A Conversation with an Artistic Director

by Cynthia Wands

(Unknown photographer)
But they captured the essence of my conversation today with Marilyn Langbehn.

(Unknown photographer)
But this captured the essence of my conversation today with Marilyn Langbehn.

This afternoon, I had a conversation with Marilyn Langbehn, a friend of some 40 years, who is the Artistic Director of the Contra Costa Civic Theatre, and was recently appointed as the General Manager of TheatreWorks in Palo Alto . She is directing CCCT’s current production of “To Master the Art”, which is running through May 21.

I wanted to find out more about her current production, “To Master the Art” which was originally commissioned by Timeline Theatre in Chicago and produced in 2010. The script was written by Chicago playwrights Doug Frew and William Brown and recalls the journey of the French chef, Julia Child with her husband Paul Child in Paris during the 1950’s. 

Here’s a description of the play:

“To Master the Art” – Living in Paris in 1948, newlywed Julia Child was left with time on her hands, so she decided to enroll in a cooking class at the prestigious culinary academy, Le Cordon Bleu. She fell in love with the city and its cuisine, and four years later published her seminal cookbook “Mastering the Art of French Cooking”, which helped to bring gourmet French living into many American homes for the first time. With wit and humor and a whole lot of butter, To Master The Art tells Julia’s personal story, illuminating her journey from amateur cookbook author to international food icon.

This interview is from our conversation today (and is edited for clarity and brevity):

C: You’ve been such a champion for reading and producing new scripts, as I know from our collaboration together, but how did you find the script for “To Master the Art”?

M: Well, I went to the American Association of Community Theaters website, and happened on a chat that was amongst the regulars there and somebody in that cohort mentioned “To Master the Art”. And other people chimed in and said we just did that show, and audiences just loved it.

And that piqued my interest as I was struggling to come up with something of that type for our season. I found out through a little research that the show was commissioned by Time Line in Chicago. And so I reached out to my friend Jack, who was the Artistic Director at Theater of Western Springs, west of Chicago, and I asked him about the script.

And he said yes, I know the show, we’ve done it…and I can put you in touch with the playwrights, because the script is unpublished.  I said, please do. And so that started a three year long conversation because I announced (that my theatre would produce the script) and then I had to immediately pull it because of Covid. I had announced it for our 2021 season, as the holiday show…And so I kept going back to the playwrights and they were very understanding and patient. I had paid for the royalties and..we just kept hoping and waiting and finally we got a break in whatever this pandemic turned out to be…to produce it.

C:  Isn’t it interesting / finding a script that’s not published / that’s been produced before in other theaters…and it’s proved to be successful with that audiences, and it’s shown a good return for those theaters that produced it.

M: And that’s definitely been our experience…the audiences just feel good when they leave the theater. And it has a more serious vein then you might suspect, because the authors weave in the story of Paul Child’s run in with the State Department and CIA.

The thing that I love about this script, among many others, is it really allows us to see Paul as the champion of his wife’s career..without getting too maudlin about. There’s a scene in the play…where you see where Paul really lets Julia have it…and he just explodes. The tie in between the food that we love and the fact that food is an expression of love to the people in your world, is something that’s very clearly articulated in this script.

C: This ties right into my second question: what was it about this script that made you want to direct it?

The things that we’ve just been talking about. The fact that there is a such a clear through line between food and love and community. And – hope. You know, you invest so much into the perfecting of something. That it’s very much like fishing. If you’ll go with me on this analogy…Scarlett, my wife, is the one that articulated this idea to me. That fishing is all about hope. Because you get out there on the water and you just hope that something strikes. But its really not about the fish, its about the experience. And that to me, is a lot about what is happening in this play. It starts with this idea..that I might be good at this. And grows from there, and develops into a real command of self that wasn’t present when Julia first landed there. Julia was certainly a strong woman..but she didn’t have an opportunity to really express that in a way that she found satisfying until she discovered this affinity for cooking.

C: And you actually took a cooking class in Paris earlier this year, at the Cordon Bleu, before you directed this play – did you find that the French cooking class helped inform choices with the script when you directed it?

M: It did. It certainly gave me cred, when I said in rehearsal, that they wouldn’t do it that way at the Cordon Bleu…and I happen to know that. You know me, Cynthia, I love the research piece. I could have been a great dramaturg if I hadn’t become a director…

The cooking class came about accidentally….Scarlett had never been in Paris, I had never been in Amsterdam, and as we were planning our trip to Europe.. I thought I would get my picture taken outside the Cordon Bleu School…and I went online…and sure enough…they offer a couple of classes, and I chose the Praline Choux class…And I had the best time. It was remarkable to be in that space…I learned that having sous chefs is the only way to cook…

C: And you have real cooking, real food, on stage for this play; was that also informed by your cooking class at the Cordon Bleu?

M: Some of it, yes…Part of it was informed by Cordon Bleu…and part of it was informed, oddly enough, by a production of Titus Andronicus that I had just seen at the Globe Theater in London, on this same trip. Because, I know, the production of Titus that I saw, did not have any gore…anything bad that happened to someone…happened to a candle. Candles were chopped with a cleaver, candles were broken in half, candle flames were snuffed out when someone died…but at one moment they put the candles in a blender and turned it on…and I thought: oh, they have a generator on that cart in order to power the blender…it informed me (for this play): how do we turn on the hot plate on stage…without setting the curtains on fire on stage…

C: Tell me about the character of Julia Child in this script..is she discovering her calling with food in the script?

M: She has a moment at the end of the first act, where she realizes that she’s never taken anything very seriously. Except for her husband Paul, and the cat…Paul is known for being one of the most iconic supportive husbands…and he was also an artist.

C: Has everyone in your cast become a foodie?

M: Yes – some of them are coming to that, and some of them were were already there when I cast them…I found out later that one of our cast members was a well known CHILD CHIEF when he was some twelve years old…he knew an awful lot about eggs at the auditions…One of the things I asked the cast members was: what’s your favorite food? Now THAT was fascinating…some of them said mac and cheese…some were a mix of comfort food/historical/cultural foods….one cast member said that champagne is its own food group.

This is one of the loveliest companies I’ve ever worked with…I mean they are – they are mad about each other…the guy that’s plays the chef, he looked at his fellow castmates and asked: “Is it always like this? The way we get along?” And yes, there are the rare ones that come along…

C: What’s been the most challenging part of being an Artistic Director?

M: Oh. I would probably answer that question differently now: Before and After the Pandemic.

Before the Pandemic I think the most most challenging thing was living up to my own expectations about the work. I really pushed myself and the company to expand its notion what was possible on that stage…to expect more from us. We were getting there…

But now, since the pandemic, the question is reckoning on how to serve the community. Because people’s notion of what they’re comfortable spending their time doing – have changed…and a lot of audiences are returning more slowly and a lot of audiences are not coming back…the pandemic just accelerated that.

If you don’t have the luxury of the stalwart aging audience, who are you telling stories to, and what stories do they want to hear? And that should be the story all along…how do you balance robust story telling, meaningful work, and serving the community…

There was a big push, pre-pandemic, where a lot of theaters proudly announced a season of all women’s plays, or all female authors, all female whatever it was as a hook…and it was… ultimately self defeating, because once you’ve done that, how do you keep it up? Because the minute you don’t do it, you’ve fallen off…

C: What can you see happening in theater post Covid?

M: I think a lot of… community theaters, are forced into the lowest common denominator type of programming, because no one is programing Spongebob The Musical because they think its high art, they’re programming it because it can sell tickets. And nothing against Spongebob, jukebox musicals, revivals of musicals about movies… but those kind of choices..the name recognition titles as a survival mechanism…I worry that those choices crowd out new work. And doesn’t leave room for new stories to come out. We get the rare one like Kimberly Akimbo (which I would love to see)…there are the rare new musicals coming out, but as far as new plays (are concerned), in this climate, its hard to make the case for new works at the community theater level. New plays are so much harder to sell, they’re so much more expensive to sell because of a lack of recognition. But on the other hand, the stuff that does have name recognition are usually works by dead white men, or really old white men…

C: I have to say, talking to you today about your current show, and finding out what it takes to find a play, that’s already been produced…but is unpublished…and has such a great connection with the audience, sounds just inspiring. There’s hope there.

M: It’s such fun to watch the audience as they leave the show, they basically don’t know what hit them…but they are grinning from ear to ear. And I keep hearing over and over again as they leave “You know, I’m really hungry.” Which I LOVE. Yeah. Give me more of that.

C: I think that’s a great place to end this interview, because all this talk about cooking, I think I’m kind of hungry –

M: I know I’m starving –

C. I’m going to go off and make myself a ham sandwich!

M: Alright!

C: Marilyn: thank you so much for sharing your thoughts and perspectives, so valuable. I’m just so inspired by the work you do, your investment in scripts and actors. You’re a marvel.