Sheila Daniels makes audiences listen. When Bart Sher, the decorated artistic director of Intiman, hired her as his associate director last fall, he was effectively hiring his opposite.
Sher favors thunder, bombast, Sturm und Drang. Daniels, who toiled in the Seattle fringe scene for 15 years, builds intensity with quietness, favors substance over flash. She doesn't push her actors to assault the audience; she makes us lean forward, go to them.
Sher's offer to Daniels was the kind directors dream of, but Daniels hesitated. Her first thoughts weren't about fame and glory—they were about leaving a humble life for the rarefied air of a Tony Award–winning theater.
"I had crafted a poverty-stricken but easy life," she says in what turns out to be—appropriately—a lulling interview.
The soft-spoken director had just recovered from a rough couple of years: "I had been through the death of a friend and an amicable but very painful divorce. I lost a huge amount of weight, had been studying Buddhism, and had come to a place of inner peace I hadn't had since I was 4 years old. Getting that offer was kind of like falling in love when it's a terrible moment to fall in love."
Friends told her she'd be crazy not to take the job. She relented, and the first thing Sher did was push her out of the plane. Next week, her first show at Intiman opens: A Streetcar Named Desire, the biggest production of her career.
This is Sheila Daniels's moment.
"I wanted to hire her because she's a great, young, local director," Sher says. "And I immediately wanted to give her as hard and big a job as I possibly could." The stage and the audience are more than twice the scale she's used to. And the budget? "Nothing on the set will be from my living room. That's a first," Daniels says.
Daniels came to Seattle in 1992 to recover from a sour relationship in Corvallis, Oregon, and began one of the more prolific careers in Seattle theater. She directed dozens of plays, from "terrible ensemble pieces" (her words) to the quietly brilliant Bridge of San Luis Rey that helped one of its leads (actress Amy Thone) and its production company (Strawberry Theatre Workshop) win Stranger Genius Awards.
As a director, Daniels is tender, almost maternal, and coaxes deep, multifaceted performances out of her actors. She can terrify audiences, as she did with God's Country—a tense version of Steven Dietz's play about white supremacists in which Daniels demonstrated her ability to forsake quietude for noise when necessary—but prefers persuasion. Her best work is gentle but firm, permeating our minds and replacing our thoughts with her own.
A director's gifts are always hard to track onstage and Daniels, who makes a virtue of seeming unobtrusive, leaves particularly light footprints. It's difficult to identify signature Sheila Daniels moments, but her résumé is full of excellent, varied productions you might have forgotten were hers. An abbreviated list:
Crime and Punishment: A searing, emotionally dense version for three actors in which Daniels pushed the audience close to the stage, so we could hear the actors whisper and hiss. The Last State: A moody solo show about Hawaii by Sarah Rudinoff. Waiting for Lefty: A production of the 1935 socialist play which then-theater-editor Annie Wagner called "tough" and "high-voltage." And God's Country: Its simmering violence was so angry, so close to the surface, some audience members found themselves flinching and weeping.
Daniels loves actors, and had to learn how to be tough with them. When she first started directing, she says she was nurturing to the point of timidity. She was, she says, "a chickenshit." (Daniels may be gentle, but she's also principled and stubborn. For 2006, she protested the Iraq war by refusing to pay taxes and sent a letter of explanation to the IRS in lieu of a check. The IRS hasn't written her back.)
One night after a rehearsal for Streetcar, Daniels tells me the actors are beating themselves up. "They're halfway ready for performance and want to be ready for performance right now," she says in another lulling interview, this time sipping pints of... Stella. "And that difference feels like shit. You can see the buoy you want to swim to, but you're still in the middle of the ocean."
But Daniels remains calm. "I partly learned how to direct—how to manage stress—working customer service for a courier company," she says. "If you can deal with someone screaming 'Where's the fucking kidney?' over the phone, you can deal with being a director."
And she found just the right actors. Daniels scoured the country for her Stanley Kowalski, auditioning scores of men on both coasts. She was looking for a particular mix: a kinetic, physical actor, a little dangerous but controlled enough to handle stage violence. He had to surprise her in rehearsal. He had to find Stanley's sense of humor. ("Brando didn't find it," she says.) And he had to know Shakespeare. "This play is Shakespeare," she says. "Shakespeare with New Orleans accents and 100 props."
Daniels nearly despaired of finding her man when Chelsey Rives, who is playing Stella, suggested Jonno Roberts, a Los Angeles–based actor who grew up in a working-class family in New Zealand. He was perfect.
"I'm in that wonderful place where I'm in love with the actors," she says. Then she yawns. It's nearly ten, close to her bedtime. She gets up at six every morning to go running. "I'm a morning person in the theater," she says, laughing, and walks out the door.