DIRECTORS STRIVE FOR A BOLD ‘ARTISTIC VISION’ IN A STAGING. WHAT IS YOUR TAKE ON THIS MANDATE?
We all have “artistic vision” (actors, designers, stage managers, playwrights and producers, investors, ushers, crew members, critics and audiences) So, striving for one, is like striving to breathe. This really becomes an issue when we feel the grip around our throats. Or when we are silenced or intimidated. If we are choked, we apply superhuman strength for breath. The same is true for art. If we are free to speak – our vision comes into play. If we are not free, we need this vision to liberate us. We already have a vision of what we want our theatre to be, (or an expectation) and granted it can change and evolve and be challenged.
Our work is to understand what that vision is. Who is it for, and what do we need it to do? Who is the audience for this art? What do they expect of a play or an evening out? What visions do we share and what visions work for some of us but not for others? More often than not, we stand in the way of a vision, either by lack of ability, or fear, or a need to be liked.
Why do we say, one director is more talented (or has a greater vision) than another? Why do we not observe that one director is more attuned to their talent or is less blocked than another?
Maybe a “vision” isn’t the right word. It suggests something prophetic and divinely inspired. Theatre is curiously a pragmatic and concrete art form, made up of actions, timelines, budgets, limitations and constraints.
Maybe the first questions, I consider when directing a play are: how much time is there to make it? What are our resources? Who is making it? Who is it for? It’s also about the grand sleight of hand; full of repetition, practiced and profane, smoke and mirrors as much mystery and magic. There is ceremony for some, boulevard for others, and identifying this is part of what a vision might imply.
They say, no play ever changed the world, but I know of a few that changed me. And I have worked on plays that have had healing properties and have evoked a sacred fire. But most plays still charge admission and the transactional aspect to making plays complicates a generalized discussion.
I often am struck (mostly during previews) that what we as artists believe our plays are doing, are not always aligned with what an audience is receiving. When we talk about confronting the audience, or educating them, do we include ourselves? Do we want artists to go to the places we lack the resources or ability to go to ourselves? Are directors the artists who ask other artists to do this. What is creative consent? Do we want a theatre of escape or encounter? Can a play be both?
For me a great play, tells a story that isn’t necessarily real but true. A myth can mean a lie, it can also mean an untrue story that expresses a greater truth. We are myth makers, or myth identifiers. Each of us are given what Ingmar Bergman called “secret orders” – informed by experience, politics, philosophy, faith and instinct – we spend the first half of our creative lives learning what our calling is… and the second half accounting for carrying it out. But not always.
What I might think a play be for, and what you might think do not always align. This is the problem of art – its purpose and its alchemy to beg these questions. There are great stage manager directors, and there are great and inspirational leaders that encourage and inspire us to be our best selves. Our first job is to make what might appear impossible – doable.
There is another aspect which is about creating an environment in which creativity flourishes. Creativity in the artists, and in the audience too. There are plays when all the factors of leadership, collaboration, and the world in which it is presented, align and you have a creative confluence with time, place, subject and exchange.
Other projects where there was no will or comfort in the play and its idea. You cannot predict it – but there you are. I know of plays that were successful, undeservedly, and many more that did not receive the critical or audience appreciation or artistic recognition of what had been accomplished. If I had vision, I guess I would know this all beforehand – but that is the key element – you have to see where your directing lands.
Some will like you for it – others will resent the effort. Directing plays is no popularity contest – it’s a risk of choices, contentions and the bravery to put meaning out there and for it to be welcomed or resisted.
For the artist, it’s about intention.
For the audience it’s about recognition and the unexpected. An audience member once said to me in a disparaging tone, “Why did you direct the play like that?” And I said, “Because I thought you would enjoy it.” I thought it was true, and it was the very best I could give myself to, with the time, people and resources we had. That, I guess, is forever my vision. And because we are human, we know we could always do better.
I have never yet said, that this production was definitive, that it could not be improved, that it fulfilled my “vision” of all that theatre could be. Somehow, we are always running out of time. No project I have ever worked on was “finished” it was rather, abandoned, and its life continued in the hands of the actors and the audience.
So many successful shows no one remembers – and many created long ago, spuriously dismissed in their day – treasured memories in those who made them and those who remember them still. Yes – our art form is “written in water.” Theatre is the performance of memory and we only have other representations of what those shows were really like. Our productions can be archived on video, or in photographs or prompt books.
They live on in how they shape our imaginations. An ephemeral end for so much dogged pursuit. And I love this most about what it is we do. I will never forget the plays that changed the way I see the world, and I have little to show for it, but my seeing, which is everything. In the theatre there is no art object. It exists in time.
WHAT ARE THE COMMON TECHNIQUES OR PHILOSPHIES YOU STEER CLEAR OF FOR A BETTER DIRECTING OUTCOME?
There are many that I do not use, many at my peril. I believe in tools not rules for directing. And there are many tools to apply to an exploration. Rules are only helpful if there are few of them (so you remember) and that they work.
But what works for one artist may not for others. And we require agreements about how we will work, and what values we want to uphold. This is important in an atmosphere of bravery and risk-taking (I have failed in this unnecessarily in the past, and succeeded in the most surprising ways when it has been understood and shared.)
We could be more intentional. “Stakes” is a word that gets bandied about in rehearsal rooms every day; the funny thing is, we tend to talk about stakes, only when we run out of them. The scene is not working, “where are the stakes?” the director demands. Why is a scene losing interest? “I just feel I have no stakes.” the actor bemoans.
Rather than addressing stakes by the absence of them, why not begin with defining what they might be – and mindfully pay attention to exploring how they play out?
This is an example of what I mean by tools. Practical applications of concretizing difficult or abstract ideas. We need a connected space to explore dangerous ideas. Let’s keep the stakes low in the rehearsal hall – so we can explore high stakes in scenes. Have you ever noticed the genius of humor when moving through difficult work? Or if the vibe in a rehearsal gets too heavy, due to a block, a personal tension, running out of time, the acting choices grow increasingly conservative?
Rules tend to prescribe obedience, and make your collaborators susceptible to hyper-control and blocks. I am skeptical about so much capitalistic language in acting training and its effect on writers and making theatre. A theatre of wanting – the acquisition of moments and beats. So much language around scene study is defining wants – and playwriting too has this transactional obsession with the ‘set-up’ and “pay-off” – I tend to stay clear of this.
I prefer a process of collecting information, and the detective work of exploring a thesis. Herein, lies an old truth that theory follows practice, not the other way around. We must try things out – before understanding what they say and mean. I am interested in a theatre of seeing and disagreement and contention. Exploring each play as a dramatic problem. This is what democracy affords us.
Only in tyranny must we all agree. In a respectful space – there is the basic tenant to think differently about a common problem or goal, to disagree, and in this comes argument. Where the outcome of a play is unknown, and characters are different at the end of the story than they were at the beginning. In observing this change and how it occurs, we can maybe glean something as to why it has happened in the first place.
All language is disagreement – we speak to alter something we see that requires changing. This is not to be confused with complicity – which is essential to theatre – the understanding of how we work together at our differences in order to express the duality in things.
All my work is in pursuit of plurality of meaning and the doubles in character, action and representation.
YOU ARE A VANGUARD OF ‘TEXT’ IN DELIVERING A MEMORABLE AUDIENCE EXPERIENCE. WHY IS THIS MORE IMPORTANT THAN VISUAL DELIVERY?
Text accounts for about 25% of any given performance.
Design, staging, performance (both acting and receiving from an audience) account for the rest.
While text is a frequent beginning place, it serves to inform all the languages of theatre. There are misnomers too, that text acts in opposition to physical life or stage composition and design.
I resist this with every fiber of my being. We speak in many languages and ways and always in context to physical conditions. The goal is to be speak from the whole body – and I embrace Virginia Woolf’s metaphor of the thinking heart and feeling mind at every turn.
Of course, I love language – but loving it alone is not enough. We must interrogate it – its abilities and limits. I want to mean what I say, and we witness every day the importance of language and words and what they say about us and how we observe and understand society. I prefer to think of this process as READING and define it this way in my practice and teaching.
The purpose of “reading” as a theatrical technique is to wrestle with text on our own terms; to understand the tools required to take on difficult meaning, and to purpose this “reading” to the play at hand.
TO READ IS
: to look at and comprehend the meaning of words.
: to recite a piece of text, or to privately absorb and understand it.
: to wittily and incisively expose a truth.
: to peruse, to study, to scrutinize, to decipher, to make sense of, to discover.
To “read” is not only to understand the meaning of words, but it also invites us to interpret them. Words of resistance, celebration, criticism and expression. “Reading” is the practice of applying practical approaches to understanding words and images and physical language, with the goal of revealing intention and acknowledging the source of radical power for the actor.
Contiguously with all investigations into words, is the visual world of design. My rehearsal halls are literally wallpapered with images inspired by the play. And again and again in this work my greatest partners have been designers; Robert Thompson, John Ferguson, Eo Sharp, Dany Lynn, Carolyn Smith, Michael Gianfrancesco, Gillian Gallow, Bonnie Beecher, Kevin Lamotte, Richard Feren, Beth Kates, Andy Moro and Haui. I owe them everything and work alongside their vision. Literally. It is essential collaboration.
Painting, photography and music – these are my muses, and a part of the “texts” I interpret.
IN OUR MODERN ERA WHERE THE TV CHANNEL UNIVERSE AND STREAMING SERVICES OFFER STORY LOVERS MORE VARIETY THAT WHAT WE EVER IMAGINED POSSIBLE. WHAT DO YOU FEEL SUSTAINABILITY DEPENDS UPON TO CONTINUE TO ATTRACT NEW AUDIENCES TO THE THEATRE THIS DECADE?
I love television. I love YouTube. I love reading novels and poetry. I am especially fond of biographies. I love the internet. I love film, music, visual art and performance. They are not “competition” to me, but simply other arts.
The theatre, (always the ailing but never dying patient) has its own business to address, as to its vitality and sustenance. Its life is forever of interest. Our goals should be on access, affordability and patience with its reflective nature. There will always be new audiences.
I have listened to these concerns for 40 years, and the new audiences of the 80’s are the older audiences today. Do we live in a culture that wants theatre? We must look at this question plainly. We do, I think, but not with any kind of comfortable groundswell – so, we keep on our toes.
People once believed the novel would threaten the theatre (and we lost many writers from stage to page due to censorship). People once believed movies would kill theatre. People once believed radio was a threat to Broadway.
Marcel Proust owned a Theatrephone – a device which allowed Parisians to call into a theatre or concert hall and listen through an amplified speaker, from the comfort of their own homes, to a performance taking place live (ZOOM eat your heart out).
People thought television would destroy imaginations. “Video killed the radio star” – and it did and it didn’t.
We adapt, evolve and welcome technology. I am all for live performance, I am interested in O.P. (original practices) but eager for video, VR and AI to enrich our vocabularies.
When Oscar Wilde was submitting his play texts to theatres for production in the early 1890’s, he embraced the new technologies of his time, and submitted pre-production drafts type-written. He was criticized for “embracing an innovation that is a natural enemy to authors for the stage” and was held suspect, because he was concealing his “hand”. Odd to think of penmanship being considered part of reading a play – so, you never know.
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