Director Vs. Playwright 2-4 style

There are some conversations that seem very important while you are having them but in retrospect seem “quaint”. I remember learning about negative space in film (something I learned while hanging around people who like to talk about stuff they love, which is one of two ways I learn anything) (the other way is watching a wide variety of cooking and home improvement shows on TV) and realizing that in a play, really good playwrights use dialogue as negative space. A conversation occurs in a living room while someone is choking in the back bedroom, and the audience is *crippled* waiting for the asshole talking about shaving cream to notice someone dying just off stage.

There is a community of bloggers who have been talking about the playwright’s role and the director’s role in creating theater. I bring this up not because I believe this is a quaint conversation, but rather because there are circumstances where it could be, and the 24 hour plays is (are?) definitely one of those times.

For the uninitiated, the 24 Hour Plays is an event that begins at 10 PM on a given night and by 8 PM the following night, six to seven brand new ten minute plays are produced, with lights, sound, costumes and actors (off book). It is one of the most thrilling theatrical experiences you can have. There is such an immediate pay-off for the actors and the writer, mere hours pass between the beginning of an idea and it’s full production.

It’s not really the medium for directors. Oh, sure, you can try to delve into back story, you can try to control the tempo and the blocking and the spine… but you aren’t going to. Step one for any actor worth a damn: Get Off Book, and if you are very, very fast and very, very lucky, you get off book just as the show is starting. The writers know this, they know that you start with the words and then you go to the performance, and 8 hours (which is the full rehearsal time) is only enough for the words and for the truly inspired to make it to performance.

You see a lot of the worst of actors. It isn’t nearly as horrible as improv (which in my book is the worst thing that can happen to me in a theater), but you still see people rely on their tricks more than ever. If an actor comes out and they immediately scratch their balls, especially if it isn’t in the script, then you know they are nervous as hell and they’re doing that *one thing* they know they can do to crack you up.

(As a side note, the play I was in last night was written by a well known playwright, and the actors in my piece were phenomenal. We also had an extremely well known director who did all the directing he could in the few moments he had with us. He gave us a couple of really specific notes and then let us go. I’m sure when he saw the piece, he was surprised by a fair amount of it.)

Here’s the thing. I’ve been in two 24 hour plays that were balls out huge successes, (last night’s and a piece my brother wrote five years ago) and in both cases we didn’t just make the play work, we communicated something. Last night’s was a horror piece, the audience was terrified, my character got anal-raped half way through, and the first piece was a sweet comedy that ended with a perfect kiss. Both writers played to their strengths, both casts were amazing… and the director could barely do anything.

So what does the director do? I mean, besides get in the goddam way for the whole rehearsal period?

She’s got to keep her eye on the spine, on the actual story. The actors will run away with a thousand tiny choices, it’s up to the director to keep their eye on the entire piece. In a perfect world, the schedule would run like this.

1. Actors learn lines and discuss options for scenes with the director. Actors come up with small shit (“I think my character should wear brown shoes”) and the director makes sure no mistakes happen (“You’re wearing a tuxedo in the second act, and you’ve been walking since the first act, and you are supposed to blend in, so you need black shoes from the beginning”) and the actors obey the director.

2. The director blocks the scenes. This can be as loose as you want, but the director has to know what the set design and performance space is, and she has to keep in mind what the entrances and exits mean. The cop can’t leave the set through the same door that everyone else uses to go to the kitchen. That sort of thing.

3. The actors bring a thousand things to the rehearsal and the director lets them try stuff a lot of different ways while always steering the performances toward the script. (“You played this scene once as if you had a horrible head cold, and later, when the cat sneezes, it’s funny as hell. Play it with a cold, and when the cat sneezes, look long and hard at the cat”) (“okay, the cat thing isn’t working, go back to playing the scene as written”)

4. The actors get fully off-book and are moving about in the space but haven’t yet crystalized the characters. Although up to this point, the directors usually fail me, this is where I usually fail the director. If I am off-book, I am about 99% done creating the character, and that’s a *HUGE* mistake on my part. Once you get down all the lines, you should be able to still be *SUPER* flexible.

5. The director recognizes and fixes holes. *THIS* should be the *FIRST* time that a director gives an actor notes on new performance directions that the actor has yet to try. The biggest mistake a director makes is in assuming he is an acting teacher. You aren’t, directors. Actors have turned into these pathetic puppies, looking for a cult of personality to lead them into some kind of artistic nirvana. The actor and the director are equal to the writer in building a play. The only person who has any power over anyone? The stage manager.

6. After step five is the crystalization of the play. Before you get to tech., the play is done. Once you are in tech. week, the show belongs to the stage manager and the design staff, and the director is the inspiration and the consultant, not the overlord. The actors have had all the hours of rehearsal time they needed to make a complete play, now the technical staff has very few hours to pull off all the important shit that makes a play great and actors, this is not your time. If I fail at step 4, I pride myself on step 6. I have almost always been an obedient and respectful actor during cue-to-cue.

7. An actor’s responsibility to the stage is to create the same show night after night, the same level of intimacy, excitement and humor, and to forgive himself or herself when we don’t. Your job is to act, not to create a character. Just because you did something in rehearsal doesn’t mean it reads. Look at the cat when he sneezes, and get the laugh. That’s your job.

All of this is in a perfect world, it is assuming that your cast and crew are at the top of their game and are completely committed to the project. It’s hard to come by, and that’s the problem. Every director wants to be the leader of a movement, the cliched megalomaniac studying designs all night with a cup of coffee and yelling “I want you to LIVE this, LIVE THIS MOMENT” at the actors, and all of that is bullshit.

I’ve done two shows since the new year. It’s two months and I’ve done two shows. One was 55 minutes long, and that one had 92 hours of rehearsal over four weeks, Roughly two days of preparation for every minute on stage. The next was 15 minutes long and we had 7 hours of rehearsal or roughly thirty minutes prep for every minute on stage. But the real difference was a young director, wanting to be a control freak with a band of loyal followers, versus an old director, already famous, who barely cared.

There are three directors I will work with any time. Not surprisingly, all three of them already think I can act, and when I don’t, they ask me to. I wish that was all a director ever did.