Liesl Tommy: A Ferocious Storyteller

In 1995, Liesl Tommy auditioned for a role in the Huntington Theatre Company’s production of A Raisin in the Sun. Fast forward 17 years, and she is now the director behind the casting table auditioning actors for the same role. Huntington audiences know Tommy from her insightful direction of Lynn Nottage’s Ruined (2011) and August Wilson’s Ma Rainey’s Black Bottom (2012).

Tommy was born in Cape Town, South Africa under apartheid. She lived in a colored township outside of the city until she was 15 years old when her family moved to Newton, Massachusetts. An early lover of theatre, Liesl would explore the plays on her dad’s bookshelf and coerce her brother into reading the most dramatic scenes from Who’s Afraid of Virginia Woolf and The Glass Menagerie. She was active in theatre at Newton North High School, and after graduation she studied acting at a conservatory in London and at a joint program at Brown University and Trinity Repertory Company. At Trinity, her teachers noticed and encouraged Tommy’s instincts for directing. Tommy slowly made the transition and now directs both new plays and classics worldwide.

Yvette Freeman and Corey Allen in Ma Rainey's Black Bottom. Photo: T. Charles Erickson

Tommy isn’t intimated by the task of re-envisioning a classic. “Part of the fun of doing a play like this is that the definitive production has already been done,” Tommy said of working on Mamet’s American Buffalo at Baltimore’s CenterStage. “I get to be an artist with it. There’s freedom and that’s wonderful...I can let my imagination take flight.” When developing her own take on a masterpiece such as the production of Hamlet she recently directed at California Shakespeare Theater, Tommy follows the advice of a former college professor: find the story born from her personal experience and perspective, rather than seek to create a definitive production.

Tommy’s aesthetic is visceral and physical. “I’m interested in the violence of being a human being,” says Tommy, “and sometimes that is with actual physical violence onstage, and sometimes it’s just the thing that pulsates underneath every exchange.” In order to achieve the “muscularly-performed” productions she is known for, Tommy starts with the metaphor of the play. She rarely sculpts a play to drive a point or agenda, but strives to keep the metaphor alive “so that people can have the experience of the story. I rarely want things to be just realism. I’m not all that excited by it. You always want that feeling that there’s a larger life in the back somehow.”

Zainab Jah, Carla Duren, and Pascale Armand in Ruined. Photo: Kevin Berne

Her training as an actor at Brown/Trinity Rep informed how she runs her rehearsals. Tommy does not like seeing hyper-sculpted theatre where the director’s hand is clearly noticeable. She believes that the actors should drive the piece so that the audience can see people being free onstage. In the first week of rehearsals, she asks questions of her actors to gather their perspectives and impressions of the piece. She rarely wants to adhere to a big concept that has no relation to the actors on stage. First and foremost, Tommy strives to “tell the story with as much clarity and ferocity as possible.” With an emotionally engaging story such as Ruined, which follows a group of Congolese women surviving in the crossfire of civil war, Tommy didn’t give the actors any easy outs during rehearsals, instead immersing them in the details of the conflict. “It was imperative that [the actors] felt the full depth of their characters, that they understood every facet of who they were,” she explains.

When working on a play, Tommy asks “What is the set in real life, and how do I take it up a few notches? How do these people interact and how do I make it more? I want to see people using language vigorously, smacking out those consonants, getting in each other’s face, and I want to feel like I’m smelling sweat.” We can expect nothing less with A Raisin in the Sun.

— Vicki Schairer

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