First Days

When I was in high school I was an actor for Looking In, performing scenes about social issues throughout Connecticut. Part of the training process involved listening to a range of speakers discuss the various issues we were creating scenes about. One of the speakers I remember most vividly was a therapist who talked about alcohol abuse in adolescents and mental health issues. He told a story of a professor he had in graduate school, who asked the classroom of psychiatrists-to-be what they thought the goals of a first therapy appointment ought to be. The students discussed a range of agendas a mental health professional might have as they began work with a new client and there was a heavy debate about which priorities were most important. After the class discussion the professor offered this insight: The goal of the first appointment is to get a second one. Period.

That statement has stuck with me for a long time and I’ve applied the notion of getting a second meeting in a lot of the work I do. When I direct a play, I want to get the actors clear on what the schedule is, get a taste of the culture of this process we are embarking on, and get the juices of ensemble flowing. Ultimately all the planning I do for the first rehearsal revolves around the question of how to get these actors ready for the second rehearsal. I don’t really have a set icebreaker I always use or an immovable rule that every rehearsal requires that staging begin or even a read-through necessarily. Each production is different and this makes each first day different– but the plan always revolves around the question of what are my performers and production team going to need immediately next. Does everyone know where the bathrooms are? Is there an activity that will most develop a collegiality among (often) relative strangers who’ve come together for this particular production? Is there an image or idea I can share that will help those in the room see what most touches me about this particular piece, and can I present that in a way that will plant a seed of deepening interest in the project?

I have a similar approach in teaching. With my college students I spend a huge portion of time going over the syllabus on the first day, and in the past I found myself frustrated that that would take away time from activities I had in mind to “get started.” But just as elementary school teachers know that investing extra time on establishing rules and classroom management that first month of school makes all the difference in the students’ behavior the rest of the year, adult students, too, need their hands held a bit before getting their feet wet in a new course. Its an investment in the rest of the course, but particularly for the tone that second class will have.

Question for the World: What do you like to do on “first days” or rehearsal, school, or work? What approaches to the getting-ready-to-go phase of collaborative activity  have you found effective, and what approaches did not?

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Conventional Wisdom

I like the question this blog poses. I have had many professional experiences where I felt like I was working against conventional wisdom. Thoughts on some of them:

  • One Person Does It All Syndrome. There are cases in the professional world in which a handful of people take on several jobs, as in the touring show where the master electrician is also stage managing or driving the truck to the next stop. Outside of these limited situations, there really is no good reason for one person to be costumer, stage hand, and director all at once. It inevitably brings down the quality of the show, not to mention damages the health and well-being of that One Person. If you have the energy to put on a show, you can find the energy to network your way to getting assistance.

 

  • Shakespeare is essential. This one especially will get me in trouble with a vast number of my colleagues, but I feel that Shakespeare is grossly overdone in the high school curriculum while an entire canon of dramatic literature that students might find more accessible is ignored. I have seen amazing high school productions of Shakespearean works, and I have seen terrible ones. When comprehension of increasingly difficult text is already such a problem, I feel that there is a premature rush to build appreciation for Shakespeare before students are developmentally equipped or literate enough to get much out of it. Moreover, there are too many cases where the teacher is not able to teach Shakespeare’s plays in an accessible manner. If you adore Shakespeare and want to bring your passion to your students, do it! But the theatre has other writers, and some of them are even still alive.

 

  • That teacher is great– look at what he can do! Most teaching artists I know have an emergency lesson they can teach in their sleep. Most bring years of training and experience to their work. But just like any other profession, there’s a difference between evaluating a teacher based on a single class and evaluating their work over time. We all have good days and bad days, and so do our students.It’s easy to stick with old habits, or stick with theatre games that have worked well in the past. Part of a good teacher is what they do today, but the difference between good and great is measured in what they plan to do tomorrow. Truly outstanding teachers got that way through the sweat and tears of a full commitment to ongoing critical self-evaluation and professional development. I can’t imagine hiring someone for any position in theatre if I wasn’t sure they possessed  such a dedication.

Question for the World: What conventional wisdom do you encounter(and shatter, or live with) in your professional life?

Directing as if looking at a CAT Scan

As this blog has demonstrated, I wear a number of hats professionally and in my work in the community. Directing is a vocation close to my heart and one which I identify strongly with. I have long been conflicted over whether to pursue further graduate study and, if so, in what specifically. But if money were no object whatsoever, I would likely get an MFA in Directing– just. because. Directing is among my favorites though, and above all else it is a creative outlet with a mixture of challenge and satisfaction that few other things match for me. I’m in tech this week for a show I’m directing and I’m in that place where things finally seem to have hit a stride,  feeling a familiar relief and enjoying increasing excitement over little moments in the show that are just right and other moments that are happening spontaneously as actors have become comfortable enough to rediscover and breathe new life into the scenes.

Recently I got a funny little compliment from one of my performers. She said that I direct like I’m looking at a CAT Scan. I wasn’t sure what she meant by that at first, but as she explained further she did a rather impressive impression of the way I look at scenes spatially when we’re polishing something in rehearsal. Sort of moving around, looking at the total image onstage and then honing in on a bit of space, noticing something out of alignment and pushing an actor a few inches to the right to get the right balance. It was a very sweet thing to say, and I think it alludes to something that really speaks to me as a director– Space.

I remember in college my Directing professor introduced the term “picturization” to me and I found it intensely satisfying– an aha! moment, definitely. Picturization refers to the notion of the Director as Sculptor-for-the-Stage, manipulating the people and objects in the space towards an image that reflects the total concept for the scene.  It’s a fairly simple notion– stage the actors (or perhaps better yet, INSPIRE the actors TOWARDS staging themselves) into shapes that reflect the story you wish to tell. I think this is a lot of what I do as a director, finding and refining the pictures onstage– exploring the space and people/objects in it choreographically.

Another metaphor I connect with is Director as Conductor, drawing out the music and rhythms of the play, listening for false notes and tuning the various instruments as necessary towards an ultimately harmonious “sound.” I definitely zero in on transitions with this role in mind– feeling antsy when a blackout is too long and holding my breath through sequences that at their best really take the audience on a journey to the next page of the story seamlessly.A lot of directing is about managing and promoting the rhythms the audience takes in. I think that this is part of what first drew me to lighting as design as well, as I started to explore how the timing of lighting changes played into the timing of the movements and moments onstage.

I’m absolutely the worst critic of my own work, but I find moments of stage that “work” to be an enormous thrill. Most of all I think my directing style is Director as Audience Member. My interest in theatre begins and ends with my love of being an Audience Member, witnessing that which is uniquely theatrical. I direct because I want to see those images and connections that happen on stage in a way that they can’t in any other form.

Question for the World: Do you direct? How would you describe your style? What is it about directing that stirs your passions?

Teaching Directing

I’m very happy so far with the Introduction to Theatre class I’m teaching. It’s truly in my zone of proximal development as a teacher, in that I’m always confident I know what I’m doing to a point, and yet also always taking a step outside my comfort zone as well. It’s exciting because the class asks that of the students as well, so we’re truly on a journey together. The students seem to be having a good time!

This month we will be focusing a portion of our class time on Directing. These are community college students, and while some of them have had acting experiences in high school and elsewhere I don’t think any of the group has ever directed before. One of the ways I’m going to introduce Directing is by putting the students in groups and having each take turns directing an Open Scene. These are most often (in my experience) used as Acting exercises but I have always felt that they were even more useful as a source of Directing practice. I did this when I was at the LaMaMa Umbria International Director’s Symposium in 2000 and it worked well as a jumping off point for a range of discussions about directing with a diverse group of experienced directors, so it should be interesting to see how it works here.

Question for the World: How would you teach Directing? Share your favorite activities!