I try to avoid the inevitable blog-tendency towards narcissism, but whatever, it's time to turn the mirror on myself. I want to stop talking about Writers and Directors and instead talk about the only director I have any authority to speak on whatsoever: me.
The foundation of how I work is built on a series of assumptions and principles that long-time readers of this blog will be familar with. The chief one is the idea in the primacy of the group over the individual. That assumption shapes my entire outlook.
I used to think that theatre was made by individuals. You can dig up an old post on the old blog somewhere where I talk about the various responsibilities of people (the dramaturg to the text, the writer to their vision of the text, the actor to their character, the director to the audience etc.) and such as it is, that's fine. People do have responsibilities that differ from role to role within the production.
The problem with this individualistic approach is that it almost-inevitably leads to competition amongst the individuals for who gets primacy. It becomes about what's most important, who is most important, "whose vision" wins out. Good art can come out of this competiton, this is just not the way I want to work.
In my experience, the process that works has to do with the creation of the group. The group comes together to create a play. That play is (in my work anyway) based on a script, a script which is the reason we are there and the foundation of our work. We together (including the script and the writer) serve this larger thing, the play.
What makes this so anxiety inducing is that it is so fragile and ephemeral. It is a truly existential being-- the play only exists to the extent that we create it. We are simultaneously creating something and serving the very thing we are creating. But if we are truly working to be completative instead of competitive, this ephemeral thing gets born. The other thing that makes it difficult is that it constantly changes and evolves, and its needs change and evolve with it.
It is this larger thing, this play, which is bigger than me, the actors, the writer, the script etc. is what restrains my wankier impulses. Serving this larger this is what allows me to pull back, to look for what serves the play and what doesn't. (For those of you working on In Public it was this that made it necessary for me to cut the introduction to the play that I had staged).
The tricky thing is that who speaks for that larger creation is in constant flux. We give that job to the director. We probably shouldn't. It seems that in response to the mistake of giving that to one individual (the director) we want to give it to another individual (the writer). I think this is also a mistake. No one is virtuous enough, egoless enough or frankly talented enough to be able to do it all the time (although the writers I've worked with came close). In my interactions with Clay and George there were times when I spoke for this larger thing, times when they did, times when actors did etc. And there were times when egos, preconceived notions of what the play (or theatre) "should" be, etc. got in our way and we weren't the best stewards of the work. I would say that in The Amulet the person who most consistently spoke for the play we were creating was David Birn, our positively brilliant set designer, and I found myself deferring to him as we reached opening night.
So what is my job then? Well, there are obvious things (shaping the visual look of the piece etc.) that we all know about. But I consider my job primarily to be creating the environment where this larger thing can happen. Because it's difficult work, creating a purely existential, ephemeral thing and then submitting the individual to it. And thus creating a starting point where that can be possible, to enable the creativity of others is really vital.
I approach the plays I co-create from the perspective of giving the play what it needs. In the case of volume of smoke, which has no stage directions, no guidelines for performance, just text divided into roughly 24 characters, the play needs some kind of conceptualization to give the group rules and to keep choices (especially my choices) from being arbitrary. For us, that conceptualization is that the company is ghosts, enacting this tragedy as some kind of purgatorial assignment.
I think it's safe to say that this concept provides for far more questions than answers, which is part of the point. I don't know what it's like to be a ghost, and neither to the actors. We get to make it up. Together.
Then there are plays like In Public where I felt that what the play needed was as clear as possible a sense of what the world of the play was like. We needed to submit ourselves to that world. I can imagine a version of the play where the process is much more character driven. In fact, I directed that version of it for the workshop of the play. But in this production, we aimed for a process where the discovery of the character dynamics came out of the world instead of the other way around.
Talk of the Walk-Up, on the other hand, needed to be about the characters, the language, the genre work and ultimately the theme of fantasy and delusion in the play. Every idea had to come back to those things or it wasn't worth keeping. The foley work, for example, connected to the idea of fantasy and delusion (did this really happen, or is it just a guy banging a metal can with a spoon?). And the staging had to change styles based on the scene and what genre was being played with. And any attempt to show off on my part had to be suspended so that the character arcs could be clear.
In all of this, the text is central. It is the starting point. Not the end, mind you (that's the play we're doing), but the starting point. It underlies everything. It's the original reason we all came together. I don't make changes to the spoken lines in the text (stage directions are another story for probably another day). I don't demand rewrites. I don't try to take one individual vision (the writer's) and bend it to my own. I am frequently horrified by stories of my peers who do. What i want to do is lead us in the process of creating the play using the text. Not any one individual's vision of what the play should be but rather the play itself. This is my starting point.