What was it like returning to the Conservatory to direct Spring Awakening?
Coming back to the Conservatory to direct Spring Awakening was terrific. It was a little like coming home—Boston Conservatory was so important to my growth as an artist. Although the facilities are much nicer than they were when I was a student, it still feels like the same scrappy hub of creativity and energy that it was when I was a student. I love that. I am able to bring a breath of the professional world and the excitement of New York City theater to the students, which I hope can be helpful and inspiring to them. It is also a great pleasure to get to know faculty members as colleagues and share my own growth as a director with my former teachers, as well as to see some of my amazing fellow alumni, like Paul D’Agostino and Rachel Bertone, training the latest classes of Boston Conservatory artists.
Can you tell us a little bit about your approach to working with the students? Was your approach influenced by your own experience as a student at the Conservatory?
There is definitely a continuity in experience. I found myself sometimes asking which teachers my cast members were in class with, what year they were in, and deliberately using language that I knew they were working with in their acting or musical theater classes in the hope that they would begin to apply those tools to working on the production. I do the same when I am working with Conservatory alumni. Since I know so intimately the training that they receive, I often know immediately what their process is like, which can be huge in figuring out how we are going to talk to each other about the work that happens in the room.
When I work as a guest director for students, I think part of my job is to treat the students like professionals, so that they can get experience working in an environment similar to what they will face out in the real world. At the student’s age, it is rare to work with someone who is not also their teacher, who comes into the room with different expectations and no preconceived notions based on their reputation at school or their past triumphs (or mistakes).
Students are still learning about their own process, so it is important to cut them slack while still holding them to a high professional standard. Most importantly, students have to learn the difference between class and rehearsal. As a director, I am obviously not interested in giving them assignments or grading them. Instead, the hope is that the students will show initiative as a true artist—someone who comes in with ideas and work ready, rather than someone who expects me to tell them everything and have them regurgitate it back to me. That can be the most exciting moment when you are directing students, especially when they are as talented as Conservatory students—that moment when you see a glimpse of the true artist that they may become when they finish training.
Tell us about a day in the life of Austin Regan during the Spring Awakening rehearsal process.
Well, we could only rehearse from 7:30 p.m. to 11 p.m., so much of my days were spent waiting for it to be time for rehearsal! The “school schedule” is challenging, particularly for the actors, who come to rehearsal after a full day that might have been 10 hours of training.
Because Spring Awakening is a particularly challenging piece, thematically as well as musically and textually, and because I was reimagining certain plastic and spacial elements of our world, we used a variety of techniques to develop our production. There were very few “typical” days! We did a bunch of physical and generative work based loosely around Laban and Viewpoints techniques, and we also did some intense English-style text work a la Cicely Berry and Patsy Rodenburg. Then, of course, blocking, choreography, and music rehearsal. We packed a lot into relatively few hours.
What Conservatory experience most influenced your career?
Definitely my experiences in directing class with Steve McConnell and in directing emphasis class with Paul Daigneault and wonderful directing classmates. I think it’s unusual to give students in an acting- and performance-focused program the opportunity to jump to the other side of the table and actually direct full productions—musicals, no less. The trust that the department and my fellow students placed in me when I directed Floyd Collins, my big senior production, absolutely transformed my vision of who I was as an artist and what I wanted to do.
I never would have become a director if I had not had teachers, friends, and colleagues who saw my student work and gave me the encouragement to make me think I could actually do this as a profession.
Additionally, there is no way I would have been ready for the opportunities that popped up early in my career if I had not taken my studies seriously and soaked up everything I could from classes like Shakespeare, Directing, and Theater History.
What one piece of advice do you have for a prospective student?
I don’t know that I could give just one piece of advice! I could lecture for hours about what I wished I knew when I was that age and in school, or about to begin at the Conservatory. Ultimately, my favorite advice is from Samuel Beckett: “Ever tried. Ever failed. No matter. Try again. Fail again. Fail better.”
Additionally, be an artist. Cultivate a vision of yourself and the kind of work you want to do. Throw yourself into the many beautiful and exciting pedagogies that your teachers will explore with you, and use that learning to develop your own understanding of yourself and your work.
Lastly, don’t be afraid of the haters. There are always going to be jealous people who want to cut down what you do because they think it makes them look better. Really, it’s the bold and the daring people who are doing the exciting work that we all want to be a part of. This begins when you are a student and continues throughout your professional life as well. Be a leader, not a follower.
Have your career interests changed since you enrolled at the Conservatory?
Most definitely. I mean, even apart from changing from an actor to a director at age 20, my artistic interests have broadened immensely. There is a tendency, or at least there was when I was a student, to focus on Broadway as the big goal and to think that all roads lead there and only there. Having worked on Broadway several times, I can say that it is terrific, but it is also not the only thing. My interests are pretty broad, so in addition to musical theater, I am working on new plays, opera, classics, devised and movement-based work, film and web-series-type stuff, commercial work, and writing. Truthfully, this is something that my BoCo education prepared me well for, but I did not know it until I got out there and explored all these things.
Tell us about an upcoming project that you are looking forward to.
Well, there is a good possibility that I will be returning to Boston to direct an avant-garde opera later this year. I am very excited about that! I am also developing a musical adaptation of Shakespeare’s Pericles, using a heavily adapted original text with a score that I am cowriting with the amazing Christy Altomare, a brilliant songwriter and Broadway actor who is currently starring as Anastasia in Anastasia. We’ve had a few great preliminary workshops and are looking forward to our next steps. Being a writer/director is new to me and has been an incredible and rewarding experience so far.