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How ‘Soft Power’ director Leigh Silverman has built her theatrical village

Written by
Dany Margolies

Leigh Silverman burst on to the Broadway theater scene in her early 30s and swiftly earned a Tony nomination—and with it, the cred to direct world premieres by established playwrights. And every time, she makes her success seem almost inevitable.

This spring she helms Soft Power at the Ahmanson Theatre. The contemporary comedy, with book and lyrics by David Henry Hwang and music by Jeanine Tesori, reconsiders recent U.S. political history through the lens of a Chinese executive.

How Silverman arrived at this point is a lesson in careful planning and the result of a thoughtfully shepherded career, accomplished through study, humility and (to quote a famous musical) being “in the room where it happens.”

Silverman and Hwang
Photograph: Courtesy Craig Schwartz

Silverman says she studied directing because “I was a terrible actor, and thank God somebody told me that when I was 15. I was lucky,” she says. “They also said, ‘You’re smart and have really good things to say, and you should think about directing.’ And that was it.”

She graduated from Carnegie Mellon University with a BFA in directing and an MFA in playwriting and knew she wanted to work on new material: “The only way [in] was to get to know writers.” Silverman moved to New York and helped other directors while creating projects in her small apartment for an audience or working free of charge for fringe festivals.

Silverman was assisting a group of playwrights when Lisa Kron (Fun Home) turned to her and said, “I burn through directors, but I’m about to start a new piece. Do you want work on it with me?” But Kron warned Silverman that another director would inevitably step in when the work was professionally mounted. Silverman pounced (“Sounds great—sign me up!”), and five years later, in 2004, Kron and Silverman premiered Well at New York’s Public Theater. After an additional two years, the play landed on Broadway, with Silverman still at the helm, and its stars garnered Tony nominations.

Then her first collaborations with Hwang followed: Yellow Face at Mark Taper Forum in 2007 and Chinglish on Broadway in 2011. Around this time Silverman also picked up a Tony nomination for the Broadway musical Violet and directed two Neil LaBute plays Off Broadway: All the Ways to Say I Love You, starring Judith Light, and The Way We Get By.

The director continues to surround herself with familiar faces. She has worked separately with Hwang and Tesori, but Soft Power is the first time the three have joined forces. Silverman expresses genuine gratitude toward nonprofit organization Center Theatre Group for taking a chance on a world-premiere musical to fill its big house.

Silverman describes her job as knowing “when to be thinking micro and when to be thinking macro” and gently but firmly keeping all the collaborators’ ideas coherent and focused on the story.

She says of her latest project, Soft Power, “It’s an extraordinary story about where we are, at this moment, in this country. It is told in the most ambitious, wildly inventive way...within the container of the most delightful musical theater.” Its title refers to China’s global quest for cultural influence—but soft power is, also, undoubtedly what a good director like Silverman wields.

Soft Power is at the Ahmanson Theatre May 3–June 10. Tickets cost $30–$130.

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