A Small Blessing

UCSB Welcomes Back Recent Graduate to Direct Independence

by Elizabeth Schwyzer

It’s a busy season for Theatre UCSB. With its collaboration with Lit Moon Theatre on a major production of Timon of Athens just finished and five more productions scheduled before summer, the department is operating at full tilt. Realizing they’d be hard-pressed to direct the entire season on their own, the faculty decided to call in support, inviting recent UCSB graduate Emily Weisberg to direct the 1984 Lee Blessing drama, Independence.

Since graduating from the masters program in June, Weisberg has based herself in Los Angeles, founding Push to Talk, a theater company dedicated to producing new work by emerging playwrights. Last week I called Weisberg at her L.A. office to talk about the challenges and rewards of directing at her alma mater.

Independence is a play about a mother and her three daughters. What does it tell us about women’s roles and their relationships? I think it’s a fantastic play because it provides four women with four amazing roles. It’s a beautifully written piece — you don’t run across roles for women written like this very often.

The play is about our relationships with family. It’s very universal, accessible, and resonant. I don’t think there’s anything alien about struggling to relate to your mother as a human being rather than as a parent. It’s a topic that’s especially relevant for college kids starting to define themselves outside the home.

What are the challenges involved in directing this play at UCSB? The biggest challenge for the actresses was getting them to stop thinking about it so much. You can get bogged down in thinking a moment to death. The key is often not to think about it, just to react. The only bad choice is no choice.

Also, because it’s a naturalistic play, I want to avoid stereotypes. I don’t want to let the mom become a caricature of a mean, scary mom. That means the actresses needed to avoid judging their characters so they can let the audience draw their own conclusions.

How are you making artistic decisions as a director? On what basis do you decide how a line should be played or how to block a scene? I want the most realistic things in the play to be the actresses, not the set. Our brilliant set designer, Tal Sanders, is helping us create a set that’s like a suggestion of a house — a memory.

In the script, there are blackouts all the time. As a director, I’m trying to create a fluid experience. I want it to move, and blackouts don’t work for me so I’ve taken them all out. In general, I’ve put less emphasis on the passage of time. The realism exists in who these women are, and not so much where or when they are.

Do you draw on personal experience to try to get at the emotional realism of this play? How do you relate to the emotional lives of the characters? I absolutely draw from my own family experience. When I’m directing I tell a lot of personal stories, but more importantly, I ask the actresses to turn to their experiences. Especially for Liz Kelley, who plays the mother, that’s a big challenge — she hasn’t been a mom. I asked the actresses to connect with what they’re getting from their partner onstage. Whatever comes from that place is appropriate.

Is there anything else you’d like to tell me? This production is totally reliant on the cast — this is about the actresses. It’s a big, scary challenge for them, but they’re absolutely up to it.

For me, it has been a wonderful gift to have the faculty and department say they believe in me and want to support me. This is essentially my first paying gig! Teaching is a big part of who I am, so being able to direct and teach simultaneously is a really gratifying experience.

4•1•1 Independence runs Fri., Nov. 10 through Sat., Nov. 18 at UCSB’s Performing Arts Theatre. For more information, visit For tickets, call 893-3535.

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