Johnnypost 4: a director’s nightmare

I had my first director’s nightmare this morning. “Nightmare” is too strong actually – it was one of those dreams we actors have in which several hobgoblins of anxiety appear in sequence. Only this time I wasn’t acting, I was directing Johnny Has Gone for a Soldier.

We were rehearsing in what could be described as a two story antique shop. It occurred to me after waking that this may relate to the set our designer Matt Saunders designed recently for American Buffalo. But I digress. I had staged an elaborate sequence on the second level, a kind of wrap-around balcony. I stepped back and realized that none of it could be seen from ground level. There were other hobgoblins having to do with people continually knocking over all the crap that was everywhere, and some I’m sure that have already gone back to their caves in my subconscious, resting up before they bother my sleep some other time.

Shall I interpret for you? Okay. I think the message here is SIMPLIFY. Avoid filling up the stage with extraneous crap, scenic or otherwise. Tell the story with as little as you need, and as much as it requires. It also occurs to me that the architecture of the space and my perspective on it resemble what an actor sees when performing on a stage in a house with a balcony (Philly peeps: think Walnut Street mainstage, or P.T.C.’s Suzanne Roberts). So it may be a reflection on the combination of the actor’s and director’s creativity at work inside me as I work on Johnny.

The message to simplify resonates with the Quaker part of me (one of our Testimonies is Simplicity), and reminds me of how Noah blew my mind during notes recently. I have not been stopping the actors much to make adjustments as they go. I tend to let them explore swaths of the scene, stop, make an adjustment, or two of three, or encourage a discovery, go back, ran the swath again and keep going. By the end of the week, when we did our stumble through of act one, I was completely comfortable watching and giving notes. We had succeeded in creating a strong foundation in terms of staging and actors’ choices for the larger of the two acts in three and a half days.

Two artistic conditions have helped us immensely. “It helps,” Marcia said, “when a play is so well written. If you’re sensitive, the play tells you what to do.” I agree. My job has been to stand back and assist the actors discover what the play is telling them to do. The tricky moment happens when actor and director disagree on this, but that hasn’t happened yet. But notice the condition in her statement: if you’re sensitive. Only actors who have their egos in check can make themselves servants of the play. Only actors willing to be vulnerable and explore without knowing, groping for connections, can have that wonderful “ah-ha” moment.

The other condition is that the actors were each well prepared for this week. They were off book (which I had asked, but not demanded of them). In Noah and Mandy’s case, they had even met on their own to run lines and talk about relationship. Some directors might feel nervous about that, nervous that the actors in question will come to conclusions at odds with the director’s, or be jumping the gun of a group exploration. Not me. Just as I watch the actors serve the play, I feel myself doing so as well. And even as I feel a daunting sense of responsibility, I also feel a curious detachment. It’s the sense that this event, which we will share for the first time Thursday night June 4th, has already acquired a life of it’s own. And like a loving parent, my task is to help it grow without oppressing it through micromanagement.

So towards the end of this particular rehearsal I said, “I worry that I should be doing more, you know, stopping you and making you do it differently or something, but I just don’t feel it’s necessary. I wonder why that is?” And Noah said, “Maybe it’s because you’re from a faith tradition based on listening.” That was where he blew my mind. Then we talked about directors we have worked with who don’t let ten words come out of your mouth before stopping you and giving you an adjustment.

I think there is a place for that kind of direction. I’m reminded of my work with Lillian Groag on The Imaginary Invalid. Lillian was exacting; demanding a daunting level of comic precision from the very beginning. But we were working in a style which required that. She was assembling a kind of enormous, living comic machine with many component parts that all needed to be doing their job while meshing with the other parts exactly. Technical, physical and comic work ask for this level of attention from directors. I’m not sure realism does, at least not if you’re working with good actors. I have had the sense, when working in realism as an actor and having an overly attentive director, that they were trying to mess round with my psyche, as opposed to work on a moment from a play, or discuss a character. That can make me grumpy.

Noah’s observation about the possible connection between my Quaker self and my director self speaks to all the ways who we are as human beings defines what we do as theatre artists. This is one of the essential points in my book. It is so obvious to me, and yet no one has yet figured out a way to study this foundational aspect of being a theatre artist in our theater classes.

Tomorrow: act 2 begins. By the weekend, when we begin to assemble the whole event, scene transitions and all, I fully expect at least one director’s nightmare per night. Hear that hobgoblins?

Johnny-post 4: A director’s nightmare, originally published Monday, May 25, 2009