Penny Metropulos of OSF finds joy in directing

    May 27, 2006

    Penny Metropulos tells of being in New York City for auditions some weeks ago and riding the subway, standing shoulder to shoulder with other commuters. A man in his 50s, a bit frayed in appearance, got on and stood nearby. He dropped his things on the floor, and at first Metropulos thought it was inadvertent.

    But then, to her surprise, he took out a flute and began to play a Mozart flute concerto. For two stops he played. Beautifully, professionally, though it seemed from the look of him that he wasn’t a member of an orchestra.

    The notes filled the car, and she, along with the other passengers, listened quietly as the train moved along, stopped, riders left and others got on. When Lincoln Center neared, the man stopped playing and gathered up his things. With a whisper the doors opened and he left.

    For Metropulos, there was a connection between her work as a director at the Oregon Shakespeare Festival and the man playing the flute on a city subway.

    “It was a moment,” she says, “an example of the kinds of things that are going on in life all of the time, some you might not notice, or if you do, perhaps only out of the corner of your eye.

    “We take that moment and put it on stage, heighten it, give it focus, and we ask the audience to consider it. Art gives us that moment.”

    To love many things

    Vincent Van Gogh once said that the best way to know life is to love many things. No one understands that better than Penny Metropulos. To spend more than a few moments with her is to understand that her love of theater, of the OSF Repertory company and its people, fills her life and is a wellspring of joy and satisfaction.

    Metropulos has spent 16 seasons with the company, first as an actor, and now as a director and Associate Artistic Director. This season she will be directing “Dr. Jekyll and Mr. Hyde,” an adaptation by David Edgar of the Robert Louis Stevenson novella.

    She has also directed and adapted scripts for OSF’s school visit program and is collaborating on a chamber musical production based on the William Saroyan novella, “Tracy’s Tiger,” which will open next season.

    During her years at OSF, Metopolus has been involved in “The Philanderer,” “Humble Boy,” “Lorca in a Green Dress,” “Antony and Cleopatra,” “As You Like It,” “The Tempest,” “The Night of the Iguana,” “The Good Person of Szechuan,” “The Three Musketeers,” “A Midsummer Night’s Dream,” “Death of a Salesman,” “Timon of Athens,” “Cabaret Verboten, “The Merry Wives of Windsor,” “Lips Together, Teeth Apart” and “Restoration.” She has also worked in other theaters across the country.

    Telling large stories

    Originally from Dallas, Metropulos set out in her teens to be a singer. But when she discovered Shakespeare and the theater, she realized that she wanted to do more than tell a small story through song. The theater, she realized, included a broad range of cultures, told large stories and was collaborative in nature.

    “I was a solo singer. The theatre, by its very nature, is collaborative which is something that engaged me,” says Metropolus. She changed course, enrolling in the Dallas Theater Center Academy and then the London Academy of Music and Dramatic Arts, and spent two decades acting all over the country. In 1985, she came to OSF as an actor and worked for the Festival from 1985 through the end of the 1987 season. It was then that she decided, after some reflection, to try her hand at directing.

    “I realized I was basically starting my career over,”says Metropolus. “But I soon realized that this is what I was supposed to be doing.”

    She adds, “I discovered I love rehearsal halls, more than I liked being on stage. And I loved working on a production together with others, including the playwright.”

    On the road

    She began freelancing as a director and says that every job was better than the last, though she was on the road for six to eight months at a stretch. In the early 1990s Metropolus was asked to direct at OSF. During all of her travels, Ashland had remained her base and the place she called home. She has directed here every year since.

    “I love the idea of a company, knowing the people I work with, and being part of a group of people who act as the stewards of the festival,” says Metropolus. “It’s been an extraordinary gift.”

    In 1996 she was asked to become the festival’s associate artistic director. In addition to directing, her duties now include auditioning new actors, selecting plays and advising the artistic director, Libby Appel.

    “Penny is a remarkable director,” says Appel. “Her productions are always original and creative. She has the unique ability to merge her own personal response to the play with the playwright’s truth of vision.”

    Repertory actor Linda Alper says that a director needs to be an insightful interpreter, expert story teller, visual artist, editor, manager, source of inspiration, and sometimes even a patient teacher and guide. She adds, “Penny is a great director, possessing all of these skills.”

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