Interview with Director Sophia Schrank

Every neighborhood in Brooklyn has at least five different coffee shops that supply groggy New Yorkers with their daily dose of caffeine. I was, and still am (despite being in Argentina where the coffee is terrible) a habitual coffee drinker. One cup a day - but people would call me a slow sipper. I met Sophia at my neighborhood coffee shop back in Brooklyn - the Variety on Graham Avenue. She was always super smiley, warm, and ready to chat beyond the usual barista/coffee drinker small talk. I learned that she was a director for dance and musical theater, had a closet full of jumpsuits, and was a coconut ice cream addict like myself.

After learning that I was a tango dancer, Sophia approached me for help with tango choreography for a piece she had been commissioned for by the Brooklyn Beat Festival. It was part of a larger piece called Crossing Over and would be an immersive theater event held in the Greenwood Cemetery. I excitedly said yes despite my lack of experience with theater or choreography.

Over a course of a few months Sophia and I worked intensely on Somnambulists' Tango, throwing ourselves into the story and plowing our way through bottomless cups of coffee and pints of ice cream as we planned a terrible love story between a Pierrot and a ghost. 

I was fascinated by the way she worked, as she would plunge deeply into the development of the story and these tragic characters. It was like living in another reality, and she took me there - like we were living in the show.

Overall, Sophia is magical, and creates magical things.

What medium of creation are you most drawn to?

In very open terms, I’d say the performing arts. Above all, I am in love with the collaborative process, and live work is hugely conducive to this. In terms of genre, I am pretty devoted to magical realism especially because I love mixing disparate performance techniques within the same piece (such as theater/dance/live music within the same piece).

As far as process goes, how do you start? Inspiration? With a story? Character? An aspect of human psyche?

Usually it begins with a loose theme rather than an elaborate narrative. I like to begin a process with limited expectations so I don’t get bogged down by logistics right away. Once certain factors are out on the table, I conduct a research period where I look for ideas anywhere I can and in time, the piece takes shape. A few years ago I wanted to create a piece about power struggles and decided that a hypothetical relationship between a demon and a human would be my key to the story - that simple relationship was all I was committed to at the start. From there I asked everyone I could think of to share any relevant stories on the topic with me. After completing that first layer of research, I pursued the aspects that spoke most to me and started writing the piece with direct references from a few different sources, two major ones being Mexican folklore and alchemy.

While it certainly takes a while, I am committed to this system because before you know it, you are working with a story that means something to a lot of people, and yet is being told in a fresh and unusual way.  

It's also hugely important for me to say that I am in a very lucky position to work with my closest friends and heroes on a regular basis, and often these themes are a direct product of the contributions of, as well as, what is going on in the lives of those closest to me.

How do you develop your characters?

I love allegories and symbolism. Often my characters are a direct product of really thorough research, and are strategically created to enhance or further the set theme.

Can you briefly describe Somnambulists' Tango to our readers?

Victor J. Blue for the New York Times

Victor J. Blue for the New York Times

Yes! Somnambulists’ Tango tells a story of passionate longing among quiet souls. The main character is Sasha, a Pierrot searching for a new act. While performing for his audience in the cemetery, a mysterious phantom makes a sudden appearance, and Sasha quickly falls for her. Their interactions through the remainder of the performance take the audience through the various stages of a hypothetical relationship between him, a ghost, or what might be a figment of his imagination.

When we were working together there was a moment when you were interviewing Michael as his character Sasha. (Michael is the talented actor who played Sasha.) You basically brought his character to life and forced him to live his character through a series of questions. Can you talk a little bit about this process, and what kind of head space you’re in during it?

Performing is one of the most vulnerable tasks I can think of, and I am constantly in awe of what my collaborators are able to handle. For that reason, it is really important to me to do whatever I can to get on their level, so we can exist in the same world. When I direct, I don’t like to pull myself out of the environment we create together. For better or worse, I barely take a step back in a rehearsal processes, and so rather than “directing” I like to ask questions, and I allow my curiosity to take over. When fantastical characters are created there is so much to discover - particularly when the performers have such ownership of the identities they have created. Regarding Michael - he brought so many relevant and new colors to his character that I couldn’t help but pick his brain. He came to the rehearsals as Sasha, a fully-formed person that I had the pleasure of getting to know. As far as head space, it was very much one of those, “My heart is in my stomach because I’ve just met such an incredible person,” moments.

When is your most productive time of day? And what gets you going?

Really late at night, or early in the morning. But early in the sense that my brain hasn’t fully woken up yet. I think my ideas are at their best when I haven’t put up the filter yet.

What is your favorite piece that you have done so far and why?

Too hard to say! But since it is the freshest in recent memory, working on Somnambulists' Tango was constantly full of rewards and surprises. Amazing team, amazing obstacles, and really interesting subject matter.

What is the most exciting thing that has happened to you in your artistic career so far?

Wow this could go so  many ways. Right now I would have to say the decision to move to Los Angeles. I did my time in New York and while I wouldn’t trade it for the world, my directing career is much more sustainable out here. When I was living in New York, I focused relentlessly on dance and theater. While I still have the same aspirations, here my pursuits are much more varied. I have been working in so many more mediums, especially photography and film work.

In regards to specific experiences, however, I swear every thing that I have worked on has changed me in one way or another. But in general, I think being commissioned to create a piece always feels like a little bit of magic is involved - and every experience has been entirely its own. For some examples, I have created shows in an old gym in Bulgaria and worked with translators, in the basement level of an abandoned hospital, and a mausoleum in one of New York City’s oldest cemeteries. To have an opportunity to elaborate on spaces that already hold so much history is equally empowering and humbling.

Do you have any ideas stewing for the next production?

Yes! I am happily in the thick of reworking an older production and looking forward to going out to the desert to write for a few days. This particular piece is a cool stretch for me because it is an experiment in re-imagining theatrical storytelling by handing a team predominantly composed of musicians to source material to be worked into songs rather than conversational dialogue. It’s in a very early stage but to give a bit of context, the piece pays tribute to the American West and its iconic outlaws, and it's really exciting to take a stab at it while here in California.

Can you talk a little bit about your experience specifically as a female director?

It’s really empowering. Overall I have been met with such support and encouragement, and in general I have been treated professionally and have rarely faced challenges where I’ve had push back due to my gender. Although there have been several outlying incidents, there has been so much more support than struggle.

What sort of challenges have you encountered?

Like I’m sure too many of us have, I have certainly been told by a male boss that I’m “too feminine” to be taken seriously. Needless to say, I cut ties with no losses.

What do you do when you feel uninspired (to get inspired)?

Lots of walks! I also have a few hub spots in a several cities where I can always count on running into someone working on something amazing. Stepping outside of my process and watching others create really gets me going.

How was your upbringing conducive to you as an artist and your creative process? What sort of support system did you have?

My parents are some of the most creative and intelligent people I have ever met. My dad is a professional photographer, and my mom designed graphics while I was growing up before starting a career as a librarian. Without a doubt, my Mom and Dad are the first people I go to when I hit a wall or overcome an obstacle with my work. I am lucky to say that art has always been the major constant in my life.

What female artists do you look to for inspiration or just all around love?

Pina Bausch is my hero. Her work leaves me speechless.

Who can you always count on to make you laugh?

Well, one Nico Mazza for starters…COME TO LA.

Do you consider yourself a feminist?