Matt Pfeiffer: Philadelphia director in demand

Director Matt Pfeiffer (left) on "The Whipping Man" stage with James Ijames, Cody Nickell, and Johnnie Hobbs Jr.
Director Matt Pfeiffer (left) on "The Whipping Man" stage with James Ijames, Cody Nickell, and Johnnie Hobbs Jr. (MARK GARVIN)
Posted: November 03, 2011

Stroll past many a Philadelphia bus stop and you'll see theater posters bearing the phrase "Directed by Matt Pfeiffer."

Last weekend, as his take on 1812 Productions' Mistakes Were Made was ending its run at Plays & Players, Pfeiffer's work on the Arden's The Whipping Man was in previews; it opened Wednesday. In a few weeks, denizens of Red Bank, N.J., will spot his name on posters for the family show Honk at that town's Two River Theatre.

"My focus is so narrow I haven't even seen them," he says, laughing, when told of the wealth of signage on which he's mentioned. "But it's nice to know it's out there."

In 2011, along with the aforementioned three plays and a reading of playwright Bruce Graham's new North of the Boulevard at Studio X, Pfeiffer directed four other works: For the Arden (A Moon for the Misbegotten), 1812 Productions (Laughter on the 23rd Floor), and Theatre Exile (The Lieutenant of Inishmore and The Aliens). Eight productions - up from the six he directed in 2010. If this continues, it is possible that "Pfeif," as he's known, will one day direct nine of every 10 plays produced in Philadelphia.

"Matt just understands the aesthetics of each company in town - what makes a piece an 1812 show vs. an Exile show or an Arden show," says 1812 artistic director Jen Childs, who compares his understanding of a play's beats and rhythms to that of a conductor.

How did Pfeiffer, initially an actor, become the city's most in-demand director?

Does he have something on Philly's theater bosses?

Do they owe him money?

Arden Theatre Company cofounder Terrence J. Nolen has a charming story about how he came to use Pfeiffer (a lot - five plays since 2008, the year Pfeiffer won the Barrymore Award for emerging theater artist).

Much as he did with Theater Exile - acting in its Burkie in 2001 - Pfeiffer made himself known to Nolen as an actor in the Arden's 2000 production of Much Ado About Nothing and its 2002 kids' play The Boxcar Children. "I got a chance to establish a working relationship with each theater before talking with them about directing," he says.

Nolen recalls that after The Boxcar Children, intuition told him Pfeiffer was the right choice to direct another family production, Go, Dog, Go! in 2008.

Before that, though, Pfeiffer suggested David Davalos' sharp, complex Wittenberg, set in 1517 and involving Martin Luther, Dr. Faustus, the young Danish Prince Hamlet, and lots of intellectual dueling.

"I couldn't read it in one sitting without zoning out, but Matt kept after me," says Nolen.

So he gave him the job of directing a workshop reading. Pfeiffer gathered the crème de la crème of Philly actors and pulled off the reading so splendidly that Nolen decided to produce Wittenberg - but with J.R. Sullivan, a more practiced director, at the helm. "I was worried then about Matt's relative inexperience," he says.

Dedicated as Pfeiffer was to the new play, he pushed aside his ego, stayed committed, and signed on as Wittenberg's assistant director.

"He wasn't self-serving - he wanted to serve the play," says Nolen. "He was curious about it at all points and was invaluable as an assistant director in the process."

That curiosity - plus his knowledge of the local pool of performers, eye for casting, and facility for working collaboratively - is why Nolen finally started hiring him to direct at the Arden. ("Plus I owe him money," he adds.)

He calls Pfeiffer an "actors' director": "That's his calling card." (The actors' director will return to being a director's actor in the spring, when, in his first onstage gig in 21/2 years, he joins the cast of Theatre Exile's A Behanding in Spokane.)

Pfeiffer, 34, grew up in Northeast Philly and is a theater graduate of Allentown College (now DeSales University). He lives in the Italian Market neighborhood with his wife - yes, an actress - Kim Carson.

Joe Canuso, artistic director of Theatre Exile, says Pfeiffer's rapport with his stage collaborators is the reason Philadelphia's best actors and designers want to work with him - which has benefited Exile, where he has been assistant artistic director for 10 years. "Matt's talent and passion have helped elevate Exile to be one of the most respected companies in the city," says Canuso.

As for The Whipping Man - about a Jewish Confederate soldier's return home to his former slaves at Passover - Nolen says there is one reason the play lured respected veteran actor Johnnie Hobbs Jr. to the Arden.

"Other than Blue Door [2010], Johnnie's turned down every play I've offered him," he says - "more so than any Philadelphia actor, in fact. But when I told him that Pfeif was directing Whipping Man, Hobbs said that he had been dying to work with Matt."

For his part, Pfeiffer says artistic directors find him easy to work with and keep asking him back. "There's little drama surrounding my process - there's a joke in there somewhere - and the artists I collaborate with respect the kind of environment I'm trying to create," he says

He likens his stream of directing gigs to any other freelance job: When opportunity's door opens, step through and take advantage.

"Terry identified right away that I worked well with actors, and all of the projects I've done for the company have been performance-driven. At Exile, my sense of aesthetic helped shape the company's identity and therefore made me an essential artistic presence.

"The other companies in town [with] whom I've worked regularly - 1812, Lantern, Pennsylvania Shakespeare Festival, Brat - have similar genesis: Establish a relationship, then keep bringing them projects in the hope one of them sticks.

"Then it's on you to pay off on the investment. You don't want to make the person or persons who got you to this point look bad. You owe it to them to pay off."

His first premise for a great production is immediacy. He wants everything to feel live and real and in the room. "No navel-gazing. We have to make theater essential. We're disconnected as a community, so now, more than ever, we need space for a live experience."

Though Nolen, Canuso, and Childs think of him as an actors' director, Pfeiffer says it's all about the playwright. For The Whipping Man, he serves Matthew Lopez's stately script first and foremost.

"If it doesn't serve the play, I'm not interested. Theater is a writer's medium.

"But the play has to live and breathe with the actors, so it has to manifest itself there. . . . I want everyone involved - from the leading actor to the props designer - to have ownership of the production we're creating. We don't make enough money to be selfish."

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