In 1975 Claudia Weill’s film The Other Half of the Sky: A China Memoir, which she codirected with Shirley MacLaine, was an Oscar contender for best feature-length documentary, and she later became the third woman in history to be admitted into the Academy of Motion Picture Arts and Sciences, known for the prestigious film award, as a film director. She was one of the first women to enter the union as a camerawoman and has worked as director on numerous film and television projects, including the feature film Girlfriends, which earned awards at Cannes and Sundance film festivals, and the TV dramas My So Called Life and Chicago Hope. Her directorial work has spanned decades and ranges from film to television to theatre.
Tonight, Islanders will have the opportunity to catch a preview of her latest directorial project, a performance of the two-character stage drama Memory House, at the Vineyard Playhouse in Vineyard Haven.
“It’s like a mother-daughter battle of the titans,” said Ms. Weill of the play. She was perched in front of her laptop computer at the Playhouse on Tuesday trying to complete a press release for the play while sitting for an interview. She had less than two weeks to rehearse the performance with the actors, and now she is working hard to get the play some last-minute publicity.
She described the rehearsal schedule as “very intense,” but her decision to direct a play for the playhouse was more a labor of love than a professional boost.
“You really have to care to do it here,” she said. “It’s about the art. It’s not a money-making venture for anybody working here.”
Since graduating from Harvard University in 1969, Ms. Weill’s role in the entertainment industry has flowed through many different phases. As a young director, she focused mostly on documentary work, followed by a life chapter dedicated to directing major studio features. She became a mother late in life, and turned her attention to television work to leave her more time to spend with her two sons.
“[TV] is a much shorter commitment,” she said. “It’s like two weeks, three weeks, and then you get back into the carpool line. You’re not preoccupied for a year [as with feature films].” She continued to work in television for the next two decades, until her sons went off to college.
“I was like, I’m out of this, it’s too much work,” she said. “The work I like is the actors, the writers, the designers, and the audience. And I found myself going back to my original roots, which was theatre,” she said.
She also took up teaching, which she had been asked to do for years but had always declined.
“It’s really interesting. Things you think you wouldn’t like all of a sudden you love,” she said of her changing interests.
“I never thought I would like teaching but it’s really fun . . . to light the spark and see other people get it. It’s hard to teach, because you don’t want to just talk, you don’t want to just lecture. You want to find a way to make [students] come forward, to really connect.”
These days Ms. Weill divides her time between her home in Los Angeles, where she teaches in the School of Cinema at the University of Southern California, and her seasonal home in Chilmark. “I kind of married into the Vineyard,” she explained. “I married a man, Walter Teller, whose family had been living here for 60 years. [Now] we live here at least a third of the year.”
The Memory House is also rooted on the Vineyard. Playwright Kathleen Tolan held the first workshop for her script at the playhouse with actress Dianne Wiest. The play has since been performed in various locations around the country. Ms. Weill was not at that first reading, but read the play some years later and loved it.
“I said to M.J. [Bruder Munafo, director of the Playhouse], this would be a great play,” said Ms. Weill. Ms. Munafo agreed, and they set about putting their plan into action. “It’s beautiful because it comes full circle. This is an example of how great the playhouse is at nurturing new work. Then it goes out into the world and gets beautiful productions elsewhere, and then comes back and is being done here.”
Memory House takes place in real time, in a single room of a New York city apartment on New Year’s Eve. The two characters are a mother and daughter struggling with issues relating to the daughter’s adoption, her parents’ recent divorce, and a rapidly approaching deadline for postmarking college application essays that looms closer as the minutes tick by. “Underneath there is a lot of stuff going on,” said Ms. Weill. “It’s incredibly funny and real. I’ve never done a play where parents and teenagers, parents and kids, both go to the play and love it. It’s very rare, thematically. It doesn’t take sides.”
The play stars Natalia Payne as the daughter and Kathy Baker as the mother. Ms. Baker is an Emmy, Golden Globe, and Screen Actors Guild award winner for her film and television roles. How did Ms. Weill get her to agree to act in Memory House?
“I just e-mailed her and said what are you doing? I’m doing this great play on Martha’s Vineyard. Are you free? Do you want to read it?” she said. Ms. Baker loved the play, and despite the fact that the Vineyard Playhouse doesn’t offer its actors much in the way of monetary compensation, she made arrangements to come and work on the Island for the month of August.
“It’s just a really fun, smart play. You don’t have to have any experience with adoption or divorce for it to work for you. It’s totally about any parent and any child,” said Ms. Weill.
The final preview performance of Memory House is tonight at 8 p.m. at the Vineyard Playhouse on Church street in Tisbury. Tickets are $20.
Opening night is Saturday and the play continues through Sept. 5. Tickets are available online at vineyardplayhouse.org or by calling 508-696-6300.