A question of scale

Caitlin (Cook) Bradley, Antony and Cleopatra, Hiram College, 2003

Recently, on a road trip with Heidi, we wound up talking about what kinds of plays speak to us. Both of us will direct practically anything, and will find our way into it, but every director is drawn to certain types of plays. The fact that I get hired for plays outside of my wheelhouse is probably very healthy, and stretches me.

My bucket list, though, the list of plays that I would drop everything to direct, is more or less as follows:

  • Journey to the West or The White Snake, by Mary Zimmerman
  • The Caucasian Chalk Circle, by Bertold Brecht (trans. W. H. Auden)
  • Shoemaker’s Holiday, by Thomas Dekker
  • Volpone or The Alchemist, by Ben Jonson
  • Arcadia by Tom Stoppard
  • The Illusion, by Tony Kushner
  • Assassins, by Stephen Sondheim
  • The Seagull, by Anton Chekov (trans. Michael Frayn)
  • The Marriage of Anansewa, by Efua Sutherland
  • The Merchant of Venice, Twelfth Night, Antony and Cleopatra, or Measure for Measure by William Shakespeare
  • Dr. Faustus, by Christopher Marlowe
  • Medea by Euripides  (trans. Jean Anouilh)

And then, of course, there’s the list of my top 5 plays I’ve had the privilege to direct.

Thinking over the plays I have on my bucket list, and those I’m proudest of, I notice a pattern, which is that they all have a cosmic scale. I love mythological plays, dramas about kings and queens and dukes, heightened verse, magic tricks, feats of acrobatic strength, of superhuman bravery. There aren’t any domestic comedies on here–or domestic tragedies, for that matter. No Glass Menagerie. No What the Butler SawThe Seagull is about the smallest play on that list, and it is anything but.

And then the next question, as I tell my students when they notice a pattern, is why?

Why do I feel drawn to these stories about people whose choices move whole nations? What need does it fill? Why verse drama? Why mythology?

If I take a moment to be quiet and honest with myself, I think it’s because I’ve always been tiny. And I don’t mean just that I’m a physically small person. I mean that I don’t take up much space, psychically. I remember in high school, realizing that I could blend in, that people would sometimes scan a room, and not notice me, even if they were looking for me, even if I was in plain sight. Surprisingly frequently, my friends will start to tell me about some funny thing that happened and I was there, but they forgot. Literally every month, I meet someone who insists I look just like someone they knew back in their hometown, which I guess means generic white girl. And I cannot begin to count how many times I have been setting up for rehearsal or a class with new-to-me actors or students, and, although I was clearly setting up as a director or professor, with a table and notebooks and play texts and pencils, no one assumed I was the director/professor. When I was involved with team projects back in my stint at a big tech company, even if I was the defacto project leader, when we presented, questions were rarely directed to me. No one ever assumes that I’m the person in charge of anything. One of the hardest things for me about going to grad school was how I had built up a reputation at my undergrad program over the years I was there, and people gave me a lot of respect, asked me for help, deferred to my opinion. Going to grad school, among a cohort of very nice strangers, I was starting over. I don’t have a natural presence that makes people take notice. I have to earn respect, and it takes a long time when you’re the kind of person who blends in.

This isn’t about being female or being short; I know many short women whose presence is formidable, who command attention when they walk into a room.

This also isn’t a play for compliments or reassurance; I’ve learned to use my unobtrusiveness to my benefit. I value the way I can work alongside an actor and they feel like they have freedom to play in my presence. The way I don’t take up space allows other people to open up. The fact that I don’t automatically get points for having a big presence is good. I work harder because of it. The points I get are relationship-based, and I earn them one person at a time. I used to think not being automatically taken seriously was a problem, but now I don’t, and I wouldn’t change it. Relationships are longer-lasting and tougher-wearing than charisma.

But just as the nicest people I know relish playing super bad guys, I love stretching into a world that has such scale. Where one person’s bravery or determination can change the world. Where magic happens and the language has its own relentless engine and nothing is tiny. I love watching actors stretch into that space, and I can go along with them, helping them embrace the magnitude of the text, the world, the power.

The best of these plays, though, in addition to being at a magnificent scale, are deeply human. Antony and Cleopatra is a perfect example. The flawed and painful humanness of the title characters prompts them to dress up as gods and parade through the streets, playing at divinity–but in the end, through embracing their humanness, they achieve a kind of divinity.

So I like people. Bigly.

What about you–what kind of patterns do you see in your own acts of creation? What draws you? And why?

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