Well, dear reader, the Lincoln Center Directors Lab breaks down something like this:
There were eighty three of us directors gathered there in the basement of the Vivian Beaumont. The lab ran twelve hours a day, six days a week for three weeks. That comes out to two days off, plus any sessions you decided to skip. No one went to all of the sessions (as far as I know). Of the 83 directors, I would say that somewhere between 30 and 40 directors (including myself) went to at least three quarters of the various sessions.
The sessions themselves covered a wide variety of topics. The ratio of talking to doing was probably 3:1, and I personally wished it had been 1:1, but whatever. Some of the directors (not including myself) actually got to direct scene studies on a variety of topics. The first week there were scene studies of Prometheus Bound (about four hundred lines of the stodgy Greene and Lattimore translation), where six directors were given Equity actors to play the various roles, and each group was given twelve of their fellow lab members to work as the chorus. The second week, six directors were given a crack at Nina’s monologue from Konstantin’s play in The Seagull. The third week, a team of directors attempted creating a group piece using roughly thirty of their fellow directors, whilst three directors were given teams of actors and a story by the lovely and talented Jennifer Egan to adapt into stage pieces.
So when not rehearsing a scene study, watching a scene study, or talking about a scene study, we were visited by guest lecturers, who would either lead discussions with us, talk to us for a long period of time and take questions, or do exercises and demonstrations with us. Guest artists and academics included (but were not limited to): Graciela Daniele, Daniel Fish, Mark Russell, Joe Melillo, David Herskovitz, Richard Maxwell, Bernard Gerstein, Andre Bishop, John Conklin, Peter Meineck, Erin Mee, Ruben Polendo, Jo Bonney, Julie Taymor, Susan Stroman, Theodora Skipitaras, Lawrence Senelick, Will Power and Mark Lamos.
We also got free tickets to see The Frogs (the less said probably the better), discount tickets to see The Elephant Vanishes (which someday I’ll write more on) and, for a lucky twenty in the Lab (not, once again, including me) Heisei Nakamura Za, a Kabuki show performed as part of the Lincoln Center Festival.
Being in the Lab was remarkably like being back at Buck’s Rock, the arts-based summer camp that I attended and later worked at throughout my teenage years. You’ve got a group of dedicated, energetic people working together all of the time, and it became very easy to view it as some kind of alternate universe. You made friends very very quickly, and some of the people I met there I would consider some of the closest people to me. Every day felt like a week, but every week passed as quickly as a day. I met a group of directors and we became a tight-knit enough gang that people started referring to us as “The Breakfast Club”. People fell in love, people started theater companies together, people had affairs, people bitched and moaned. There was joy and there was magic, and occasionally you’d hit on profundity. It was, in a word, unexplainable.
But this is a blog, and my job is to explain things. So click to expand the post and read some impressions, if you feel so inclined.
A couple quick notes on this. First, I apologize for the length, but we did a lot. Second, I’d be more specific, but much of what was said to us in the lab was said to us in part because it wasn’t for public consumption, so I’m going to try to keep names and owners of various opinions out of it. Third, I also think that some of these little bullet points will eventually be expanded into some larger posts, but here for now are some quick thoughts I have:
1) The Lab is presided over by a team of stage managers, who are in turn coordinated by a coordinator, who works in tandem with the Lab Assistant, who herself works for the grande dame of the Lab (and its founder) Anne Cattaneo. People have very mixed reactions to Anne, and I think in general they reflect their experiences of the Lab. I really enjoyed the Lab and thus liked her quite a bit. The people who don’t like her tended to have rough times of it at the Lab.
2) Inside The Actor’s Studio has done more damage to discussing work with visitng artists than you could possibly imagine. The number of times an interesting conversation about someone’s work would turn into “Tell us your funny anecdotes, Broadway Star” was shocking. The amount of fawning was truly tasteless. I think in each session we were in general able to move conversations towards more productive directions, but keeping them from being Liptonized was an almost Herculean effort.
3) Any group has its slogans. Our primary one was “ride the horse in the direction that its going”. In other words, direct the show you have. If you cast Robert Redford, don’t try to make him act like Christopher Walken. This slogan became an ongoing thing as we discussed the role of directorial concepts.
4) Richard Maxwell is (or so I’m told) sexy.
5) I’m much more interested in physical theater, and in exploring the life of the body, and discovering meaning physically, than I ever thought I was.
6) Writers and directors are slowly starting to be more honest about their antipathy towards each other. It sort of seems to break down like this—directors feel shackled by writers and writers feel exploited by directors. To directors, a production is just one production and the text is a living document not a closed system, so doing something other than what’s in the stage directions or the writers head is not only okay but might be devoutly to be wished. To writers, a play might be alive, but the writer is the only one who has to live with it after the director and actors are done with it. One visiting artist put it best when he said, “when you’re doing the first production, you should do make the playwright’s vision come to life. But after that, you shouldn’t be constantly reviving the same version of a show. Than the show is dead. Like how Streetcar is dead because everyone is essentially doing Kazan’s version”. I think I’m growing to agree with that assessment. The problem is, so many director’s visions are bad.
7) The pendulum seems to be swinging against “directorial vision” in America. To whit, Daniel Sullivan, who is probably the best and most impressive “invisible hand” director is incredibly popular right now, while more “conceptual” directors are constantly getting slammed by the press. Don’t know how I feel about that yet.
8) The other pendulum swing is against Aristotle and against traditional academic readings of Greek texts. Thank fucking God. Look people, Aristotle wasn’t writing about plays he was seeing, he was writing about his very specific ideas of what a good play would be based on the plays he was reading. A theorist writing about Greek drama today is as valid as Aristotle, point blank. Also, all of the Greek texts we have come from Monks copying them down sometime in the middle ages because they thought they’d be good teaching tools, so we don’t even have the real texts the Greeks were using. Do what you want, damnit!
9) Artists in America are getting way too polite and eager to please, and the older generations’ consternation at this is pretty obvious. Everyone at the lab was worried about doing the right thing (Erin Mee’s response, “Why are you obsessed with getting things right?”) or having a career (Simon McBurney: “If you want a career in theater, go do something else. If you want to make art, stay.”) or being recognized or whatever that it really got in the way of art making. Also, we’re really too polite and nice about each other’s processes. Sometimes an actor’s way of doing things isn’t working. I’m not saying be a bastard, but for heaven’s sake, try to find a constructive way to invade their space a little bit.
10) The biggest misconception going on in the lab: that audiences like realism. They don’t. Audiences hate theater. That, to me, is the rub. That’s what we should be addressing. It shouldn’t be “ooo, why do audiences like realism, how do we either A) do that well or B) trick them into seeing something that isn’t realistic?” but rather, “why doesn’t anyone like going to see plays and what can I do about it in my work?”
11) The paradigms are splitting apart. The old way of doing things (the off broadway/regional theater model) is dying slowly, and we are in a time of great transition. The question is, do we want to run into trying to save that institution (the conservative path) or do we want to find new ways of doing things and try to change institutions (the radical path)? What is the point of doing the conservative thing if you’re never going to make a living doing this anyway?
12) Puppets are awesome.
13) The Lab was roughly 40% female, with roughly twenty (out of 83) directors of color plus some international people. There were some older directors, two directors who work exclusively in education, one who directs stage shows for Disney World, one who directs for her church, and two who work almost exclusively with puppets. In theater this is called “diverse”. The only other place I could imagine this being diversity is perhaps the US Senate, but bully for Lincoln Center for trying to gather many different kinds of people in one room.
14) Alcohol seems to be very important to art. Anne C. said her goal was to create a metaphorical back room at a bar where we could go to talk about art. Much of the social life revolved around drinking. Hangovers were frequent and common amongst my fellow lab mates.
15) It is empowering to the extreme to be in a room with people who believe in the inherent worth of what you are doing. It is even more empowering to have people much older, more experienced etc. believe in you and what you are doing simply because you say you want to do it.
16) Everyone is in a panic about the logistical realities of making art in this day and age. They are much more in a panic about this than they are in a panic about the quality of the work that they will produce.
17) Number of times you can eat from Balduccis in a row before you start to feel like you’re stuck in “Groundhog’s Day”: eleven. Number of times you can eat at Ollie’s before you start feeling depressed: seven.
18) Chuck Mee and Caryl Churchill are very popular right now. The classics are decidedly not. Simon McBurney is worshipped like a god amongst young theater directors, especially women. The Jaques LeCoq school is becoming more and more popular.
19) The number of theater directors who live in NYC and have not seen a production by either Richard Foreman or The Wooster Group would shock and awe you.
20) Even theater directors who are bad singers are awesome karaoke performers.
21) Theater encourages unhealthy behavior. My cigarette and coffee intakes both doubled within about forty eight hours of starting the lab, most people drank more than they had in years, and that’s not even getting started in the more psychic stuff.
22) It seems that on some structural level, the system of Art-Making in the United States is set up in such a way as to almost certainly prevent interesting art from being created. No one knows how to change this, or even how to start changing it, because it’s all so entrenched. These entrenched systematic problems all came from very good and needed solutions to existing problems. I think quite a bit of it comes from the changing economic realities of art making in America. When I brought this all up in a conversation with a famous guest artist about changing trends in directing he looked at me and said, “Well, that’s the six million dollar question, isn’t it?” and then it was promptly ignored.
23) To follow up on the last thing—prominent, prosperous and well liked directors, in other words, bastions of these breaking institutions, know exactly how broken they are. Everyone knows how broken the system is, it’s just no one can think of anything better to do than fight hard to maintain the current system. Which means that once again, art is reflecting life.
24) Despite all of this, people (including myself) remain optimistic. The important thing, at the end of the day, is just that people are still trying to create theater, even if they have their heads up their asses about it, or even if the work they make isn’t good. The work is as important as the result. Just like no matter what problems I had with the Lab (and I did have a few) the important thing is that the Lab exists and that I got to take part in this incredible place, with these incredible artists and these fascinating human beings at such an early part of my career.