Play directed by former East Lyme resident nominated for Tony Award
When the Tony Awards are handed out on Sunday at Radio City Music Hall, Oliver Butler will be in the audience — a first for the director.
The play he directed, “What the Constitution Means to Me,” which is written by and stars Heidi Shreck, is up for best play and Schreck is nominated for best actress.
It’s been a heady time for all associated with “Constitution,” which isn’t a typical Broadway show. When she was 15, Schreck earned money for her college tuition by competing in Constitutional debates. In the show, she “recalls her teenage self in order to trace the profound relationship between four generations of women in her own family and the founding document that dictated their rights and citizenship,” as the “Constitution” website states.
It’s been a fairly quick rise for “Constitution,” which started with performances at Clubbed Thumb in New York in 2017 and a theater in Berkeley, California. A return to the East Coast saw runs at the New York Theatre Workshop and off-Broadway at the Greenwich House Theater. Then producers were interested in bringing the show to Broadway, where it has proven quite a success. (It was a Pulitzer Prize finalist and won Best American Play at the New York Drama Critics Circle Awards.)
Butler spoke by phone on Monday, the morning after he and his wife, Cynthia Flowers, who is executive director of Soho Rep, attended the Drama Desk Awards, where projects they each worked on were nominated.
Butler and Flowers, by the way, wed just a week before that, with a number of Butler’s East Lyme friends in attendance.
Butler graduated from East Lyme High School in 1996, and he did some acting during his time there, playing Judas in “Jesus Christ Superstar” and Seymour in “Little Shop of Horrors.”
His being drawn to the arts seems natural, considering that Butler comes from a theater family. His mother, Pamela Payton-Wright, is an actress who performed numerous roles on Broadway and off. His father, David, was a director and stage manager. (Oliver lived with his father and stepmother Laura in East Lyme; his mother lived in New York City and Westchester County.)
Butler has developed quite a resume over the years. He co-founded the Debate Society, an acclaimed, Brooklyn-based theater company.
He directed an “Encores!” revival of “Tick, Tick … Boom!” starring Lin-Manuel Miranda in 2014.
That same year, he won an Obie Award for directing Will Eno’s “The Open House," and also in 2014 directed a revival of "Thom Pain" that starred Michael C. Hall (“Dexter”).
This fall, he’ll helm Eno’s “The Plot” at Yale Repertory Theatre in New Haven.
Butler also teaches at the National Theater Institute at the Eugene O’Neill Theater Center in Waterford. In fact, Shreck and Butler spent a week at NTI developing “What the Constitution Means to Me” during its earlier stages.
On attending Sunday’s Tony Awards:
“It’s really exciting, although I will say the idea of going and doing these sort of iconic Broadway things has just not even been on my radar. I spent a lot of time feeling like Broadway was almost like another industry completely, even though it’s theater, of course. I hadn’t spent a whole lot of time thinking I would actually end up going to the Tonys one day. So when it happened with this, which is a really unlikely play for Broadway, it all feels really exciting but also just unreal. … You know, what I will say about Broadway, as a downtown theater guy, is it is a really wonderful community.”
Connecting with “What the Constitution Means to Me”:
“Heidi came to talk to me about the play just over two years ago. She had been working on some version of it for 10 years that basically included her section of the play, which is about ¾ of the show. She told me she had put herself through college giving speeches on the Constitution and that her great-great-grandmother had come to America from Germany as a mail-order bride. She wanted to create this piece, which was a recreation of those speeches, to track how the Constitution did and did not provide rights to the women in her family and how she became the first woman on one side of her family to grow up in a home free from domestic violence. She told me all of that, and I got really excited, both by just the core story — the family’s story sounded exciting and terrifying — but also the idea of a recreation, recreating a contest from your youth and reengaging with your young self through imagination and empathy just seemed like a really exciting thing to do. An element of competition seemed really fun for me as well, the idea that something can be won and lost, and trying to apply that to something as amorphous and unknown as the U.S. Constitution.”
A life-changing experience at East Lyme High School:
“We had an amazing program that was run by James Warykas. It was fantastic. .. It was sort of life-changing. I mean, I grew up in the theater — my mother was an actress — but I was never an actor. At East Lyme High School, I was sort of a sports guy. Someone convinced me to go audition for the school play. So I went and I auditioned for ‘Little Shop of Horrors,’ and I got the role. I stopped playing baseball partially because I got involved in the spring musical. The whole ethos there, this sort of ‘let’s make up a play,’ was totally student-driven — it was not full of parents who were doing the work for the students. It was students there building a set, running the rehearsals, under the guidance of Mr. Warykas. I think it was that ‘let’s make a play’ ethos that has carried with me my whole life. I studied at the Williamstown Theatre Festival, and that was (the same ethos). … It was, like, you are a bunch of creative people, now make it happen.”
French, politics … and finding his way back to theater:
“My mom was in the theater, so I knew how hard the job was. In my mind, I thought I was going to go into politics, which I feel like I might be veering into now. But politics or possibly be an ambassador in France — I was studying French and languages and I wanted to travel. I really didn’t think I’d continue with the theater. But when I got to college — I went to UConn — I studied in the French department for a while, and I just wasn’t inspired by it in the right way. And I studied in the political science department for a little while, and I was also was not inspired by it. I just got sucked into theater and found such a sense of joy and excitement and creativity that that’s how I got redirected back into what I guess I was supposed to be doing.”
Joining the family business:
“I grew up backstage at Hartford Stage, I grew up backstage at Long Wharf, I grew up backstage at all the theaters in New York. Many of my closest childhood friends were theater technicians and actors. I’m still connected to some of them. … It was a cool place to be because, running around backstage, the people are awesome — theater people are great. It’s a really fun, intelligent place to grow up, but it was like my family business. Going into the theater for me is like staying home and working at the family store or something, which I loved. I loved the personal relationship I have to the theater. … (Being at a theater) feels calming and warm for me. It is also this extremely mundane at times. It’s just like being at home, all the complexities and drawbacks of being at home.”
Butler was acting in a production of “The Blue Demon” at Williamstown, when seeing Darko Tresnjak direct that piece lit the fire in him to become a director:
“It was in that experience of watching him work with the actors, the different styles of performance that he was drawing upon, that I thought, ‘This seems like a really exciting role for me.’ I’m a creative thinker and a creator. But I also like managing and guiding the process. I’m like a systemic thinker, so for me the ability to actually guide the structure, the process that other people are going to be engaged in, that felt really exciting to me. It was just an instinct I had, being on the other side of the table, watching the show that led me to do that.”
How working on “What the Constitution Means to Me” altered Butler’s view of the Constitution:
“This play has been most transformative theatrical experience of my life. It has coincided with my finding my role as an activist in the world. I feel like I have become a full human being by working on the show, spending two years sort of tracking the evolution of what’s happening in the country right now and also having this way to understand how I can personally interact with the document. We have a debate in the play every night about whether we should keep or abolish the Constitution (Schreck and a teenager in the cast debate that) … I don’t think there are too many people on our team who think we should wholesale abolish the Constitution, but it ends up being an opportunity for us to talk about whether radical change or incremental change is the path forward. I have absolutely become someone who thinks that we should pursue a path of radical change when it comes to the Constitution. Heidi talks about this — there are 180 countries in the world that have explicit gender protections in their Constitution. The United States is not one of them. If you’ve ever wondered why a domestic abuser’s right to own a gun seems to be protected more than a domestic partner’s right to not be killed by that gun, it’s because guns are in the Constitution and gender is not. It’s very cut and dried, in a way, this document that most people don’t really fully read or understand. There are explicit reasons why you do and do not have certain rights.”
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