The end of the semester is always a busy time of year for students, who are finishing up papers and projects, studying for exams, getting ready for the holidays. But for Annie Langer '08, the coming weeks promise to be even more hectic than usual. On Saturday, December 8, she headed to San Diego to be assistant director of a play titled Sea of Tranquility at the Old Globe Theatre. The play, by Harold Korder, was named Best Play of 2004 by Time magazine. The Old Globe Theatre is a regional company whose productions, including Hairspray and The Full Monty, often go on to Broadway. Its artistic director, Jack O'Brien, just won his third Tony Award for Best Director.
Langer, who grew up in San Diego, said she can't remember a time when she wasn't doing theatre. "As a two- and three-year-old I was watching Shirley Temple movies and Bye-Bye Birdie and dancing along. My mom started taking me to tap and ballet classes." She debuted at age four as a young urchin boy in a professional production of Oliver. "I loved it. I dressed up as a little boy and got to rub dirt all over my face." She continued doing children's and amateur theatre productions, and in junior high school she started to train "more professionally" with the La Jolla Playhouse, doing conservatory summer programs, artistic internships, and generally immersing herself in all aspects of theatre. Throughout high school, she wrote plays for an educational program at the La Jolla Playhouse that brought theatre to students by adapting classic Greek and Shakespearean texts. She also directed plays, including the musical She Loves Me, for which she won a San Diego Playbill "Billie" Award for Best Direction of a Musical.
After graduating from high school, Langer went to study drama at North Carolina School for the Arts in Greensboro, North Carolina. She continued playwriting there; one of her works, a musical titled Definition of a Housewife, was performed both there and at Columbia University. Langer ultimately decided that she did not want to limit her studies to a conservatory program, and in 2006 she transferred to Mount Holyoke, where she is a double major in theatre arts and English.
This past spring, Langer set her sights on a summer position at the Old Globe Theatre. Although the theatre has no formal internship program, she wrote a letter "begging them to set up an internship" for her, and they agreed. As an artistic intern, she helped the literary director read and select plays, and helped the casting agent cast several productions, including, coincidentally, Sea of Tranquility. She also assisted the company's artistic director, Jack O'Brien, in running his Director's Lab, a mentorship program in which he gives experienced and successful young directors advice and sets them up with useful contacts. At the end of the summer, O'Brien asked Langer to be his assistant director in a workshop production of Dr. Seuss' How the Grinch Stole Christmas, which is now on Broadway. At the end of the summer, he asked her to leave her directorial résumé with the theatre.
Langer was surprised a few weeks ago when the Old Globe's literary director called to offer her the position of assistant director of a play that was scheduled to go into production around December 1. She was sorely tempted, but declined the offer because it cut too far into the semester. She was then offered the assistant directorship of a play starting a week later. "That's how I got Sea of Tranquility," she said. "I made the decision to do it the day before Thanksgiving."
Langer plans to hit the ground running once she arrives in San Diego. Preproduction was to get under way Saturday evening. Rehearsals begin Tuesday, December 11, preview performances begin January 12, and the play opens January 17. According to Langer, this is a typical production schedule for a professional theatre, where the working day begins at 8 am and runs till 9 pm or later.
Langer will be serving as assistant to director Michael Bloom, who has directed plays at the most highly regarded theatres in the country, including the Geffen Playhouse in Los Angeles, American Repertory Theatre in Cambridge, Williamstown Theatre Festival, Long Wharf Theatre in New Haven, Manhattan Theatre Company, and Soho Rep in New York City. A recipient of several awards, Bloom has also written extensively about directing and is a professor and head of directing at the University of Texas at Austin. Although she doesn't know exactly what her duties will be ("that's always up to the director"), Langer said an assistant's duties typically include leading warm-ups, beginning rehearsals, and being involved in all aspects of production design. "A big part of the job is to sit in rehearsals with the director and help him interpret what he's seeing and to express what's happening on stage," she said. "The extent to which the director asks for or uses your input is dependent on the director and the production, but the idea is that the director has another set of trained eyes to lend to the construction of the production." The assistant director sometimes runs rehearsals once the play is in previews, when the director may have already moved on to another production.
For a production like this, which has no dramaturg, the assistant director is also responsible for research. Sea of Tranquility involves a psychiatrist and his ailing wife, who have recently moved to New Mexico. Their house, it turns out, is on an ancient burial ground, and the play deals with issues of spiritual and physical health. Langer will be researching the modern sociology of New Mexico and the Anasazi, among many other topics. "It's a really interesting play, and it will be a learning experience for me," said Langer. "The characters are intense, emotionally vulnerable people."
Langer has a special passion for musical theatre. This fall at Mount Holyoke she directed a Broadway cabaret produced through a student group to raise money for student-directed musicals. Langer said there is great interest among students for musical theatre, but such productions are expensive to put on and are at the discretion of the theatre arts department. Next semester, she looks forward to directing something closer to home: Bash by Neil LaBute. The production is the senior project of Cassandra Cushman '08, a theatre arts major. It will be faculty funded, but student directed, and it will be performed on the main stage at Rooke Theatre.
While Langer has acted in many productions since her debut in Oliver, she said her best experiences so far have been directing. "I felt I was in control of the production and was ultimately proud of it and had a say in everything." For now, at least, she has shifted her professional aspirations to the other side of the curtain.