For the record, one doesn’t contribute to almost 200 productions over a decades long career without earning the notoriety of having and eye and ear for what matters most.
Case in point: Peter Hinton-Davis
He’s an artist knows the inner workings of a stimulative play better than we may know ourselves. What’s more is that the director, playwright and theatre educator stops at nothing to bring forward stories—including opera—that can leave such a lasting impression that it’s easy to see why The Order of Canada recipient is recognized as a national treasure.
The world premiere of his newest project, The Sylvia Effect, debuts at Theatre Kingston October 27 – November 14, 2021, a fictionalized imagining of the life and work of poet Sylvia Plath which he dedicates to the mothers; of invention and otherwise.
A self-professed problem solver and risk encourager again takes theatre where it has not gone before featuring isolated characters in a world of darkness and light in his latest work.
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HOW DO YOU DESCRIBE YOUR APPROACH TO MAKING MEMORABLE THEATRE THAT BRINGS OUT THE BEST IN PERFORMERS AND STIMULATES AUDIENCE WITH A NEW WAY OF SEEING THE WOLRD?
Well, this is the goal, isn’t it? Always: “to bring out the best in performers and stimulate the audience with a new way of seeing…” I love this as a template or guide for each project. But how to achieve it, is frequently affected by the play, the company, the resources, the time allotted, and the world in which the production is being made.
I sincerely try with every show to bring out the best in the performers, but what is “best”? And who determines this process and progress is a question that involves risk and the responsibility we are entrusted with as directors. I believe the director leads, but leads in search of discovery. And I have not always been successful.
It requires constant soul-searching and articulation of the process and the play. I try to make it part of the process to determine what we are exploring, and to engage in our differences as necessary and contiguous elements to an interpretation. “Best” can involve many things, including the pursuit of objectives known and unknown – and also at times, demand rigor and discipline that challenges us all.
I think a simple way to guide the director is to remember that you are privileged with being outside the moments being created. With that comes, perspective and a point of view – (what might be questionably called objectivity) and the performers are inside those moments- (what might be questionably called subjectivity) – they have the vital experience of what is being embodied. Both have valuable knowledge and experience – but from different view-points and hopefully can speak together and inform one another.
Directing invites a centrality of leadership – but not a hierarchy. I see myself at the centre of the process and accountable – rather than at the top. We are problem solvers largely, but more importantly, we identify the problems of a play that are worthy of our attentions and efforts. My goal every day is to know a little bit more about the play – and that can include what it isn’t about – as much as what it is. To guide an ensemble with prepared exercise – but to be open to the discovery of these ideas in action. I liken it to orienteering.
If I were to invite a group of skilled hikers into an unknown wood or valley, it is not necessary that I have been there before, or know every element and topographical feature we will encounter. But you might expect me to have a compass, to have prepared actions for some of the obstacles we might encounter and to be a good judge of listening and learning through trial and error the skill sets of all of us on the journey and to put our collective knowledge and experience to use.
Sometimes people will be afraid, and you may have to encourage people to risk, but with a knowledge that encountering the journey will get us to the richest ends. And we don’t always know where the final destination might be. If you know everything from the beginning – there is little reason to explore the play in the first place.
To stimulate an audience with a new way of seeing situations is important and difficult – and brings about the paradox of what we might be looking for in rehearsal. When actors ask me, “What am I looking for?” I honestly respond, “I don’t know.” I am interested in seeing what hasn’t been expressed before. There is an entire vocabulary with actors centered around pursuing what each character “wants” – which to me ends up being rather cynical. I am not always “wanting” things from others. I think plays are about people pursuing “needs” and how we go about effecting change in what we see around us.
Instead of asking “What does my character want?” we could ask, “What does my character see?” This is true for the audience as well. There are the points of “studium”; the defined and sought-after knowledge – points of plot, history, information – all the clues that add up to a good mystery. But there is also the “punctum”; the accidental discoveries that come along the way, the hidden in plain sight discoveries that reveal themselves in the effort.
Theatre comes from the Greek word “Theatron”, meaning a place for ‘seeing’. And maybe this is what connects the process of creation with the experience of theatre for audiences. It is in finding new ways to see; whether it’s the play, each other and our world.
In order to do this, we need a vocabulary and an openness to actually see what we find, rather than what we want or fear. It is my favorite thing about Romeo and Juliet. It remains one of Shakespeare’s most popular play – and yet everyone knows the story. No spoiler alerts will deter an enthusiastic audience.
What does this tell us? It compels me to believe that at the beginning of every production, someone in the audience is investing in a belief that maybe tonight these young lovers will survive, they will overcome the obstacles and love will prevail. We re-invest each time in the possibility of the play – not its result.
HAVING MASTERED THE DIRECTING CRAFT, WHAT GIVES YOU THE GREATEST SATISFACTION BRING A CLASSIC STORY OR NEW WORK TO LIFE?
I do not believe in the idea of “mastery”.
My artistic practice is more vocational and constantly in a state of flux: growth and discovery some days, and stasis and convention on others. There is an accumulation of experience – which is a different thing.
When I was a kid, there was such a big difference between being 7 years old and 9. I remember a story of a 7-year-old auditioning for the role of Jacob Two-Two (who is 6) and the young actor asked if they should play the part as a 6-year-old, or from their own experience at 7. That year made a significant difference. When you are 26 years old, 27 feels relatively the same.
When I turned 59 this past summer, someone asked if I was 60, and I was so quick to correct them. Somehow, I was so scared of being perceived as 60, as 59 made all the difference in the world to my conception of youthfulness. Age never meant much to me until recently. As I face getting older, it’s a second childhood again.
The “young” director, the “old” director, the “male” director, the “female” director, the “white” director, the “black” director – are all types and tropes of identity that come into play with the word “master” and worthy of reconsideration and redefinition too. Experience is a good when mindful teacher.
However, what has worked for us in the past, does not always hold true in the present. Theatre being made in the 1990’s was responding to different pressures than today, and some ideas prove worth keeping, while others need to be dispelled. The longer you do it, the more you learn, but also the longer you do it – the greater the challenges there are, as there are fewer templates for this, or programs designed to nurture maturity.
There is a freshness that comes with seeing something for the first time. Our current culture loves the emerging and new and young, (which is important) – however, we have been relatively Oedipal with our cultural elders, and there are just too many older artists who have failed to hold their work up to current realities and contemporary demands.
In this way it goes back to “seeing”.
When an artist defines something in a new way, critics often suggest the playwright, actor or director, is “ahead of their time.” But how is this possible? Maybe what is more accurate is that the artist actually has “seen” the world as it is – while the rest of us could not. This is an important distinction to whatever “satisfaction” might be with bringing any play to life.
It has also been proven true, that when you stage something as observed in life, you are praised for innovation. An audience member once told me that in a show where all the actors were amplified with body mics, that he appreciated hearing “real” voices on stage. For him, the amplified voice, not the naturally acoustic voice, was more “real”. It’s a paradox. Sorting this out is part of the work.
I take issue with artificial binaries of “classical” work and “new” work, as I believe it categorizes and places undue limits on various repertoire. Inside of “classical” is always the word “class” which makes political divisions of power and privilege in regards to authority.
And certainly, we have seen this upheld in all the schools of Bardolatry and Shakesperiotics, to the detriment of living art. To canonize something is to kill it. I quickly remind myself that all older plays were new plays at one time. And all new plays are informed by traditions and legacies both resistant and controlling.
I direct new work as is they were classics and old plays like they are new. Tradition is different than convention, and innovation can be found in both the young and old.
Recently, I was asked for titles of plays to be explored in a “classical” theatre unit at a prominent Ontario theatre school. I quickly learned how confused the definitions were.
Was classical about scale, language, mythology, history? Did it include, older plays that were essentially naturalistic (so what would the difference of a text be, stylistically from a contemporary scene study?) Or could it include, modern plays that explore older forms?
Branden Jacobs Jenkins’ An Octoroon or Wajdi Mouawad’s Scorched—I learned that the syllabus for “classical” scene study needed to derive from the public domain to avoid a school paying royalties.
The livelihood of translators not withstanding – I thought this was maybe a great way to think about so called “classical” repertoire. Public Domain – plays that belong to a public discourse and scrutiny. It’s always hard.
But what was challenging for me in my 20’s—and is challenging now—is distinguishing what was a living text in the 1920’s and what is a living text in the 2020’s is different. We balance what we know with what we need to learn.
Maybe this is thinking in theatrical terms. And that is always my objective. To not only interpret, to not only hold a room for collaboration but to engage in thinking about story, and action, metaphor and image, character, history and myth.
However, the more plays you direct, the deeper perhaps the challenges reveal themselves to be. We keep refining our skill sets and tools, however the questions and realms of expression shift and change – and we have to grow along with it. People love to quote the “mirror up to nature” purpose of theatre from Hamlet’s speech to the players.
Today, more than ever, I am wondering about the next line, “ … and the very age and body of the time its form and pressure.” I am asking in each play; what is the body of our time? And what is the form and pressure of society and its ideologies with an audience today.
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