There’s his work, which lies at the challenging intersection of experimental theater, opera, film and installation art. And then there’s the man himself, whose rail-thin physique, storm of dark hair and penchant for black tends to draw analogies to a Dostoyevsky character.
Last fall at St. Ann’s Warehouse in Brooklyn, where his stripped-down, boldly revisionist, ecstatically reviewed staging of “Oklahoma!” had sold-out crowds tapping their toes to sparkling bluegrass orchestrations of Rodgers and Hammerstein gems, Fish could often be spotted watching a bit grimly from a seat by the control booth, his tightly crossed arms and legs pretzeled into a pose a yoga teacher might call Extremely Anxious Auteur.
So it was a bit surprising one afternoon earlier this month to find him leaning back almost easefully in a chair onstage at the Circle in the Square, a few hours before the first dress rehearsal for his Broadway debut.
The crockpots on top of the long tables lining the sides of the stage were ready to start bubbling away with chili (to be consumed by the audience at intermission). Fish was a bit hoarse, but relaxed — for him, at least.
“The suspicious and paranoid part of me keeps waiting for the other shoe to drop,” he said, when asked whether he’d had to make compromises to get the show to Broadway. “But so far” — he gave the plywood tabletop the first of several hard knocks — “I think I’ve been able to have a lot of control and to work the way I like to work.”
Fish’s arrival on Broadway, where “Oklahoma!” opens April 7, might seem like a remarkable turn of events for an artist who has spent much of his career running in the opposite direction of American commercial theater.
But to his longtime friends, what’s most remarkable, or perhaps not, is how little the experience of suddenly finding himself, at 52, anointed a “hot,” even marketable director has changed either him or his darkly iconoclastic vision.
“I really don’t think he has changed, much,” said Gideon Lester, the director of the theater program at Bard College, where the show began life 12 years ago as a scrappy student staging. “The production, though, has changed what’s possible in the American theater.”
Fish (who turns out to be quite genial and soft-spoken in conversation) grew up in suburban Tenafly, New Jersey, the son of a lawyer mother and an accountant father, who also owned a summer camp. Asked to describe what kind of a kid he was, he laughed and said, “Oh, you know, weird, awkward, shy.”
His parents often took him to the city to see Broadway shows, but also work by Andrei Serban and Peter Brook. (Mary Testa, who plays Aunt Eller in “Oklahoma!,” recalled one of Fish’s quips: “I’m half La MaMa, half ‘La Cage,’” as in “Aux Folles.”)
At Northwestern, he thought he would major in theater, but gravitated instead to the more experimental and theoretical Performance Studies department, where he credits teachers like Lee Roloff, a Jungian analyst and poetry scholar, for fostering his intensely language-focused approach to theater.
Not that Fish has always made the words easy to hear. As an undergraduate, he directed a roving production of “Our Town” whose first act took place in the football stadium, where the actors screamed the opening from the 50-yard line — the audience was in the top three rows of the stadium — before running the length of the field.
Fish’s own career might be summed up as running all over the field in wildly unpredictable maneuvers, none of which seemed to be heading toward a commercial score.
After college, he worked for four years as an assistant to Michael Kahn, the artistic director of the Shakespeare Theater Company in Washington. By the early 2000s, he had made a name for himself doing what he called “pretty aggressively modern” stagings of Shakespeare, Molière and other classics at American regional theaters, but increasingly found that his work and the audience were parting ways.
His minimalist 2005 “Hamlet,” set mostly around a contemporary family dinner table, lost the McCarter Theater “50 percent of its subscription base,” as he put it.
At another point, he recalled, “I was told by an artistic director, ‘If you want to do the kind of work you’re doing, you can’t do it here.’”
Instead of trimming his sails, he started producing original work in way-off-Broadway venues. He also spent time in Germany, taking in the sprawling, exuberantly experimental productions by director Frank Castorf at the Berlin Volksbühne (whose aesthetic was once summed up by The New York Times as “nudity, text-wrecking and screams”).
“The work was at once beautiful and ugly,” Fish said. “The acting and design, wild and real. It felt totally for the audience and, at the same time, unconcerned with the audience liking it.”
Fish’s work is often devised from film or (difficult) literary texts. A 2012 piece based on the writings of David Foster Wallace featured flying tennis balls and a varying script each night, fed into actors ears through headphones. “Eternal,” a two-hour video piece from 2013, had two actors performing the final scene of the movie “Eternal Sunshine of the Spotless Mind” 23 times in a row.
“Kock Fight Club,” an adaptation of “A Midsummer Night’s Dream” produced at Bard in 2009, was staged entirely in the orchestra pit, under a giant video screen lowered over it like a lid that showed a mash-up of footage of Michel Foucault, Angela Davis, Cher and Eva Gabor.
Oh, and the audience were all dressed as chickens.
“My favorite memory of Daniel is him giving intense notes to his assistant while they were both dressed in chicken suits,” recalled JoAnne Akalaitis, a close friend and mentor who ran the Bard theater program at the time.
Fish clarified that they were actually “chicken ponchos,” before turning serious.
“I have a fascination with a kind of anarchy onstage,” he said. “I think I very rarely hit it, but the work that really, really excites me has that quality to it.”
It was at Bard that “Oklahoma!,” which involves the audience in a somewhat more restrained way, also took shape. In 2007, Akalaitis asked Fish if he had an idea for a show, and he threw out the Rodgers & Hammerstein classic, which he remembered fondly from childhood but suggested mainly, he likes to say, because no one else would ever have let him do it.
He started with little more than the concept of “dinner theater” and the idea of the audience sitting down for an actual meal cooked onstage.
“I didn’t really have much of an idea beyond that,” he said. He added: “I’m most interested in work where there’s real transaction going on between the stage and the audience. That’s the thing that really turns me on.”
The student “Oklahoma!” became something of a legend among those who had seen it, including Lester, who in 2015 asked him to stage it again at Bard’s SummerScape Festival, with professional actors. (Fish also wanted live chickens; Lester said no. “Daniel can be very emphatic,” he recalled, with a chuckle. “We had words.”)
That production generated tremendous buzz in theater circles, and a long period of competitive scrapping over its future that might be compared to the tense auction of picnic hampers at the box social in the show’s second act.
The suitor who carried Fish to St. Ann’s, and now to Broadway, the lead producer Eva Price, said she had only dimly heard of Fish when she saw a message on a list-serv for commercial producers with the subject line “Spoiler alert: things revealed inside about this Bard College production of Oklahoma.”
“My mind was blown,” she said of the production, which she raced up to see. “I became obsessed with getting my hands on it.”
Later, over breakfast in New York, she told a skeptical Fish she thought it could have a commercial life. “He was lovely and soft-spoken and really smart,” she said. It “took a minute,” she added, to partner with St. Ann’s, which also pursued the show avidly from the beginning.
Her own conversations with Fish about certain aspects of the show, she said, sometimes “got intense.”
Fish’s friends mentioned him recounting fights with producers over some of the more radical elements of the production, like an eerie scene that unfolds in total darkness. There have also been adjustments to the surreal take on the famous dream ballet (choreographed by John Heginbotham), and, most significantly, the show’s final scenes.
After the Bard production, Fish agreed to “clarify,” as he put it, his take on the killing near the end, which the Rodgers and Hammerstein organization had objected to as seeming too much like coldblooded murder.
But the show (which makes only minute adjustments to the text) has arrived on Broadway with its challenging essence intact. That’s partly, Fish said, thanks to Price’s protectiveness.
“And it’s partly a function of where I am as a director and a person,” he said, “and the fact that now I’m able to articulate that in a way that isn’t insane.”
“Insane” may be a strong word, but Fish has a reputation for making intense demands of actors, and for inspiring intense loyalty.
Christina Rouner, a close friend who has appeared in many of his shows, including “Eternal,” said actors know not to joke about extreme staging ideas in rehearsal, lest they be asked to actually, say, deliver a 12-minute monologue while doing jumping jacks, as one performer in the David Foster Wallace piece did.
“Daniel asks unbelievable things of people who work for him, in terms of stamina, openness, courage,” Rouner said. “You have to really trust his way.”
Testa, a musical-theater veteran and two-time Tony nominee, said that his approach to “Oklahoma!” was equally exhausting.
“He makes you do something 6,000 times until it’s exactly the way he wants it, which can be very frustrating,” she said. “An actor will say, ‘Why am I doing this?’ and he’ll just say, ‘Do it again.’ But it always ends up exactly as it should be.”
Fish’s “Oklahoma!” emphasizes how a community can turn violently on an outsider. It’s a theme he tends to talk about in political terms, especially since the 2016 presidential election, but that Rouner also sees as deeply personal.
“He really is awake and aware of pain, of being on the outside,” Rouner said. “I think there’s a wounded quality that gives fire to some of his work.”
Fish, who is separated from Kaye Voyce, a costume designer, with whom he said he is still close, rarely offers personal anecdotes in interviews, and friends describe him as private. (He did confirm Akalaitis’ description of his apartment in Brooklyn as “impressively clean,” if not so much lately.)
Asked about the idea of a wound, Fish said he didn’t think about it consciously. But later, by email, he said he had reflected some more.
“While watching the show the other night, it occurred to me that a shot to the heart does figure prominently in the show’s final moments,” he said. “There’s something in that, yes?”
Daniel Fish, Briefly
Hometown: Tenafly, New Jersey
Show that inspired you to be a theatermaker: “Stop Making Sense.” The rollout of the band, the lighting, and of course, Show that inspired you to be a theatermaker:
Key influence on your work: The films of Rainer Werner Fassbinder
Dislike onstage: [Declined to comment]
Why “Oklahoma!”? It’s happy, sad, normal and [expletive] up.
This article originally appeared in The New York Times.