Scene4-International Magazine of Arts and Culture


Nathan Thomas-Scene4 Magazine

Nathan Thomas

It shouldn’t bother me as much as it does that the backgammon program on my computer cheats. 

I love backgammon.  I’ve played the game since my brother taught me how to play back in the 1970s.  I know how to play a “back” game or a “running” game. I played so much in high school that there were times that I dreamed backgammon games while asleep.  With the advantages of modern technology, I play my computer.  The problem is that the computer controls the dice.  And because the computer controls the dice, the computer does things to ensure that it wins.  Defying the odds, several games in a row the computer will throw high doubles as needed to get its stones around the board faster or to bear off quickly.  If I have only one pip uncovered on hum home board, and it is a stone of the bar – it’ll roll the magic dice that will allow the stone to come off on the first turn.  Conversely, it’ll control my rolls so that, if I’m on the bar, I’ll not come off in as many as ten “throws” of the dice.

We hate losing so much that the nice folks who wrote the backgammon program set up protocols so that it would win x number of times, honest play be damned.

Our culture is weird about failure.  On the one hand America condemns nothing as hard as failure, particularly artistic failure.  There’s an odd glee that comes to people’s eyes when they discuss flops and failures of the past.  There’s a more than a little bit of Puritan suspicion that the lack of success was deserved.  “Lo, how the mighty have fallen.”  With a healthy dash of smugness in our not being a part of the fall.

On the other hand, no other culture is as glad of the comeback. American culture will lend as many acts to the show as a person is willing to try.  We have more than a grudging respect for the Harold Stassens of the world, a man who sought the presidency at lest ten times by my count. We have respect for the person who fails, but still has the grit and resilience to get back up on the horse to ride again.

How were you taught to deal with a lack of success?

Were you taught not to even say the word ‘failure?’  Were you told just to shake it off and keep going?  Or, were you told nothing at all?  You’ve never been mentored to deal with failure?

The arts are a funny way to make a life.

I have a buddy who is an actor who talks about acting as a kind of “war of attrition.”  A lot of folks come out of college and university programs to be professional actors between the ages of 22 and 25.  They flood to L.A. and N.Y.C. and flock a little less aggressively to Chicago, Seattle, Atlanta, and Orlando, and the like.  All of them are young, talented, and good looking in the way only folks in their 20s can be.

Some of these folks “make” it through combinations of talent, luck, connections, and alchemy.  Most plod through endless showcases, classes, auditions, and attempts to claw their way to a career.

In the late 20s and early 30s, a large number of these folks drift away from their dream of having paying careers as actors.  They want regular pay.  Many want a kind of normal family life.  Living on someone else’s couch in a Manhattan efficiency loses its swank for the person in his early 30s.  And thereafter each year more and more folks drift away.   Some folks figure out how to have a career in the arts outside of L.A. or N.Y.C.  Some folks stay with it and find themselves in a smaller and smaller pond.

As a teacher, I feel like a louse if I bring this kind of thing up in a class.  Life itself is a kind of dream, and we don’t need someone to bring those dreams down. Sometimes that dream is the only thing that can get is out of bed in the morning.  And I don’t know the future.  As I repeat to myself and others often is the infamous judgement of E.C. Mabie, the great chair at the University of Iowa how told young playwright Tom that he’d never make it.  Better known by his nickname “Tennessee,” Mr. Williams made out well enough as a playwright I’m told.

But we do need to know how to deal with tough situations.

I’ve had many students who I have great affection for.  But I have one student who, even though she graduated many years ago, continues to challenge me to think deeply about what I mean and what I do as a teacher.

In March of 2012, I wrote my column addressed to Ashley.  And she inspired this column as well.  It has to do with a directing exercise I give to student directors.  I tell them up front that this is the equivalent of the “Kobayshi Maru” training exercise in the world of Star Trek

First mentioned in Star Trek: The Wrath of Khan, the “Kobayashi Maru” is an exercise as part of the qualifying test to be a captain.  In a test flight environment, the cadet is placed in an ethical quandary which has been set up as a “no-win” test. Mythically, the only cadet to have ever passed the “Kobayashi Maru” was James Kirk.  He re-programmed the test.  He cheated.  And, we’re told, he got a special commendation for the creativity of his handling of the test.

What is the “Kobayashi Maru” for a young director?  I give them the opening scene to Shaw’s Major Barbara.  It is a challenging scene for experienced directors and actors.  You have the challenge of Shaw’s language.  As an extra bonus, you have a lengthy exposition scene that is barely disguised as anything other than – “I haven’t told you anything about out family before today, but I’m going to tell you now.”

As directors, they’re trained that they’re responsible for showing a finished product.  The audience doesn’t care that you only have three days and a $5 budget.  Your job as the director is to give the audience something that is finished.

The exercise is a springboard to creativity.  Some students acquiesce to boredom and sit two actors down-center and have them talk at each other for an amount of time.

On the other hand, other students come up with interesting solutions, including the version in which the mother and son Skyped with each other. Another student used puppets. Another student had the characters telegraph each other.

As a classroom assignment, it is a fairly cheap way to discover how much energy you want to pursue a life as a director.  Even the students with a flair for the work sometimes decide it’s not for them.

But there is another facet to this exercise that I had not quite articulated until very recently.

Last fall I hired Ashley to co-direct a project with me.  In the end the project did not get in front of an audience. For multiple reasons, the show was not acceptable for public viewing.

As we realized the ship was in danger of sinking, Ashley and I had a conversation.  She reminded me of the “Kobayashi Maru” exercise in her course in directing. There had to be a way to “cheat” our way out of the impending disaster — re-program the events so that it could work out.  Somehow.  Someway.

At the time I was at a loss for words as well as a way forward.  And I’ve often thought about that.  What was I tied to that dis-allowed me from seeing a path forward?

What did Kirk do in re-programming the “Kobayashi Maru” scenario? He worked out the essence of what was necessary – save lives, including his own. 

To be successful, what must a student do in with the Shaw scene in directing?  They must be able to distill the essence of what is necessary.  They must find the necessary parts of the exposition.  Some bits are absolutely necessary for the audience to know, other bits less so.  They must figure out what is necessary about this particular mother/son relationship, and show that.  It’s all about essences.

Out of regard for some of the directors I’ve worked with in a long career, I won’t detail some of the places where it seemed the director didn’t know really what was essential about the play they were mounting.   One example was a play I saw in which the director decided to have very real props for some action, but mimed props for other action.  It was unclear to more than one audience member what the criteria were for this mix of real and mimed other than the props people couldn’t figure out how to procure or make some props.  But it was up to this director to make the world one in which we understood what was happening, and we were at sea.  A play about magic, how does the magic work?  A play about war – are we for it, or against it, or sometimes for it and sometimes against?  Or what? These were all productions in which the directors didn’t play by the rules they established themselves.  They didn’t know what was essential about the work and so got lost.  And when the director gets lost, we have a hard time finding our way home.

This struck me not long ago with a production of George Kauffman’s Beggar on Horseback from a few years ago. In the second act we were transforming the stage from a court-room to a prison.  And it was only this month, some five years after we close how that scene change should have been done to show the essence of what the play was about at that moment.  I hadn’t committed to the essence of what that play was about at that time.  And so a moment was less a “part of the world” I was creating than it should have been.

So, why couldn’t I come up with something in the show I co-directed with Ashley?  The problem was with what was essential to the play.  That particular play was all about the ensemble.  You could do that play in any space with any lighting and any costumes, if you had the ensemble.  And that was the one thing we didn’t have.

We couldn’t cheat our way out of that.  I could buy props and costumes and have spectacle out the wazoo, but without the essential part of the play, the production simply was never going to work.  And that was the bit I couldn’t fix.  And, as we discovered, no one could.  And so we put that experience on the shelf.

And, so, Ashley, I failed twice.  I couldn’t come up with a way to fix the problem at the essence of the play and thus of the production.  And I couldn’t articulate why.

At least I figured out the second part.  When you direct a play, figure out what is the absolutely necessary parts of the play you must have.  Make sure those parts work in an understandable way.  You can “cheat” on the rest.  The audience will go with you, and you’ll find your way home well enough.

Everything you do won’t always be a success.  That’s fine.  Don’t sweat it.  Know that the universe isn’t going away.  You’ll get another shot, if you want to take it. 

Ashley, you’re a good student, even when you probably aren’t trying to be.  And thank you for making me think about what I do. 

Making me think.  Dammit.

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Nathan Thomas has earned his living as a touring actor,
Artistic Director, director, stage manager, designer, composer,
and pianist. He has a Ph.D. in theatre, and is a member of the
theatre faculty at Alvernia College. He writes a monthly column and is a Senior Writer for Scene4. For more of his commentary and articles, check the Archives

©2018 Nathan Thomas
©2018 Publication Scene4 Magazine




September 2018

Volume 19 Issue 4

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