Thursday, November 30, 2006

The Role of the Director

A lively conversation over at Parabasis about the role of the director. I suggested that we might want to revisit the job description for the director, and decide whether it needed to be changed.

Historically, the rise of the director is fairly recent -- the Duke of Saxe-Meiningen, generally acknowledged as the "first director," doesn't come on the scene until the 1870s. The Duke was known for detailed crowd scenes and an insistence of ensemble acting. When he toured, the troupe was seen by all the major first generation directors (Brahm, Antoine, Stanislavski, etc.) Arguments could be made for others as the "first director," but I think it is significant that opinion has settled on the Duke, because in that case not only were the actors who worked for him his employees, but they were also his subjects. Thus, he had great power over them both professionally and personally. In addition, his actors were primarily amateurs, and he funded the theatre from his own coffers. In other words, his power was complete, and extended to all elements of the stage. This was the model that influenced the early directors.

Prior to that, plays were staged by the playwright or main actor according to generally accepted conventions of staging. Actors were largely expected to plan their performances on their own time, and they would come together for a few rehearsals to walk the blocking, not unlike, say, the musicians in an orchestra. In other words, interpretive power was dispersed among multiple artists.

But with the birth of the director, the interpretive act was centralized. The director was responsible for the "concept," and for the interpretation of the individual scenes and the play as a whole. This overarching concept was to serve as the organizing principle for all other aspects of the production: designs, performances, etc. The movement from a dispersed interpretive model to a centralized interpretive model was not simply a smooth evolution -- power was wrested from the other artists, especially the actors, who were no longer the sole interpreters of their role, but now were asked to create within the confines of the director's interpretation. How did that transfer of power occur?

Primarily, it came through acting theory. It is very interesting how many of the first generation of directors wrote acting theory, most notably Stanislavski, but also Meyerhold, Brahm, Antoine, Tairov, and Craig. (Sidenote: take a look at the book woefully mistitled Actors on Acting and figure out what percentage of the articles are by directors and playwrights! Hint: it's a large percentage.) What is significant about these acting theories is that most of them shifted the focus of the actor from the exterior to the interior. Whereas in the past, actors would rehearse alone while looking in a mirror, say, and consciously plan their performance moment to moment, now the acting process became a psycho-spiritual process that sought to minimize the actor's awareness that they were on a stage -- they were now to trick themselves into believing that they were the character.

Perhaps not surprisingly, this shift of the actor's focus to the subjective part of the equation strengthened the need for this new position of the director, who now was required in order to provide the objective part of the equation. The sheer difficulty of what the actor was being asked to do cemented the need for an outside eye to evaluate the actor's performance ("Did I do it?"), and to guide the interpretation. It is also significant that much of the initial acting theory was written as a dialogue between a wise old teacher director and youthful, impetuous actors (An Actor Prepares, for instance, of Boleslavsky's Acting: The First Six Lessons). In such instances, actors were infantilized, presented as naive children in need of a wise parental figure to guide them toward success.

This process was then cemented into place by the death of the repertory companies, in which actors developed powerful positions by working together over a series of years, and the rise of productions that brought the artists together for a only specific production. These productions were put together following the industrial model that was dominating the business world. Production lines, with workers whose jobs were totally focused on one small piece of the construction process with only the supervisors having a knowledge of the entire process, were being hailed for their efficiency and productivity. The theatre fell into step: directors became the theatrical equivalent of the supervisor who knew the entire process, while the actors and designers specialized and focused on their own small piece of the product. To this day, one of the primary defenses of the director having interpretive control is one of efficiency -- production "by committee" is too inefficient and time consuming.

The point I am trying to make is that the rise of the director was not some sort of "natural evolution" toward perfection, but rather a shift in power that was rooted in historical circumstances and ideology. An Actor Prepares is an ideological manifesto that suggests a certain division of labor and distribution of power. It is not only a "better way to act."

Given the historical and ideological nature of this arrangement, my suggestion is that we step back and consider whether the doxa (the given, the natural, the it-goes-without-saying, according to Roland Barthes) is really as obvious and natural as it is presented. Is centralized interpretation, for instance, what is best in all circumstances and at all times? If not, what other models are there? Can we look to Ariane Mnouchkine, say, or the working model of Joint Stock as possible alternatives? When a playwright is living and present, should the traditional model be altered in any way? Should we look back to the past, and the examples of Moliere or Shakespeare, each of whom staged their own work, for possible models? What would happen if the responsibilities of the director was redefined in such a way that he is an equal among equals? Perhaps the responsibility of reaching an interpretation was the result of discussion, and the director was responsible for physical staging alone, while the actors worked amongst themselves to develop each scene. The possible arrangements are endless, but not until we acknowledge that the director-as-Grand-Arbiter is not the only effective model, and might not even be the best model.

I am not suggesting that directors are superfluous. What I am suggesting is that their role was defined during a time when authoritarianism and industrial efficiency was paramount. We are now in a democratic and post-industrial age -- should the way we make theatre change as well? I'm just asking.


nick said...

Hi Scott,

Of course it’s not the “director-as-Grand-Arbiter” but it's the text who's Boss Clown.

You reference Barthes, but you are only half-stepping into the real question. Barthes’ premise is “Death of the Author.” The other French theorists Foucault and Derrida can also help you take the full step into the dilemma, as can theatre’s favorite French madman. Artaud’s No More Masterpieces identifies aptly the core problem of AUTHORity in theatre. It is not the director, but the text.

This a central question in my work and that of my peers. I talk on it often in my blog and will examine again in the next entry. I’m waiting for Amazon delivery of Tooth of Crime: Second Dance. The new title and subtitle already intrigues.

So has the text “The Tooth of Crime” now died? Play a little game. See into what "domain" the url address takes you.

La Mamas and the Papas of AUTHORity.
Very interesting.

Anonymous said...

I find your historical thesis here intersting and intriguing. Could you refer me to further reading, to substantiate your point theoretically? I am researching the relationship between the contemporary playwright and director in Israeli theatre (I am an Israeli playwright) and find that the playwriting process is almost always director-dominated to the point of undermining the playwrights authority. I think it is partially due to the historical process you describe here and the new role the director has acquired in the making of the play. I couldn't find much theoretical good stuff about this.
Thank you
Michael morris-Reich

abeodanmovies said...

Director is a god in a production!

Scott Walters said...

You are either an actor or a director -- regardless, you've drunk the Kool-Aid.