In Arts & Entertainment

Freelance director May Adrales is drawn to works that illuminate societal injustices.

Young director uses theater to change the world

May Adrales hasn't been home to New York for more than two weeks since March.

The freelance director goes wherever work takes her. If any place is really home, it's the theater.

"I had this box of clothes and personal things that I would just mail from theater to theater," she explained, laughing. "It's scary. It's a little taxing."

That box full of clothes most recently was delivered to The Milwaukee Rep's Stiemke Studio, where Adrales is directing "The Mountaintop," an inventive, emotional re-imagining of the last hours in the life of Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr.

"It's widely accessible," Adrales said of the play, which was written by her friend Katori Hall and premiered in London in 2009. "It deals with a historical figure that everyone reveres and it also brings up a lot of questions about his character and how we perceive him. And it asks a lot of questions about what it means to be a citizen – because no one has surpassed his ability to be the model American citizen."

Good citizenship is something Adrales has spent a lot of time studying. The daughter of Filipino immigrants, she grew up in Appalachia and was 17 years old before she saw her first performance of professional theater. It must have had an effect, too, because theater became a beloved hobby for Adrales while she pursued her goal of working in social justice.

For the first year and a half out of college she spent time volunteering in Cameroon; eventually she found herself in New York City working with the Council on Foreign Relations, a prestigious think-tank dealing with foreign policy and international affairs.

"I really wanted to create change and address economic inequities," she said. "But this job was pretty demanding and I realized I was still spending all my time at the theater."

What had been a diversion, Adrales realized, was actually a vocation.

"I had this sort of come to Jesus moment where I was like, 'You know what? I don't think this is actually what I really want to do,'" she remembered. "You have to just walk where your feet are walking."

Then she had to tell her parents.

"I was more worried about what my parents were going to do," she said, laughing. "They knew I was on track to be a lawyer so they thought I was going to take this time off between school and then go to law school. And then when they found out I quit my job and I was just temping and working at a bar and doing theater they were a little like, 'OK…'"

Adrales then spent all her time writing and directing in New York City, immersing herself fully in the theatrical community.

"I learned so much. I just worked wherever I could assisting different people, assisting at different levels, creating my own work," she said. "Then I went away to grad school because I realized there was only so much I could teach myself."

She received an MFA from the Yale School of Drama and went on to work at The Public Theatre in New York and later as artistic program director at Lark Play Development Center. She has been a full-time freelance director since 2010.

And her parents have never been more supportive.

"They always have been," she said. "You know, the Yale degree helped! They're trying to get out to see this show ('The Mountaintop')."

Adrales is drawn to new plays by unknown writers, though she still retains a love for all Shakespearean works. She met playwright Katori Hall while working at Lark Play Development; the two roomed together for a while in 2010, during which time she met The Rep's artistic director Mark Clements at the Humana Festival of New American Plays in Louisville.

"We ended up talking on a stairwell for I think like two and a half hours," she said. "I think he had just come on board (at The Rep). It was a great, like, simpatico kind of moment. I had directed a show in Chicago and I did a show in Louisville so I was keeping him apprised of what I was doing, and then last year out of nowhere he asked me if I would be interested in directing 'Yellowman.'"

"Yellowman" by Dael Orlandersmith ran last year from Sept. 28 to Nov. 13 at the Stiemke Studio. The work was one of the first productions she had ever assisted on, so being at the helm as director this time around was a significant moment for Adrales.

Reviews for the production were overwhelmingly positive, and Adrales says the love from Milwaukee is mutual.

"I love my time here," she said. "Every time I come here it feels very much like home. I'm invested in the theater and the community. I really like the dialogue and the audience here and I really believe in what Mark is doing; I feel like he's taking The Rep in a really exciting direction." Page 1 of 2 (view all on one page)

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