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A conversation with Director Peter Rothstein

Peter Rothstein 2023 copy_smaller.jpgBeloved worldwide since its publication in 1605, the story of Don Quixote has inspired generations with its tale of a wayward knight attempting to fulfill his dream of nobility and chivalry. Drayton Alexander sat down with director Peter Rothstein to unpack the appeal and the meaning behind Man of La Mancha.

DRAYTON ALEXANDER: Peter, our audience knows that you are drawn to bold musicals that delightfully play with the form of theater. What excites you about Man of La Mancha?

PETER ROTHSTEIN: It’s a celebration of the transformative power of storytelling and the transformative power of theater. Dale Wasserman, the book writer, found a unique dramaturgy for this musical: Cervantes tells his story to a captive audience but he also convinces them to play a role in the telling, inhabiting the characters. They are ultimately transformed by the endeavor. Their world view is somehow altered. Cervantes provides hope to people who are in a place of hopelessness and despair.

DA: The beauty of that approach is it mirrors the way the initial audience for Cervantes’ novel would have experienced it, sitting in a pub and drinking while someone read the story to them. It builds on our relationship to the characters in the novel, who have captivated people for over 400 years. 

PR: Don Quixote’s reach is incredible. Originally written in Spanish, it is the most translated book in the world next to the Bible, and this story holds a profound place in cultures throughout the world. My husband is from Mexico, so we spend a lot of time in Latin America: the presence of  Don Quixote and Sancho Panza is everywhere. They are on t-shirts, ball caps, tattoos; there are public statues and theater festivals dedicated to Cervantes. The story of Don Quixote seems to speak to artists of every generation: there’s an extraordinary museum in Guanajuato, Mexico, the Museo Iconográfico del Quijote, which features work from artists across the globe responding to story of Don Quixote.

DA: Do you think this longevity is because Don Quixote represents our highest ideals, that he lives by a chivalric code of decency and high morals?

PR: Well, I think “chivalry” is a complicated word, because it can imply male superiority, but when you peel some of that away, at its core, we get the question of what it means to treat everyone you encounter with respect, to be courteous and thoughtful. Wasserman felt that we were losing some of that in the mid-1960s, and we can see that lack of common respect in the world today. While we haven’t yet found a word to replace “chivalry”, I love Cervantes’ idea of emulating what it means to be courteous, what it means to be kind, what it means to see every person as worthy.

DA: Quixote thinks the answer to that is to dive back into the past. Cervantes is writing this story in the aftermath of the defeat of the Spanish Armada, when the Spanish Empire is losing its dominance, and he’s asking, “what if we returned to that way of living, would that be better?”

PR: I see a delightful tension in that: while Don Quixote is reaching backwards in time, he’s looking to the tools of the past to create a more equitable, hopeful future. So, he’s not actually saying, “let’s return to the glory days”, he’s saying, “there was a time in our history when we had more respect for each other.” I think that’s ultimately what he’s fighting for. For example, when he first encounters the character of Aldonza he doesn’t see a prostitute; he sees a full human being who should be valued. While his language is perhaps a celebration of a time now past, he’s reaching towards a more just future, and the need to see every person as a full human, worthy of respect, worthy of love.

DA: The term quixotic has become shorthand for something that is foolish or needlessly complicated, but there’s a nobility to Don Quixote and his quest, which Dale Wasserman sums up in this idea of “The Impossible Dream.” Where do you see that in our world today?

PR: I see that in our immigrants, who must believe in an impossible dream. There are so many deterrents to getting into this country, and yet people still try, because America represents an ideal, a place of equal opportunity. Someone who is willing to leave everything they know: their culture, their language, their food, their land and their family, possibly to never see them again, in order to build a better life for themselves and their children -- that’s pretty quixotic. And yet, for some the dream is worth the cost.

DA: Cervantes’ novel is quite experimental, in the way that it layers realties and perspective, and then Man of La Mancha breaks many of the rules and expectations of traditional Boadway musicals. How are you keeping that flame alive in your production?

PR: It’s at the heart of how we’ve built the world: Cervantes and his assistant come into this prison with a few suitcases filled with props, having been arrested for creating subversive theater in the public square. We have tried to capture that sense of guerrilla or primitive theatricality. For example, there is a vital moment in the musical where Don Quixote goes to courtyard of the inn to meditate under the moonlight. We designed a moon out of a simple metal garbage can lid that’s painted like a moon on the underside. With a little paint and a little imagination, something as pedestrian as a garbage can lid transforms to contain all the romance and the magic of a moonlit courtyard. For me, that’s when theater is at its best, when a simple gesture triggers the imagination of the audience and we are changed because of it.