Scene4 Magazine: Nathan Thomas |
Nathan Thomas
. . .and the greatest of these . . .

November 2013

The trouble with a zombie director is that he chases after you, working to get you to act in his zombie play.  You agree to be in the play.  And then he tries to eat your brains.

Damn you, zombie director!

The director, in the modern usage of the term, is a fairly modern creation. People point to James Planche', Ludgwig Chronegk, and Antoine as early examples of the modern director.  You might have other folks on your list.

When I started out in theatre, I thought I wanted to train and be a director.  After all, my teachers in college were directors, primarily.  Or so it seemed, anyway.  Thus the key to learning how to teach theatre was tied up in my little mind with directing.

"Love suffereth long, and is kind . . ."

I've had more arguments with friends about directing and directors. It always shatters me when I speak with an actor friend, and my friend says, "My job is to give the director what he (all too often it is a 'he') wants."

I've had arguments with theatre people who also play music.  I point out that rock and jazz groups can jam without a conductor.  "Well," comes the instant reply, "there's someone who picks out the playlist. Someone who gives count-offs and cut-offs."  "Yes," I rejoinder, "but that's not the same as a conductor – or a director." 

Why can't the theatre get along without directors similar to the means used by small rock and jazz groups?  In a two-person play, how much blocking do you need?  How much picturization is there?

" . . .love envieth not; love vaunteth not itself, is not puffed up . . ."

Yes, it's true that in the professional theatre there are many folks who serve as the 'muscle' for a production.  Certainly producers, managing directors, and artistic directors can trump what the director does in the theatre.  And in the modern world in which we live, even an Artistic Director must work with a Board of some kind.

That being said, directors are the power in mounting a production. 

I learned from a great Polish director once that a director has two jobs – make a casting and tell the story.

Just with the first half of that double responsibility – make a casting – the director (yes, I know there are casting directors) largely has the power of hiring.  And, often, firing.

Thus, before the first second of the first rehearsal, an unequal power relationship exists between the artists collaborating on the work.

" . . .Love doth not behave itself unseemly, seeketh not her own, is not easily provoked, thinketh no evil . . ."

The other arguments I have come from directors. "I'm not a dictator," they proclaim. "I work to include everyone's ideas," they say.  "I am beloved by my actors for the collaborative atmosphere I foster in the rehearsal hall."

I don't doubt it.   I don't doubt that most directors today aren't the old-fashioned "traffic-cop" directors who told you where and how to stand and how to say the words.  If ever such creatures ever actually existed.

I don't doubt that most directors work to promote collaboration.  I don't doubt that most directors are beloved by the actors with whom they work.

A kind and benevolent dictator is still a dictator. That old Augustus was a better person than Caligula is both true and a huge benefit to early Imperial Rome.  But that does not make Augustus any less of an emperor.

" . . .Love rejoiceth not in iniquity, but rejoiceth in the truth . . ."

The modern directorial system is founded on the notion of maximum efficiency.  While a production rehearses, it's virtually income free.  So, wise business counsels to have short rehearsal periods and long performance periods. 

Dictatorship provides efficient governance or leadership.  But efficiency is not a necessary condition for art.  It's just a system.

" . . .Love beareth all things, believeth all things . . ."

I've been thinking about this while I've been directing a show as well as teaching directing to a group of novices.  Not only do I participate in a system, I perpetuate it. 

And this is true of so much in my life.  When did I learn acquiescence to systems that threaten as much as benefit?  Once upon a time, did I really think I could make a change in this old world?  I know about challenges presented by a failing criminal justice system that gives obscene amounts of money to for-profit prison owners.  I know that those prisons are stuffed with folks who would have been far better off in drug treatment, and that those prisoners are often caught in a tangle of racially-motivated arrests and sentence requirements that have nothing to do with justice.  And what of the simple prison warehousing of folks who are mentally ill and who go untreated?

Do I do anything about that?  No.

So why should I do anything to change the directorial system of the modern theatre?

" . . .Love hopeth all things, endureth all things . . ."

So one night not long ago, I was working with a cast. They're working on a devised piece based on the "love" chapter – First Corinthians 13 – from the Bible.  It's a text that transcends its original religious intent, whatever that may be, and is seen on t-shirts, key-chains, posters, and whatnot.  In working with the text, the actors had all the warmth of a January day in Minnesota. I worked with the actors, trying to explain, cajole, persuade, and humor the group into another plane of dealing with the text.  And the whole exercise seemed odd to me later.  I don't know why, but it just seemed odd.

Anyway, the thing that struck me yet again is that real life is far more miraculous than anything anyone could ever imagine.  I mean, you can talk about love on stage. But life is always more interesting.

". . .Love never faileth."

So, in a golden summer many years ago when I was touring, I met Eve and John.  I toured with Eve.  John toured with another cast.  But John had fallen in love with Eve.  And so he romanced her every way he could. 

Years pass.  They live together and ultimately marry.  They have a child.  

And our lives are connected in the way that all theatre people's lives intersect continually.  They had involved me in their projects.  I had involved them in mine.

More years pass.  In the steady war of attrition that is the show business, John continues to make a name for himself.  He is a director I greatly admire, although I've always been awkward in trying to tell him so. 

And, sadly, like so many couples, they divorce.

Years have passed since the divorce.  More people my age are getting replacement parts – knees and hips mostly. John is in the hospital getting a new part installed.  Coming out of surgery, Eve brings their daughter to see John when he wakes up.

Now the thing you must understand is that Eve hates vomit. Can't stand it.  Can't deal with it.

Upon waking, John --  in a mixture of pain, pain meds, and sheer jolt to the system that surgery can be – vomits on himself.  Eve runs to get a nurse.  But seeing none, Eve returns to the room and helps clean vomit off of her divorced husband and father of their daughter.  She does the most vile thing in the world for her to help a man she divorced – an act of genuine kindness.

No, this is not a Hollywood ending.  This is not the first step toward some magical reconciliation.  What it is, is the truth of human relationships that always goes far deeper and in more surprising directions than we could ever predict.

And so, I wonder, what efficiency gains us in one direction, is there something lost on the other side?

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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, is a member of the theatre faculty at Alvernia College and a Senior Writer and Columnist for Scene4.
For more of his commentary and articles, check the Archives

©2013 Nathan Thomas
©2013 Publication Scene4 Magazine



Scene4 Magazine - Arts and Media


November 2013

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