In 1986 I worked with Jan Skotnicki from Poland. After rehearsals for a production of The Seagull at University of Iowa, he and I would retire to an office supplied for his use. A bottle of vodka would appear, and he would decompress about the evening’s rehearsal and tell stories.
He told a story about directing a show in Canada. While he was there, he became romantically involved with a young woman. He was wondering if this relationship would come to something permanent. One day they were walking down a street, and they talked about what they did. She finally asked, “What does a director do exactly?”
He said at that moment, he knew they would never have a real relationship. He said he could never spend his life with someone who didn’t understand what directing was.
Nevertheless, he also gave one of the better nutshell descriptions of directing that I’ve heard – the director’s job is to make a cast, and tell the story.
My entry into directing, like many parts of my life, derived ultimately from ignorance.
I was a Theatre major in a small mid-Western program. There were about 10-20 of us majors at any particular time. And the faculty consisted of two main teachers and a designer/technical director. Both of the main teachers for good or ill were directors. We mounted two productions each semester.
From this very limited experience I made several conclusions. The first conclusion was that most college theatre teachers were also directors. Because of this first conclusion, I moved to a second conclusion – that should I desire to enter this field, I would need to get a degree that focused on directing. The best program for Directing in those years was probably Yale. So I looked up Yale’s graduate school entry requirements for an MFA in Directing in the university library. I went to the microfiche file, and I loaded the microfiche reader. The good people at Yale wanted to see a director’s prompt book for two productions. Thus, I needed to start directing shows. Now.
And so it happened that I convinced a friend of mine to help restore a defunct community theatre. In the summer of 1982 I directed four plays – Mornings At Seven, Sleuth, The Lion in Winter, and Dark of the Moon.
Please, don’t try to see any connection between these plays. There was none beyond that I liked them and wanted to do them.
No, I did not get into Yale. (Although, I may say they sent the kindest and most gracious rejection notice I’ve ever received.) But I’ve been directing since the early 1980s. I’ve directed professionally, putting several national tours on the road as well as projects in every kind of venue one might imagine.
Directing is a mug’s game. The current culture in the theatre favors a director, but there are serious flaws in the system.
I’ve worked with world-famous directors and very raw beginners. I know directors who plan all the moves before the actors arrive, and 90% of that pre-planning is still there on opening night. I know directors who work “organically” with actors. I know directors who believe acting is the actors’ business, and so they only give technical notes as to placement. I know directors who work practically as therapists.
What’s the task for a director?
Any advice that one gives about directing can be easily contradicted from experience of a successful director who does the opposite. But that won’t stop me from making some observations.
One, a good director should have a sense of Damocles’ Sword. It might help put an inner check on the power we give directors in the theatrical culture today. Often I’ve heard actors say their main job was to give the director what he wants. And so often it is a “he.” Power tends to corrupt. A useful corrective of the director’s power is the memory that once the show opens, the director is effectively powerless. The point is not to “enjoy” having power “while you can.” Rather, the focus of the audience will ultimately not even involve you. So, remember to not put one’s self in the center of things.
Two, Stanislavsky said that a director was like a midwife, helping the actor give birth to a new creature – actor/character. For example, helping create the never-before-seen Joe/Hamlet. The new creature isn’t wholly Joe and not wholly Hamlet, but a new creation. And like any birthing, there’s bound to be pain and confusion, and the need for good supportive breath, and trust, and . . . ., and. . . . ., and. . . . .
From my limited observation of a midwife at work, a good midwife knows how not to add to the consternation of the process. The good midwife knows how to keep calm. Knows how to speak to the process of birthing. Knows when to ask for pushing, knows when to allow rest. And the good midwife knows how to help the process if there are problems.
The good midwife doesn’t get the birthing process confused in endless dithering about minutiae. The good midwife probably isn’t saying, “You should only use this muscle to bear down, and you should only grunt this way.”
Generally, there are two things a good director wants to prevent. One, the good director wants to keep the actor from being to self-reflexive or self-regarding. A good actor knows how to self- monitor. But even good actors can become too wrapped up in thinking about how their performance is working even as they’re performing. Often this is articulated in the phrase, “You’re in your head too much.”
The good director also wants to prevent the actor from getting too discouraged at a lack of ready success and giving up. I’ve seen this before. An actor gets discouraged at the painful process of real creation and just gives up. They show up and say the lines, but they’re not going to engage with other people in a meaningful way.
Fine, you might say. All that’s about how a director deals with actors. But is that directing?
In the theatre, it certainly is a lot of it. A show may have a $10 scenery budget, but it’s hard to do a play without actors.
That being said, one of the challenges I’ve seen over the years is the director not really knowing what kind of play they’re directing. Or, worse, they deal timidly with the elements of the play.
Almost always timidity never works in the theatre. For me, the misplaced grand gesture is far more interesting than the lack of a gesture. What do I mean? I mean understanding the inner-logic of a created world, and allowing that inner-logic to have its own expression. I’ve seen productions in which a decision was made to have real props for some things, but mimed props for other things. Well, which world do we live in? And, do we live in a world in which we might have physical objects, but those objects aren’t the “actual” objects. When John Gielgud directed Richard Burton in Hamlet it took several tries to get Ophelia’s flowers “right.” Finally it was decided that strips of audio reel-to-reel tape would suffice in that world for flowers. But these kinds of creative conclusions can only be made if we can find the inner-logic and allow it to be expressed through theatrical means.
Finally, possibly the greatest challenge to the director is working so often as a solo act. Rarely do critics have enough understanding of what a director does to provide beneficial criticism. Probably peers don’t go to watch another peer’s work often enough to provide helpful advice. In educational theatre, most directors are on their own in small programs with very few people to provide even “sounding board” advice. In the professional theatre, there isn’t room in the budget to have another director available to watch the process. And I don’t know of many directors who want another director in their rehearsal room.
Once directors are unleashed on the world, they’re often left to their own devices to make their own improvements. The result is that many directors don’t improve much – and it’s only through trial and error that they do.
Directing is a tough game. Like other leaders – a great one can make hard work seem easy, and a poor one can make easy work a pain.
When I worked with Skotnicki, he said that he knew that he wouldn’t be ready to direct The Seagull until he was in his 50s. When I was a young snot, I didn’t get that. Now I do.
I know three things. And one of the things I know is that I used to know four things.