Center Stage: William Partlan on the joy of bringing a play to life


That's the first word several colleagues of William Partlan immediately jumped to when describing the ASU professor and his career in theater.

Looking at his resume, it's hard to disagree. The document is 11 pages long, and details creative work spanning more than 40 years. He's lived in New York City, New Hampshire, Minnesota, Washington, Mississippi and now Arizona. He and his work have traveled across the country and around the world.

Partlan said the best part of working in theater is the collaborative process of taking a play from the script to the stage.

"I love it," he said. "I love doing it. For me, ultimately, the best part is feeling at the end that we've really made this play come to life on the stage. That's the most enjoyable part. I'm particularly happy if the playwright says, 'It's what I dreamed it would be.' I enjoy the process at least as much as the final result — working with actors, discovering with them. That process for me is a tremendous joy."

Partlan is no stranger to the stage, but his story began in a very different context. During his freshman year of high school, he and his brother started a rock cover band dubbed "The Invaders." They began playing instrumental rock, and when they could afford to buy microphones they moved to covering classic '60s songs.

With college applications looming, however, Partlan said he decided he needed to diversify his experiences, so he auditioned for a high school production of Max Frisch's play "The Firebugs." He found that he enjoyed the experience, and thus began his career as a thespian.

When he was a sophomore in college Partlan studied directing at the National Theater Institute at Eugene O'Neill Theater in Connecticut, and that was where he found his true calling. He said the experience he gained during the institute's intense six-days-a-week, all-day program was invaluable.

"It ultimately launched my career," he said. "I knew right away that directing was what I wanted to do."

After he finished at the institute, he spent his college years directing at Dartmouth College, where he graduated in 1973. Then he was accepted in the Bush Foundation Fellowship at the University of Minnesota, and finished his MFA in 1976.

From then on, his career has been a mix of directing, acting, producing and teaching. He has worked as a professional freelance director for 40 years, combined with positions that include time with the National Playwrights Conference, the Cricket Theatre and the world production of "Triple Espresso," a comedy/magic show he helped create and produce.

His experience also includes directing the world premiere of two shows by Pulitzer Prize-winning playwright August Wilson, "Ma Rainey's Black Bottom" and "Fences." 

Read more: Arizona Theatre Company's 'Fences' a masterful staging of the classic play

Partlan said the joy of directing comes from the unique experiences each show offers the cast and crew.

"No two productions are the same," he said. "The words are the words, but what's underneath is what it's all about."

Creating a play from start to finish is a highly collaborative process, Partlan said, as he explained his usual approach to a new play.

His work as a director begins with reading the script three to four times, first to understand the story and then to figure out what makes the play tick — what makes it important.

He said he often reads it out loud to get a sense of the rhythms and language. Then, if it's a new show, he tries to meet with the playwright to make sure both of them are on the same page. After that, production can start with the creative team: actors, designers and the rest of the crew.

Partlan said the hardest part of being a director is developing enough confidence to trust your own instincts.

"The greatest challenge is having enough life experience, and experience working with actors and designers to feel truly embedded in the process," he said. "To be confident that even if you don't have answers, you can find them along the way. It takes years of experience to get to a place where you can tackle almost every piece and do it justice."

He added that with that experience comes an ability to take the show beyond just the script and staging.

"Most directors start out by very carefully figuring out where and when everyone moves, (like) an entire traffic pattern," Partlan said. "For early directors, that's their safety net ... It's when you get to that place where you've maybe done that, but you can put it aside and trust your instincts to see where it goes, that's the big step ... That's when things get very interesting, and usually where the best work is done. Theater is a sum of its parts that's greater than any of those parts."

Eventually, he said he decided to try something new, and debated between directing for television or becoming a professor. He travelled to the sets of a couple TV shows to get a feel for the environment, but ultimately he decided to take the teaching route because his passion for directing was more than just technical work.

Partlan came to ASU in 2006 when the position for a directing professor opened. When he interviewed for the position, he said he saw how the University's work lined up closely with his own in terms of new work and innovation, and he said he's enjoyed teaching and directing at ASU ever since.

Now he is not only an associate professor but also the head of directing in the School of Film, Dance and Theatre at the Herberger Institute.

He said he hopes his students take away skills from his class that they can use in every aspect of their adult lives.

"I hope (my students) ultimately understand how what they're doing here will intersect with the real world," Partlan said. "The world needs collaborative thinking and communication skills, so you can end up doing almost everything."

Fellow theater professor Bonnie Eckard said that in watching the plays Partlan has directed at ASU, she can tell how much attention and time he devotes to his work.

"He's a real professional, so everything he brings to the stage is crafted carefully," she said. "Just being in the audience, you have a sense that this is a piece that has been handled with great care, precision and specificity."

Theater professor Guillermo Reyes said Partlan's gift for new play development and teaching is what sets him apart as a teacher.

"He's a considerate, kind person who really seems to care about students learning their craft, as directors and writers," Reyes said. "He seems to be patient with the process of new play development. He works well with his colleagues, he's a gentleman and he's somebody that you want to be around. With his set of skills and his ability to collaborate, I think he gets things done, and he gets them done well."

Reach the reporter at or follow @skylarmason42 on Twitter.

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