Bartlett Sher has directed almost as many socially concerned dramas at LCT ("Awake and Sing," "Joe Turner's Come and Gone") as he has large-scale musicals ("Light in the Piazza," "South Pacific," "Women on the Verge of a Nervous Breakdown"). The latter group, however, plus his work for the Metropolitan Opera next door (most recently, "Le Comte d'Ory"), has tended to fix him in the mind of New Yorkers as someone who is especially drawn to work that includes an orchestra.
The other day, on a rehearsal break for J. T. Rogers' "Blood and Gifts," a drama about Afghanistan and America in the 1980s, Sher spoke of his career in slightly different terms. "The stronger core of my work has been political and discursive," he said. "So this latest assignment is the kind of piece I especially enjoy doing." He added: "I've directed Shakespeare's history plays, and I see 'Blood and Gifts' as a history play, too. And, in a strange way, it is similar to Granville-Barker's 'Waste,' which I did 10 years ago in New York. 'Blood and Gifts' has personal relationships but it also tells the story of a nation. Or, rather, nations: Afghanistan, the United States, and Pakistan."
Sher said he immediately wanted to do "Blood and Gifts" after it was given to him by LCT's artistic director, Andre Bishop. For Sher, directing the drama has allowed him to develop a much higher awareness of just what occurred between the nations during the play's timeframe. "What people underestimate," Sher said, "is that Afghanistan is one of the most successful covert operations that the U.S. has ever conducted." He added: "By helping bring about the end of the Russian presence there, we also helped bring about the downfall of the Soviet Union."
At the same time, Sher remarked, almost everyone who lives in Afghanistan has experienced loss and destruction, and "we, the United States, participated in that. We've participated in helping to continue the cycle of violence, which has increased the levels in Afghanistan of overall distrust. This very profound covert victory sowed the seeds for every foreign-policy disaster leading to 9/11 and today."
"One of the many strengths of 'Blood and Gifts,'" Sher said, "is that it covers these things in a way that not only makes you think but that entertains you. That's not easy to do."
You might think the a man who has successfully staged several productions with casts numbering 30 or 40 or 50 would find staging "Blood and Gifts," with its 12 actors, to be of only moderate difficulty. You would be wrong.
"This play is incredibly challenging," Sher said. "It covers 10 years. It ranges from Peshawar to Islamabad to Washington, D.C. It has several intersecting story lines." Further: "It's crucial to keep things clear and to make sure the audience follows the argument of the play."
I couldn't have a conversation with Sher without asking him how he handles not just dramatic development involving Afghan politics but aspects of his own extremely busy career. "I don't get to go out much," he confessed. "I'm in the rehearsal room, and when I'm not I'm with my family."
In 2011 alone, Sher directing assignments include: that new production of Rossini's "Le Comte d'Ory" at the Met; a revival of his production of Gounod's "Romeo et Juliette," at La Scala in Milan; a world premiere opera, Nico Muhly and Craig Lucas's "Two Boys," at English National Opera; his LCT production of "South Pacific," with mostly new performers, at London's Barbican, where it was a big hit. Immediately after "Blood and Gifts" opens on November 21, Sher dives full-time into a revival of "Funny Girl," initially at the Ahmanson in Los Angeles and then at the Imperial in New York, where it will be the first Broadway revival since Streisand's star-making version in the 1960s.
But for now, Sher said, "my focus is on 'Blood and Gifts,' a terrific play that I'm excited to be directing."
Brendan Lemon is the American theater critic for the Financial Times and the editor of lemonwade.com.