Maria Mileaf

Feeding the Dragon

Meet the Artist – Director Maria Mileaf

By Skye Robinson-Hillis, Artistic Apprentice

Maria MileafNew York-based director Maria Mileaf is making her Hartford Stage directorial debut with Feeding the Dragon. She is a graduate of Yale and UCSD, and has directed past productions at ACT, Lincoln Center, The Old Globe, Williamstown, the Geffen, and Playwrights Horizons, among others. In this interview, Mileaf chats with us about the process of developing new work and the challenge and luxury of directing a one-woman show.

You directed the world premiere of Feeding the Dragon last year at City Theatre in Pittsburgh. How did you first become involved with the play? Did you have a relationship with playwright/actor Sharon Washington prior to this collaboration?

While I had been a fan of Sharon’s stage work before getting to work with her on Feeding the Dragon in Pittsburgh, I had never actually worked with her.  I was lucky that Tracy Brigden, who was then the artistic director of City Theatre, set us up as a collaborative team.

Can you describe what the new play development process has been like, up to and including the production in Pittsburgh?

The process of developing this piece started before I was involved.  Sharon was in the early process of writing her first play, and my understanding is that she showed it to her friend, Tracy Brigden, at City Theatre.  City Theatre’s mission is to develop and produce new work, and they invited Sharon to hear the play in their Momentum series. After that, they pledged to produce the play on their second stage. That’s where I entered the process. When we got to rehearsal, Sharon was very much still working on the play’s core narrative. Along with dramaturg Clare Drobot, we spent the entire first half of rehearsals developing the script. There is a luxurious energy in the development process when there is an actual production at the end of the rainbow. Challenges are concrete and immediate. Sharon was able to do beautiful and compelling work.  The design elements proved necessary ingredients to the storytelling, and the premiere production took off. At a certain point, we were wise to stop working on the text and stage the play. Sharon needed to stop editing the work from the stage and give her attention to performing the story. This included memorizing and 50-page monologue! Fortunately for us, Elizabeth Williamson from Hartford Stage traveled to Pittsburgh to see the show and immediately started talking with Sharon about bringing the play to Connecticut.  By December of 2016, we already knew that we would have another chance to present the story. At this point, Sharon and I had the advantage of knowing how the play worked in front of an audience. We were also aware of moments in the play that we wanted to evolve and expand. So, Sharon continued to write, and we continued to meet, and now we are in rehearsals with an even bolder script. I’m very excited to see it live on its feet!

How is the process of directing a one-woman show, in particular one written by the performer, different from other experiences?

The challenge of working on a show performed by the writer is that the writer is always there, editing and offering alternatives. The luxury of working on that same show is that the writer is always there editing and offering alternatives. Honestly, it’s a very special collaboration. In this case, the story is autobiographical. As a director, I have a tremendous responsibility to Sharon to help formulate her story in the most honest yet astonishing manner. Sometimes that means sitting down and investigating the text from a writer’s point of view. Other times, it means demanding that the writer’s hat is removed so that I can create a creative space for the actor to take performance risks.  It’s an astonishing amount of work for Sharon to navigate. Sometimes the best thing to do is grab a cup of tea, tell a funny story, take a deep breath and get back to work.