AM/PM: Srda Vasiljevic
Interview & Photography by David Weiner
Video by Jacob Caron
Srda spent the first four years of his life in refugee camps, escaping the Bosnian War that led to over 38,000 civilian casualties. His family found themselves in Des Moines, IA with little to no money, but were promised housing and jobs through refugee services. His mother has worked her way up in the Iowa state government while his father does finance for a magazine distribution company.
At 24-years-old, Srda is now one of the most talked about young theater directors on the come-up in New York City. From the Midwest to the big city, Srda has made the transition look easy, but that’s only his Iowan charm and natural humble disposition that has masked his tireless ambition and immense passion for the craft.
Srda went straight from Emerson College in Boston, MA to New York, working under veteran Broadway director Sheryl Kaller on the Terrence McNally original, Mothers and Sons. The play went on to receive critical acclaim and two Tony Award nominations. Srda has since started to build a name for himself. His consonant rich name probably helps with it's recognition. He's found his own New York family in Tom Kirdahy's small but powerful production company and has added an impressive list of credits to his resume including work on the Broadway hit, It's Only A Play and the Deaf West Theatre revival of Spring Awakening, which is breaking new ground with its diverse cast and production originality.
We had the opportunity to wander back behind the stage door with Srda to sit in on the rehearsal of the play When I Started Dating Men, an "invasive slice of gay Brooklyn life." Actors mimed the sparking of joints, the slugging of shots and the popping of pills all while masterfully fumbling around on their makeshift set. Srda brought us in on the party and let us up onto the roof of his apartment to show us what a day in the life is like as a new director on the cusp of greatness.
POND: Do you get to see your family often?
SRDA: No. I don’t.
POND: Are they proud of you?
SRDA: Yeah, they are. They’re so proud and they do everything in their means to support me. It’s hard when the people that mean the world to you are so far away, but I know that they appreciate and respect my decisions. When you become that person who makes the leap and moves somewhere further away and does something that’s unexpected and something that’s unconventional that shouldn't affect your relationship with them it should make them respect you more. I miss my family, dude.
It’s incredible to think that when my parents were 35-years-old they fled the middle of a genocide. Their lives were in peril, their children's lives were in peril and they were at the peaks of their careers and a war tore them apart and brought them to the middle of the United States with no money in their pockets. The things that they’ve afforded me and my sister and my family are unparalleled, it’s an unparalleled sacrifice that they’ve made and I feel that I have to give back to that because they’ve worked so fucking hard to change my life.
[His voice cracked as he started to cry]
SRDA: I love them.
I showed up to Srda’s apartment early in the morning. He had a long day of rehearsals ahead of him and needed to bring some set pieces from his home to the rehearsal space, one of which included a blue, headless mannequin with a pom-pom wig.
Srda's aim is to increase the accessibility of American theater. He wants our generation to treat going out to a play the same way that we would choose to go out to see a film or a concert. In order to reach a wider audience, Srda has pushed to work with more diverse casts on shows written by writers of all ages and cultural backgrounds.
SRDA: I would hope that my work provides some sort of access point for younger audiences. So that younger audiences can go see a theater piece and see that theater is a viable and breathtaking art form and not see it as a thing their parents do on Sunday nights. I think that there’s a shift in culture and there’s a shift in the way we see American theater and I hope that we can radicalize and revolutionize how we see theater as a younger generation.
POND: You've been working closely with Terrence McNally, who's widely considered one of the most important American playwrights living today. What has been your experience assistant directing his shows and working side-by-side with him at Tom Kirdahy Productions?
SRDA: I feel like it’s become a shift of consciousness for me because three years ago I was idolizing these people. Three years ago I was studying their plays in classes. I was reading about them. Now working with them is really remarkable, but it just makes me appreciate it so much more when I realize that they are at the places they are because of the people that they are. They are caring, loving, compassionate and talented artists and once you see that on a one-on-one level it’s an eye-opening experience. I mean, to see your idols in that way.
SRDA: The fact that we are such a small company [Tom Kirdahy Productions] means that we can really all utilize each other's talents. I feel like the plays we’re producing, Tom is really making a profound decision to represent voices that aren’t usually heard. A lot of the plays that we’re interested in producing are by writers of color or women, people who come from different backgrounds so that we can bring some diversity and bring some new stories into the American theater and do it in new and engaging ways. It’s exciting being on the forefront of that.
Srda fell through the bottom of the old lawn chair we found on his roof during the interview. We had to break for a laugh as we searched for a new location.
POND: Tell us about working with the cast of Spring Awakening.
SRDA: Spring Awakening happened and that was another mind altering moment being involved in that show. To tell you the truth I’ve never, not for any particular reason, but I’ve never been close to anyone who’s deaf. I’ve never been exposed to that community and now being plopped into this process where 50 plus percent of your company and creatives are deaf and understanding the culture behind it and understanding that it’s not a disability, it’s just a different ability I think that’s the biggest thing.
There’s so much that’s right about that production that just makes me feel like 'Oh maybe we are moving in the right direction. Maybe this is what theater needs to be moving to.'
POND: Are you going to join the cast on the national tour?
SRDA: I hope so. I’m starting to take ASL classes in January to boost up my ASL proficiency. I would love to. We recently performed at the White House and on Late Night with Seth Meyers.
POND: How was it setting up Spring Awakening for television?
SRDA: The stage is like 10 feet wide. It’s a very narrow space and we had to re-stage the biggest number in our show which involves people running across the stage, jumping, dancing and doing drag queen stunt falls. Figuring out how to do that in such a small space was a challenge. I wasn’t there for the recording because I was back home in Iowa, but I was there for our two prep rehearsals and walkthroughs.
I watched it with my mom which was a very special experience because it was being premiered on television and watching it in the middle of Iowa with her at midnight was very cool to have her experience that with me.
SRDA: I have these two very separate backgrounds. I have this background as a very culturally specific Yugoslavian man since my family has very strong Yugoslavian ties to the country and the region itself and then I also have this midwestern background. This Bosnian refugee in the midwest, those pieces don’t fit together. The way that it’s influenced my art making is that putting those two incongruous pieces together and trying to make them a congruous whole has pushed me to want to create stories about people who have these backgrounds that don’t fit together. I want to see what happens in that friction when I try to force these two atypical ideas together.
Srda held a late night reading of When I Started Dating Men, the play we'd followed him on to be performed at Dixon Place the following week. Considering the play is set in the middle of a party, Srda figured why not have hold a party for the reading, for "research" purposes.