Her Shining Life: Catching Up with Cindy Gendrich
The versatile and multi-faceted Cindy Gendrich has been charged with steering the ship that is the production of Silent Sky for the aWAKEn International Scenic Design Competition, and Wake Forest University Theatre. In addition to serving as one of the judges for the competition, she will be the primary guide and visionary for the designer chosen for the project as it enters production. One must not look far to discover the numerous and varied projects, studies, and courses that Cindy has taken on. In addition to teaching and directing for Wake Forest University's Department of Theatre & Dance for 23 years, this Illinois, USA native has researched and taught about what makes people laugh. She's founded and built a center for facilitating interdisciplinary projects through the Arts. She's collaborated on a multi-year research and playwriting project that saw the production of Embers & Stars: the Petr Ginz Story, a play recounting the captivating but brief life of a Czech boy swallowed by the Holocaust. She's co-written a comprehensive introduction to Theatre book. A recipient of National Endowment for the Arts and National Endowment for the Humanities grants, grass doesn't grow under Cindy's tireless feet.
Despite busily planning for a coming semester of teaching and in the midst of preparing to start rehearsals for a production of Men on Boats, Cindy took a few moments to talk with us about her approach to her work and about herself.
aWAKEn: When first starting a directing project, to what sort of things do you pay the most attention?
Cindy Gendrich: I think it varies with each play, but I certainly tune into how it makes me feel, what it makes me think about, whether it stimulates a strong sensory response in me, and how it feels in relation to our current environment.
aWn: What did you react to in Silent Sky?
CG: With Silent Sky, I had a very powerful emotional and sensory response. It felt incredibly rich aurally and visually, and I left with a kind of buzzy, sparkly. optimistic feeling. It made me laugh and cry; it made me think and care about the people. And I could easily see how this could translate to a play our students would connect with. My mom was a math major in college and my dad was a scientist, so all the math and science-related content was cool to me. And I'm an ardent feminist, so the women's story is a powerful draw, as well. Plus I think we should seize any chance we get, in our current science-skeptic and art-indifferent world, to point out the importance and beauty of both science and the arts. (Music figures really strongly in Silent Sky, as well).
aWn: As historical fiction about the real life figure, Henrietta Leavitt, Silent Sky is making a silent voice heard. Have you worked on other plays with a similar theme?
CG: I've always been drawn to these kinds of stories. My dissertation was on nineteenth century American comic actresses, and if anyone [reading] this right now knows any of their names—let alone their accomplishments—I am amazed and I salute you! But in some ways, every time you put a woman, an LGBTQ person, a disabled person, someone non-Christian, or a person of color at the center of a story, you are shifting our attention toward someone who is probably ignored or undervalued a lot of the time. I have actually directed very few plays that center on a straight white man's perspective, and even then, I have usually chosen plays with female protagonists. So yes, in my forty years of directing, I've directed dozens of plays that let us hear voices that aren't customarily centered. They're just not usually so fully biographical. I suppose that the closest recent thing I've done is These Shining Lives, by Melanie Marnich, also a historical piece about forgotten women—those who painted the radium dials on watches in the 1920s and 30s. But Silent Sky is a very different play, tonally and thematically.
These Shining Lives, 2014; Wake Forest University Theatre
aWn: How do you like to work with your scenic designer and the rest of the design team?
CG: Well, first, I LOVE working with designers. I'm a little obsessed with contemporary painting, and I have designed sound and costumes a fair bit myself for college productions; purely out of necessity, not talent! And I worked in costume shops for years. All that is to say I have some appreciation of the design/build process, and I enjoy it. As a director, I start with doing a bunch of work on the play by myself, then generally share a kind of sprawling "thoughts" kind of document with the designers. This will usually include reflections on ideas/themes, characters, relationships, the feel of the piece, and the story--as well as inspiration materials/research, usually including paintings and photos. I've been known to include poetry, songs, lots of lists of words that jump out at me--really anything that seems relevant.
aWn: I'm big on words in the early stages too, so your lists are very helpful.
CG: Once I've shared those initial thoughts, though, I like to just talk about the play and hear from the designers. What is bubbling up for them? What do they see and hear? I love looking at things and listening to things, scribbling on paper with each other, passing around art books and songs, and generally getting excited about what we gravitate toward together. I even love it when we find something that really doesn't work. The "not that" moment is often more clarifying that the, "ooh, something like that" one. The university environment is so good for me because I really get to have a relationship with people, and the opportunity to run into each other and casually explore—which can be such a free, lovely way to generate, cultivate, and edit ideas.
aWn: Could you describe your directing style or maybe your directing "aesthetic" in a sentence or two?
CG: Probably not. Alan Watts once said, "Trying to define yourself is like trying to bite your own teeth." But I can tell you what I like. I like clarity and complexity. I like to feel and think, and I love to laugh more than anything in the world. Tony Kushner once described the kind of theatre he tries to make as being like lasagna—multilayered, almost about to topple, rich, satisfying, but with enough structure to hold it together. I love that.
aWn: Wow. I do too.
CG: I love brave work, surprising work, things that almost don't work, but do. I love to leave the theatre feeling like I've been on an adventure. And I try to make theatre that does that.
aWn: Surprising work, bold work; yes. I think that's why you and I have put some good art onstage: we share that pursuit.
aWn: Okay, enough business. I think people want to learn a little about YOU as a real life figure. What do you do for fun away from the theatre? Do you have any other artistic pursuits?
CG: I was—maybe still am—an actor. I played the flute for about 17 years, took drawing and painting and theatre design classes when I was young, and continue to doodle and draw. I love concerts and galleries and museums, film, furniture design, and modern architecture. But really the creative thing that I'm most connected to, other than directing plays, is food, which—when done well—is kind of the ultimate sensory art form. I'm a pretty good cook, and am so inspired by people who are really amazing ones. The smells and tastes, the visual and textural elements, the way the ingredients stimulate feeling and place. And I think of my work as a director as being a lot like a chef's job, both in terms of process and of presenting something for people to enjoy that can become a part of them, but only in memory.
aWn: What a great metaphor. Its ephemeral nature is one of the things I love about theatre and I've never equated it to eating in that way.
aWn: Do you have a favorite cuisine?
CG: Vietnamese food in the summer. French in the winter.
aWn: Okay, more simple pleasures then: Wine, beer or cocktail?
CG: If they're good, any of the above. But a great Old Fashioned—not too sweet, lots of orange—is a thing of beauty.
aWn: Mountains or beach?
CG: Water of any kind.
aWn: This is an international project, of course, so what's your favorite place in the world?
CG: Oh, that's so hard! I remember having amazing experiences in Portugal, Spain, Germany, Japan, China, and Canada. Prague is amazing. And of course for theatre, you can't beat London. I suppose if I could live anywhere, that's where I'd choose to settle down.
aWn: What was the last country you visited?
CG: China, in 2019. I literally haven't left North Carolina since then . . . stupid COVID.
aWn: Finally, what's something about you that others might find surprising?
CG: Maybe that I love to be alone. Our jobs are so social that I am very happy to just chill on the couch with my two old dogs and eat pizza. Many of my friends are currently becoming empty-nesters, and they keep saying, "The house is so quiet now," as if that's a BAD thing. That's my heaven.
Embers & Stars, the Petr Ginz Story, 2014; Wake Forest University Theatre