Opening at La MaMa on East Fourth Street in New York City this weekend is “Escape,” Susan Mosakowski’s play in which three dramas occur simultaneously in adjacent rooms on the same stage. You’ll find an actress held hostage by a terrorist, an elevator repairman and the chained grandson of Harry Houdini, all seeking liberation. As The New York Times said this week, “The director, Gaye Taylor Upchurch, has her work cut out for her.”
That’s nothing new or daunting for Upchurch, a 1996 alumna from Jackson, Miss., whose maiden name was Hederman and artistic passion was dance at Wake Forest. She came late to drama — “my life took a left turn” — but she has been on a luge ride ever since with accomplishments galore. I sat down with her over Indian food in Midtown recently to discuss her journey from Wake Forest to Manhattan.
Typically, her memories of Wake Forest center on small class sizes and professors who took the time to know her, feed her dinner at their houses and teach her how to ask probing questions about literature. “But (Wake Forest) also had a sense of fun,” says the S.O.P.H. Society member. She camped and hiked in nearby mountains and “spent a ton of time in the Scales Fine Arts Center when I wasn’t researching English papers.” She majored in English but took courses across the curriculum, from Italian and economics to painting and art history, “which helps me all the time with design” for theatre productions. Barry Maine, Jim Barefield, Ed Wilson, Page Laughlin, Dillon Johnston, Jennifer Sault — these are professors (the latter two have departed for other jobs) whom she recalls with gratitude.
Wake Forest taught her an appreciation for a breadth of knowledge and the ability to talk about story. “I have a massive curiosity,” she says, “and for each show I work on I get to have a whole new experience of research and learning, and it changes each time, which I love. In that way, it’s not unlike a liberal arts education.”
What does that look like in her day-to-day life? Before her heralded production last summer of “Bluebird” at the Atlantic Theater Company that starred famed British actor Simon Russell Beale, she traveled by cab all over London to photograph scenes and neighborhoods. (Bluebird is the taxi, Beale the driver in the play Upchurch directed). Upchurch tacked the photos all over the walls back in New York to help the American actors imagine the places the Bluebird would travel.
Her path from Wake Forest led her a stone’s throw across Reynolda Road, first to Summit School, where she taught seventh-grade English. Missing the performing arts, she sought inspiration by observing what was happening at the University of North Carolina School of the Arts. It was there that Drama Dean Gerald Freedman began guiding her as she studied for her B.F.A. in directing. And it was in these early days that Christopher Shinn’s play “Four” and Tom Stoppard’s play “The Invention of Love” inspired her vision “to tell a story that is beautiful and moving but also has this other quality than can only be realized in theatre.”
The leap from English literature and dance to drama makes more sense to her now: “With dance I was very interested in bodies in space. Theatre is really the synthesis of storytelling from a text plus the choreography in the way of dance…. In retrospect I can see that those were the elements I was most interested in.”
From UNCSA she landed in New York with a prized Kenan Foundation Fellowship at the Lincoln Center Institute, where she learned “a very particular method” of teaching schoolchildren about the arts and gained exposure to all manner of actors and artists. Because it was a fellowship that paid her, it also allowed her time to knock on doors, keep her ear to the ground about opportunities and volunteer to assist other directors for free.
In the lean years like so many artists in New York, she did her late-night share of cocktail waitressing mixed with early-morning hours of concentrated work toward her career. “That time was really brutal,” she says, “but I think … in New York you come here and you have to do that. You end up running yourself ragged, but there’s no other way to get a foot hold and figure out who your collaborators are going to be.”
Eventually she scored big. In 2008 she became associate director for The Bridge Project, a joint venture between the Brooklyn Academy of Music and the Old Vic Theatre in London. Sam Mendes was directing Shakespeare’s “The Winter’s Tale” and Chekhov’s “The Cherry Orchard.” The three-year project had a major international tour component. “Sam was looking for someone who could assist him in the rehearsal room, who could then take the shows on tour and help keep the shows together in his absence and tech them for new cities,” she says. That was her job. The cities she toured over two years: London; Singapore; Auckland; Madrid; Recklinghausen, Germany; Paris; Hong Kong; Amsterdam and Epidaurus, Greece, known for its ancient and acoustically perfect amphitheater. In the first year of touring, Simon Russell Beale played Leontes and and Lopahkin. That’s when he and Upchurch became friends, and he told her he wanted to work with her again. Simon Stephens’ “Bluebird” became the collaboration for the actor-director friends.
She will return to the Atlantic Theater Company in the fall to direct another Simon Stephens play, “Harper Regan,” an odyssey of self-discovery for a woman in London. And she has “site-specific pirate musical” on a harbor boat that is in the works.
“People fret about (theatre) being a dying art form. I question that,” Upchurch says. “I think it’s shifting and certainly everything has had to respond to the age of the Internet, but I think that this need to experience live storytelling as a community — I don’t know how that disappears. I don’t know why that would disappear.”
The afternoon of our lunch would find Upchurch off to her ever-changing routine of rehearsals, reading plays, working with lighting directors and meeting with costume designers. She has found her place in our country’s mecca for the performing arts.
“I love this city. It can be hard, but sometimes it can love you back,” she says. And for this emerging director, the career highs clearly show the affection is mutual.