What (this) director(s) do(es)

Rehearsal at the dance studio. The numbers on the floor were very helpful.
Rehearsal at the dance studio. The numbers on the floor were very helpful.

Since I returned from Michigan, I’ve been thinking a lot about what my role is as a director. This is a sign of a good production—it’s making me grow as an artist and reconsider what I value.

I’m also reminded, by some of the things that happened there, of the ways that my work is appreciably different from that of other directors. I often tell people that I have trouble seeing my own hands in the work. What is my style or my voice? It’s subtle, but I know it’s present.

Once, in grad school, I directed a set of scenes and one of my professors, with the same group of actors, directed another set. They were presented in an alternating series, first one scene of mine, then hers, then mine, then hers. Seeing my work back-to-back with hers showed me the things that are distinctive about my work. It moves; we very rarely pause for breath but use the words to forward the emotions of the story. I use sound and rhythm well—in one scene, where some witches conducted a seance, I gave them all sticks and they hit the stage to underscore the beat of their chant. Even when the sticks stopped, the verse retained that same pounding force. And above all, the story is the most valuable thing. Anything that makes the story unclear is completely rejected, regardless of how interesting or technically good it might be.

Last summer, when I directed Jordan’s Stormy Banks, I had the same lighting designer (David) and set that the previous production of the play had used. So David said, “I’m going to leave the design pretty much the same, and we’ll adjust in tech if we need to.” The first night of tech, I was surprised that the actors were in the dark a lot of the time. “Your blocking is really different from [the previous director]’s,” David said. “Don’t worry, I just need to adjust the levels.” It wasn’t a surprise to him that the blocking was different; he had planned on it. But it was a bit of a surprise to me how different it was. I constantly was pulling the actors down closer to the audience, nearly in their laps; the previous director had made much better use of the upstage areas than I did. I don’t think either of the productions was better or worse than the other, but they were different in a way that surprised me. Seeing the palimpsest of my work and hers, joined by the same text and set and lights, showed me what is mine.

In the same way, when a play challenges me, I learn new aspects of what I value as a director, and when I name those things, I can do more of them.

One thing that I learned from working on Duchess is that I work to create a safe space for actors. Many directors work by pushing actors to create or remember situations in their lives that parallel their characters’ lives. Darren Aronofsky famously tried to provoke a rivalry between Natalie Portman and Mila Kunis during their work on Black Swan, and was enraged when the actors talked to each other directly, figured out what he was doing, and became fast friends. I once had a director (this was in college, one of the rare times when I was an actor) make our cast rehearse in a sauna to simulate the horrible conditions the characters were under in a concentration camp. He hadn’t warned or prepared anybody, so people were not dressed properly for it, no one had water, and when we started feeling dizzy, he said that anyone who left would be out of the show. I left.

So when an actor told me after the play was over that she was glad “you didn’t do the emotional memory exercises type of directing,” I realized another thing that is very much part of my process, and which I should be clearer about with actors from the beginning. If anything, my process is the opposite. I value creating trust and emotional health in the ensemble and in individual actors. In my shows, the more grounded and safe the actors feel, the more vulnerable their characters can be. I would always rather see people who trust and respect each other playing enemies than people who actually have animosity.

It’s like stage fighting—you want to be concerned for the character, because that’s about the story, but never about the actor, because that takes you out of the world of the story. That reminds you, in ways beyond a metatheatrical line, that you are in a theater, watching another human enacting events.

One thing I realized on this production is that this is something I need to say more explicitly. When a fight director comes in, they always say, “If you feel unsafe, say something immediately.” Physical risk and physical safety are easy to understand. But for other kinds of risks, we’re less clear. They’re less obvious. And I should say this, very clearly, before the work begins.

On Duchess, in one scene, two actors had to be very intimate with each other. They kind of went for it in the first rehearsal, even though I hadn’t told them to and didn’t expect them to (we were just blocking!). I assumed that they had worked together before, maybe in a similar kind of way, or were at least friends. Over the next week, every time I watched this scene, something felt…off. They were both wonderful actors, and there wasn’t anything wrong with their work. It was just like a tiny blur, a faint smell, something I couldn’t pinpoint but wanted to resolve. Then, offhandedly one night, another actor said, “You wouldn’t believe they just met that first night at rehearsal, would you?” And I did believe it, suddenly. So I called those two actors for a closed session, and we just talked about intimacy and safety. I asked them about their life experiences, about their first kisses. I asked them to tell each other what areas of their bodies they didn’t want to have touched. They agreed on ground rules for how they would touch each other, how they would kiss. I helped them feel safe and secure together. Their work changed dramatically after that. They developed an incredible level of trust together. Before this, pretty early on, one of them had said that they trusted the other completely (this was one of the things that made me think they knew each other!), but it turned out that this wasn’t true; they hadn’t had the time to develop the trust they needed. The faint sense of something not quite right went away. Their characters, interestingly, have a relationship that is intimate but not loving. The tension and competition of that story was able to become clearer when the tension between the actors was absolved. Later, one of them said, “I didn’t say anything because I thought that what you expected was for me to just go for it. I didn’t want to be one of those high maintenance actors who is like, ‘Oh, I don’t feel comfortable with this, let’s process.’ Isn’t that what directors expect?” What I said then, I realized is what I should have said at the very first rehearsal: Sure, there are directors who want that. Those people do not care about your safety or wellbeing. They do not deserve to work with you. 

And then there’s the deepest, most difficult to resolve kind of risk. The kind where an event in the play connects to a real event in the actor’s life, and they don’t let it get in the way of their work, but it is still present. In stage combat, we talk about a slap that’s just a tiny bit too hard, and it doesn’t leave a bruise, but the actor doesn’t mention it. And they have a long run, and they keep getting that just-slightly-too-hard slap in the same place, over and over, night after night, and suddenly their jaw breaks one night. Because that is a thing that actually happens, and that’s why you don’t just man up and take it when something is a tiny bit unsafe. Just as I watch fights with an eye toward those kinds of things, I try to watch actors and listen to what they say on breaks and check in with them about their emotional health. I need to work on how I address this last kind of safety. When I try to talk with actors about this, they sometimes interpret it as me saying that there is a problem with what they are doing onstage. That their emotions are getting in the way of the story or the character or clarity. And that’s usually not what I’m saying at all. If there’s something getting in the way of the story, I address that very directly in rehearsal. Like the issue with the actors who were kissing each other but weren’t really comfortable—that was disrupting their work, even if I was the only one who could see it, and it couldn’t stand. When I check in with actors outside of rehearsal and say, “Is this moment alright? Are you doing okay with this aspect of the character?” it’s not that they are doing something wrong. It’s that a director’s job, at least this director’s job, is to care for actors. To make sure they aren’t getting hit too hard. To help them in and out of the hard parts of the process. But I need a better language for it. More reassuring. More deliberate and clear.

In early modern plays, many of the situations that characters encounter are ones that the actors can only imagine, but will be unlikely to have real life experience with. What is it like to rule a nation? To murder a friend? To secretly marry? We call original practices Shakespeare “theater of the imagination,” and I think that is true for the actors as well as the audience. What I love about it is that the actors can use the text and their imaginations to create emotional situations that their lives will never encounter, and yet to do it in a very grounded and truthful way. However, this maybe makes for surprises and challenges when something has unexpected resonance.

I keep thinking about a friend who was an actor. I happened to read a Sam Shepard play that I knew he had been in many years before. In it, the character he played has to be on stage completely naked for quite some time. I asked him about this. How long did it take for him to feel comfortable doing it? What did the director and the other actors do to help him feel alright about that? What he said surprised me very much. “Oh, I wasn’t naked. I took all my clothes off, but that didn’t make me feel naked. It was the character, the character’s body that was exposed. No, what made me feel naked was later in the play, when the character talks about cheating on his wife. I did that. I mean, I really did, I cheated on my first wife, and she didn’t deserve it at all. It was a long time ago, but playing that role, talking about that in that character, that was when I felt naked.”

That conversation was a decade or more ago, and I didn’t know enough then to ask him what I wish I knew now. How did the director help him then? How did he care for the actor, who I am sure was doing his role with total professionalism, whose feelings surely did not overwhelm the character’s or cloud the story, but probably kept him up at night after rehearsal? Did he say, “I know this is hitting you hard”? Does just acknowledging that you know that it is hard help?

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