Benson native and NYC native returns home to direct Driving Miss Daisy in Raleigh

pseligson@newsobserver.comMay 5, 2014 

Eric Woodall on the set of “Driving Miss Daisy” on May 1. Woodall, a Benson native, is directing the play.

PAULA SELIGSON — pseligson@newsobserver.com

— Benson native Eric Woodall, a New York City resident, is visiting his home state this month to direct “Driving Miss Daisy,” the latest N.C. Theatre production.

After graduating from Carnegie Mellon University in Pittsburgh, Woodall worked professionally as an actor for 10 years. For the past 12 years, he has been a casting director on Broadway, casting such shows as “Mama Mia,” “Jersey Boys,” “Les Miserables” and “Phantom of the Opera.” His family owned Woodall’s clothing store and his parents are Bill and Noela Woodall.

This past Thursday, the Smithfied Herald sat down with Woodall before the dress rehearsal for “Driving Miss Daisy.” The play, about an older Jewish woman and her African-American driver, takes place from 1948 to 1973 in Atlanta. It explores race relations, the Jewish experience in America, aging and losing one’s independence. The show runs through Sunday, May 11. Visit nctheatre.com or call 919-831-6941 to buy tickets.

The interview is edited for length and clarity.

Herald: You grew up in Benson and now you’re this New York City director. That’s pretty cool.

Woodall: I was a young boy living in Benson, and my parents would bring me to Raleigh to be in plays. There weren’t really a lot of opportunities at that time in (Benson), but I did a lot of things here. In fact, when I was in high school, I worked with North Carolina Theatre. I was an apprentice in a lot of their main stage shows, and it gave me fantastic experience, and I worked then with some of the actors that I now work with in New York, so it’s really cool to see how these relationships have continued and where they first began.

Because I have a full-time job as a casting director, I‘m able to really be picky and choosey about things that I come back to direct. And the shows that I’ve done here ... they’re both southern plays, “Steel Magnolias” and now “Driving Miss Daisy.” It really ties into the experience of coming home because the plays line up so closely to my Southern roots and my family members, my grandparents, and what it was like growing up in a very small town with some fantastic Southern values.

Herald: When you come home, how does it feel to direct on the stage that you once performed on?

Woodall: It’s incredible. Last night, we were having a production meeting at about 12:30 a.m., and we were going through Memorial Auditorium, and I was going down these steps, and I had this wash of memory of when I was 16 years old going up and down those same steps in costume. It’s a great honor, because when you’re a little kid and you’re intimidated and you’re excited about experiences, you have no idea that one day you could actually be back and be leading up a production.

Herald: Having Southern roots, what perspective has that given you in your career?

Woodall: It teaches me to say please and thank you. (Laughs.) I think there’s a great deal of Southern humor that certainly has been part of my family and my teachers, and I hope that I carry that into my work. I joke about it, but there is a sense of being nice and working with respect, the Golden Rule. The more you give that, the more you get that back, and I guess I learned that in the South.

Herald: Tell me more about when you started in theater. How did you become interested in it?

Woodall: I was 9 years old, and my mom read in the newspaper that they were having auditions for a play in Raleigh. So that actually was taking me out of Johnston County, because at that time, there wasn’t a lot that was happening in our immediate area. So I got involved with the Raleigh Little Theatre, the Pied Piper Players, Theatre in the Park and the North Carolina Theatre.

Then there were some plays in the Smithfield area that I did and certainly through the Johnston County schools. I went to Governor’s School for the arts and did lots of civic programs and church programs and things like that. The choral activity was big when I was coming up in the Johnston County area, so that was the basis of a lot of my early performing.

Herald: What was it like transitioning to big cities like Los Angeles and later New York City?

Woodall: My mom jokes that my big stepping stone was going to Pittsburgh to Carnegie Mellon University. “At least you have one step between the cotton field and the battleground.”

I was a kid growing up in a small town with parents and grandparents and teachers who encouraged me. I had interests, when I was young, that didn’t match everybody else’s, and so I was encouraged to look outside of where I was at the time and explore other places. I certainly didn’t go other places, but I imagined what it would be like, and a lot of those expectations came true and then some.

Herald: What advice do you have for someone in Johnston County who is interested in theater?

Woodall: It’s a much different time now than it was 30 years ago, and there are so many more opportunities, thank goodness. There’s the Benson Little Theatre and there are some great theater companies in the Smithfield area, the Clayton area and lots of areas, not to mention in Raleigh. And it’s closer to Raleigh now than it was when I grew up, because it was before (Interstate) 40 was built, so it took longer to get there.

My advice would be to do as much as you can, and I think really in every way, not just in the arts, but just to explore as many different interests as you have, because all of those things will make you a better artist. But to not be shy, and if it means going outside of your comfort zone or your area where you live to find opportunities, do that.

Herald: When people come to see this play, what do you hope they take away from it?

Woodall: Well the play is a Pulizter Prize-wining play, and it spans 25 years, and it takes place all around the Civil Rights movement. It takes place in Atlanta, and it deals with race relations, but it also deals with a woman who’s Jewish, so it’s also the prejudices against being Jewish in the South and then also with a white person and a black person. So it brings up so many issues that were very real at the time. I think it’s a great educational piece to look back how far maybe we have come or to see maybe how little we have grown.

But it’s also a comedy, and it’s really fun to look at these Southern characters and see ourselves in them, whether they be black or white. And that really is the message at the core of the play – that no matter what you are, no matter what your religion is, we’re all the same. And there’s this human connection in this heart that connects us all.

Herald: North Carolina Theater is hosting several Q&As around this play about Raleigh’s civil rights history. How does it feel to be able to bring up this conversation and to look back and also look forward at where where it’s going?

Woodall: It’s amazing to be asked to be a part of it... It’s very close to my heart to have an open discussion about what things need to change and to look back at history and to hopefully learn from it.

Herald: What perspectives or artistic directions have you gone with this play that are unique to your work?

Woodall: It’s interesting, some things that I directed I have really put sort of a stamp on in how I’ve conceived the production. This particular one, the play is so well crafted and so constructed, you can’t really veer far from how it has been written.

I love transitions. I don’t like audiences to sit in blackouts or anything like that, so maybe if somebody knows me or my work, they might say, “I can see you in the transitions,” so that the whole thing has this cinematic flow. One of the things that was important to me is people come to this play knowing the movie, and the play was first, and the play is more representational obviously than the movie, but I wanted, when there was a chance, to bring in a cinematic aspect. And we’ve done that a little bit with the driving scenes, and sometimes just the movements and the music to get to one scene to the next, so that it has a bit of a movie feel, so that it doesn’t feel that foreign from what people are coming to expect.

Herald: What’s it like to be a casting director? Tell me about that job and how you approach it.

Woodall: I feel very fortunate to be a part of that. It’s allowed me to be around some of the most celebrated and talented directors and actors and producers in the world and to learn from them. I’m constantly awed by the level of talent that I get to audition and collaborate with. As casting director, my job is to try to fill a director’s vision of how they see a show coming together and what kind of cast they want and it’s my job to know, as really as accurately as possible, to know what they can do and as many different things that they can do so that I can bring them up for a role and get them in the mix and encourage them.

There’s nothing better than making the phone call to tell someone they got their first Broadway show. I have these incredible opportunities and have been very lucky with some achievements in my own life and I know what those moments feel like, and to be a part of making other people have those same feelings and experiences is really gratifying.

Herald: How do you find a perfect person for a role?

Woodall: Well it’s hard. I don’t really think there is a perfect person for a role. I think there could be ten perfect people for a role, and then it comes down to a committee of people that are deciding. Sometimes with a musical it’s a little easier, it’s a little less subjective, because it can become very cut and dry. Can that person sing that note, dance that dance, have that certain look and feel? And so it starts to narrow it down.

Herald: When you come home, is there anything particularly southern and local that you always do?

Woodall: Pimento cheese. Barbecue. Krispy Kreme doughnuts.

This is a longer version of the interview than what appeared in print.

Seligson: 919-836-5768

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