Joel Sass: Logical Eccentricity

He keeps the gleeful, high-camp extravagance under careful control.

By Dominic P. Papatola

Peers and admirers liken the theatrical work of Joel Sass to that of the great minds of the avant-garde—groundbreakers like Richard Foreman and Robert Wilson and Charles L. Mee.

Sass takes the compliment graciously, and appends it with a skewed smile. While folks like Foreman and Wilson and Mee learned to create theatre on the East Coast, Sass completed his undergraduate theatre degree in the home of the Green Pay Packers. Most of his work and his further on-the-job education have taken place in Minneapolis. It’s a fertile aesthetic community, but it ain’t the throbbing alt-theatre mecca of New York City.

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“I come from Picnic people,” Sass will tell you, referring to William Inge’s 1953 white-picket-fence play set in small-town America. “And I think Picnic people would love a Robert Wilson production or a Chuck Mee play.”

How’s that again?

“The art of direction,” Sass continues, by way of explanation, “involves going someplace eccentric but making those choices seem logical and rational for your audiences—whether they are devotees of Americana or German art mavens.”

It’s an unusually tidy and succinct summation from Sass, the 2007 winner of TCG’s Alan Schneider Award honoring an outstanding freelance director. In demand as a scenic designer as well as a director, the 40-year-old Sass is the sort of guy who talks in long sentences filled with parenthetical phrases and a certain amount of verbal histrionics. Ideas and images flow out of him with a kind of suave, disarming ease. You find yourself drawn in, your interest and your sensibilities piqued, even if you don’t always understand exactly what he’s talking about.

A conversation with Sass—whether it’s an in-the-lobby, entre-nous quickie he gives patrons on opening night or a more extended coffeehouse tête-à-tête—is a useful primer for his stage work. The best of that work demonstrates a vision for the stage that’s relentless and magnetic and leaps in your face with a sly, undeniable demand that you enter whatever world he happens to be creating.

An adopted kid who grew up on a Wisconsin hobby farm an hour’s drive from the Twin Cities, Sass nursed what he describes as a “raging, lurid, Jacobean fantasy life” as a kid. So perhaps it’s not surprising that, as a grown-up, he has created some…er…intriguing aesthetic worlds along the way.

The first production of his Mary Worth Theatre Company was a 1994 stage version of Valley of the Dolls. In the words of one critic, the high-camp, low-art valentine “performed [Jacqueline] Susann’s polyester dialogue verbatim and with the deadpan seriousness of Chekhov.” The company, whimsically named for a slumber-party ghost-conjuring game, would go on to create a fever-dream production of Titus Andronicus that spurted gallons of blood. On one memorable evening, a splashee in the audience was Joe Dowling, artistic director of Minneapolis’s venerable Guthrie Theater. The redoubtable Dowling promptly set up a meeting with Sass.

And, under Sass’s gleefully over-the-top direction, Mary Worth would stage two plays by Clive Barker, Crazyface and The History of the Devil—sprawling, unapologetically messy, phantasmagoric riffs on the Dark Ages from a scribe better known for horror flicks than stage tricks. What Sass’s own sets for these shows lacked in budget they made up for in atmospherics—harsh cubes set on circular playing areas and lit by revolving, haunted-house swirls of blue and red.

All of which is not to suggest that Sass is merely a purveyor of the gaudy and the outsized. Even the most visceral work that resides in what he calls his “high-camp trash aesthetic” has a sense of discipline to it—a populist’s trust in the audience and in the old adage about showing and not telling. “It’s important to know what they need to see,” he says, “and what they should be shielded from, because their imaginations will take them further than you can show them.” That sort of discipline might seem unlikely from a guy whose Titus featured more viscera than a slaughterhouse, but, tellingly, bigger budgets don’t always equal more stage gimmickry.

Since Mary Worth flickered out in 2003, Sass has plied his trade at theatres large and small in the Twin Cities. His stage-bloody encounter with Dowling would eventually lead to a 2005 production of Pericles at what was then the Guthrie’s second stage in the Minneapolis Warehouse District. Set on a bare plate of sand, the fluid and funny tale morphed into a tasty Shakespearean stew with flavorings of the Orient, Europe and the islands of the South Seas.

“I’ve been impressed with Joel’s insistence in exploring theatrical possibility with a fearless embrace and a celebration of going against the grain,” says John Clark Donahue, who designed the sandy set for that show, and has collaborated with Sass on a handful of projects.

The founder of the Children’s Theatre Company in Minneapolis and a mentor to Sass, Donahue concedes his protégé has his subversive-artist side. “But Joel also understands the conspiracy between the audience and the playmaker. And I think there’s something to the fact that he comes from a rural community in Wisconsin. There’s a kind of rural earthiness that allows him to have a certain Our Town sensibility in his work.”

Last year, Sass showed that he could work smaller as well, with a deft production of I Am My Own Wife. Housed at the Jungle Theater, a 150-seat jewel-box in Minneapolis, the production (which Sass also designed) was a visual paradox. Oversized file cabinets flanked the stage, Big Brother–like, while the treasures of German transvestite Charlotte von Mahlsdorf were rendered in miniature. Thematically, the staging corralled the 30-some characters in Doug Wright’s text and gave them—and the knotty play—a coherent sense of wholeness.

Star Bradley Greenwald said the commitment to that seamless vision began at auditions. “There was no one else in the room—just Joel and the performer,” Greenwald recalls. “He said, ‘Just go up and start reading. I don’t know exactly what I want but I’ll know it when I see it. Don’t feel as you have to do anything. Just tell the story.’ I relaxed and got into it, and 45 minutes or an hour later, he stopped me at the end of act one.”

In Greenwald’s estimation, Sass is “one of those directors who works in the vein of poetry rather than anecdote. There’s always a sense of a larger philosophy on stage than what’s being articulated. It’s like being fed a huge meal, even though it seems like you’re just getting appetizers.”

Part of the alchemy Sass is able to create is grounded in his early-1990s tenure as an assistant director at Theatre de la Jeune Lune, the idiosyncratic, Tony-winning Minneapolis theatre grounded in physical technique. Sass says his graduate school was his three years in the then collectively run theatre: “They completely reordered my undergraduate presumptions about how a director should function and what an ensemble did.”

Part of that understanding comes from Sass’s evolving, anthropological approach to directing, in which the central question is: “What is the environment that would allow these things to happen?” That approach depends on communicating exhaustively with his actors, his designers, even with the backstage guys who are building the set—to create a world rather than just a story.

And part of it comes from a discovery Sass has made in more recent years: the idea that that the three most powerful words in a director’s vocabulary are what he told Greenwald in that audition: “I don’t know.”

“If you can shed this patriarchal, mystic-guru-swami notion of the director as some sort of utopian fusion of dictator, den mother, shrink and that first high-school director who helped you discover your creative talent, then you can remove the fear from the rehearsal room,” he says, all in one breath. “That encourages actors to make brave choices and to build ensemble quickly.”

And the results—from William Shakespeare to Jacqueline Susann and well beyond—speak for themselves.

Dominic P. Papatola is the theatre critic for the St. Paul Pioneer Press.