Theater, opera director on a ‘role’

Thu Mar 17, 2016.

By Cynthia Lescalleet
Special to The Examiner

As a stage director, Leslie Swackhamer considers creating a piece of theater “a work of hope.”

Her productions also reflect a lifetime love of storytelling, which she achieves and enriches by drawing upon history, music, law, literature, the visual arts and cultural touchstones--plus her observations and life itself.

Swackhamer’s garden, however, could be the root of her directorial philosophy. A meditative pursuit, her hobby also reinforces the importance of building soil for seeds to flourish, she says. “You have to have faith and belief that what you are planting is going to grow into something wonderful.

“A play is like that.”

Known to go all-in on a theater or opera production, Swackhamer as director provides strong ideas on context and vision. But she also leaves the door open for collaboration by performers: “It’s theirs. It’s ours.” She thinks of the directorial process as “working wet clay.”


Swackhamer’s path to director was indirect but inevitable. Theater pursuits defined her early years and gave her the tools for today, what with skits in the living room building to roles in high school, community and summer stock theater programs and later stints of set design and choreography.

In college, history drew her, though she kept up her theater involvement. An advisor told her she “had the directing gene.”

Instead, she went to law school and on to trial work, where putting the same background and spin of storytelling on legal cases served her well. (A judge and jury can be a tough audience, she quips.)

Theater soon won out, however, and she changed course, first by pursuing an MFA in directing from University of Washington’s School of Drama.

Swackhamer says all her earlier experiences easily crossed over into her directorial career, which has a national following. From history came her use of research, which enhances productions in terms of what was going on and how people behaved when it was written. From law, she took the cause and effect of situations. Theater takes that rich background and relates it to today.

While there have been occasional circumstances that had her briefly fill-in for a performer, the director says she prefers to “stand back and see everything,” including the sensory input.” Still, she admits, “By the time I open a show, I know everyone’s part.


The award-winning director’s next project is with Opera in the Heights: Christoph W. Gluck’s “Orfeo ed Euridice,” based on the myth of Orpheus. The production will “embrace the mythic, the mysterious and the miraculous,” she says in its marketing materials.

Swackhamer, a Lynn Park resident, hopes the audience will not go silently into the night after the show, which explores the depth of being human and what it means to love. “This piece goes to the core,” she says. It’s a perfect story for opera, because opera is the language of emotion, expressed best through music.

Eiki Isomura, OH!’s principal conductor, says Swackhamer “has a keen ear that gets to the heart of the score.” He appreciates her involvement in the early stages of music rehearsals, something not common for directors. “It’s refreshing,” he says. Plus, she works tirelessly, often without a break. “It’s quite inspiring.”

Swackhamer’s viewpoint on that involvement is that the more she understands about the vocal demands on the performers, the more apt the staging can be while supporting their “instruments.” As an example, someone’s singing a high ‘C’ shouldn’t have to do so while climbing a set piece, she says.

Among Swackhamer’s recent productions, in Houston, were “Straight White Men” at Stages Repertory Theatre, where last fall, her “Marie Antoinette” earned her Best Director for 2015 by Houston Press. Next season, she will be directing at the San Francisco Opera and Washington National Opera at the Kennedy Center.

Having already directed the Verdi ‘s opera “Macbeth” for OH!, she hopes to direct all three of his Shakespearean productions. Experiencing one of the stories as opera has forever changed her dialog with the bard, and she believes the same is true for audiences and actors who see one.

She’s currently “workshopping” a new work opera by Sheila Silver that’s based on Khaled Hosseini’s book,“A Thousand Splendid Suns.” That project is the recipient of an Opera America grant for female composers from The Virginia B. Toulmin Foundation.

In addition to an in-demand directorial career, Swackhamer shares her expertise as a guest faculty member at Rice University, University of Houston, University of Texas at Austin and others around the country.

She also is the executive director of the Susan Smith Blackburn Prize, which recognizes women who have written outstanding written works for English-speaking theater. Houston-based, the prize has major international impact, she says, and it was founded here, where local support continues.

As one involved the local theater scene, Swackhamer is pleased that Houston’s offerings are expanding as new performing groups find their audiences and offer challenging works to get the dialog going.

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