The scene is glamorous 1933 Hollywood, and a famous actress prepares for an audition by having her maid, Vera, run lines with her. It turns out the maid is also an actress—but, being African-American, a frustrated one. Vera learns that there’s a speaking role for a slave in the play her boss is about to audition for and tries out too. Pulitzer Prize-winning playwright Lynn Nottage’s 2011 play By the Way, Meet Vera Stark, which the fourth-year actors will present October 8 through 12, takes place over the course of three decades: the ’30s, the ’70s (when Vera is on a talk show), and the early 2000s, when others are debating, among other things, whether Vera was a sellout.
When the director of the Juilliard production, Lucie Tiberghien, read the play, she laughed out loud, she told The Journal. “What’s fascinating is that it’s in one style throughout Act One—1930s screwball comedy—and then it completely shifts in Act Two,” she said. “It forces us to step back and look at issues through the lens of 1974 and then through the lens of the early 21st century. So it’s an ambitious and demanding play in a way that I completely respond to.”
One of the big challenges is the humor. “Comedy is always very difficult, and comedy that’s rooted in truth and the real desire to effect change is even harder—and that’s what this play is,” Tiberghien said. “This is a great play because it asks a lot of very pertinent questions.” When watching Vera Stark, she added, “you know quite soon that it’s going to ask a lot of questions about our attitude about race. I would hope that people leave determined to openly think or rethink about our attitude toward race. This play wants to start a conversation.”
Tiberghien, who was born and raised in Switzerland, got her start in the performing world as a dancer (she also studied piano at the Geneva Conservatory for a decade and later played bass in a band). She danced professionally in Paris for a number of years (Juilliard ballet master Alphonse Poulin was a mentor), but while she was in Paris, she started to make a shift. “I found I was creating dance pieces that were more and more rooted in storytelling and words, and theater began to reveal itself to me,” she said.
Eventually Tiberghien decided to move to New York, where a directing program at Playwrights Horizons helped solidify her ambitions. She made her Juilliard debut nearly a decade ago, and in addition to working on playwrights festivals, she directed the fourth-year productions of Molière’s The Misanthrope (2008) and David Mamet’s Boston Marriage (2011). She also frequently works with professional actors, and while her process isn’t fundamentally different when working with student actors, she loves the fact that the Juilliard students “have this openness and hunger for direction and guidance. Professional actors are not always as open,” she said. “I view my job as a collaborative effort between these actors who do something that I can’t and without whom I can’t do what I do. It’s reciprocal.”