A Little Story: Enter, Stage Right, In Media Res
About ten years ago, as I sat in a make-shift waiting area before going in to audition for the Yale School of Drama’s prestigious graduate directing program, I suddenly realized I knew absolutely nothing about directing. After nearly 30 years of doing theater in one form or another, directing some 40 shows, studying and teaching this stuff for two decades, I forgot whatever it was I thought I knew. And I left.
I wish. Actually, I went in and bombed spectacularly, thereby embarrassing beyond belief the dean who had interviewed me and chosen me as to be one of the dozen out of 500 applicants to be invited to this final test for admission. I fumbled. I made stuff up. I felt I was talking through a tunnel. What happened? I don’t know. But in the moments before I walked into that room I lost whatever ability I’d had as a director and lost it for good. Or so I thought.
Seven years and another life in New York later, I was sitting in a Greek diner with my friend Darla, an actress and voice-over artist. She was relating to me a recent high school production she’d seen, featuring her niece, and how the director didn’t understand directing. Darla gave examples, from actors who did not understand their characters, to clumped groupings, to poor furniture placement. “These kids needed so much help! I know my niece would like to keep doing this, so I tried to point out things she could do.” Darla asked me about my views on directing young actors. I thought about this as I bit into my grilled cheese and bacon sandwich. I chewed. I swallowed.
(I apologize in advance for the very personal journey this essay is about to take. I don’t mean to be indulgent, I really don’t. I can only explain the mysterious process that is directing, as I experienced it. So if you want to know what a high school drama director does, well, I’ll start telling you here.)
I began by telling Darla about the time my high school office secretary, Mary, had asked me if I could coach her 12-year-old granddaughter for an audition for a production of Annie. We met one afternoon in the band room of the high school: Mary, her daughter June (the mom), her granddaughter, Megan, and I. I asked Megan to show me her audition. She performed a brief monologue and sang a song from the show, a cappella.
I leaned in, I listened. When she finished, I thanked her and asked quietly, “What’s going on in this song?” (I ask questions of actors out of real curiosity, not with the “What am I fishing for?” tone. It’s a mutual discovery. I’m no smarter about this than she is, and in fact I know less.) Megan looked a little blank. I guided her through question and answer: Whom are you singing to? What’s at stake? What might you be a little afraid of, or what is the “obstacle”? Megan and I parsed each line of the lyric, we talked about where the music went, and we created a visual space to define “where she was.” She sang it again. It was better. We did the same Q and A for the monologue. Then I staged each one, suggesting where to walk, when and how to gesture, where to look, reminding her that she had a body and a face (and a brain and a heart) as well as a voice. Funny how young actors forget that. And with each suggestion, each revisiting, Megan gained confidence and commitment and in a short hour became a character in a role, a person in a circumstance, and not just a little girl auditioning for a part in a show.
Mary and June watched this transformation, which to me wasn’t so much a revolution as a vast improvement. Mary and June were astounded, though. Mary said, “I had no idea what a director did, or why your shows were so good. Now I see why! Do you do this with everyone on the stage?” Of course.
How had I forgotten all that? I’d always had this questioning habit of mind--it informed all of my actions, from interacting with people, or doing any job, or directing a play; it informs my writing of Facebook status updates on what I see living in New York. Recounting this anecdote to Darla gave me back my director’s head. I don’t know why it went away or how it decided to time its comeback, but finding my directing head again was like waking up from a long sleep. And it allowed me to write this particular post.
I really am humbled by compliments like Mary’s, because one never knows how one is doing. This is huge to remember in the theater. I think I was a good judge of my shows, and from the parent letters of praise, and occasional honors, that seems to be true. What I was and am not a good judge of is my effect on other people in the moment. At the time I might think, “Wow, I’ve just changed a life,” and then the kid I counseled can’t remember my name the next day. Or I’ll think, “Well, the year in that class was a bust,” and 20 years later I get friended on Facebook and told I was the greatest teacher some kid ever had. That lack of awareness is my eternal blindspot. All I can do is my best, and hope for the rest, as they say.
•What is a Director?
I’m not exaggerating. I am. I am not. A theater director is a creator who can only do his or her job by collaborating with other artists--playwright, actors, designers, and technicians. A director gets no credit for success, all the blame for failure, and must be okay with this. It’s impossible to teach directing today, and I will not try. Everything I can really tell you is in the example with Megan above, except that in there I did a lot of “coaching” in terms of her acting that a professional director would not have to do with professionally-trained actors. All I can offer you, with honesty, are some tips.
I am assuming that somewhere in your life, somehow, you fell in love with the stage, with making plays, telling stories to a live audience. Okay.
First, see live theater, lots of shows--all kinds (community, church, high school, professional, pagan), all genres (musical and straight play, whether mystery, melodrama, period comedy, classic, whack)--and really watch them, noting what affects you, what staging you remember. See good shows more than once whenever possible, and from different parts of the house. How does the show change with subsequent experiences? Does it get better? weaker? What moves you? Figure out why. Learn how the director tells a story.
Then read the words of great theater impresarios, directors, writers, geniuses: Bertolt Brecht, Gertrude Stein, Joseph Chaikin, Harold Clurman, Sanford Meisner, Robert Cohen, Antonin Artaud, Peter Brook, to name a few. Read and read and care about what you read.
Then read plays and apply what you have been reading to those plays. Lather, rinse, repeat.
Finally (really first), ACT IN SHOWS. I mean this: If you don’t know what it’s like to be an actor and take stage direction, however much talent you have, you will be limited in your effectiveness. You do not have to be a great actor, but you have to done the work of an actor to understand the risks you are asking actors to take.
•The Five Biggest Mistakes You Can Make as a Director
1. Believing you are the smartest person in the room
4. You can guess what the fourth one is. That’s right: Miscasting.
5. Choosing a bad play, or merely the wrong play, for you and your group and your audience, because of that giant blindspot you have.
•Blindspot, or Ego? Yes.
Every director, I will generalize boldly, has at least one blindspot. I’ve told you about one of mine. Here’s another: I was blind to how my driven directing behavior could not only hurt the feelings of young actors but just annoy people. I put the show ahead of their hearts. Lynn is a young actress of 15--why am I disappointed and then angry that she cannot take my direction? (Note to Director: She’s fifteen.) In another example, a young assistant stage manager went on a Defamation of Miss O’Hara rampage after a technically fraught production of Arabian Nights, and after thinking about it, who could blame her?
I was forever working on this problem, and did get better, though I didn’t achieve what anyone could call balance. The Show, Show, Show always won. Some would call that ego. I once chewed out a wonderful kid who forgot his lines in the first scene on opening night, only to have him say to me coldly, and rightly, “Don’t you think I feel bad enough?” In my defense, his rebuke made me want to kill myself.
•Other Blindspots I Have Seen:
I have known many a talented, highly educated, experienced (and invariably male) director who will (mis)cast the same type of “beautiful” actress--I should say beautiful “actress”--over and over (tiny, thin, tan-skinned, lithe, great cheekbones and jawline, and weirdly passive--it’s a kind of universal draw for these directors) and in a key role (the love interest in a drama, the love interest in a comedy, Cordelia in King Lear) and do this repeatedly; and each of these “actresses,” whether blonde or brunette, has almost single-handedly ruined each production. His other actors would be brilliant, but to no avail.
I have seen directors, who believing herself or himself to be the smartest girl/boy in the room (see “Mistake #1” above), could (when insecure, I think) quietly suffocate actors, gently but firmly shut down ideas, and otherwise (wo)manhandle performances so as to render the production a lifeless blob. One such director did the deadliest and most absurd version ever seen of Uncle Vanya, my favorite Chekhov play, and yet followed it with the most luminous As You Like It imaginable. You know why? For one thing, “she” wasn’t in it. For another, the actors willed it, and it won through sheer force of great casting.
Another director, perhaps the greatest genius I’ve known personally, needed what could only be described as a “whipping boy” on each show. It was subconscious, a blindspot, I think. She would “choose” an actor she knew well and trusted implicitly from previous shows, and, in a kind of rotation depending on that actor’s importance in the show of the moment (usually in a smaller part), would systematically set about to destroy the actor’s confidence. “Oh, that’s right, you don’t know how to tumble...,” or “Oh, I see you are afraid to hit him,” or “I guess I will have to restage it if this is too hard for you.” She said to me once (during my rotation), “Your voice is so thin, Lisa,” and she blew smoke from her cigarette misting her cold, blue eyes. Often she flogged actors for what was in fact their greatest asset, such as voice (mine) or athleticism. Listen: Suffer the slings and arrows of occasional egomaniacal outbursts? Sure. But no one needs to put up with systematic abuse. Why the abuse? I do not know, and have no reason to even hazard a pop-psych guess.
Of my own flaws, which are myriad, another one that stands out as I look back was that my willingness to take risks on stage could really make other people uncomfortable during rehearsals. Yet to mitigate this propensity to push past boundaries, I took pains to see that no one would be embarrassed in performance. Not unlike the sadistic director I mentioned, I’d risk personal relationships for a good show, though I wouldn’t abuse actors, crews, or audiences, or lash out as a power play. I challenged, I pushed. I kept working. I was exhausting to be around. “No rewards without risks,” I’d say, as the actors ached in hunger and longed for the sweet, numbing peace of death.
And yet there were rewards. Many, and I’ll tell you some of those. Usually, and mercifully, when humans remember success, that memory pushes out the pain. Otherwise, NO ONE WOULD EVER DO A LIVE SHOW AGAIN. Or smoke a second cigarette. Or have a second child.
One Great Show: An Example
Years ago, I co-directed an original one-act festival play, 20 Actors Spend Six Weeks Growing in a Play with No Name, in which we tackled homosexuality, divorce, racism, and the humiliations of growing up, alongside hilarious stories of random life moments. (The decision to write our own play came out of a disastrous one-act play festival the previous year, where the judges just screamed, “Everything here sucks and this cannot continue.” So fuck ‘em, we’ll write our own, I thought. Good idea.) The kids wrote monologues from personal experiences and brought them to rehearsals. We picked the ones we liked best, were most moved by, laughed over. In small groups, the actors improvised their most embarrassing moments, worst dates, biggest fears. They took all the risks, provided all the material. I took all their material and shaped it into a show, provided transitions, gave it an ending. In an environment of trust, we had a fantastic time, and the show won a lot of awards. (Okay, it took FIRST PLACE IN THE STATE VHSL One-Act Play Festival, 1993. You know why? Those kids were geniuses, worked gorgeously as an ensemble, and bared their little souls, and laughed every day. LOVED them, loved that whole process, all of it. Luckiest director ALIVE.)
That said, some parents of students in the show were really discomfited by it, but by the final state-winning performance, were in love with it. It was the actors’ commitment, and their connection to each other, the material, and the audience that won the nervous parents over. The kids had become ARTISTS, you see. It just changes the whole dynamic of the parent-child relationship, and in a good way.
I did listen to the complaints: I could see what the parents were saying--they were looking in a mirror. It was scary to see your kid play you, or tell your family story, or be who they really are. And yet. I knew we had kids who had experienced racism, were products of divorce, were gay, had been made fun of, bullied, all that stuff. The play meant something to all of us because in the personal we found the universal. Sometimes you have to trust yourself when all men doubt you . . . and make allowance for their doubting, too, as Kipling says. It’s a crapshoot anyway. See the ol’ blog for other examples. It’s about making art.
•Biggest Secret Ingredient for Any Successful Director
I’m not talking about blind love (which in the end is just blindness), but real love. I hate to go all cliché on your ass, but if you arrive at rehearsal with a full heart, open mind, wild trust, sense of adventure, reasonable head, and the wisdom to remember you are doing a “play,” not a “work,” there is no reason not to create something at least worth seeing.
•Biggest >Thorns> in Any Director’s Side
>Not enough time. >Lack of money. This will never change. Whether in the professional playhouse or the high school drama club, hauling in money and containing costs become a huge, anxiety-producing part of the job. Still, a reasonable constraint on the allocation of resources, such as choosing shows that the kids can afford to help costume, can help focus creativity as well as drive everyone mad. Welcome to life. After all, as Frank Lloyd Wright said, limitations are your best friends. Do anything? Where do you start? But if you have to work in a high school auditorium, with 100 kid actors many of whom have you for English and drama by day, with no money, a scavenged set and flea market props, borrowed costumes and a half dozen weeks to pull it all together—well, count me IN.