Sammi Cannold Drives a Bus through the Fourth Wall
An Interview with Sammi Cannold '16

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It is extremely easy to slip into the mindset of considering Sammi Cannold (’16) a rising star. We might be lulled into thinking this, but she certainly isn’t. Modest, focused, and driven, she proclaims to approach theatre holistically, never centering a show around any given subset of its team (ahem, actors). Even this hour-long conversation revealed that there is a rabidly creative mind working incessantly beneath her calm comportment –an exquisitely self-reflective directorial psyche responsible for some of Stanford’s most memorable musicals. This includes fall quarter’s most talked about show, Violet, which Cannold staged on a moving bus. At the very least, it is safe to say she is one of the loudest voices in a choir of students claiming that theatre is not dead, and that its stories continue to matter.

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Stanford Arts Review: How did you start to get involved in theatre?

Sammi Cannold: Both my parents work in theatre. It was always a fun hobby –when I was a child, my parents would drop me off in the seats of whatever theater they were working in. I have this quote in mind, and I don’t really remember who said it, but it was someone whose mother worked in the theatre, and said something like this: “This upbringing was so special because I got to watch my mother play all day.” I thought to myself –I want to do that. My parents tell me that when I was little, my favorite pastime was putting on shows with shampoo bottles. This is strange, considering most people come to directing via dance, then choreography, then directing; or via acting, and then directing. In seventh grade, I started directing musicals in my town, and everything went from there.

Speaking of the young age at which you started: people are usually drawn to theatre because they see the final product, and they love it. You got to see the oftentimes tumultuous process that leads up to creating that final product.

There is a science to directing. My background has made me approach directing not from an actors’ perspective, but from a desire for a holistic understanding of theatre –I don’t know if that’s good or bad, but it is what it is– and I certainly need to learn more about that. Most people don’t realize that there are so many moving parts to a show. The classic example is that people rarely know that there is an engineer called a mixer who turns up a mic channel every time an actor speaks and then turns it down once the actor is finished. Appreciation for that development, and exploring the different roles –assistant stage managing, assistant directing, acting– has made me better prepared to treat each show I work on with a holistic approach.

This metaphor of the ‘many parts to a show’ makes me think that the director has an awesome responsibility – the show rests on their shoulders.

I see it as my job –and this logic is stolen from others– to create an environment where everybody feels like they can take risks, like they can create, and go anywhere where they would want to, and to imbue an incredible amount of passion and energy in that environment. On the first day of any show, we all come in with many ideas, and together, we create hybrids of them. I find it particularly important to render a creative space where people will have the enthusiasm to work twice as hard – a show always demands that. Also, a director’s job –again, this is stolen, and it was stolen from a brilliant director named Diane Paulus– is to hire a team with an immense amount of potential, and then to take them there. So, yes, the show rests on the director’s shoulders. Yet again, at the end of the day, the director’s job is done if they are invisible and the show speaks for itself.

To take that a step further – as you say, the director has much to do, and a large part of it is creative work. Yet, the director’s job is also stressful, and as anybody who has ever tried to create anything, which is to say, basically everybody, knows, the creative process does not behave rationally. What do you do when you are working on an idea, and it just is not coming?

I believe the irrationality of theatre is the most exciting part of directing. I joke that on Les Mis, I wake up every morning and there is another problem to solve. And that’s not a bad thing. We anticipated this. In theatre, you have a large brain-trust on which to rely to find solutions to your ideas. I think that directors who start off with a finite idea of what the product is going to look like end up with train-wrecks on their hands, because ideas don’t always pan out. The way I’m learning to approach the process is to take ideas and tease them out, and find things that are not working, and then fix them. At Stanford, where people are so whip-smart and ready to tackle problems, this part is easy –people want to help. On Les Mis, I divided the show into 32 beats, and created a Google Doc with ideas about each beat. I then asked my collaborators to put forward at least five ideas about the show.

Integration seems very important to you – not just in the way you run shows, but also in the way you stage them. Diane Paulus has this aesthetic of integration with regard to space, and space is most important to her work. How do you work to reinvent space in the shows you direct?

To give context to the Diane thing –people oftentimes make fun of me for what they call a “bizarre obsession”: Diane Paulus is the artistic director of the American Repertory Theater at Harvard University. When I first chanced upon her work, I had been thinking that something was wrong with theatre. I came across her manifesto, which commits to expanding the boundaries of theatre, especially with respect to the audience. All of a sudden, everything clicked for me. I knew what I wanted to do. I have spent my time since then trying to focus on space via the relationship with the audience. Nowadays, the audience is expected to be very passive, have theatre served to them on a plate, and then go home. A lot of what Diane talks about is, and what I’ve tried expand upon, is that theatre needs to capture you because you’ve had a special experience with it. In the case of the two shows I’ve done that are under this philosophy, I’ve tried to get the audience members to immerse themselves in the experience of the characters, to leave our show thinking about what just happened, and to have this experience stick with them for days to come. Theatre has the propensity to give you a live experience, and it’s almost a waste to erect the fourth wall.

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Your first show this year, Violet, is about a girl who travels from North Carolina to Tulsa to find a televangelist who, as she believes, will heal her scar. You decided to stage it on a moving bus that traveled around campus. How did you work to expand the boundaries of theatre there?

Stanford has a grant called Re-Designing Theatre, and it is meant to redefine the boundaries of theatre –so much in line with what I aspire to do. I’ve always loved Violet, but I’ve never gotten to see it, since it was produced in 1997. I knew that it was a show on a bus, and I wanted to do something with that. Yet again, I needed to be wary: ideas related to site-specific theatre have the tendency to fall into the trap of being gimmicky. I really wanted to avoid that and emphasize that there was a reason to put this show on a bus. The moment that really did this for me was when the cast is singing On My Way, the show’s opening number, and the bus started to move on the lyric “I am on my way!” The first time I saw this happen on the bus –and mind you, we’d done this a million times without the bus– and I knew what was coming next, yet the moment it happened, I thought to myself: “Oh my gosh, I am on my way with these characters.” It is precisely these immersive and experiential experiences that I try to replicate in my work, because theatre is oftentimes so boring to people. Violet lends itself nicely to such an adaptation. Yet, at the end of the day, it is precisely that – an adaptation. I would be interested in writing a show for a space, as opposed to adapting it to a space – when you do that, the sky is the limit.

Where does the future of Violet lie?

Violet is opening on Broadway in three weeks, so we can’t do anything with the show as of now. But we have been talking to a few theaters and people in the theatre world. I certainly hope that the show can have another kind of life – it is too often the case that something like this happens, and it is then committed to memory. I envision for Violet a future.

From the smaller production like Violet to the biggest production on campus, which this year happens to be Les Mis, how does the responsibility change?

On a personal level, when I was working on Violet, I could still responsibly be a student. I was overworked, yes, but I still managed to take a lot of classes and meet new people. Les Mis is a show that requires all the energy a person possesses. We currently have 107 people working on the show, and oftentimes, they are all looking to myself and the producer to decide what happens next. With homework, you can turn it in late, and it affects your grade. You cannot do that with a musical, and you fail as a director if you do not follow through. So, the responsibility has changed because of the number of people involved. But the other side of it is that we are so lucky to stage a production in a 1,700-seat theatre. That’s more than all but five Broadway theaters. It’s humbling. I think; no, I know, that when I graduate and become a struggling artist, I won’t get the chance to have these resources and teams pouring in their energies for free, ostensibly, on a show like this for a long time. So, Les Mis has to be my life for now, and it’s fantastic to start seeing that labor come to fruition.

How does the integrated theatre experience fit into staging a massive production such as Les Mis?

When we started Les Mis, we were right on the heels of Violet, so I was on this kick of having done something cool, which, I realize, sounds cheap. But I said to everybody: I think this show has to have an element unlike any other production of Les Mis. What is going to distinguish our production? The joke that everybody still teases me about is: Violet is the show that BLANK. We filled it in by putting it on a bus. For Les Mis, I would go around asking: What’s the BLANK? Finally, we figured it out.

What is the BLANK?

I was reading about Victor Hugo and the rich history that Les Mis possesses, a history that isn’t always tapped into. Strangely, Hugo had some views on theatre that were similar to Diane Paulus’. The audience was very important to him – he used to go to the opera a lot in 19th-century Paris. This is all pre-Wagner. When Wagner came along, he required the audience to be all in the dark. That is when the audience dynamics changed, and this is from where modern theatre arose. Pre-Wagner, when people would go to the opera, they barely watched it. They would socialize with their friends, and when they watched certain scenes, it would inspire particular political conversations. People would go back twenty times because of the social experience associated with the opera.

I wanted to create this environment and meta-theatrically set Les Mis in a 19th-century opera house. I needed to get audience members to slip into the roles of 19th-century operagoers. We eventually came to the idea of hiring sixteen straight actors who portray bourgeois operagoers. They create the environment for everybody else. So, when people arrive at Memorial Auditorium, they will exchange their tickets for period-looking opera tickets, go around the sides of the buildings to the side arcades, which will be adorned with candelabras to simulate the 19th-century front-of-the-opera experience. On each side, there will be eight operagoer actors in full regalia, having conversations as characters from that period. Then, they will take their seats with the rest of the audience.

With our dramaturges, we worked towards fashioning these sixteen characters after people who would have attended the opera at the time. We have Victor Hugo attending his own opera, we have Wagner going to the opera and disliking it, we have Claude Monet and Edgar Degas going to the opera. My hope is that people will experience this both as theatre and as education. I hope that the conversations these actors have will cause them to feel like they are living history.

What does the rest of your year look like?

Sleeping. [Laughs] I’m kidding. Over spring break (Ed. Sammi’s interview took place in mid-March), I am going back to New York to work on a musical based on a movie called Finding Neverland that Diane Paulus is directing. I’ll be a production assistant, but after that, I have promised myself to take a break. I will take the time to actually go to class and commit myself to an experience different from that of tunnel vision – which I know so well, having directed a few shows. But I will also be working on preparing for a production of Evita for next year. Right now, we are trying to find the right venue and the right support structure for the show.

It’s easy for me to forget that you are a sophomore like me. What memories from sophomore year will you carry with you?

Stanford is not a theatre school. You’d think that it would be hard to find a group of people so deeply motivated to create good theatre. Yet, much of the team that was working on Les Mis is similar to the team working on Violet because we enjoyed working together so much. More than anything, I have met a terrific group of collaborators with whom to explore the art of theatre that we all love.

Les Misérables opens this Friday in Memorial Auditorium.  For tickets and more info, check out the Facebook page.

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