Tuesday, April 29, 2014

From Africa to America: Director and Playwright Crispin Whittell

Purple Lights Director Let the Play Wash Over Him and Work Its ‘Magic’

Director Crispin Whittell, center, with actors, left to right, Connor Barrett, William Apps, Christina Elmore and Virginia Veale.
Director and writer Crispin Whittell's early life was globally shaped, much the opposite of the characters in the play he is directing at South Coast Repertory, The Purple Lights of Joppa Illinois by Adam Rapp.

Born in Kenya, Whittell lived in different locations around Africa—Nigeria, Algeria—until age 14, when the family returned to the United Kingdom; his father's job postings kept the family on the move. As a young adult, Whittell studied English literature at Cambridge University. Now based in Los Angeles, he is an active director and playwright. SCR caught up with him during a break in work on Joppa.

How did you early experiences in Africa shape your life?
Hugely, I think. It's probably why I'm here rather than in the UK. One of the things about the United States that I fell in love with was the scale of the place. I love big horizons and that's something America and Africa have in common. I found England, by comparison, just a tiny bit claustrophobic. And, of course, growing up abroad gives you a slightly different perspective on the world, which is useful for a writer.

Who mentored you?
My friends. I wrote my first play when I was about nine years old. I directed it, too, and was the lead. I've always known theatre is what I was going to do, whether it worked out or not. I was a member of the National Youth Theatre of Great Britain in my teens. Then I directed a play at school and realized I didn't want to act any more. At university there was no theatre program, but there was a very active drama scene, entirely student-run. We would just write plays and put them on. I think most people would consider me a writer who directs, but I've always thought of myself as a director who can write. Adam likes to direct his own work too. I think it's part of why we get on.

You called Purple Lights a “lovely play,” but said you wouldn’t describe it beyond that. Why?
If you were going to take a punt on one play this year, come see this. Buy a ticket. I knew Adam and found out about South Coast Repertory's reading of this play last fall [at NewSCRipts]. I knew nothing about the play. I just let it wash over me, and work its magic. Adam plays with our preconceptions about people in a way that is very smart and sensitive. Plus, of course, Adam writes in his own way. It's just different, fresh, sometimes odd and always funny. It has that effortless quality of the really talented. You can't teach it. I would say just trust this playwright and come see where the play goes.

What about the cast? 
I can take no credit for casting them, because Adam did. But I can say honestly that they are very, very good at what they do—so if it doesn't work, it's my fault!  We've had a lot of fun. Two of the cast have been in Adam's plays; one has been in this play since its workshop.

What type of an audience member are you? 
I think I'm more patient than I was. I think theatre is something that gets better as you get older. When I was younger, I wanted things to be faster, funnier, ruder. But I think it helps to have had some experience of life to bring to the theatre. So, it doesn't surprise me to hear that audiences for theatre are older; I think they have a better time. That being said, Adam's play is one that I think will appeal to not just one particular audience.

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