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Making a Scene

Peter Rothstein isn’t a self-promoter. But with gigs at the Guthrie and the Children’s Theatre—and his company, Theater Latté Da, starting its 10th season—the director suddenly finds himself in the spotlight.

Making a Scene
Photo by Joe Treleven
EVERYONE’S WONDERING if Peter Rothstein will fire the leading lady. Never mind that canning her just days before opening could jeopardize the entire production. Never mind that she’s appeared on Seinfeld and has a Tony nomination to her credit. She’s dropping lines. Worse, she’s calling for lines. Even the actress herself senses she’s on thin ice: “She really thinks I’m going to fire her,” Rothstein says, emerging from her dressing room after a preview performance. He rolls his eyes.

This is the kind of drama no director likes. But Rothstein isn’t going to fire her. Not because he’s trying to be a nice guy (though, by all accounts, he is: “Peter is probably the kindest man I know,” says one Twin Cities actress). And not because he can’t do without her (an understudy is ready and waiting). No, he handpicked her for the part and he believes she’ll dazzle audiences if she can just stop fretting and learn her lines. “Besides,” he says with a sigh, “she’s perfect for the part.”

If ever Rothstein had reason to trust his instincts, it’s now. After years of engineering productions that played in small venues or in other cities, the soft-spoken 41-year-old is finally getting his due: The Guthrie’s Joe Dowling hired Rothstein to direct its summer staging of Noel Coward’s Private Lives, and earlier this year Peter Brosius, artistic director of the Children’s Theatre Company, tapped him to mastermind a production of Disney’s High School Musical—a show so popular that it was remounted again this past summer. In December, the vocal ensemble Cantus will premiere a work Rothstein created to commemorate the wartime truce of Christmas 1914, and this month Theater Latté Da, the musical-theater company he helped found in 1997, marks the start of its 10th season with a production of Puccini’s La bohème.

“He’s directed opera, musicals, and straight plays,” Dowling says. “He’s taught, he’s written—this is a man for all seasons.”

PERFORMANCE HAS ALWAYS been a part of Rothstein’s life. The youngest of 11 children born into a middle-class family from Grand Rapids, he distinguished himself early on as an artistic wunderkind. When his piano teacher suggested he perform some pieces for family and friends at the local Catholic church, the high-school senior pulled out all the stops: He hung paintings he’d created in the lobby, published poetry he’d written in the program, put together a compilation of songs he’d sung, and silk-screened T-shirts for other participants. There was a costume change at intermission. “It was a little less than humble,” Rothstein recalls. “It was me as Thomas Jefferson.”

Hubris aside, it was a sign of things to come. Today, as a director, Rothstein draws on many of the same talents he displayed in that recital. He’s a visual artist, sketching set designs with a pencil or blocking actors in a manner that creates symmetry or imbalance on stage. He’s a musician, minding off-key or missed notes and rifling through old song books to find the perfect incidental music. He’s a poet, attuned to the meaning and power of words. During one rehearsal for Private Lives, actor Stephen Pelinski recalls, he and Rothstein had a heated discussion over how to weight the words in the phrase “cotton-wool Englishmen,” an insult that’s both obscure and almost instantly forgotten as the play races on. “We fought over those words for what seemed like 15 minutes,” Pelinski remembers. (In the end, he conceded the director’s interpretation was right.)

Such discussions rarely reach tempest level, however—in part because Rothstein brings a sense of empathy to the table. “Being an actor is incredibly difficult,” he says, adding that he usually got secondary roles as a student at St. John’s University in Collegeville, losing out to the school’s star thespian—who’s now on Broadway. “I was a good actor, but not a great actor. So I know how difficult it is to put yourself out there.”

Rothstein often uses his wit—as wry as Coward’s—to diffuse emotions in the rehearsal room. If that doesn’t cut the tension, Rothstein changes the subject. “I’ve seen him be tense, but I’ve not seen him blow up,” says actress Sally Wingert, who last year worked with Rothstein on a one-woman show about Peggy Guggenheim. “If things are spiraling or burning, he backs way back or moves on to something else. I think he’s very diplomatic.”

The director chalks it up to growing up in a family of 13. “When you coexist with that many people in a house,” Rothstein says, “you’re more sensitive to what’s going on with everybody at the dinner table.”

AMONG ACTORS and techies, Rothstein is famous—perhaps notorious—for his attention to detail. Polly Carl of the Playwrights’ Center in Minneapolis recalls working with Rothstein on a play that was in development: “He was obsessed with the stage directions,” Carl says, laughing. “If we had to have one more conversation about the stage directions….” Pelinski says he was surprised at the advance preparation the director had done for the first rehearsal of Private Lives: “Given that directors are often directing one thing as they’re preparing for something else, he came with a lot of research. He had all his ducks in a row. He knew every aspect of the production. He came to every rehearsal very prepared—and highly caffeinated.”

Tod Petersen, who collaborated with Rothstein on Theater Latté Da’s holiday hit, A Christmas Carole Petersen, marvels at the director’s capacity to remember lines. “Usually in rehearsal, if you forget a line, you call out to the stage manager to read from the script. But if Peter is out there in the dark, he’ll give you the line. He’s got it memorized. It’s a little crazy. He’s a little OCD.”

Rothstein readily admits to an obsession with theatrical minutia—particularly period details. He loves fixing a play in its proper context, immersing himself in music associated with World War I or researching events that may have influenced the writing of Gypsy. He often leafs through The Timetables of History for inspiration, and he confesses he owns “an obscene number” of art books. Research is his creative fuel, Petersen says: “He doesn’t watch TV. He doesn’t know who Lindsay Lohan is. He spends no time in pop culture. He’s always researching.”

The director’s commitment to research is perhaps best illustrated by his decision to produce La bohème at the Loring Playhouse in 2005. Rothstein wanted to move Puccini’s popular opera, set in the 1830s, forward a century, to Paris during the German occupation. Nazi soldiers would patrol the streets; citizens wearing yellow stars would hide in the shadows. He decided he needed a new translation. “There’s a million translations of La bohème,” he says. “But I knew that in making a translation there’s huge flexibility. I wanted to create a translation that was specific to our production.” So he obtained a grant that allowed him to study Italian in Umbria for three months. He also visited Puccini’s birthplace and residence—imbibing the culture and studying the scenery that may have influenced the composer.

One weekend, Rothstein visited a remote village where the composer had spent several summers. An old man led him through the small stone cottage that Puccini had rented, pointing out an old baptismal gown on display as well as an old Victrola sent by Thomas Edison. During the tour, Rothstein noticed an odd piece of artwork: A well-used painters’ palette, shellacked with photos of La bohème’s original cast, hung on one of the walls—a present given to Puccini on opening night. “It resonated with me,” Rothstein says. “I took a bunch of pictures of it.” The muted colors on the palette eventually became the muted colors of the set and costumes in Theater Latté Da’s production of the opera.

IN LATTÉ DA, Rothstein has a creative lab where he can experiment with dangerous substances, quirky ideas, and combustible tunes. Over the past decade, the company has produced a number of sold-out runs (La bohème, The Death of Bessie Smith), but it has also delivered a handful of critically acclaimed productions that failed to attract crowds (recent stagings of the 1955 opera Susannah and the contemporary musical Floyd Collins come to mind). Rothstein says packing the house every night isn’t his chief motivation. “These are works that deserve to be heard,” he argues—and if other companies won’t stage them, his will. That’s the luxury of running your own company—however small. Besides, he says, Latté Da’s biggest winners have often been new, untested productions: a comical Fringe Festival entry featuring kinetic comedian Jim Lichtscheidl ultimately played to almost 3,000 people; and a piece based on Petersen’s recollections of holidays spent with his family in Mankato will begin its eighth run in December. “Our most successful pieces have not been Gypsy or well-known shows. They’ve been Knock! and Christmas Carole Petersen,” Rothstein says. “Our biggest risks have actually been our biggest financial successes.”

But running a small theater—dealing with finances and staff, and taking hammer in hand when the carpenter doesn’t show up—can take a toll on a director. Rothstein admits that, beyond the personal satisfaction it has given him, keeping a company afloat hasn’t necessarily boosted his professional profile. “This is a moment that should have come sooner, given Peter’s talent,” says Polly Carl. “He’s deserved to be at this level for a while. But he’s the last guy to tell you how good he is.”

Joel Hoekstra is managing editor of Minnesota Monthly.

Theater Latte Da’s La bohème runs October 25 to November 18 at the Southern Theater in Minneapolis. Visit www.latteda.org.


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