Interview: Director Christopher Innvar on “The Whipping Man”

The Christopher Innvar Interview

Christopher Innvar talks with Berkshire on Stage.

Midway through the three weeks of rehearsal, we caught up with director Christopher Innvar and peppered him with questions about The Whipping Man which begins previews next week at Barrington Stage Company. We discovered a lot about him and the Matthew Lopez play.

When we arrived we discovered the rehearsals were taking place on the main stage – a temporary arrangement made necessary since the set was being built on Stage II. The cast was running lines. And everyone was preparing for a runthrough the next day when Matthew Lopez, the author, arrived. (For more background, read our exclusive interview with the playwright.)

While no stranger to Broadway –110 in the Shade with Audra McDonald and a recent revival of Boys in the Band – Christopher Innvar is one of BSC’s best known actors, having appeared in Private Lives, Carousel and A Streetcar Named Desire in the past couple of seasons. The Whipping Man is the second play he has directed.

Tell us a little about the play’s subject and timeliness.

It takes place at this very unique time in American history where the country was almost completely ripped apart. It begins after the Civil War is over, and people are trying to heal, to mend the divisions.

The rules have completely changed for the slaves. How does someone who was born in chains suddenly become a free man. It doesn’t happen overnight. For them, they don’t know exactly what it means, or even what it feels like.

For the characters, slaves and owner, there are gradual steps through the three days of the play, where they discover who they are and how they relate to each other. The complicated nature of what has just happened to the country leads to moments of high energy, and of great stillness as the new reality sinks in.

Christopher Innvar and Sara Jean Ford in Carousel at BSC. Kevin Sprague photo.

There’s probably no better person to answer this question than an actor: what makes a good director?

Creating a collaborative environment. The best ones I have worked with have done their homework, they know the history and backstory. But more than anything, they know how to collaborate with their actors. They have a broad understanding of a story, yet how to tell it is not yet fixed.

I like it when you go into rehearsals and you don’t have all the answers as a director. But, together with the actors, you find them. Actors are doing their own research too. A good director recognizes this process and together they try a lot of things to find the best way to advance the story.

Christopher Innvar (Stanley Kowalski) and Kim Stauffer (Stella Kowalski) in A Streetcar Named Desire. Kevin Sprague photo.

So how are you and the cast getting on?

We’ve all hit it off very quickly., Of course Nick Westrate and I were recently together in New York in Boys in the Band, and our scenic designer (Sandra Goldmark) also designed for that show. We are all thrilled that Clarke Peters is part of this effort, and Nick and LeRoy McClain have teamed up before.

With a play this intense, it helps that the cast can break up the seriousness with some playful moments too.

Diane Paulus at ART (American Repertory Theatre) says it is not only the director and the actors, but also the playwright and production team that are essential elements, yet the play does not come to life until the audience is present. With that fifth element, theatre becomes alive, and because of them no two performances are ever the same.

Although we have only been rehearsing for ten days we are ready for the details now: the sounds, the lights, the costumes and the battle-scarred plantation where the play takes place. Those elements will infuse the story with reality and with the addition of an audience, it all comes together. They are the missing member of the cast.

The cast includes Clarke Peters (HBO’s Treme and The Wire), LeRoy McClain and Nick Westrate.

Have you been talking with Matthew Lopez who wrote The Whipping Man?

We had a number of meetings before he went out to San Diego for the West Coast premiere last week, and we’ve been talking by phone, and via email as rehearsals progress. We’ve talked a lot about the script and when he arrives tomorrow we are going to do a complete run through for him.

Have you any changes or adjustments that you might suggest when you see him?

Well, it might be the other way around. He is the one who just opened the new production at the Old Globe…

To good reviews I notice…

…and he has seen it in front of an audience. We have not had that yet. I am far more interested in what he can tell us. Our production is sure to be different from the Old Globe, with three completely different actors.

It’s what makes theatre so interesting and why people see different productions. In San Diego, for example, the realism of the amputation scene that opens the play hit audiences pretty hard. There were reports of some people walking out, and hiring EMT’s for the faint of heart.

We too are playing it as real as we can though no limbs are actually being cut off. It is pretty horrifying to watch, even in simulation. I think it is going to be shocking.

Christopher Innvar takes a break. Larry Murray photo.

How does this compare with your previous experience directing Mark St. Germain’s one acts The Collyer Brothers at Home and Period Piece at BSC.

I was doing a Broadway show at the time (Threepenny Opera) and rehearsing during the day, going on stage myself in the evening. And as a result I was never able to return for the final tech or even see the show.

With The Whipping Man, I am just doing this one thing, and will be able to see it through the previews and into the opening. Plus it gives me more time in the Berkshires which I absolutely love. I wish there was enough work for actors to let me live here year round.

Cyrano, the role Innvar always wanted to play. Seen here with Heather Ayers. Photo: Kevin Sprague

Tell us one thing about yourself that Berkshire audiences don’t know.

I didn’t start out as an actor, didn’t go to school for it. I went to the Naval Academy in Annapolis then to Syracuse University and I have a Business degree. I helped begin several companies, including one that marketed non-alcoholic wine. It was at the start of the “wellness” movement and the stuff came from a Mormon distributor in Utah who was getting it from Australia.

Ever since Julie (Boyd) always makes sure there is a bottle of good wine waiting for me when I arrive.

It was on a whim that I joined a community theatre in the basement of a church with kids. It reminded me of playing sports – team sports – so that is why I fell in love with it.

So I had no idea until well after I left school that I would be doing – and loving – this fascinating career.

We’re glad you made the choice. Thanks for giving us a look behind the curtain.

The Barrington Stage production will take place at Stage 2 ( 36 Linden Street , Pittsfield ). The run was recently extended to June 17. Performances of The Whipping Man are Tuesday through Friday at 7:30pm, Wednesdays at 2pm, Saturdays at 4pm and 8pm, and Sunday at 7:3pm with two extra matinee performances recently added for Sunday May 30 and June 6 at 3:00pm. They take place at BSC Stage 2, 36 Linden St., Pittsfield. Opening Night: Sat., May 29 at 8pm. Tickets: $15-$45. Seniors: $20 all matinees. Pay What You Can Night for 35 year olds and younger: Fri., June 4 at 7:30pm. For ticket information call 413-236-8888, stop by the BSC Box Office at 30 Union Street, or visit

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