'I think people limit themselves a lot by aspiring to only one thing," says director Jan Eliasberg. "I wanted to direct theater and that was all. And I became hollower and hollower because I didn't read and I didn't think and I didn't talk to people in other professions. Now," she says, smiling, "I feel like the doors are opening again."
Eliasberg, who directs the West Coast premiere of playwright Craig Lucas' "Reckless," opening tonight at South Coast Repertory's Second Stage, is now also enjoying some success as a fledgling film director.
Her American Film Institute short, "The Doctor," produced under the auspices of the AFI's Directing Workshop for Women, will be screened at Filmex this year. And two segments she directed for a PBS-TV series on American businesses--"The Art & Science of Marketing"--will air on KCET-TV this season.
"Reckless" marks the first time Eliasberg has directed a play since last spring. However, there was a time when being away from the theater would have been unimaginable.
Three years ago, at 28, Eliasberg had attained an enviable position for a young director. She was associate artistic director of the Repertory Theatre of St. Louis and had just been offered a job as artistic director for another regional theater, Playmaker's Repertory in Chapel Hill, N.C. But curiously, her success brought about an artistic identity crisis.
Recently, during a dinner break from rehearsals, Eliasberg discussed that painful period in her life.
"I had done all I wanted to do and at the end of it I felt so empty, like I had less and less to offer every time," she recalls. "I had all these ideas about theater being a kind of community spark, a place where people meet and share an event that can really shed light on our lives and make us better people. And it just wasn't even close.
"The best work that I thought I did was in the experimental theater--but in St. Louis nobody came. I would feel that I'd gone out on a limb because I'd begged the actors to come and work on it. So we'd work on it and opening night nobody would be there.
"I had been doing more writing, and I had been going to see a lot of movies at that time. I suddenly realized that theater just wasn't what people were listening to and if I wanted to talk to people, film was the medium to explore."
Coming to California to direct film was a complete change for Eliasberg, who had been something of a prodigy in the theater. Graduating from Wesleyan University at 18, she took off for London to become a director. By her early 20s, she was back in New York, directing professional theater. She went to Yale Drama School for graduate work in 1979-81 and from there won a National Endowment for the Arts grant to work in regional theater in St. Louis.
The director describes her early years in theater as intense and very serious. A delicate-boned woman with short dark-blond hair swept back from her face and light green eyes, Eliasberg says she now brings a certain humor to her work.
"Before I started directing film and before I started writing, doing theater was my sole purpose. I didn't have a very carefree or playful attitude about the work. The work had to be great, it had to be perfect and everything that the playwright intended. And consequently, I never had very much fun.
"When I started developing in these other areas (Eliasberg also writes screenplays), I realized that doing a play is really an experiment. It should be fun to try something."
Eliasberg credits her work in film, both as a director and a screenwriter, for loosening her up as an artist. The AFI workshop, she says, was like being pushed into a pool to find out if you can swim. Of the 10 women chosen for the 1983 program, she was the only one with directing experience.
"What I discovered was that a lot of the principles that I had learned directing in theater do translate to film, which was what I was testing when I decided to do it."
Her current work at South Coast Repertory, she says, has served to rejuvenate her feelings for theater. "I think Martin (Benson) and David (Emmes) at South Coast still have an exuberance for their work. The staff like each other and what they are doing. You don't feel like an outsider here," she says enthusiastically.
Eliasberg is especially proud of her collaboration with the designers for "Reckless." With 31 scenes, the play is technically complicated. "I had a kernel of an idea of what I wanted, and then people started coming up with their own ideas," she says. "Everybody--actors, designers and technical people--have felt like it was their project. It's a pleasure and exactly what theater should be."