NEW YORK — The familiar theater clich, thanks largely to Hollywood, depicts a vibrant young actress bursting on the scene, an overnight Broadway star. Rarely, if ever, is the same story told about directors.
Yet Scott Elliott qualifies for the same description. The director opened his second Broadway play last month with the Roundabout Theatre Company's revival of Anton Chekhov's "Three Sisters." It arrives on the heels of his successful interpretation of Nol Coward's "Present Laughter," which opened last November. With these productions, he is drawing attention from every corner of the theater world.
"I was just doing my thing at my little theater, and then it got noticed," the self-effacing director says before the start of rehearsals on the Chekhov revival. Wearing a pullover sweater and jeans, and sipping a soda in the lounge off the theater's main lobby, Elliott expresses hope that his version of the classic play will attract a younger audience.
"I think the fact that people like Lili Taylor and Eric Stoltz are in it will make them come. They'll come to see them, and then experience the play. I'm shocked at how many people don't know Chekhov."
When he first started out, Elliott pounded the pavement in the traditional manner, looking for acting jobs in New York soon after receiving a degree at the Boston Conservatory of Music.
His efforts led to roles in regional theaters and in Broadway's "Les Miserables." Along with a few friends, he later founded a theater company called the New Group "in a little space with 50 seats on 42nd street, on the third floor." After he produced a few plays "by younger, up-and-coming writers," the opportunity came along in the spring of 1995 to direct "Ecstacy," by British filmmaker Mike Leigh (of "Secrets & Lies" fame). Public attention for that production put him on the map. Three smaller productions followed, all of which earned acclaim and showcased his talent for building a sparkling cast to perform difficult pieces.
The offer to direct a Coward revival brought with it the risk of moving into the largest, most-watched arena a stage director can encounter, coupled with the inevitable assumptions made about a familiar work.
"I tried to breathe a new kind of life into it, and to reveal the play in a different way, without being disrespectful," Elliott explains.
Critics registered opinions of every variety, from glowing reports to scathing denunciations. But audiences basked in its engaging wit and accessible style.
Elliott dug deep into both the text itself and the era in which it was written. He noted astutely that the usual depiction of many of the secondary characters in the play as stuffy, emotionless business types didn't fit with the story.
"The fact that they're all close friends said to me that there had to be a string of similarities between them."
Portraying the larger-than-life actor in grand style is Frank Langella, himself a performer noted for exacting attention to detail in his work.
"We were totally in sync," Elliott says about his relationship with Langella. The resulting production presents the Coward play as a fluid, lively tale about complex personalities, rather than familiar stereotypes.
Making the transition from tiny space to Broadway theater could intimidate some, but Elliott says "I haven't changed my process."
"I directed 'Present Laughter' the same way as if I were doing it in a 99-seat theater, except that I had more money for the budgets!"
After reading a script, and "deciding whether it's something I feel I can connect to," the director moves to the casting stage, then selects designers and a crew. "Then, I start to explore the world of the play."
For the Coward project, this has meant research into the playwright's life, and the mores and theatrical conventions of his era. For the Chekhov project, it means "things the author said, other things he wrote, letters he has written, clues to what he wanted to say." Following his own intense research, he gathers together the cast, and they spend the first few days reading the play aloud, and doing acting exercises.
"I work very hard at creating an ensemble, at getting people to know each other. The more they know each other, the more they can play with each other on the stage, spark each other. That's where the chemistry is."
Elliott respects the contribution actors make in shaping a play, and keeping it alive. "I'm not a dictatorial director" in rehearsing and creating a production.
"If somebody feels terribly uncomfortable doing something, I never make them do it."
"And," he adds, "I never freeze my plays. I encourage them to call me up and ask if they can try something new," long after a show opens. "I encourage constant exploration. Otherwise, they're not artists. They're just chess pieces. Then it's not alive."
Last summer, Elliott enjoyed another honor, when he was chosen to direct a reworking of Arthur Miller's "Ride Down Mt. Morgan," presented at the Williamstown Theater Festival in Williamstown, Mass.
"I was actually able to work with the man [Miller] in shaping a play," he says, still moved by the experience.
He plans to use the film-school education he fit in during the past several years at New York University to expand his repertoire and work on a film after "Three Sisters."
He insists, however, that he's not going to leave the theater. "You have to follow your instincts. I'm not doing this for the critics. You can't. If you don't do what you believe in, you'll never know if it was a good idea."
* 'Present Laughter' has an open-ended run. 'Three Sisters' continues through April 6.