Monday, April 6, 2015

On the Direction

We close, we do not end.
Our final two performance of The Great Globe Itself were not public performances, they were held at Elyria High School and Firestone High in Akron. Each crowd was very enjoyable for our men to perform for and the post-show discussions were some of the best we'd had the entire tour.

The discussions themselves are always a challenge for these tours, at least at the beginning. We have a list of potential questions, but we never know how an audience will respond. Some public audiences don't want to be asked questions following the performance, and as moderator I have to take care not to be too pedantic. I mean, I have to be a little pedantic. I am a pedant.

Me and Ted.
Several weeks ago - feels like months - my high school drama coach, Ted Siller, attended a performance in Oberlin. That was a complete surprise, and a happy one. He did this once before, when I was performing I Hate This at Dobama Theatre in advance of the Minnesota Fringe Festival. That was in 2003. 

Ted turns me into Death.
It's hard to reacquaint yourself with the mentors of your youth, you start sounding like a teenager. Regardless, he had very supportive comments following the show, this show I have directed, and it got me thinking of my journey as a director and what I have and have not learned.

My first production was in Kindergarten. Seriously, I told my teacher I wanted to do a play and she asked me what I wanted to do and what I described to her was Stan Freberg's Little Blue Riding Hood. The rest of the afternoon was spent casting the play and my providing lines for everyone and ... I'm not making this up, this really happened.

But my first real attempt at directing was part of an evening of one acts my sophomore year. Sobczak and I performed Woody Allen's Death Knocks. I didn't think much about it during our "process" which at this point consisted mostly of memorization and not much blocking. The day of the first performance, when people had made "wallies" for us for people to sign in the main hall, and everyone was talking up the event, I was struck by a sudden, urgent philosophical quandary:

Who said I was allowed to do this?

It was the first of many times I would be struck by my own completely blind arrogance. For I was not merely director in this case, I was also kind of the producer - I made this happen. You act in a play, and it blows, you can blame everyone, the director, the playwright, the other actors. You direct it, you own it, baby.

At school, there were as many opportunities to direct as act or do anything else. I took a course in Directing 101 (I am sure it was not called that) which was remarkable only in that it further emphasized my ability at that time to do as little serious work as humanly possible. The course was further complicated by the fact that the grad student conducting the course was also herself directing me in her thesis production and I was falling short there as well.

Later that same year I directed my own script, Breaking Point, based on the daily comic strip I had published in the college paper. As a result of that experience - directing my own play - I have entirely avoided directing my own work for over twenty-five years.

It is easy for me to judge myself harshly (and it's on video so I can confirm this) it is neither a very good script nor particularly inspired directing. At that point in the game I would have been much more richly served by doing one or the other. There was little opportunity to edit, though I am glad I took time to rewrite the entire ending, due to the kind, persuasive advice of my stage manager. If I could have sat back and watched, I would have rewritten quite a bit more.

It was several years before I would write another full-length script to be produced - The Vampyres - and at that time I took great delight in editing. Delight is the wrong word, what I mean is it was like having someone reach down my throat and yank at my stomach, but having been told, "This opening monologue doesn't work, rewrite it" at least I was able to concentrate on doing that and it was better. Even better when the piece was a remounted several years later, I cut the monologues altogether and that was much better.

The first time directing Shakespeare was a precarious moment in Guerrilla Theater Co. history and I had to do some convincing and spent a lot of cigarette time bringing people into my camp, into believing that a production of Romeo and Juliet was something I really should do. Once it was agreed upon, I was struck by a sudden, urgent philosophical quandary:

Who said I was allowed to do this?

There was no reason to believe I could DIRECT SHAKESPEARE, it was pure arrogance on my part which is really the only way to attempt anything. Jumping off the high dive is arrogance, submersion is antithetical to being a mammal, who do you think you are?

This production marked my directing phase, as I moved from Guerrilla to Night Kitchen to Bad Epitaph, in ten years time I directed around a dozen productions, without guidance, without mentorship, no one said I was allowed to do this. Some of it worked, some didn't, who cares. My attentions moved to arts education and writing. I found it much more satisfying and a lot less stressful.

I think what I could never enjoy was thinking of directing as a gig. Since 2004 my directing jobs have been by choice, and not assignment. Directing Henry VIII for CleveShakes in 2012 was a gas because there were no expectations, none at all.

This is the thing - I have had to make up everything as I go along. I have learned from directors I have worked with as an actor, but not as an assistant to a director, nor as a stage manager. When the time came to edit Romeo and Juliet, I started with the cutting from a production I had performed in in college - adding bits back I missed and removing others that did not interest me.

When I directed Hamlet in 1999, I started by watching a video of Richard Burton's Broadway production from 1964, making cuts based upon that before then deciding upon my own. It felt like cheating each time, as though I were some Shakespeare fraud, that I didn't really know what I was doing.

What I was really afraid of was removing something someone else would think were important. That in my ignorance I would excise the most important piece from the show, and that it would be apparent to all.

By the time Henry VIII came along, I wasn't afraid any more. I just cut what did not interest me, that didn't tell the story the way I wanted to tell it, end stop.

... I'll come in again.

The Great Globe Itself was the first play I have directed for the outreach tour.  I found it an intense experience, working for three hours (with one short break) with three guys - two of whom I'd never worked with before - to tackle a dense but ridiculous script, telling a somewhat oblique story that spanned four centuries and played fast and loose with true history.

It's what I do.

My script, my direction. At least this time I was able to step back, at least somewhat, to perform some judicious cutting at the outset, once I heard it repeated a small number of times. There were even more cuts after we had opened, one or two lines which offended. With their absence, those complaints stopped. It is a process, and better to make adjustments than to say "it opened, it's out of my hands."

Living Together
Which brings me back to Mr. Siller. He was always extremely accommodating to those who wanted to produce special projects - like an improv show or an evening of one acts. My brother was super involved in Thespians, acting, participating in competition, even directing Alan Ayckbourn's Table Manners (one part of the Norman Conquests trilogy) his senior year, a full-length production between the fall comedy and the spring musical.

When I was a senior, I decided I wanted to attempt everything he had, if I could even going so far as to direct another play in Ayckbourn's trilogy, Living Together - because I do not have the capacity for original thought or ideas.

This wasn't for a grade or extra credit, it was for bragging rights more than anything else, but Siller did request I create a rehearsal journal, which, much like my journal for Directing 101 a few years later, was largely perfunctory. It was the basis for my application to Macalester where I pretty much said, I did this thing and therefore I am qualified. You will notice I do not have a degree from Macalester.
The Great Globe Itself
Learning to direct has by and large been a process of learning how to work with other people. To make plans in collaboration with others, but also to have big ideas and to be excited about bringing them to fruition. For me it has always been a matter of wanting to see something on stage and then doing everything I can to make that happen.

Working with Arthur, James and Rod on The Great Globe Itself was a unique experience, and I will miss the time we spent collaborating on this production. They were each of them focused on their performances, and I am incredibly grateful for the talent and intelligence they each brought to this new work, helping me make it into the production I wanted to see. Collaboration in effect.

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