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Ethan McSweeney

By Gary Wien

Ethan McSweeney is one of the fastest rising directors in theatre. Only in his early thirties, he has already directed both on and Off-Broadway as well as regional productions around the country. His affiliation with George Street Playhouse began during the 2000-2001 season and since 2001 he has been GSP's Associate Director.

McSweeney spoke to me via phone before one of the final rehearsals for A Walk in the Woods, which runs from November 18th to December 14th at George St.

I heard there was a joke going around the cast that you told them you didn't watch the "West Wing" because you had lived it.
Yeah. I did mention that. (laughs) I'm not a big television watcher, but recently - about last year - I started watching a little more of the "West Wing" and I did really like it. But I think originally they were the semi-familiar corridors and, well, I don't suppose a lot of doctors watch ER.

I grew up in Washington and in the political and diplomatic circles of it. Both of my parents had come to Washington during the Johnson administration and stayed. Actually, when I went to college at Columbia University in New York, I originally intended to be a Russian Studies major. I was going to be a Sovietologist and either become a foreign correspondent or join the State Department.

What changed your mind?
In my first semester at Columbia, I actually failed Russian!

That should be a clue...
Well, I think I failed it in part because I was spending a little bit too much time in the rehearsal hall and not enough time in the language lab. So, it was a turning point for me because up until that point I had done some theatre but I hadn't thought about it as something to pursue as a career.

It's funny because we actually knew a lot of Russians. And I was one of the first two Americans to ever go to Young Pioneer camp for an extended stay in 1985. My friend, Elliott, and I went together as ambassadors. We went to a place called ARTEK, which was the premier Young Pioneers camp.

If you took the Boy Scouts and the Girl Scouts, combined them and added a tiny bit of Leninism you'd get the Young Pioneers. I had never really been to camp in America, so I don't have anything to compare it too, but it was 5,000 Young Pioneers organized in 5 different camps on the shore of the Black Sea, outside of Yalta. It was just a remarkable, formidable experience for me and my friend, Elliott.

Sounds like you're perfect to direct a play about politics and the Cold War...
Well, I think I probably do bring some knowledge to the production that very few directors in the American Theatre could possibly bring. And, in that regard, I think I've always felt a connection to the play and even felt a connection the first time I saw it.

Who knows??It could be part of making that transition from thinking about going into government service and thinking about going into the theatre. And seeing that there might be places where those two things might even cross over was really exciting for me.

I remember thinking, "My God, someone's written a play about things I'm interested in and that I know something about." And what is interesting about a lot of Lee Blessing's work is that he writes about things he doesn't have any first hand experience of. And he does so with so much authencity that it's really remarkable.

It's a psychological exploration of what we expect from people who come to sit down at a table and negociate for their countries.

One of the things that really turns me on about the play is the way Lee captures the mind of people who spend this much time thinking about big, strategic, worldwide questions. And there are so many great minds that do this. He captures the spirit of the people who go into public service. It's not the private sector. They sacrifice something in their incomes to get a chance to play in this league. I think there's a whole other group of people who are not elected officials, who are not politicians, and who don't change with each administration who are some of the best and brightest in this entire country.

The play first opened around 1987. In your opinion, how has the play aged?
I pulled the play off my shelf about a year and a half ago - not with an eye to direct it, but because Lee and I had just done a project together and I'd really come to admire him and gotten to know him. I pulled it off my shelf because I was just curious about how this play about a Soviet and an American in nuclear negotiations stood up when there wasn't a Soviet Union. And to my amazement it was much more contemporary than I expected it to be.

What I found in the play and what I hope the audiences will find too is this idea of diplomacy and what we expect from it and how we think it should work. It's the character of the people that we ask to sit down at a table when they hold opposing views and represent governments with opposing views and come to agreement. I think about the new world that we're living in now... If we don't have some really good diplomacy in the next 10-15 years, some really terrible things are going to happen.

Is it different directing a revival?
In essence, it's no different directing a revival than it is directing a new play except that there is a history here now. There is a production history and, in many cases, I have probably seen one of those productions. ?I think it's a challenge to acknowledge that and then get it out of your head so what you're doing is original.

The reason to do a revival is because a play only exists - well, obviously there's a published script you can read - but it only really exists when it's being performed. If you don't revive something it doesn't get the chance to exist again and for us to see what has changed.

Gary Wien has been covering the arts since 2001 and has had work published with Jersey Arts, Elmore Magazine, Princeton Magazine, Backstreets and other publications. He is a three-time winner of the Asbury Music Award for Top Music Journalist and the author of Beyond the Palace (the first book on the history of rock and roll in Asbury Park) and Are You Listening? The Top 100 Albums of 2001-2010 by New Jersey Artists. In addition, he runs New Jersey Stage and the online radio station The Penguin Rocks. He can be contacted at gary@newjerseystage.com.

originally published: 11/01/2003

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