Friday, November 04, 2005

On Directing

Way back on November 1st, George Hunka asked a series of questions about directors:

How do they see themselves as creative artists? How would they articulate what they bring to a script? Where does interpretation end and their own emotional creativity begin? What do they look for in a script, by a living or a dead playwright, and how do they know that they have something to say themselves through putting those words on the stage? And then, how do they do so? What is the arc of their own creative, intellectual, emotional, psychic work through the production process?

I was very flattered to be included as someone who should respond to this, but have been too busy this week to respond. Even now, I will have to keep it short, as I am about ready to leave for the North Carolina Theatre Conference Gathering to recruit theatre students and talk about my play analysis book. Isaac does an amazing and articulate job answering George's query, and I feel all that is necessary from me is a little embroidery around the edges.

Isaac mentions an acquaintance of his that feels that the director is an interpretive artist, not a creative artist. Like Isaac I would tend to disagree with that. My broad definition of a creative artist is someone who transforms one thing into another in an aesthetic way. For instance, a painter transforms a vision of a landscape into a painting of that landscape. Along the way, that initial vision is supplemented by the artist's soul/mind/being/personality, and in that way it is transformed. From three dimensions to two (in the case of a painting), from the imagination to the page (in the case of a novel or play), from the page to the body and voice (in the case of the director).

However, unlike the painter painting a landscape, the director's starting point is (usually) another work of art created by another artist. This requires a different relationship between artist-as-director and source material. I think the director should show respect for the fact that his starting point is another person's work. And to me, it doesn't matter whether the playwright is alive or dead. (Isn't one definition of ethics "doing the right thing even if nobody is looking"?)

However, I think there needs to be a separation between the "local" in the play, and the "archetypal." In other words, the specific images in a script (descriptions of the set, costumes, characters, movement, etc.) and the more archetypal aspects. As a director, I feel it is OK for me to change blocking, arrangement of the set pieces, etc, because they represent the "local" imagination of the playwright that is connected to the specific traditions of his time and place. But rearranging scenes, changing the story to emphasize my own ideas -- no. That's just lazy. Lazy, because ultimately, if you want to say something different than what the play says, you should either find another play or write your own.

What do I look for in a script? This changes from year to year, according to what I think my audience "needs" at a particular moment. But generally, I am looking for a play that has a voice, a body, a mind, and a heart. In other words, I want dialogue that lifts a little off the earth, that is unique; I want the play to also move through and occupy space in a dynamic and meaningful way (the problem I have with plays by Shaw or Coward, even though I love them, is that they are really most effective as stand-and-deliver plays); I want the play to have some complexity in its thought -- I tend to dislike issues or ideas presented in a manner that leaves the audience no room to examine their own opinions; and I want the play to pack some sort of emotional punch.

When I read a play, and it is a play that speaks to me, I see it play out in my head as I read it. It is like the page disappears, and I begin to watch the action like a spectator. This is the sign to me that I have something to bring to the play.

Unlike Isaac, who says his strength is staging, my strength is my ear. I can hear rhythms, sense the correct lengths for pauses, understand the structure of a punchline or a climactic moment. I also have a very good understanding of a play's overall structure. In a lot of ways, I see the most important thing a director does as being the creation of what I think of as "moments of emphasis." I think it is my job to make sure that the audience hears and sees clearly those six to ten moments during the play when the most significant actions occur, and help them to understand how they hook together to create meaning. I spend a lot of time working on those moments, and then building to them, setting them up.

I have a love of traditional structure -- plays that resolve with a satisfying final chord. I'm not a fan of obscurity -- I think the worst thing a spectator can say as they leave the theatre is "do you know what happened?" I want them clear on what happened, and to be arguing about why it happened, or whether it had to happen that way, or whether they agree or disagree with the action that characters took.

I think theatre artists should stay out in the lobby and talk to the audience as they leave, but I don't do it very much myself. After a show I have directed is over, I feel very exposed and naked and I tend to scurry away. I'm not sure what that is about, but that is how I feel.

I have worked with playwrights who were in residence three times in my life -- when I was a student at the University of Minnesota, I co-founded a new play festival and directed a show each year for the two years I was there. Most recently, I did a show called "The Frankenstein Project" that was created from the ground up by a team of four student playwrights -- in 5-1/2 months we wrote the script, cast it, rehearsed it, and performed it. All three times, I have enjoyed working with a playwright present. However, I tend to treat their plays the same way I would those of a dead playwright: I treat the text as finished, and it is my job to make it speak. I don't ask playwrights for rewrites, nor do I tend to ask them what certain lines "mean."

So that's my general responses. I tend not to think of myself as a director, although I direct every year. But I think Isaac's responses are more thoughtful, passionate, and informed. But thanks for asking, George!

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