DIRECTOR INTERVIEW: Interview with Layon Gray
Layon Gray is a theatrical artist that is captivating audiences with each and ever play he writes and directs. Gray has spent more than two decades writing, directing and developing stage plays and films that reflect a wide array of cultural movements, creating new paradigms for the stage and motion picture industry. Focusing on creating conversational dialogue in his works, Gray continues to make his mark in traditional African-American theater. A native of Alexandria Louisiana, Gray quickly ascended as one of Los Angeles’ premiere playwrights earning more than 60 nomination and awards for his works since 2000. He is currently working as a writer/director in New York. For more information on Layon log onto www.LayonGray.com
How would you describe your work as a director
I’m not the director who will define the roles for you. Since I have an acting background I always loved when I brought my own unique touch to a project. You have some directors who will tell you to “stand here, say it like this, etc…” I’m not like that. I allow the actor to have freedom within my vision. I think that’s the only way you can truly get the best out of an actor. Now sometimes I have to reel an actor in because its totally off the mark, however its much easier to bring an actor down.
Describe wrong impressions actors, writers and directors have about directing
I think all artists involved in the project must understand that its a collaborative effort. Its the director’s vision however he/she is there to guide you through the process. Its a family. We sometimes forget its suppose to be fun. I bring that fun energy to a set/ stage. I look for that in actors when I interview them. No one wants to work with a pain in the ass for 4 to 6 weeks. So I weed that out before hand.
How did you get into directing
I was in Louisiana and just got casted as Walter Lee in the stage play” A Raisin In The Sun.” I got to the theater and the director had gotten ill and had to back out of the show. The Producers wanted to push the production back a few months because of no director so I Just volunteered to do it. So now I had to play the star of the play and direct the show. I had never directed a full production only scenes in classes during college. But I knew this play and I had a vision and it went on without a hitch to sold out audiences. I was hooked ever since then and that was 1995.
Do you often take courses to increase your craft
I read plays allot. I found out my best class is on the stage. A book can teach you only so much, you actually cant learn until you are in midst of the action. That’s my best class.
What books do you read
The most recent book I read was called “Tutankmun” its about Egypt’s greatest discoveries by Jaromir Malek. I am researching because I am in the process of writing and directing a web-series about its queen “CLEOPATRA” updated to present time New York City. Its going to be an incredible unique project. I’m very excited about it.
Who is your favorite director?
I love his unique vision in exploring race relations and political issues. Spike knows where to put the camera lens that will allow you to look inside a character’s soul and feel what they are feeling at that moment. A lot of directors cant do that. They just point and shoot. Spike is very specific. I love that about him. His photo hangs in my office.
How do you choose a project to direct?
I have my own production and theatre company so allot of projects I direct or built from within. I’m very selective on the stores I like to tell. I love bringing moments in history to life.
When you’re offered a project, what things do you put in place to deliver a good job?
A great team. No one can do it by themselves. I have 10 people I work with all the time. I trust them and they trust me. That’s the key word. TRUST.
Why would you choose an actor, writer or producer? What do you look for?
In an actor I can find out a lot in the general interview. I have a process of sometimes never doing the audition- instead just talking about that day’s events. Actors are usually thrown off by that. lol. Again I want to know if I can work with you for 4- 6 weeks. With a writer- I need to feel good in my heart about the project before I put weeks/months to it. As for as a producer – i need the same fire in them I have. That same energy to go out and get it and make it happen by any means necessary. The producers i have worked with in the past all have been excellent. They find the money and let me do the creative. lol. I think as long as everyone stay in their lane it makes the production that more enjoyable and great.
Is there something that helps you during a production?
Coffee. Lol. You can always find a vanilla Latte in my hand on set or at a play rehearsal.
What do you expect from an actor during a production?
Honesty. Make the words fly off the page. Be truthful. If an actor is being true to the work it can only make your job as a director easier. I always say when you come to a Layon Gray set or stage be ready. I seldom ( on rare occasions I do ) work with beginners simply because I move fast. Hence my long interview process at auditions. I use a lot of the same actors in my works because I know they understand me and get my musical rhythm of the way I write and direct.
What’s your latest work? Tell us a little bit about it.
my latest work is a stage play called “THE HARLEM RENS.” I wrote and directed this piece. It’s about an all-black professional basketball team established February 13, 1923. The Rens were one of the dominant basketball teams of the 1920s and 1930s. Many people say it’s the greatest basketball team you have never heard of. A team so dominant that in one season it won 112 games and lost only seven. It was a team that won championships despite never being officially accepted professionally or socially. For more info you can go to www.TheHarlemRens.com. Its currently running Off-Broadway.
Tell us about a creative choice you took on set of a recent production…
Well, I been directing stage plays for the past year so my most recent creative choice in that medium was incorporating basketball choreography to music in a non musical production. It was a very “bold” thing to try. A few people were concerned if it would work -Well – it flew with flying colors. Matter of fact audience members said it was their most favorite part. Sometimes you got think outside the box to do something that has never been done before. don’t be afraid to fail.
How do you advice directors to find projects?
A good agent is always good to have. They can pass your information on too production companies. However if you are unrepresented the trades like ( Backstage, Hollywood reporter) sometimes list job opportunities. Keep hustling.
How can filmmakers finance their projects?
Everyone is doing crowd funding now. Family and friends who believe in you and your work will most likely donate to your production. Digital video has made it affordable now to shoot a movie. Just make sure the product is GOOD. People tend to always want to help a good project.
What do you think a director can do to get into the film industry?
Keep directing. Whether it’s a short film or a stage play keep doing it! If the work is GOOD they will come. And when they come- make sure you are READY. Don’t say I’m wiring a script… HAVE the script. Don’t say I’m working on my reel… HAVE your reel.
What advice would you give directors around the world?
Again find something that you are passionate about and tell it. Hell you have people shooting movies on iPhones now. There is no excuse. Don’t sit and wait. Get up and tell your story. Do it now.
Among the honors received are 2012 PCTF Award (Best Director) 2012 Al Sharpton Man Of Vision Award, 2011 NYC Inspire Award, 2010 NYC AUDELCO Award (Achievement Award for Excellence); 2009 NAACP Award (Best Ensemble Award); 2009 Hollywood ADA Award (Best Ensemble Award); 2008 MATCHLIFE Artist of the Year; 2007 NAACP Award (Best Producer, Best Play); 2007 MITF Award (Best Play, Best Writer, Best Director, Best Producer); 2006 NAACP Award (Best Play); 2005 Hollywood ADA Award (Best Play); 2004 Hollywood ADA Award (Best Play, Best Writer, Best Director); and 2003 Los Angeles MADDY Award (Best Play, Best Writer, Best Director, Best Ensemble). Presently, in New York Off-Broadway, his most recent play, Black Angels Over Tuskegee, is earning great fanfare and buzz from audiences and critics alike now in its 5th year Off-Broadway. His New play The Harlem Rens opened Off-Broadway in September 2014 to rave reviews. For more info on either production go to www.BlackAngelsOverTuskegee.com and www.TheHarlemRens.com
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