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Giovanna Sardelli is drawn to plays that provoke

Director likes to challenge audience to think as well as watch

Director Giovanna Sardelli.

AMANDA EMBRY

Director Giovanna Sardelli.

PITTSFIELD — Giovanna Sardelli wasn’t concerned with being overly polite. A frustrated actress who had taken a liking to directing, she sat down a few years ago to meet with a young writer whose first play she’d been hired to direct — or so she mistakenly thought.

“I was very new in my understanding of how the business end of directing worked. I didn’t understand that, with a new play, the playwright has a say in choosing the director,” she says. Not realizing she was more or less on a job interview, she dispensed with the pleasantries and thoroughly probed playwright Rajiv Joseph about the points in the script she found unclear.

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“I wasn’t pulling any punches,” she recalls.

Her candor served her well; it turned out to be just the approach Joseph was looking for with his first professional production, “Huck & Holden,” in 2006. In fact, the two clicked so well that she went on to direct four other world premieres by the rising playwright, and an early, developmental production of his “Bengal Tiger at the Baghdad Zoo,” a 2010 Pulitzer Prize finalist.

Sardelli’s energetic, no-nonsense approach has continued to dovetail with her taste for new plays. At Barrington Stage Company last year she directed the East Coast premiere of Joseph’s “The North Pool,” a play touching on contemporary views toward Arab-Americans. In June she returned to helm the world premiere of “Muckrakers,” an exploration of electronic media and privacy in the age of WikiLeaks. “Clybourne Park,” a celebrated account of race relations and gentrification, is now playing under her direction at Barrington Stage.

She says she aims to provoke audiences.

From left: Andy Lucien, Greg Jackson, and Lynnette R. Freeman in “Clybourne Park.”

“I love doing plays that make people gasp or laugh, that have big collective responses where you go: Oh good, we nailed it,” she says, on the phone from Louisville, Ky., where she’s at work directing “The Mountaintop,” a 2009 play about Dr. Martin Luther King Jr.’s final night. “We scared you, we excited you, or we even offended you — if you are offended when you are meant to be offended.”

Sardelli’s creative relationships with playwrights like Joseph, Matthew Lopez, and Theresa Rebeck have given her the chance to collaborate in the creation of several significant new plays — despite the fact, she says, that she has no aptitude herself for writing.

“I love that initial moment when a story is taking shape and form. It’s really great to get to be the liaison between the voice that wrote the play and the bodies that will be telling the story,” she says.

Show business runs in Sardelli’s family. She grew up in Las Vegas, where her father, Nelson, had a long-running variety act. He sang, told jokes, and juggled guns, she remembers. The scene inspired her to find a home somewhere in the performing arts, though she wasn’t sure where — her father was unsuccessful in his efforts to encourage her to learn to twirl firearms, she says.

Her affinity for directing came as a surprise to her. First she logged 10 years as an actress, including a regular role on the soap opera “Another World.” Acting gave her financial stability but little creative satisfaction. A friend’s unexpected recommendation led her to direct a student production at New York University, which sparked an invitation to join the school’s prestigious program for directors. In this world, she found chances to work on meatier projects than she’d been connected to as an actress.

Julianne Boyd, cofounder and artistic director at Barrington Stage, says she first hired Sardelli at Joseph’s suggestion. She quickly saw the new collaborator as a theatrical ally, in tune with her own tastes.

“The fact that we’re both effusive Italian-Americans doesn’t hurt, either,” Boyd says with a laugh. “It’s a very similar personality and a similar way that we direct. I don’t think you would see either of us quietly sitting in the rehearsal room, saying ‘Oh yes, that’s very nice.’ ”

The current take on “Clybourne Park” was coproduced with Dorset Theatre Festival in Vermont, where it ran last month. The Bruce Norris play — a response to Lorraine Hansberry’s “A Raisin in the Sun” set around the time of, and then 50 years after, the action of its classic predecessor — won the Pulitzer Prize in 2011 and the 2012 Tony Award for best play. Already a popular title in regional theaters, it played at SpeakEasy Stage Company in Boston last season. The play opens with a black family’s effort to buy a house in an all-white Chicago neighborhood. In the second act, the neighborhood has become predominantly black, and its residents are fighting the forces of gentrification personified by a white couple now seeking to buy the same house.

In its mix of sometimes-awkward humor and overlapping dialogue, the play presents a particular challenge in finding the right tone. Cast member Remi Sandri, who also appeared here in “The North Pool,” says Sardelli doesn’t stand for “elephants in the room.” If a scene goes off-track in rehearsal, he reports, she’s not shy about interrupting and leading her actors toward another path.

“It’s bracing and shocking and wonderful, because you’re not allowed to start in a bad place and just continue,” he says. “She has a way of using every bit of that rehearsal time to wring as much humor, as much clarity, and as much subtlety out of that text as we can.”

Sardelli says the play provokes just the sort of audience response she cherishes, getting to the heart of what she wants to achieve in theater in the first place.

“It’s all about figuring out how to make art from chaos.”

Jeremy D. Goodwin can be reached at jeremy@jeremydgoodwin.com.
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