Director Si Osborne: Playing it on the fly

July 6, 2011

“I’ve never taken a directing class,” says Si Osborne. “But as an actor I’ve done, oh, 100 or so plays. So I’ve watched a lot of directors.”

Osborne’s the kind of theater artist on whom nothing is lost. His first directing gig, in 2007, was Mary-Arrchie’s acclaimed production of A Prayer for My Daughter. Then came True West for Redtwist. And third: Gift Theatre’s world premiere of William Nedved’s Northwest Highway, which Osborne calls “a story about small people with huge hearts.” The current run is sold-out, but it’s being extended in August—and those seats are reportedly going fast.

The most thrilling of the directors he watched, Osborne says, was Peter Wood (Tom Stoppard’s go-to guy) at LA’s Ahmanson in 1988, when Osborne played a bashful naïf in Les Liaisons Dangereuses. As Osborne tells the story, Wood announced that the scene they were tackling that day “starts off flat. So what we’re going to do, we’ll have an empty champagne bottle rolled out onstage, and this courtesan, dressed in very little, is going to run after it.” Instant appeal.

Osborne brought a similar gift to Northwest Highway: the ability to see what’s going to work onstage whether or not it’s on the page. He calls Nedved’s initial draft “a diamond in the rough—and Will was very amenable to working with it. Unfortunately he was in LA, so we had to do it by e-mail. After rehearsal every night I’d go to him and say, ‘This scene wanders, or this scene is going nowhere, or this scene circles back on itself.’ So paring and shaping the play was a collaboration—a really fun one because the guy is just such a lovely, perceptive person. I’m proudest of the play that you didn’t see—all the changes that Will and I made improved it vastly.”

“New plays are different animals, particularly if the playwright is there,” says Osborne. As a 22-year-old actor in Seattle, he watched one director who “basically had the playwright chained to his desk in his home, rewriting every night after rehearsal. As an actor it was fun, because you’re playing it on the fly. It’s like being an outfielder, you never know where the ball is going to hit.”

Osborne cast Northwest Highway with that thought in mind. “I knew in my bones that this kind of paring away and rewriting would happen, and the actors had to be flexible. They weren’t necessarily all of them the right physical type, but that was less important to me than having the chops and the heart to follow me and Will on these changes.”

Osborne calls directing “scary, because you’re responsible not just for your performance but for all of them.” Still, “I know the heart of a scene and how to get it played,” he says. “I know how to get performances out of actors, simply because I’ve been one for so long.”

And when Osborne sets his sights on a project, he goes after it relentlessly. After seeing Thomas Babe’s 1977 A Prayer for My Daughter (coincidentally, another play about cops) 25 or 30 years ago in Seattle, “I said to myself, ‘I’m going to be involved in this play, somehow, some way.’ So I sat on it for years, and by 2007 it was ancient history—the script was out of print, it was a forgotten dinosaur. I basically had to audition for the directing position. But I knew the play so well, I knew it nearly line by line, so I could quote chapter and verse to Rich [Cotovsky].”

Lately, Osborne’s been shopping around town The Last Station Master by actress Corliss Preston, a friend. “It’s beautifully written, a memory play, very careful, gorgeous. It’s got a ghost. It’s rare to come across a new play where you think, ‘Oh my god, it’s near perfect.’ I might produce the dang thing myself, worst-case scenario. It’s that good. It’s Horton Foote territory, but not as verbose, and a bit darker, but the same sweetness.”