Whipping Man Wednesday: Q&A with Director Gilbert McCauley

With The Whipping Man taking the Arkansas Repertory Theatre stage, starting today, we are penning a new short series called “Whipping Man Wednesday” every Wednesday throughout its run.
Director Gilbert McCauley at the Clinton School Panel Discussion for Gee's Bend during the 2012-2013 MainStage Season.

Director Gilbert McCauley, from left, at the Clinton School Panel Discussion for Gee’s Bend during the 2012-2013 MainStage Season.

Our Dramaturg Robert Neblett had a chance to talk with Director Gilbert McCauley, an associate professor in the Department of Theater at the University of Massachusetts, Amherst. He is returning to The Rep after directing several plays, including The Piano Lesson, A Soldier’s Play, Fences, Frost/Nixon, Looking Over the President’s Shoulder and Gee’s Bend.

Read on to see what he had to say about The Whipping Man, his process as a director and more!

Q: As a director, what attracts you to a play like The Whipping Man?
A: I like the subject matter. The Civil War changed the United States as a whole as well as future generations of the people in those United States. 
Q: What is its central message, if you were to pare it down to just one?
A: Im not sure I can.  But it has to do the understanding that freedom is not something that is given to us, it its something we must constantly strive to realize and maintain.
Q: Does this play have a personal relevance for you?
A: I think that for me personally, at this phase of my life, the notion of freedom is tied up with the notion realizing the fullness of who I am and recognizing the things that get in the way of that. And even more importantly, doing something about it.
Q: How would you describe the role of the director in the contemporary American theatre?
A: Every director goes about it in their own way, but I think the role has to do with establishing a creative environment that brings out the best in the all of the artists involved to make the work as significant and powerful as possible for the audience or community that experiences it.
Q: How do you prepare to approach the process of directing a play like this? What do you bring with you to the first rehearsal in terms of historical research and goals for the staging and building actor/character relationships?

Ryan Barry as Caleb DeLeon in The Whipping Man. Photo by John David Pittman.

Ryan Barry as Caleb DeLeon in The Whipping Man. Photo by John David Pittman.

A: For this production it was most important for me to feel I had a good grip on the historical research to understand more clearly the world of the play. I shared a good deal of what I had found with the actors when we started but I also made it clear that the exploration would be ongoing and that the purpose of the research was to illuminate the world of the play, their characters and what was going on between them. 

Q: Can you describe your collaborative process of working with the designers in preparation for this production?

A: It mostly consisted of sharing ideas and images with each other and having really focused conversations about the action of the play and how what we understood collectively could be communicated through things like, the set, costume, and lights, etc.

Q: This is a very intimate drama, with only three characters onstage in deeply emotionally charged situations. As a director, how do you approach the rehearsal process with the actors differently than you might with a larger production? 

A: I like for everyone in the rehearsal room to do personal source work on the issues explored in the play (i.e., whipping, slavery and freedom).  With a small cast like this it allows us to go deeper and find richer connections to the work.

Q: With the current state of race relations in the country, in the wake of the Michael Brown and Eric Garner cases, how do you feel the themes of The Whipping Man resonate with audiences in 2015? 

A: I think audiences will recognize parallels between he brutality and inhumanity that it took to keep people in their place during slavery (which the character of the whipping man represents) and present day methods used to control and punish people of color, especially African-Americans.

Q: How do you think this drama will speak specifically to Little Rock audiences?

A: Because Arkansas was so divided in its opinions about the Civil War and because of Little Rocks importance in the Civil Rights movement of the 50s and 60s, I think the play will a lot of resonance for audiences here.

Q: What do you hope area students will take from the experience of seeing The Whipping Man?

A: The importance of asking the difficult questions and having the fierce conversations that it takes to fully realize ourselves and live productively with others.

Q: The plays action centers upon reversals of fortune for each of the characters, often in surprising ways that unveil deep, dark secrets. How do these changes of identity illuminate the play and inform the way the characters interact with one another, to push the drama forward?

A: In the play the reversals of fortune also have to do with the reversal of power.  When the power dynamics of a relationship change it usually takes time for those involved to fully understand and adjust to the change, as well figure out new possibilities the change has opened up.  I think that is very true for The Whipping Man.

Q: Jewish identity and ritual lie at the heart of the play. Many of the audience members in central Arkansas may not be familiar with the traditions surrounding Passover and the Seder. Is this an obstacle in understanding the culture of the play and its characters? If so, is there a way to overcome such an obstacle in the staging of the drama? 

A: Because the Seder that is performed in the play is traditionally meant to be an interactive celebration of freedom, and because it is explained as such in the play, I think audiences will be drawn into the play and the ritual itself even more. 

Q: The use of music has been integral to the struggle for Civil Rights in America, from the Civil War through the 50s and 60s, to the present. In the midst of the Passover Seder scene, rather than reciting/singing in Hebrew, the character of Simon sings the classic Negro (Christian) spiritual, Go Down, Moses. How does this cross-cultural insertion inform that key moment of the play?

A: I think it points out a deeply held value for liberation and the constant struggle to maintain it that both cultures share. In fact, in our research we discovered that the songs use in Civil War in many ways mirrors its use in our play. The son also began to show up in some versions of the Passover Haggadah (the Jewish text that sets forth the order of the Passover Seder) as early as 1941.

Q: Do you think audiences will be surprised to learn not only of the Jewish slave-owners in the South during the Civil War, but also the appropriated Jewish identity of the slave characters? How does this play expand our knowledge and challenge our assumptions of Civil War narratives, particularly in the South? 

A: Some audience will be surprised to know that Jews owned slaves during that time. And, while the notion that the enslaved took on the values and religion of their owners may not be a novel one, seeing that assimilation through a different lens may expand audiences understanding of slaverys impact on the lives of the enslaved.

Q: What is unique about working with the Arkansas Rep on a production like The Whipping Man?

A: The artistic leadership and the production team at The Rep are really committed to artistic excellence and it shows in the attention to detail and how things are presented.  That is extremely important when you are dealing with a text that has the historical, cross-cultural, theatrical and creative demands that this one does. 

Pulled from The Whipping Man study guide, prepared by Robert Neblett.

Get your tickets now for this thought-provoking drama. Purchase yours online or by calling the Box Office at (501) 378-0405. Also check out the full lineup of engagement events for the show here. We hope to see you here!

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