10 questions with 'Lullaby' director Jeremy B. Cohen

Chris HewittPioneer Press

January 14, 2016

10 questions with 'Lullaby' director Jeremy B. Cohen

At this moment, it is difficult for director Jeremy B. Cohen to separate his personal and professional lives.

For starters, he is directing Theater Latte Da's world premiere of the play-with-music, "Lullaby," which was written by his husband, Michael Elyanow. In this case, the distinction between a musical and a play with music is that nobody suddenly bursts into song. The songs, by Elyanow, Chris Dallman, Curt Schneider and Garrison Starr, occur only when the characters would play music.

"Separate from the fact that I sleep with the guy, I'm excited because we don't have a lot of Twin Cities writers who have multiple plays of theirs happening in succession," says Cohen, 42, of Elyanow, whose "The Children" opens in September at Pillsbury House Theatre. "That people can see these two incredible and incredibly different plays of Michael's in one year is amazing."

Then, there's the fact that their son, Milo (the name comes from "The Phantom Tollbooth") is in the play, kinda. His influence goes back to a previous Elyanow play directed by Cohen, "The Idiot Box."

"I was directing the world premiere of that in Chicago, which overlapped with when we decided to try to adopt. They told us the process would take four years but we put in our paperwork and, 10 days after that, we got a kid," Cohen says. "So that rehearsal process was when our son was 4 to 5 months old. It was a pretty crazy time. My assistant on the show was very busy because we were taking turns with rewrites and rehearsals and changing the kid and feeding the kid."

A lot of that showed up, two years later, in Elyanow's initial take on "Lullaby," in which two women bond over lullabies. One is a grieving widow (Adelin Phelps) who would like to learn to sing to her 2-year-old; the other (Annie Enneking) is a rocker who retired without having made it big and who gives the mother lessons.

"There is a kid in the play, a 2-year-old. When Michael wrote the original version, our son was 2, so there was a lot of insomnia and diaper blow-outs and all the many joys of parents. So our son holds a little place in the show even though he's now a teenager and if I talked about any of this with him, he'd be like, 'Pop, that is so embarrassing,' " Cohen says.

Then, there's the fact that both Cohen and Elyanow are so excited about "Lullaby" -- which grew out of Latte Da's Next 20/20 program to develop new musical theater works -- that it's hard to leave it at the theater, despite their best intentions.

"Last night, we got home from rehearsal and it was 11 and we both had gotten up at 6 that day to take our kid to school, so were practically falling asleep. But we were also really energized by the run-through that night, so we said, 'OK. Let's stay up and talk about rewrites until midnight and figure out what we're going to do tomorrow. Then, we can go to bed,' " Cohen recalls.

The rules of the personal/professional relationship, in other words, are fluid: "It's generally just establishing good-spouse boundaries, like, 'Oh, you want me to read your play? Should I be, "Honey, it's amazing," or do you want some notes this time?' I just have to know which conversation I'm getting into."

Cohen says it has been exciting for him and the four-person cast, which also includes David Darrow and James Eckhouse (also known as the dad on "Beverly Hills, 90210"), to explore "Lullaby," which he says is typical of Elyanow's work in that it can go from hysterically funny to deeply moving in an instant.

"You can't go half-measures on this thing. You have to go all the way to the mat with it and, without fail, every designer and every actor is doing that. It's really exciting. Being in that (rehearsal) room over the last couple of weeks, it's felt less like I'm directing a play and more like we're all building a piece together," Cohen says.

As the widowed mother, Phelps has been a crucial element of the piece.

"She's playing a young widow who has a 2-year-old and also hasn't gone to sleep. She has intense insomnia. She's also wrestling with the ghost of her husband throughout the whole play and I'm just watching Addie dig so deep the last couple days," Cohen says. "It's my second play I've done with her and I'm just blown away."

But he won't be able to stick around and marvel at her work for long. Cohen, who is also producing artistic director of Playwrights' Center, leaves the day after "Lullaby's" opening to direct a play, then returns to do "Le Switch" at the Jungle in June.

All of those jobs will be made easier by the fact that Cohen and Elyanow's son has become much more self-sufficient in the last decade. Or, as Cohen puts it, "No more diapers. Except on stage."

Still, as Cohen's answers to our 10 questions reveal, many of the best times come when they're all together:

Q. Where is your favorite place to be?

A. I have two, wildly divergent favorites. One is on my couch with my kid and my dog, snuggled up, reading a book or talking about the world. The other is in tech rehearsal (the grueling rehearsals where lighting, sets, costumes and performers are all gathered). I love tech because it's where everyone is brilliant. As a director, if you've done your job right, you've gathered this group of artists and unleashed their brilliance and tech rehearsal is that magic crossroad where everyone's brilliance meets the urgency of the thing that's about to happen.

Q. What would you do if you had a million dollars?

A. It's dorky. I would create a system of health care for playwrights.

Q. What's the best thing about your job as a director?

A. Collaboration. I hate when people talk about it but this was happening just last night. Even in the middle of a run-through, it felt like three different voices, all singing together: Mine, the actors and the designers. Amazing stuff came out of that conversation.

Q. When did you know you wanted to be a director?

A. I was standing at the back rail of Hartford Stage as a teenager, watching "From the Mississippi Delta," and -- I don't even know how to talk about it. It was just so clear to me that helping choose the stories we tell and the power of those stories, especially from voices that aren't normally heard or listened to, was how I wanted to spend my life.

Q. What are you thinking about when you begin a new job?

A. The very first thing is always, "How do we want to tell this story?" From that point, it's, "Great. Who are the right designers to tell the story? Who are the actors? How will we connect with the audience?"

Q. Who would play you in a movie?

A. If I had my druthers? Janelle Monae. It's, "Who's the coolest person in the entire world that I want to be?"

Q. What was your first job?

A. I worked, under the table, at a pharmacy when I was 14. My total OCD behavior really kicked into gear when I learned about micromanaging a store.

Q. What's your motto?

A. One day at a time.

Q. Who do you most admire?

A. The artist Daniel Alexander Jones.

Q. What's the scariest thing you've ever done?

A. Truly, the scariest thing I have ever done was get sober 22 years ago.


What: "Lullaby" When: Through Feb. 7 Where: Ritz Theater, 345 N.E. 13th Ave., Mpls. Tickets: $37-$23, 612-339-3003 or latteda.org

Chris Hewitt can be reached at 651-228-5552. Follow him on twitter.com/ChrisHMovie.