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Mad About O’Neill

Mad Men director cut his chops at our Tao House.


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Photos courtesy of AMC

Mad Men’s mopey bunch and Glee’s often crestfallen choristers can claim more common ground with great American playwright Eugene O’Neill’s tragic characters than merely the struggle to cope with life’s disappointments. There’s Danville.

Michael Uppendahl, who’s directed key episodes of the popular television programs, happens to be an O’Neillian of the highest order and has also directed plays at Danville’s Tao House. In 2006, he received the Eugene O’Neill Foundation’s Artistic Award for his productions.

Carole Wynstra, former president of the foundation, met Uppendahl in 2001. He’d driven from Los Angeles with a group of young O’Neill enthusiasts to see a production of A Moon for the Misbegotten in the old barn at Tao House. “He told me he really wanted to direct theater in our barn, and that is just what he did over the next seven years.”

Uppendahl credits his work at the Danville theater—and in Los Angeles theaters—with developing his director’s eye for TV. “Theater taught me how to be very specific with the objects you have on display. Onstage you have so few [props] that you have to be very specific about their storytelling use. The same is true on TV.” Even the color scheme is key: “We pay particular attention to the storytelling potential of colors, especially in terms of reflecting themes.”

For now, Uppendahl is focusing on TV and is working on two Mad Men episodes for the upcoming season, which begins in April. But he hopes to do more theater one day. “And more O’Neill,” he says. “O’Neill was extraordinary and very entertaining. When his plays are brought to life, they are incredible.”

 

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