WHAT PAST PRODUCTIONS HAVE ELEVATED YOUR APPROACH TO DIRECTING THROUGHOUT THE YEARS?
Honestly, they all have. I have directed almost 200 productions since 1982, and each one has “elevated” and influenced my approach to directing. Interestingly half the plays that changed me where those I directed when I was young. But if I arbitrarily limited it to 10 they would be:
1.) THE WASTELAND by T.S. Eliot – X UNIVERSITY. A stage adaptation from the modernist poem. (1982) It taught me the power of myth and its fragmentary nature, the collision of forms. It was the first production that demanded every moment be considered in theatrical forms – and also important to me, because it was the first play I directed.
2.) MICHI’S BLOOD by Franz Xaver Kroetz – a Crow’s Theatre production (1986) by the East German meta-realist brutalist dramatist. I learned about the differences between naturalism and realism – and the perceived controversy of what happens in life can be staged. I also learned about actors – Allegra Fulton who continues to collaborate and teach me about acting knowledge. I remember Joanne Akalaitus coming to see the show – and feeling seen, validated by her comments. And the sage but mystifying, “Peter you have so much time to define your work. Plays are all free until you are 40.”
3.) ABINGDON SQUARE by Irene Fornes – Theatre Passe Muraille (1989) Meeting Irene Fornes and encountering her plays changed the game entirely for me, of what a play might be – and where the drama revealed itself. Minimalist and lush in its eroticism.
4.) i.d. by Centre Stage Hour Company (1989) a devised collective creation written by Guillermo Verdecchia, Dawn Roach, Damon d’Oliveira, Alisa Palmer, Jane Luk, Richard Greenblatt and Denyse Karn. The production was directed by Richard Greenblatt, and I was production dramaturg. It was about the police shooting of a Black Youth and bridged resistant dialogue between youth and schools and the police. The whole experience was transformative and Richard a brilliant “mentor” of empowerment and collaboration.
5.) THE WITCH OF EDMONTON by Thomas Dekker, William Rowley and John Ford – Equity Showcase (1993) A wonderful 1621 tragi-comedy, drawn from the real-life accounts of a witch trial. The production featured Greg Kramer, Sandra Oh and Waneta Storms in a cast of 26 actors, and showed me the power of rigorous re-examination of histories and language, and the radical power of subversive women’s roles in Jacobethan drama. It led to subsequent productions of THE HONEST WHORE, (2002) (also by Dekker) and TAMING OF THE SHREW (1996 and 2008) by Shakespeare. Compromising an informal trilogy. WITCH, SHREW, WHORE!
6.) BURNING VISION by Marie Clements, produced by Rumble Theatre/Urban Ink (2001) Marie’s plays are unlike any other I have directed. They blend poetic structures and operatic visual imagery with more realist details of history and character. I have since directed COPPER THUNDERBIRD and MISSING – and these texts have proven to be the most challenging and rewarding. They also bring an inherent teaching in Indigenous cultural experience and aesthetics. I am grateful for the work shared with Margo Kane, Kevin Loring, Billy Merasty, Marion Newman and so many others on these projects.
7.) THE SWANNE another trilogy of plays which I wrote and were presented at the Stratford Festival 2002, 03, 04). Plays I wrote to leave the theatre, with no expectation of ever receiving production. 9 hours, 23 actors – a revisionist history challenging Queen Victoria’s succession to the British Crown. I learned everything from this play – and it was the fullest expression of my creative relationship with production dramaturg Paula Danckert. Needless to say, I did not leave the theatre, but if anything re-dedicated my practice to scale.
8.) LADY WINDERMERE’S FAN by Oscar Wilde. Shaw Festival (2013) My first and only Oscar Wilde and a profound dismantling of idealism. An exciting re-excavation of an old play. Public Domain dramaturgy, great actors and brilliant design by Teresa Pryzbilski
9.) AN OCTOROON by Branden Jacobs Jenkins. Shaw Festival (2017) BJJ’s reworking of Dion Bouciccault’s 19th century melodrama, was maybe the biggest game changer in process and dramaturgy. The play was all at once historical and modern, truly provocative and as challenging to make as it was to present. Every rehearsal demanded our best selves and the acting company was stellar. It really changed me.
10.) THE SYLVIA EFFECT a new play inspired by the life and poems of Sylvia Plath. It’s all unknown and new to me. It began as introductory notes to Plath’s only play Three Women and evolved into a production.
Influential shows also include THE PHOENIX CABARET by Xie Min (Cahoots Theatre, 1986) FLOWERS by Deborah Porter (Canadian Stage 1992) CLUTCHING THE HEART by Maristella Roca (GCTC, 1993) SCARY STORIES by Gordon Armstrong (Alberta Theatre Projects, 1995) GIRLS! GIRLS! GIRLS! By Greg MacArthur (Festival des Ameriques, 2001) THE ODYSSEY by Derek Walcott (Stratford Festival, 2008) THE WAY OF THE WORLD by William Congreve (National Arts Centre/Soulpepper, 2009), BOMBAY BLACK by Anosh Irani (Factory Theatre, 2015) HADRIAN by Daniel MacIvor and Rufus Wainwright (Canadian Opera Company 2018) SEX by Mae West (Shaw Festival 2019)
YOUR NEWEST PROJECT, THE SYLVIA EFFECT, DEBUTS IN NOVEMBER 2021. HOW DO YOU DESCRIBE THIS STORY AND WHAT APPEALS TO YOU MOST ABOUT THAT STORY THAT IT FELT LIKE A WORK WORTHY OF YOUR ATTENTION?
“I meant to write about death, only life came breaking in as usual.” Virginia Woolf.
Woolf’s life, like Sylvia’s is also read in terms of her death, as if that was the most interesting or significant thing that happened to her. And like Septimus Warren Smith in Mrs. Dalloway, her death was the outcome of a series of particular circumstances. Events seem to conspire against her – there was in Plath’s phrase, “Such collusion of mulish elements.”
“It takes great courage to see the world in all its tainted glory and still to love it,” Sylvia quotes Oscar Wilde, in her autobiographical novel The Bell Jar. And it is hard to know with any of these writers whether they are best known for what they wrote or how they lived?
I wanted to interrogate the intersection between a writer’s life and writer’s work. With each play, I have always thought, you are not being offered a chunk of my personal life. No. I have always attempted to offer the reader a separate reality. The dance between. I somehow wanted to delineate the fact from the fiction. And maybe in writing this, I have come to recognize the impossibility of pulling it off.
Playwrights are always lurking in the shadows, and what we write about often reveals us to ourselves in surprising ways.
Sylvia Plath always seemed to struggle in her own narrative between her life and work. For many readers, it was like she carried some dark secret and saved them for the poems. I notice this kind of intimate relationship with the poet I imposed on her. Sometimes she is “Plath” tough and factual like data. Or,” Sylvia”; the presumption that she and I are on a first name basis, like she is a friend or a family member or… Cher.
And then there are the sentences which require her full name, Sylvia Plath, invoking legend. It can get confusing but it defines very clearly how we see artists and their art. It is a private and a public thing all at once.
For Plath, privacy was something her death made public and something her life denied. Privacy involves time and space rather than any concept of secrecy. I think the facts of artists lives are misused but it can’t be helped. Maybe because we invest what we think of as the best of ourselves in our work – its disconcerting to think that anyone would be more interested in the lives we so often, in one way or another, neglect, in order to get the work done.
The play is intended to be played simply and directly. It is written in 5 scenes with a prologue and epilogue.
IT’S REMARKABLE HOW YOU OSCILLATE BETWEEN OPERA AND THEATRE SO SKILLFULLY. WHAT DOES ONE MEDIUM ALLOW YOU TO DO THAT THE OTHER DOES NOT?
Without question I am a theatre director who from time to time has directed opera. The mediums are as different as film, or dance – with their own rules and cultural assumptions and practice.
My interest in discovery, in narrative, in the exploration of ideas is a process that combines creative freedoms with adherence to discipline, and it always makes my opera pieces a curious hybrid. It’s to do with music (I do not read) and the culture of opera-making and rehearsal.
In theatre we arrive with a strong premise but few assumptions. The actor rarely has learned the lines before the first day – and it is presumed that we will discover much in the staging through the pursuit of needs, and action. There are a multitude of interpretations to navigate and you find the one that suits best the skills of the actors you collaborate with.
In opera, the singer is expected to know all their music on the first day, so the expectation lies in seeing what they have prepared. There are many moving pieces, a company of soloists, often a chorus (with Hadrian we had a chorus of 40 and Riel included two choruses, totaling near 60) an orchestra, specialty players, dancers, design, crew and stage management teams. You are working with a conductor, a choreographer, a chorus director, and multiple designers, vocal coaches and dialect coaches – you are one of many voices leading the room. The first rehearsal of Riel had over 120 people in attendance! With that said, opera tends to be about devising and execution.
The staging is encouraged to be pre-planned and all decided before hand, and more often than not, rehearsal is about executing what has been prepared. There is a demand to music, that either you hit the note or you don’t.
But in theatre what is the right note for “to be or not to be”? It is always up for debate and rediscovery.
Where plays are often about narrative and story – the forward progression of time through complication of plot, operas are more often than not about dilemma – the action of stopping time in an aria to explore some blocked activity – (the agonies of love, the perils of injustice, the finality of death)– in order to return to a world of time. It’s why the synopsis to so many operas are complex and so often printed in the program.
There are existing definitions of the Interpretive, the Conceptual, the Facilitating and the Auteur Director.
The Interpretive Director believes the text is the prime creative source, and serves to simply interpret what has been written. This is the kind of directing that is praised for being so good, you don’t notice its presence.
The Conceptual Director is the artist of simile, the combined relationship of a text and a directorial concept that reveals and explores its meaning. This is the director who sets Ibsen in the 1950’s – or relocates a text from one cultural specificity to another.
The Facilitating Director believes the prime creative source are the artists collaborating together. This director does not lead with a vision, nor any presumption about hierarchal centrality, they rather are a listener and arbiter of the dynamics of the ensemble and favor collaboration over a single idea.
The Auteur is the director who purposes all the contributing elements and talents to a vision or interpretation of a play above and beyond the play itself or its participants. This is the Hedda Gabler with 12 Hedda’s, performed durationally and intercut with other writings from the 1890s and the PUSSY RIOT song book. Here the director’s idea of the play is the prime source of creative expression, and the direction forms its own text.
Opera has long favored the Auteur, as has Film – and this might tell us something about these forms. Theatre favors the Interpretive, Facilitating and Conceptual schools.
I don’t know which of these embodies my own work. I guess that is for others to determine. But I suspect I am a little of all of these. When directing a new play, with the author in the room (whenever possible to me, the author is always welcome in the room) I am in service of the play and want to honor and explore that writer’s ideas. I love metaphor – and have found great excitement in the conceptual containers for plays (especially historical ones) I value tremendously the deep listening and observation of the Facilitating Director and believe firmly in the best idea in the room for the play, valuing the well-being and collective creativity of everyone involved.
I am a director who writes, and a playwright who directs my own work. I have taken a directorial idea beyond the intention of a text or play or team and made something new from that. It’s a dance. It’s the perception of what the play, and moment, and theatre company and timeline and resources require.
The goal is to not assume any convention of directing or upholding one approach as good for all things. The words “must”, “should” and “always” do not necessarily apply. A new play just finding its feet requires one approach, while a play produced a million times before might need another.
An Ibsen play is different from an Erin Shields play, an opera is different from a musical which is different from theatre. I try not to get comfortable with any style or convention or genre – but to understand their distinct and related meaning and experiment and pursue and follow and rebel against their rules and learn from the teachings.
I often say to younger directors that the director is given all the power, but can escape responsibility. The director is the most replaceable person in the room. Try doing a play with no actors or no audience, you have no play. But you can do plays without a director. There are so many examples, and directing as an art-form is still a recent practice – about 200 years in millennia of theatre making. But a play, a production is enriched by a thoughtful, caring, bold and visionary leader, seeing the play in all its complexities and recognizing in the audience how it will be received.
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