Last spring, while on tour at King University in Tennessee, with Pigeon Creek Shakespeare, Katherine snapped (and subsequently facebooked) a sign in their greenroom that said, “Pursue your goals. Pick up your cues. Tell the story.”
I joked that I need that on my tombstone, so I can direct from beyond.
When he was directing the original Star Wars, George Lucas said he wanted to get a board with buttons he could push to light up signs that just said, “Louder” and “More intense!” I think you can see that kind of nuance in much of his work.
I’ve been thinking lately about the guiding principles of my work and how they’ve changed over the past ten months or so. This year has been a reorganization of my art and my life and my senses. I don’t know how to describe it, but I’m going to try, for my own benefit and perhaps so someone else can chime in and say, “This is the name for what is happening, and here’s how to keep that going.”
Duchess was, of course, a turning point in my work. I didn’t go into it intending anything besides a very good show, but my experience working on it was revelatory. I felt power in the room that I don’t think I brought with me. I suddenly listened to actors in a new way and could hear and sense more from them. It was all so new and everything was happening so fast, that I worry that I didn’t know how to use these new tools that were so suddenly in my hands. I worry that the process wasn’t as life-giving for each actor as it was for me, although I believe it was for some of them. Coming out of our work on Duchess, I also worried I wouldn’t feel that again, that my next production would be a step solidly downward. The last time I had anything approaching this feeling in a rehearsal room was during JB, and all shows after that for quite some time paled in comparison as I struggled to find whatever magic accompanied me into those rehearsals.
Here’s the thing that is extraordinary and surprising; that step down hasn’t happened. Doing Much Ado with middle and high school students, I had the same feeling of presence, of being more present than I knew it was possible to be, before. As the camp wore on and they got more tired, we had a few rehearsals with a less intense focus, but I was able to feel it out before it became chaotic and find ways to bring everyone back together. After Duchess, and especially after thinking and processing on that work, I was more ready for what I suddenly noticed about individual actors and about the group, things I wouldn’t have noticed before–emotional states, relationships, the way the matrix of the group and the text and the space vibrated together. I thought I was aware of all of this before, but the level of detail and intensity with which I could suddenly read these shifts is at a whole new level. I could pull an actor aside at a break or sit with a camper at lunch and solve in ten minutes what would derail us completely if left alone. I did little things, just tiny nudges, but they affected the trajectory of the show.
Following that, I did a production of The Brothers Grimm Spectaculathon, at EMU, which is…let’s just say, not Shakespeare. By far the silliest thing I’ve worked on in a long time. And it was great! Chaos swirled around the production, but inside the rehearsal room, we had calm, focus, and good work.
So the magic that appeared in Duchess has followed me through a production with 13-18-year-old actors and a very, very, very silly script at a university theater, which also included several high school students. The next show I’m slated for is Much Ado at Pigeon Creek, and what an amazing thing it will be if I can learn enough of what is going on to hold it for a full year, on every show, with every group.
I decided to write down my guiding principles for my work, in the hopes that writing them down will help me slip them into my pocket to carry with me. What is my equivalent of “Louder! More intense!”?
I am a director who takes care of actors.
Many actors, even the youngest ones I work with, would object to the idea that they need to be taken care of. I need to find a better word for it, because someone who needs to be taken care of seems weak. The actors I’m thinking of are incredibly strong people. Maybe another way of thinking of this is the image of the paraclete, the one who is called alongside (used in the Bible to describe the Holy Spirit, and translated variously as “advocate,” “helper,” “comforter,” “encourager,” etc. “Advocate” and “encourager” are probably the closest to what I’m trying to get at here.). I want to be present with actors, and sometimes that is as simple as saying, “I know this is hard.” Sometimes it means simply being at their side, walking through the roughness with them. Sometimes it means saying, “How can I help?” and sometimes it means saying, “You’ve got this, I know you do,” or even, “Can we find a way to use this difficulty to create bigger truth?” But it always means reaching out, and I’m sometimes too shy to do that, especially with actors I respect a great deal. What I’ve received this year is the clarity to name hidden problems and, maybe, the bravery to do it, too.
Health and strength can be as good a source of art as conflict and instability.
I once had another director tell me that I must not be a particularly good director because actors like to work with me. “It shows you’re not pushing them hard enough. You have to push them to breaking,” this person said. They hadn’t ever seen one of my shows, but had just heard that actors have fun with me, which apparently is a bad sign (?).
I reject the stereotype that people have to be miserable or mentally ill to make good art. This is not to discount the massive contributions to art made by mentally ill or generally miserable people, but I feel that both popular culture and artists themselves tend to ignore the large body of work by people who are fun to be with and who are happy in their lives. I would much rather see two people who genuinely enjoy each other play a scene of conflict than people who have real animosity (or whose directors have worked to foster animosity between them in real life). I want to work with people who are willing to trust each other deeply, and that doesn’t happen if there’s instability, unnecessary competition, or unaddressed mental health problems.
I am a director who loves my collaborators.
One thing I have zero patience for is when other directors, by way of talking shop, badmouth actors. If you don’t love actors, you should not be a director. There are easier ways to not make money.
When I walk into rehearsal, my heart is open to the people who join me in that space. I always tried to have this feeling of openness and welcome, but during my work on Duchess, it was suddenly deeper and more intense, without my working on it. Having an open heart means assuming that everyone is there to do their best work; taking this as the starting point allows us to do that work. It makes critique easier; notes can be sharp or funny or complimentary without seeming cutting or insincere. Love covers the clumsiness of my limited words.
Loving my collaborators means letting myself be overwhelmed by how amazing they are, by how lucky I am to share a room with these funny, smart, talented people, people who have had lives and training and experiences I can’t even imagine, and they bring all of that in and hand it over to me and say, “What do you want to do with all of this?” Loving my collaborators is about gratitude for their work. It’s about being so happy to be with them that it hurts.
Ever since I was about 19, I have ended every rehearsal by thanking the actors. “Thank you for your work,” I say, to the group or to individuals. At the end of our last Duchess rehearsal, I mentioned this. “You probably don’t even hear it anymore, those of you who’ve worked with me for a long time,” I told them. “Maybe you think of it as rote, as just this thing Alisha says for some reason, but doesn’t mean. Even if you stop hearing it, I don’t stop saying it, with my whole being. It’s not rote to me.” I dismissed them from that rehearsal by going around the circle to each actor, looking into their eyes, naming them, and saying, “Thank you for your work.” Several of us were crying by the end of it. Loving my collaborators means being brave enough to tell them that they matter, that I see them, that I know them, that I value them.
Loving my collaborators means that the work can have the electricity and chemistry and intensity we usually think of as reserved for romance, for the work of building a family or navigating a lifetime together, and we can pour it into the art we are building together.
The other day, I was talking with Ling, and I was trying to explain how certain collaborators are more like muses to me; we don’t just work together, they are present in my work, whether they are working on it or not. I’m always directing with them in mind, selecting work based on what I’ve learned from them, stretching myself to be worthy of working with them. Even when they aren’t involved directly in a project, they inspire everything I’m doing.
Ling said that in Chinese there is a word for “muse,” but it’s essentially a loan word, typically referring to inspiring goddesses. “What you’re talking about, I think, is 知音 (zhi yin). It kind of means someone who hears the music you’re trying to make.” It was so perfect, simple and accurate. I’ve been blessed with a few 知音.
Much like the flutters I feel when I see my husband walk through the door each evening, I feel my heart leap when I get a text from one of my 知音 with an idea for our next project or a note on another production they’re doing or a photo of a funny greenroom sign. It’s hard not to love someone who hears the music I’m trying to make, and especially when they are trying to make it with me.
I spit before I walk into the theater.
In my college theater, one of the profs used to ask us if we’d spit before we came into rehearsal. This comes from Stanislavsky; the idea is that you think about all of the life-junk that you’re dealing with, whatever it is, and imagine it all concentrated in your mouth, and then you spit it all out before you walk into the theater. I don’t know how many of my fellow travelers at that theater program literally spit in the bushes, but I did, every day, for four years.
That practice, over many months of rehearsals, trained my mind to leave at the door anything that wouldn’t help the rehearsal. Now, when I’m stressed out, all I want is to be in rehearsal. If I’m working on a show, that means I have four hours at a time when I will give myself a break from the present crisis. I don’t have to physically spit anymore, and except for once, I don’t think I’ve done it since college. I do leave my problems at the door, and I’m intentional about it. My collaborators deserve my focus. When I’m distracted or upset, none of us do good work.
Because I got so good at mentally leaving my nonsense outside, I remember sometimes sleeping in the wings of my college theater, when no one was there and the house was dark. During times of deep anxiety, it was the only space holy enough to feel quiet. The smell of a theater gives me a feeling of peace.
This summer, I had a personal crisis at a time when I happened to be working on two shows simultaneously. My mental habits weren’t enough to make the stress stay outside. I realized I needed to actually do it. So I dragged my high school actors outside and talked them through the idea. “That in there, that rehearsal space, that’s where we bring our deepest selves. We don’t bring trash into a church, and we don’t bring distractions into our rehearsal space. You think about it, and you spit it out. Don’t worry, it will still be waiting here when you’re done.”
They all spit. Our rehearsal was great. When I walked out the door, I felt my spinning and distracted thoughts like walking into a wall. They were there waiting for me. But I had three hours of peace, and more rehearsal that evening. In between was enough time to worry.
My work is actor- and story-centered.
I never know what to write when I’m proposing a show. Theaters that ask for “concept” are usually not looking for a director like me. I joke that I’m “not a Hamlet-on-motorcycles” type of director, and that’s true, but what am I? When I write a proposal for Pigeon Creek, I can get away with writing something like this (from my actual proposal for Much Ado):
You know, I think (especially from our work on Romeo and Juliet in 2012), that I’m committed to playing the moment, rather than the genre of a play. Whether a play is a comedy or a tragedy has to do with what slice of time we are portraying, and little else. As intense as the joy was in some sections of Romeo and Juliet, so intense should the pain be in the darkest moments of Much Ado. The worse the pain, the harder it is for an audience to forgive Claudio. And yet they must, because Hero does, somehow. In following her journey of grace, maybe they—and we—will learn some piece of the mystery of forgiveness. I think that, until I inhabit the play in a process with actors, I won’t understand exactly how that happens; but I know, because I trust Shakespeare, that the answer is there. I don’t think I’d be able to find it outside of rehearsal.
People who don’t know my work won’t understand that I can have a process that I describe as “picking the lock of the play; holding my ear up to the text and feeling when the tumblers click into place,” that actually works. I can’t imagine or plan productions without bodies and words filling a space, without specific actors’ energies bringing life to the characters. I have ideas about what I think the story is, and often they are a good start, but if I love my collaborators, how can I fail to honor their piece of the journey to find the story?
I sure like working, though, so I guess I’ll need to come up with better ways to describe this.
In any case, this is the question I ask in every rehearsal. Does this moment help tell the story? Does this actor feel free to honor their authenticity?
I don’t have words to describe the way my work has changed. I keep saying it’s like I have new senses and deeper love, but that feels inadequate. I read Peter Brook’s The Open Door over the summer, and his words about collaboration and about the sacredness of the space between people who are working together to tell a story described some of what I have discovered this year. I kept scanning pages to send to Katherine, and I finally gave up and sent her the whole book.
I feel more porous, more open to other people’s stories, presence, love.
Our hearts are chambers of stories.
Love is an open door.
Is there a blessing as great as someone who understands the story I am trying to tell?