April Cleveland (SF15) Takes the New York Stage
March 16, 2020 | By Hannah Loomis
April Cleveland (SF15) has always done theater. She directed plays on the playground in elementary school, performed throughout her childhood, and spent several summers in her early 20s directing a youth musical theater program. This summer, she will work with director Robert Icke on his New York double-billing of Hamlet and Aeschylus’ Oresteia.
“My graduate thesis was Oresteia, an adaptation by Robert Icke,” Cleveland explains. “He’s a very famous British director and adapter who’s about to direct an Oedipus that stars Helen Mirren as Jocasta.” Cleveland saw his work, realized he had an Oresteia adaptation, emailed him, and ended up getting to know him. Icke eventually gave her the rights to direct the U.S. premiere of Oresteia, and then invited her to join him as the American assistant director on his upcoming Hamlet/Oresteia project. Cleveland will be in charge of casting the understudies, as well as rehearsing the understudies and child actors. “The whole team is British, so I’m kind of like the American on the ground,” she says. “It’s very cool because Hamlet and Oresteia are very St. John’s-y texts, and I get to work on them for four months in London and New York, which is pretty amazing.”
Cleveland knew she wanted to be a director since she was a kid, and she set out to achieve that goal with a singular focus, learning all of the pillars that underpin the practice of directing—including acting. After high school, with no intention of becoming a professional actor, she studied acting at The Lee Strasberg Institute for Theatre and Film in Los Angeles, and years later, she earned her MFA in directing from The Theatre School at DePaul.
But just as importantly, in between those craft-focused years, Cleveland attended St. John’s College in Santa Fe. She knew that, in order to be a good director, she had to be a great reader—which meant reading as broadly as possible, being in conversational collaboration with others, and learning to find her way into any text that presented itself. According to Cleveland, every play contains the entire tradition of thought leading up to the time of writing. “This is where I do feel like I have quite a leg up on a lot of directors who just have experience but don’t have the St. John’s education,” she says. “You need to understand where ideas come from. New plays don’t just come out of nowhere. They, too, are just a collection of thousands of years of thought.”
By undertaking a serious investigation of the Great Books at St. John’s, Cleveland learned how to gain access to any text whatsoever—especially in subjects she had previously thought were too difficult for her. She explains: “I might not be ‘good’ at Maxwell’s equations, but I have every right—and every ability—to dive deep into Maxwell’s questions, proposals, and claims, even if I’m not ‘gifted’ at math. St. John’s teaches you to find an angle. What could be more important when you’re staging plays; in other words, raising texts from the dead into time and space?”
An equally important lesson Cleveland learned at St. John’s was to take a text on its terms and resist personal or psychological analysis and judgment as long as possible. She leans on this experience constantly when working with her production teams—delving into a play’s text in order to discuss and glean meaning from it. “The second you come in with your experiences and your hotshot ideas, you cut yourself off from any collaboration,” she says. “When I’m directing a play, I need other people for everything I do, and I have to be able to exhume the text with them.”
That means making sure her collaborators have ownership. The process starts with examining the text for facts and coming to an agreement about them; analyzing what the characters actually do rather than guessing at what motivates them. She agrees with Aristotle’s claim that character is determined by action. Only once the facts are established can Cleveland and her collaborators begin to create: “We want to make something beautiful, creative, edgy, and interpretive. But we can only interpret together if we’re interpreting from the same source.” One key collaborator is her partner, Kit Slover (SF14), who she met at St. John’s. Together they dream up ideas and comb texts for plays she’ll direct.
Even though many of Cleveland’s directing peers have 10 more years of career experience than she does, she’s had remarkable opportunities. She has made connections with some of the biggest names in theater by approaching them with intellectual curiosity and asking them good questions, which enabled her to form relationships based on a shared interest. She believes the ability to engage in that type of dialogue sets Johnnies apart.
It’s early on in her career, but Cleveland is delighted with how things are working out—she’s able to make a living in the arts by piecing together assisting and directing jobs. However, she advises approaching a theater career with eyes wide open. “In a career where there are no defined routes, the ways of getting the work are always going to be really weird. It’ll be a series of, like, 15 coincidences, and then you somehow are directing this play.”
Judging by the fascinating array of professional projects listed on Cleveland’s website, it seems that her gutsy and disciplined approach is working. The “About” page opens with a provocative personal statement:
BIG IDEAS, AMBITIOUS AESTHETICS.
IF IT’S NOT TRANSCENDENT, ANNIHILATING, SEXY AND BOLD,
STAY HOME AND WATCH NETFLIX.
When asked about her compelling manifesto, Cleveland says she’s resisting something that’s happening in American theater right now: lecturing to audiences about what to believe. Instead, she wants to work on great texts. “I want to work on plays that have infinite depth. And if they have infinite depth, then they have contradictions, paradoxes, and questions that are so good they can be answered in many opposing ways swirling inside of them.”
Does she ever feel she has answers to those questions?
“Either a really great question is not solvable, or it’s solvable in contradictory ways,” says Cleveland. “I don’t see why it’s even useful for me to have answers. It’s more useful for me to find the depth of a question and then to stage it in really exciting ways.”