At the start of February, I was fortunate enough to have my play “Prima Donna” included in CATCO’s New Works Festival. I’ve previously written plays for CATCO’s season for families and young audiences, so audiences primarily knew me as a writer for younger audiences. During the talkback that followed the staged reading of “Prima Donna,” someone asked if this was my first play for general audiences. Instead of answering quickly with “No, I’ve written many others,” I thought about the progression of my plays and suddenly charted a connection from the plays I was writing in graduate school to “Cowgirls Don’t Ride Zebras” (my first play for families and young audiences) to “Prima Donna.”
Since then, I’ve been thinking a lot about my theatrical “voice.” I remember years ago, I was at a Dramatists Guild event, talking with a group of people between a session. There was a young writer who asked about “voice.” Specifically, she asked if writers had the goal of writing dialogue through the individual, specific voice of each character, how does “our voice” as author come through? I had never really articulated my thoughts on this, but I came up with an answer.
After the energizing conversation that arose last week from the Asolo Rep situation that I documented in my previous post and has been ongoing on "the Twitter," I felt compelled to revisit my ideas about being a director. There have been some great posts out there about how a director should interact with a text and how copyright comes into play. I recommend the blog post "Directing, Creative Freedom, and Vandalism" on Bitter Gertrude. It is well worth a read.
In this post, I’ll start with some ideas and quotes from some directors from the past and then will give some personal examples from my directing experiences. I mean this in no way to be a manifesto (okay, on some level I do), but I want to share my views on the role and art of a director.
A director is, first and foremost, an artist in her own right. A director is puzzler. A camera lens. A leader. An interpreter. A shepherd. A father, mother. A best friend. A mystery-solver. A sculptor. Through all these roles a director has all these tools at her disposal. One of those tools is the script itself. Paul Porel at the International Theater Congress of 1900, described the evolution of the director's role:
"To grasp clearly the author's idea in a manuscript, to explain it patiently and accurately to the...actors, to see the play develop and take shape from minute to minute. To watch over the production down to its slightest details, its stage business, even its silences, which are sometimes as eloquent as the written script."
The script is the springboard that informs all the decisions a director will make through the process. As Stanisklavsky said, "I follow the facts of the play. I take the actor as such. He places himself in the given circumstances of the role."
Those "facts" and "given circumstances" that exist in the play are teased out and interpreted by the director. Meyerhold says, "The play is colored by the director's point of view... the director infuses [the actors] with the spirit of the author. But...all the artists have complete independence." The actors, designers, are all autonomous, making their decisions based on the agreed upon original concept. A director isn't looking for slaves to the concept, but looks to the concept to "give unity to the whole." As she works with the designers and especially the actors, the director expects each piece to evolve independently while still growing together as a cohesive whole. Meyerhold completes the thought that actors "act freely in an almost improvisational manner, of course keeping to the text, but revealing the play to the audience through the prism of the actor's technique which has assimilated both the author's and the director's concepts. Theatre is acting."
A lot has been said about directors and their relationships to texts and to playwrights themselves. How does a director interact with a text? Can she make changes? What decisions can she make? What is "sacred" (if anything!)? What is verboten? What is a director's responsibility to a play? To a playwright? To a production? To her other collaborators?
When we talk of a director having a "concept" for a play, what are we really talking about? Do we mean interpretation? Yes, and no. Directing is equal parts interpretation and adaptation. You are interpreting what's in the script into a unified, cohesive whole and adapting the writer's concepts into action and physical space. A concept is defined by the resources at hand in terms of space, environment, collaborators (including actors and designers), budget (or lack thereof), and time. As Jacques Copeau says, the script is "no longer symbols written on paper: [the director] adds a sense of life to the meaning of the words. They are voices which speak and fall silent at his bidding, gestures which are made, faces which light up. Place, time, colors, and lights are clearly defined in terms of specific emotions and specific episodes." Copeau, however, warns that a director's concept can go too far, that "trouble arises the moment [the director] makes use of some of his professional skills to distort the playwright's work, to introduce onto the fabric of that work his own ideas, intentions, fantasies, and doctrines." The director, while bound by the script (not simply because of copyright and legality, which is a red herring for our investigation of the director's role), does have autonomy as she works with the actors and designers. Authors offer a ton of freedom to interpret. Let's take Tony Kushner's Angels in America, just because, and look at the image of the Angel. Yes, the angel. Kushner's stage direction is:
A sound, like a plummeting meteor, tears down from very, very far hove the earth, hurtling at an incredible velocity towards the bedroom; the light seems to be sucked out of the room as the projectile approaches; as the room reaches darkness, we hear a terrifying CRASH as something immense strikes earth; the whole building shudders and a part of the bedroom ceiling, lots of plaster and lathe and wiring, crashes to the floor. And then in a shower of an earthly white light, spreading great opalescent gray–silver wings, the Angel descends into the room and floats above the bed.
Does Kushner mention color? Timing? Silence? Stage position? Height of the actor? Tempo and pitch of the voice? What the stage looks like? How big the bed is? All these are decisions that the director has to cultivate with her actors and designers and it's those decisions that create the concept, the director's "mark." Those are the moments that a director has free reign to create. She might take evidence from the script and from dramaturgical work to make those decisions, but she has that artistic freedom. She is, as Harold Clurman writes:
"...the 'author' of the stage action. Gestures and movement, which are the visible manifestations of action, have a different gravity from the writer's disembodied ideas. Theatrical action is virtually a new medium, a different language from that which the playwright uses, although the playwright hopes that his words will suggest the kind of action that ought to be employed. The director must be a master of theatrical action, as the dramatist is a master of the written concept of the play."
A director’s concept is physical. But it can, and must, change and adapt based on a multitude of influences: perhaps an actor’s personality brings a new flavor to the “concept,” perhaps the stage is smaller or there is no fly space, perhaps the budget is teeny tiny, perhaps there are no stage lights, perhaps there’s no trap door, perhaps, perhaps, perhaps… A director adapts. She has to.
I would like to now speak about 3 examples of crafting a concept, informed by style and the text: one from one of my students and two from my own directing. First, my student.
For class, I had my students read Angels in America and Rebecca Gilman's The Glory of Living. I had them choose one of the plays and come up with visual choices based on their understandings of the text. They had to be specific and cite their points of reference. One student met with me about his paper, worried about what I would think about his analysis. He took issue with Angels in America since his personal views on homosexuality were negative. Homosexuality was wrong, end of story. He talked to me about his concept which would make the world of the play, and everything in it, dingy and dirty to represent the fact that homosexuality was wrong. I asked him where in the text his ideas were reflected. Where was the evidence? He acknowledged that his concept wouldn't necessarily jive (my word) with Kushner's intentions. But as I was thinking about it, Kushner never tells us whether the environments are clean or dingy. He gives general locations, not very many specifics. It's the director's job, along with the designers, to craft the specifics, whether fully fleshed or implied. I prefer implied, but that's my personal aesthetic. So, imagine now that you are seeing a production of my student's vision of a gritty, dirty Angels in America. Would you come to the conclusion that "he's saying homosexuality is wrong" (without the prompting of "director's notes" explicitly saying that that's the point of the concept)? Or would you simply say, "Man, New York was dirty in the 80's!" Each audience member sees a different play, whether it's the play that any of the collaborators from playwright to director to actor intended is a question that can never be answered nor controlled. No matter how specific or clear your focus.
Now on to two personal directing concepts that adapted to the script and the limitations of the resources at hand. Many times restrictions and limitations can beget some of the most creative work.
My personal directing aesthetic aligns most with Peter Brook, especially his production of Hamlet that I was lucky enough to see at BAM a long time ago. The only set was a large orange mat with large pillows that created "set" and locations (see the photo at the top). It was minimal and wonderful and the best adaptation of Hamlet I've ever seen. I didn't necessarily agree with his chopping and moving and manipulating of the script, but that's not the point right now. It was brilliant.
When I was asked to direct Mozart's The Magic Flute for Coòpera: Project Opera of Manhattan, I knew that there would be certain limitations. First, the opera was going to be performed in two separate venues, both churches. We couldn't have a large set; it would have to be moved in a single afternoon, in a single van! And we didn't have a real budget. I settled on the idea that I could use three ladders for the set: two 8 ft. and one 10 or more ft.
These ladders in multiple configurations would create each location. The tall ladder would even allow the Queen of the Night to "fly" above everyone else as she sung her famous aria. It was a wonderful solution that had to be adjusted for our second location in the church in Harlem whose stage space, which was in a "gym" space, was much too small for our ladders. We moved the ladders to the floor instead of the stage and performed mere feet (inches in some cases) from the audience. We had no backstage, so the actors all sat behind the set in full view of the audience at all times, laughing and enjoying the show along with them.
My final example is from grad school, when I was directing a new play by an undergrad writer, Stephen Ptacek, called Billie the Kid, or the Legacy of Billy the Kid. The main conceit of the play is that Billy the Kid was actually a woman (“Billie”) posing as a man, who long ago had a love affair and an exuberant thieving career with Sam, who has now become a lonesome bartender.
The space we were going to perform the play was teeny tiny and the budget was non-existent. The audience was going to be close, just like the audience of The Magic Flute. Our concept was one of simplicity. We were able to get the costumes to be strong, we focused everything there. We had a couple of set pieces, but mostly a bare stage. But there was one problem that we didn’t know how to overcome: Gunfire. There was supposed to be gunfire. Lots of gunfire. In a small room. With the audience at the toes of the actors at certain. How do you create gunfire in this environment? Cap guns? Too loud. Too much work. And we’d have to have gun training for all the actors and crew. Sound effects? Too canned. Not organic. It would take away from the experience and cause a distraction. We needed something that would help the experience, that would be part of the play.
A drummer. I said that if we had a drummer, we could hit the drum with each shot. Stephen did one better and asked, “What if it was a jug band?” And so, we had a 4-5 member jug band complete with drum and washboard and guitar, sitting above the action in a loft in full view of the audience. They played as the audience came in. And when a gun shot rang out, the drum would fire off the shot and the jug band would come in, playing a sad little ditty as the character died. Each shot became an event, each death had new weight.
As a director, I’ve found that my art is in taking what I can find in the characters and plot in the play, investigating what’s behind the words of the play, partnering with multiple artists to come up with a way of putting the play on its feet, and rolling with the punches as they arise. I love directing. I love being a playwright. I love collaborating. I'll end with this nugget from Harold Clurman:
"The written play is not the goal of the theater - only the beginning. If the play at the end is not something beyond what it was at the beginning, there is very little point in the process of transposing it from the book to the stage; very little point, that is, to the whole art of the theater.”
I wish all you fellow theatre-makers well as we practice our respective arts and make beautiful works together. Be excellent to each other.