CREATING ENVIRONMENTS: THE AUDIENCE
I would like to posit here a somewhat revised description of the director’s job. I believe that fundamentally the director’s job is to lead a process of creation and that the key component of that job is creating the basic environment where group creation becomes possible. In other words, the basic job is to create the circumstances where people (including myself, the director) can create.
Nowhere do I find that lacking in my own nascent career as a director and as an observer of theater than in the theater/audience relationship. I firmly believe that art is a gift and that the process of creating art should be centered around giving. I think that most theater artists you talk to would probably say the same exact thing, I think that statement is neither particularly new nor particularly controversial…
But hang around backstage after a show and you will most likely hear the ensemble talking about whether or not they got what they wanted out of an audience. They will talk about whether the house was “good” or “bad”—meaning did they behave in the appropriate way, respond in the way you want them to etc. We do not (and by we I really am including me in this one) in general actually think of a production as giving to the audience. We think of it as an exchange, a trade, which while looking like a gift is in fact a completely different animal altogether. The deal works something like this: I will trade you my performance for applause and recognition and having the emotional response I am signaling you to have when I signal you to have it. The end result in this exchange is that everyone gets on some level what they want—to feel good about themselves without being challenged.
I’m trying to break it down on harsh terms so that I can really reckon with how seductive this approach is. And it is! It is incredibly seductive… it works so well! Everyone goes away happy, although no one really goes away deeply affected! You do not have to work to construct any meaning for yourself because the show already has done it for you and the actors and directors and designers and writers can rest assured that they will be loved! And why shouldn’t it be an exchange? Money is changing hands in exchange for goods and services… that’s how the whole deal is supposed to work, damnit!
There is nothing wrong with this approach to theater. There is nothing wrong with going out and paying money to be deeply satisfied by an encounter with art, and there is nothing wrong with wanting to make that kind of art. I think when I try to discuss this it can sound like I don’t love this kind of theater too. And I do. And I at times participate in making this kind of theater. I just want to think about different ways of doing this sorta thing while I have the blog space and the increased readership to do so. And since the attendance and relevance of theater is so down, we either have to learn to play this game better (which I think much discussion about improving theater centers around), or maybe we have to learn to play the game in a different way.
So what would it mean to treat your audience as your collaborator whom you give to? And what would it mean to create the environment in which the audience themselves can be creative and give to the art work?
By enabling the audience’s creativity I do not mean audience participation in the everyday sense of the word, I mean enabling their imaginations and working as their partner in crime. Giving them an experience that enables them to reach beyond themselves for an hour or two.
(---Brief Digression That Would Ideally Go In A Bit About Set Design But Everything is Interconnected So Whatever And I Apologize for Stylistically Ripping Off David Foster Wallace---
To me as an audience member, realism in stage design cuts off this imaginative process. My brain is already not having to work thanks to how exactly detailed everything you’re showing me is, and I find myself lulled into laziness by the experience. What I can do instead is marvel at how great the set design is and thus fulfill my role in the predetermined exchange-based process that currently exists. The same thing happens for me emotionally as an audience member if there is underscoring that is emotionally heavy handed… I am given my cue to feel exactly what I am supposed to feel, and then a feel it. Hey! The Stazi are coming! Time to play a low subwoofer tone throughout the audience to make them physically tense! (Although actually because I’m a sound designer, I get really angry and rebellious when I feel music being used to manipulate me instead of to add layers of possible meaning). This is the problem (to me) that comes up in plays written in the “realist” or “naturalist” style. As Jason Grote and David Cote have both pointed out in the blogosphere, realism has real power and use and beauty to it. My problem is not in fact so much with the writing of realism (there just as much hackneyed conventional boring tripe to be found in any style, really) but rather with the producing of it. The problem I have is when I feel that artists when confronted with a realistic text feel a need to produce it as realistically as possible, even when they don’t have the resources to accomplish this. In other words, it is not the existence of realism that bothers me, but its stylistic hegemony. It is the short-changing of the process of artistic discovery that I find so bothersome. It is the assumption that because a play takes place in a living room your two options are to (A) recreate exactly a living room, complete with lamps that plug into walls and incredible detail or (B) A somewhat more expressionist version of (A) where you are created a living room that is an exaggerated comment on the characters who dwell in it or the themes of the play. Once again, this is not to say that realistic sets are bad, sometimes they are the right environment for a play or a production, I just often feel that when I see realistic plays, the questions of trying to do something different scenically isn’t really examined.
An example of where this scenic relationship has been reexamined brilliantly is in the recent work of director Daniel Aukin at Soho Rep (specifically the plays [sic], Suitcase and Everything Will Be Different). Daniel is a friend of mine, and my second job in NYC ever was working at his theater, so naturally I’m partial to his work. But what has impressed me aobut it so much is that all three of these plays could easily have worked with realistic sets but by (a) working with two excellent set designers (Kip Marsh and Luisa Thompson) and (b) deliberately eschewing that realistic sensibility, new, beautiful, illuminating ways of creating the environment for the play became possible. And, indeed, compositionally, those are three of the best plays I’ve seen since moving to New York. They are not only imaginative and beautiful, but engage the audience’s visual imagination as well.
-- -END OF DIGRESSION---)
I’m more and more trying as a director to let the play really be created in the space between the audience and the production. To give the audience free-er reign to have more complicated reactions (Especially emotionally) to let them not know what to think at a given moment and see what happens. At the same time, to construct this process deliberately, so that it is clear that we are doing our jobs as artists.
Two examples from my own work which will hopefully help illustrate what I’m talking about. First (and if you haven’t seen The Amulet, here’s a spoiler for you) the latest play I’ve directed ends with someone killing herself joyously. It is unclear when you watch the play whether it ends tragically or not. And how as a production team we want you to think and feel about it. Or rather, my hope is that it ends in a way where you have to decide how to interpret it, and in that decision making process, that act of creating emotional meaning for yourself, can have some perspective on how that process works for you.
Second, George Hunka and I are remounting In Public in the fall, and one of my goals in directing the play is to revel in its ambiguity instead of solving it. While I am proud of the production at MTS last year, I feel that my directing of it was (frankly) heavy handed. I solved the ambiguities for the audience and made the play easy to swallow instead of unsettling. It became on some level a pitch black comedy about two stale marriages. I (in other words) performed my traditional job in the director-audience exchange to a T. So now I think… Maybe there are other ways of trying to do this play that can highlight the less “satisfying” elements of the play and use them as strengths instead of treating them as weaknesses… which I think on some totally subconscious level my somewhat heavy-handed approach to the text might very well have done.
So how do we as directors create an environment in which the audience themselves can be creative in their viewing of and listening to a play? I’m not sure, because (as Ian W. Hill’s recent post reminds me) it changes based on every play. But I think for now this is the way I’m trying to view the audience’s experience. This is the thing we can give to them… the show and hopefully a different way of being/experiencing themselves as audience members and the work of art itself.
And for me as a director, this environment has to be created for the audience as soon as they walk through the door of the space the performance takes place in. Designing the space (with set, lights and sound) is equally important to, say, designing what the set on the stage is like. Simple things like the choice of house music, how much light there is, what the lobby is like (if you have that option) or, in the cast of The Amulet a lengthy and choreographed preshow that hopefully sets up the world of the play and introduces some of the imagery that will be used throughout the show.
(APOLOGY I also think it’s important to note that I don’t know whether I’m successful at doing all this or not, I’m not holding myself up as some kind of directing guru at all, and hopefully it doesn’t sound that way. This is what I’ve learned, and where I am, or at least what I’m playing around with conceptually these days. So if I sound like some preachy know-it-all who really gets it and is just totally awesome at directing, I really do know that I’m not any of those things. I’m just a guy with some ideas and some thoughts on how those ideas might be accomplished. In other words, this is what I’m trying to do. Lord knows whether I’m successful at it or not.)