cleveland Playhouse directing a new holiday musical called Light It Up!, written by Jason Michael Webb and Lelund Durond Thompson. Laura Kepley, another Brown/Trinity Rep alum, is the artistic director there, so that was a beautiful full-circle moment. I choreographed the Aretha Franklin biopic Respect starring Jennifer Hudson, and that was a dream come true I didn’t even know I had. And that was directed by Liesl Tommy, who’s also part of the Trinity Rep family. Liesl and I have worked together many times before with her as director and me as choreographer, including Melancholy Play and Disneyland’s Frozen stage show.
LW: It’s been several years since you’ve directed a show here. What is it like to be back?
CW: I have a huge amount of gratitude for the Brown/Trinity program and the multitude of gifts it gave me and the doors it opened after I left. So to be invited back to direct again is in a small way for me to sort of say thank you. It means the world to be asked back because they didn’t have to. They could have gone to a number of people to direct this, but for them to reach out to me feels special.
One of the most beautiful parts of theater is the ability to reunite. When I was a student, Joe Wilson, Jr. was like a titan of the acting company and a significant part of my education. Mia Ellis was also a Brown/Trinity Rep around when I was there. Both of them were in Melancholy Play, a chamber musical. I’m looking forward to reconnecting with these artists that I’ve worked with before who’ll now be performing in Fairview.
LW: How would you describe this show?
CW: The playwright, Jackie Sibblies Drury, is amazing. She was at Brown studying playwriting while I was in the MFA program, and her voice was always so powerful and clear. I directed her play Mo’Reece and the Girls as a directing student for the New Plays Festival. Around that time, she wrote a play, We Are Proud to Present… that was really about Black life being observed by others, particularly by white Americans, and the pressure Black people feel when being observed. Fairview is a continuation of those themes, but I don’t know how to talk about it without going into detail and spoiling the show’s surprises. But the premise of it is about feeling observed as a Black American and how it feels to be living under the white gaze.
LW: What interests you in directing Fairview?
CW: I like the fact that it’s a relatively new play, it’s a play with a message, and that it’s a play that was written by someone part of the Trinity Rep family, Jackie [editor’s note: Jackie Sibblies Drury also wrote the play Social Creatures, which had its world premiere at Trinity Rep in 2013]. I admire her work tremendously. Again, I think she is so smart and so poignant. Years down the line we’ll be revisiting her work as we do when we look at pieces in the theater canon.
Trinity Rep’s aesthetic is deconstructive, so I want the audience to come in feeling like it’s a traditional play they’re watching, but then it starts to unfold, and then unfold more. The play is set within a home, so I’m borrowing the ideology of 90s sitcoms like The Cosby Show, Family Matters, or The Fresh Prince of Bel-Air, or even more modern shows like black-ish. These kinds of sitcoms are very light and refreshing, with a sort of aspirational Black American family that has aspirational tastes and ambitions that I hope will feel very familiar.
And when I buy a ticket to the theater, I have two things in mind I want to see: an interesting story and passionate performances. I think that is the Trinity Rep aesthetic: this is a very compelling story to tell and the play itself is really a gift to the actors. I really advocate for actors and I like to give them a voice in the room. I have my overall vision but I like to have actors’ input, since the actors have skin in the game. This is one of those pieces where I feel like you really need that, to have the actors be bold and play with abandon.
I think no matter what your personal skill sets are, each play you work on sort of demands different things of you. I’m looking forward to seeing what will be demanded of me and us as a company. There are things that I can anticipate, like logistics, but different things will come up that we’ll have to work together to solve. I’m excited with how this play will challenge us!