Tamara Ruppart is a director who came into the world looking at it beyond arm’s length.
A native New Yorker (born in Manhattan and raised in Queens), she grew up surrounded by friends of different cultural backgrounds (Kenyan, Japanese, South Asian, etc.) and absorbing their recounting of the multitude of faraway places and histories that had shaped their lives. In so doing, those experiences, as well as growing up in a highly multicultural metropolitan landscape, shaped Tamara’s perspective as well.
The fact that New York was and is a place where “many cultures mix and blend” is just one of the reasons that make Tamara proud of being a native of Manhattan.
That and her observations of similarities in her multicultural friends’ families’ lives ingrained in Tamara the importance of a global perspective that galvanized her interest in directing.
“As a storyteller, I love ‘living’ in other cultures; to learn, explore, and celebrate them,” she said.
I first met Tamara Ruppart face-to-face in the lobby of Los Angeles Theatre Center when my play, Calligraphy, was opening there, but, in the real sense of the word, we had “met” through a creative connectivity – we both were interested in exploring stories of female narratives lost in the hurly-burly of exclusive mainstream thinking, in particular the narratives of Asian and Asian American females. My play, Kokoro (True Heart), is what initially brought us together before we physically had met.
Directing the play was Tamara’s first professional theatre job. Seldom on our artistic journeys are we fortunate enough to connect with another artist in a way that goes beyond the work of art itself into a human bond. That happened via Kokoro and has evolved into many other artistic projects.
Tamara’s film, Path of Dreams, was penned by me, and garnered numerous international awards and recognition. Eleven Arts, Inc., now has hired her to direct the feature film adaptation of Kokoro, which begins shooting this year. Organically linked to Tamara’s interests, the story explores the struggle of a young Japanese immigrant mother adapting to the very foreign culture of the United States. Challenging the audience to empathize with the accused in the face of what is seen by the West as a heinous crime, the play illuminates the degree to which culture and spirituality shape perceptions of truth and morality.
Tamara’s interest in theatre and film has early roots. Acting in a play in the eighth grade ignited her path.
“I played a leading role in a play in eighth grade and that was when I really fell in love with theatre,” she stated. “From rehearsals, to script work and memorization – I couldn’t get enough. I remember the exact moment, before a dress rehearsal, that I realized theatre was a potential career choice.”
That seed of interest grew as Tamara continued her schooling. Early in her college career, she focused on theatre as a major. A pre-graduate school experience solidified her commitment, and also enhanced her understanding of the full landscape of theatre and theatrical collaboration.
“I was given an amazing, exclusive opportunity to work on Phantom of the Opera on Broadway as an Assistant Stage Manager,” she recounted. “Seeing how the choreography backstage was just as important as the blocking and choreography onstage was very eye-opening. There were so many moving parts onstage (in the dark), under the stage, up in the rafters, etc., that kept the show moving forward. I am forever grateful for (and inspired by) my experience and education at the Majestic.”
That experience was amplified by a private meeting with the theatrical producer and director of the premiere production of Phantom of the Opera, Hal Prince, instigated by a letter that Tamara wrote to him at the end of her graduate school years.
Months after writing the letter while driving across the US in her move from New York to Los Angeles, she received a phone call to set up a meeting with Prince.
“So, after arriving in Los Angeles, I flew immediately back to New York to meet Hal Prince in his office at Rockefeller Center,” she recalled. His warmth and encouragement created a precedent for her appreciation of “those at the top who are nice to those at the bottom.” “I will never forget that hour of my life with Hal,” she continued. “As an extension of the cast and crew at Phantom, Hal was wonderfully… exuberant and humble.”
Besides the aesthetic telepathy of Kokoro, I knew little about Tamara before I met her in person. I thought about her name – Tamara. I had known a Samara who was South Asian. What, I wondered, was her cultural background? When a slender, attractive blonde woman walked towards me in the lobby of LATC, my deliberations merged with the human being before me. I marveled at how our paths had united given the very different circumstances of our growing up and our life journeys. However, the more I learned about Tamara’s background growing up and her experiences teaching English in Japan, the more our bond strengthened.
“I was a little towhead blonde girl who was raised in the most diverse neighborhood of the world.,” she noted. “Growing up in Queens, NY, made me feel like individual variations were a regular part of life. When I was young, I attended my local public school, but moved to a Waldorf school while still in elementary school. Juxtaposing the wonder and natural world of Waldorf education with the gritty streets of New York City exposed me to a wide variety of textures, cultures, colors and stories.”
Tamara was never at odds with that diversity and, when she moved to a part of the country that didn’t have that same depth and breadth of diversity, she realized what she had left behind.
“When I attended college in North Carolina, I learned how extraordinary New York City really was,” she said. Ultimately, she came to realize that diversity exists in many forms. “… similar skin color didn’t necessarily equate similar culture, life experience, or world view. Just because someone looks like me doesn’t mean that he or she is like me. And just because someone doesn’t look like me doesn’t mean they’re not.” These observations forged in Tamara the mandate to seek personal connections, both in her work and in her personal life. “I always remember this in my storytelling, and look for opportunities to build bridges and celebrate cultural understanding,” she emphasized.
One of her favorite excavation sites for cultural understanding and raising of consciousness is the female condition. Stories about women’s lives help her to grow. They also have been a source that illuminates what cultures share versus what causes them to collide.
“From reading plays about women from other cultures (both domestically and internationally), I marvel at our core similarities regarding motherhood, romantic love, and inner strength and will (often worthy of a superhero),” Tamara said. If one is an artist and must live in certain artistic worlds, it’s worth thinking about where you have to live before you move in. “As a director, you live in the stories you tell for months or even years, and I love to live in stories about women who are different from me,” she explained. “These women teach me about the greater consciousness and character of ‘women’ and for that I am forever grateful.”
Directing is a beautiful and challenging art. One is interpreting, through one’s own vision and experience, a world created by a playwright or screenwriter in Tamara’s case. Every position in the theatre is daring, so it’s interesting that many theatre artists have experience in multiple areas in film, theatre, and television. For Tamara, her surety in her directing path grew out of other areas of theatre. Often people talk about being bit by the theatre bug; for Tamara, once in the theatre world, there was a click and she had arrived in the place that was right for her.
“I feel so fortunate to be able to be a director,” she shared. “When I was young, I thought I wanted to be an actor. It was really fun to be on stage and play with the other actors. But, when I discovered directing, everything just clicked.”
Her acting roots, as well as what she learned working backstage, has informed her directing.
“I am not an actor, but my years on stages taught me about the craft,” she imparted. “As a result, I very much respect and appreciate actors, their dedication, and their talent. Actors are the keystone to every story.”
Twenty years of playing classical piano also informed her work as a director. “I very much connect to the musicality and rhythm of each script,” she said. “I usually find a single piece of music that represents the story (and/or main character) and listen to it repeatedly while working.”
She adds to this education her background in college art studies.
“… textures and a set color palate on stage are vital for me,” she explained. “Ultimately, directing allows me to use all these tools in my toolbox, and lets me explore and shape each aspect of storytelling. It is both personally and artistically rewarding.”
Perhaps because of growing up absorbing a multi-faceted world around her and also educating herself in life behind the curtains and behind the camera, Tamara is a director who understands the critical value of technical production in performing arts.
“I live for tech,” she stated. “It’s my favorite part of the rehearsal process.”
She described the collaborative frenzy that excites her.
“The stage manager in me loves getting all the cues perfected, the actor in me gets a thrill out of the costume and make-up debuts, and the director in me delights in seeing all the hard work and planning finally come together,” she related. “It’s also a time when designers are around to help problem solve, the actors are giddy with opening night approaching, producers talk about house seats and reservations, and the stage manager takes her place as God. It’s a glorious frenzy of creativity and collaboration.”
“Tech” in a theatre environment is something that Tamara compares to tech on a film shoot. Both are exhilarating, but like the notion of impermanence in the Japanese culture that is a massive dimension of her life, transitory.
“… both are only temporary,” she mused. “These fleeting thrills are usually few and far between, so I try to enjoy every moment.”
Besides being a busy artist, Tamara also is a busy human being. Perhaps the other dimensions of her life raise and cultivate her artistry to a depth that single-focused individuals rarely achieve (and may not even be aware of). She is a director, a mother, and a wife. Work-life balance is not only key, but essential; and time management becomes an incomparable, fundamentally imperative skill. All that energy, of course, goes both ways. As she grows as an artist, it feeds the cultivation of her humanity, too.
“Like every working mother, I’m always working on balance, a notion that is in constant flux,” she pointed out. “With each new project comes a different schedule, which affects life at home. Rehearsals, meetings, and film shoots don’t have flexibility, but, as all mothers know, it takes a village. Having family/friends/babysitters/a supportive spouse/etc. is paramount and I couldn’t do it alone.”
It may take a village to raise a child, but the hope is the village sustains and nurtures that child beyond just raising the child. In the same vein, life takes a village and Tamara is an artist who recognizes that, which helps her navigate the vigorous and dynamic waters of life as a female director with character. She knows she can’t do it alone; and engages with family, friends, and other artists to make art and life glow.
[Credits: Photographs of Tamara Ruppart courtesy of Tamara Ruppart; production photographs courtesy of Eleven Arts, Inc., True Heart Films, Minx Pictures, and this author.]