The Stories We Tell

Arizona Theatre Company's Samantha Wyer prefers plays where people confront life honestly.

To understand Samantha K. Wyer's concept of theater, just chat with her about garden predators.

Birds used to make themselves free in her yard, until one fell victim to one of Wyer's two dogs. "The birds who saw it happen must have told all their friends," she says, "because they've never come back."

The birds told one another a story. And, little avian tragedies aside, that's how Wyer has described the nature of theater in almost every interview she's given during her four and a half years in Tucson: It's a method of sharing stories.

Her anecdote about the dogs and the birds isn't consciously a metaphor for the theater; it's just something that comes up in the course of a conversation about gardening, one of her pastimes. Yet even in light banter, it's clear that Wyer believes that sharing stories is the fundamental way people come to understand each other, and themselves.

As Arizona Theatre Company's associate artistic director, Wyer makes her living sharing secrets of the soul. She directs workshop and other ancillary productions for ATC, as well as one mainstage production each season: Proof last January, Wit a year before and, coming this January, Eugene O'Neill's A Moon for the Misbegotten.

She's also averaged a show a year at the University of Arizona, where she serves sometimes as an adjunct faculty member and sometimes just as a guest director for the school's advanced Arizona Repertory Theatre. There, she has directed such memorable productions as Arcadia, Millennium Approaches from Angels in America, and a 1970s update of Two Gentlemen of Verona. Late next month, the UA will open her treatment of Chekhov's Three Sisters. She has also directed shows for Borderlands Theatre and the Green Thursday Theater Project (the notorious The Eight: Reindeer Monologues, which was written by a guy Wyer went to school with).

None of these have been "high concept" productions, with the possible exception of the disco-era Two Gents. Wyer locks in on the interpersonal fundamentals of each play, launching characters across whatever environment seems most natural for them and minimizing elements that would pull a story off its trajectory.

"One season," Wyer says, "I did the Reindeer Monologues, a small play in a bar about Santa molesting his reindeer, and the next month at ATC I directed what was really one big monologue in Wit, and then at the UA I did Angels in America, which is big, fat theater. Those are three very different plays, and each one has a different voice, and I didn't use the same rules in each play.

"There's not a certain type of theater I'm drawn to," she says. "Whatever story I'm helping bring to life, I want to learn something about myself through it.

"One of the big lessons I'm learning from Moon for the Misbegotten is that we as a society are always asked to be honest about ourselves, but we're given so many opportunities not to be honest. The power of that play comes from people taking off their masks and looking at themselves honestly, and within that is a lot of love, and redemption, and pain."

Wyer had to take an honest look at herself in college, two years into an engineering degree. In high school she'd taken accelerated math and science classes, and engineering seemed like a sensible career path (not coincidentally, two of the best plays Wyer has directed in Tucson, Arcadia and Proof, have revolved around women with a gift for math, searching for an identity in the world). But she'd also taken dance classes since age 6, and in high school was the drill captain ("a way of telling stories in dance") and spent every weekend at speech tournaments. She was involved in acting along the way, and as an engineering student, she says, "I missed acting terribly. I started thinking about how my life was starting down this path that involved numbers but not people. I didn't have a passion to be an actor, but I thought that people getting together with the blueprint of a play and creating something living out of it was magical. Then I took a directing class and found out that directing was text analysis--it was like doing a math problem, and that's something I knew how to do and loved."

So she switched to theater, ultimately earning a master's in directing from the University of Missouri in 1994. Staying a while in Kansas City, she was the artistic director of the small Broadsides Theatre. She also served as director of Missouri Repertory Theatre's new-play program. She directed straight plays and musicals in Missouri and worked on classics at The Shakespeare Theatre in Washington, D.C., before coming to ATC.

"Samantha's greatest strength as a director," says Wyer's boss, ATC artistic director David Ira Goldstein, "is the sense of ensemble that she can build between actors, and behind the scenes among the design team, to get everybody pulling in the same direction.

"A couple of years ago when we did Wit, the actress, Karen Grassle, had to master an incredible amount of text in a very short period of time, and that's not easy. It took her up until the last minute on opening night to get that under her belt, and a situation like that that can frustrate other people in the cast who don't have to learn so many words. But Samantha's tender loving care helped everybody on the team help Karen get where she needed to be.

"Samantha's got a huge heart," says Goldstein. "She's got a large brain, too, but a huge heart, and that comes across in any situation where she's working with a group of people. She's a wonderful collaborator."

Besides directing, Wyer spends her days at ATC reading new plays--piles of manuscripts rise from every horizontal surface in her office--and helping Goldstein select and cast the main productions. She also brings in student interns and understudies from the UA and a school in Texas, and serves as the company's education director until ATC gets around to hiring someone else for that full-time job. "I shot my mouth off too much" about education, she says, so the duties fell to her.

Wyer is an important liaison between the UA theater department and the real world. "She's kept our relationship with the Arizona Theatre Company at a really high level," says UA faculty member Harold Dixon. "She knows all the acting students, so because of her we've had a regular series of our actors performing small roles in ATC shows, both M.F.A. and B.F.A. students.

"And when she directs a show here, she's very thorough and creative. Our goal is not just to turn out good shows, but to train students, so it's important that the process be as good as the product. Samantha does that very well."

"When I was in graduate school," Wyer recalls, "the thing that hooked me in was people who took notice and recognized me as a human being, and became mentors. So now I try to do that for the kids at the UA. I shouldn't call them kids," says Wyer, who at 34 could still pass for a grad student herself. "I like working as an acting coach and seeing students make tremendous growth as artists over the course of just eight weeks. For me, it's like taking a driving test after you've been driving a while already--it's a refresher, and it makes you a better driver. So I work with students at the UA, then I come back here and feel ready for Eugene O'Neill."

Wyer acknowledges that she must pace herself carefully. "I need to have enough stamina and grit to see the play clearly," she says. "I don't want to be sitting here six months after the play closes and suddenly have some belated epiphany about it and say, 'You know what, Samantha? If you'd gotten more than three hours' sleep you might've figured that out when you could've used it.'"

She managed to get enough rest to earn this year's $7,500 Buffalo Exchange Arts Award, given by the Community Foundation for Southern Arizona. Otherwise, a director rarely enjoys public accolades. "The director is the behind-the-scenes person and never takes a bow, and I enjoy that," she asserts. "If I've done my job well, my moment of public glory comes when I sit in the back of a dark theater and listen to an audience connect with a story. You shouldn't feel a director's input; it cannot be allowed to choke a production. It can support the production, and enlighten it, and guide it, but it's not about me."

And yet it is, insofar as plays, in Wyer's words, "tell stories to help all of us on our journeys through the world."