Musicals in the Round

I’ve had the great good fortune in the past few weeks to see some absolutely sensational musical theatre in London’s West End and on Broadway.  Two of the shows (director Jonathan Kent’s production of Gypsy starring the great Imelda Staunton in London and director/choreographer Casey Nicholaw’s staging of the hilarious new Something Rotten! in New York) were on traditional proscenium stages.  Two more, however, were offered in arena staging, a relative rarity for musicals, and it’s those that have captured my imagination as a directing teacher for the moment.

Director Maria Friedman’s mounting of High Society, a musical based by Arthur Kopit on the Philip Barry play Philadelphia Story with songs by Cole Porter (mostly from the 1956 movie High Society), is currently running at London’s Old Vic Theatre.  That storied venue has been transformed (for the season now ending) into a theatre-in-the-round by building a substantial seating unit in what was heretofore the upstage end of the stage house.  My front-row seat was, for all intents and purposes, onstage, with no change in elevation or other barrier to distinguish audience leg room from playing space (in fact I kept worrying that the seat-mate to my right would trip one of the dancers with her outstretched ankles).

Choreographer Nathan Wright’s high-energy dances swirled around the circular stage and often had ensemble members facing out so that each seating section might feel they had their very own chorus member for a moment (my favorite was the charismatic Omari Douglas).  If you Google the phrase “High Society Old Vic” and click on Images, you’ll see some of photographer Geraint Lewis’s shots of the musical action, which give a better sense of the arena staging than some of the photos of the dialogue scenes.  For example, check out the striking shot of leading lady Kate Fleetwood as socialite Tracy Lord dominating the right side of the frame in a fabulous persimmon-colored party dress, a cigarette dangling from her insouciant lips, with Jamie Parker as love-struck reporter Mike Connor in the left part of the photo in a white dinner jacket.  “What a swell party” that scene was, and what I’d ask you to notice are all the characters in the background, facing away from the camera–but toward a different section of the audience.

Less effervescent but several fathoms deeper is playwright Lisa Kron and composer Jeanine Tesori’s Fun Home, adapted from the graphic autobiography of cartoonist Alison Bechdel.  It’s currently on stage at Broadway’s only arena-style theatre, Circle in the Square, directed by Sam Gold, who won a Tony Award for his sensitive and winsome work, and it’s a complete knockout.  I could go on and on about the story, the unforgettable songs, and the sensational performances, but let’s stick to the knitting and consider the in-the-round staging.  The beautiful furniture and other properties that stand in for scenery arrive on trap-door platforms that ascend like elevators from below the stage floor.  The actors enter and exit the oblong playing space primarily through vom-portals that stand open under the audience at the ends of the stage.  Gold makes excellent use of the entire stage, often using small areas at one end or even one corner or at center.  He is unafraid of relatively long moments in which the main players in a scene are both facing away from some part of the audience, but many of these are ameliorated because they are being observed by an often-silent grown-up Alison gazing upon on her own memories–and often facing the part of the audience seeing the other characters’ backs.

But no audience member in this Circle is deprived of the full emotional satisfaction–and oh, how satisfying it is–of the characters’ journeys; everyone gets plenty of “face time” from the various performers.  In one case this is achieved using what we might classify as a trick, but it’s a trick that works beautifully: as the college-age Allison and her complicated father sit facing forward together in the front seat of a moving car, the entire bench that accommodates them both pivots slowly 360 degrees so that their subtle interaction is available to the entire house.  If you Google “Fun Home Broadway,” though, and then click Images, you’ll get at least one breathtaking shot (by Joan Marcus) of the kind of luscious composition that exemplifies superb arena staging.  With much of the audience in view in the frame, you see Judy Kuhn as Alison’s mother, Helen, seated primly at the piano and facing rightward; child Alison (Sydney Lucas) and her two brothers collapsed on the floor in the upper right corner near adult Alison (Beth Malone), who faces diagonally across the stage; with Alison’s father Bruce (the impeccable Michael Cerveris) in focus at center, also facing on a diagonal but three-fourths closed to the camera; and his young love-interest (Joel Perez) near the bottom-center of the frame, also facing diagonally and even more closed to the camera.  Designer Ben Stanton’s golden pools of light accentuate director Gold’s varied, graceful, and revealing staging.

My point here is to call attention to how arena staging needs to work, and one way of learning about it.  I don’t recall a unit on this in my MFA program, I give precious little time to it in my own directing classes, and there’s almost nothing about it in the book.  Fortunately there’s an excellent learning resource available to every director that’s a regular theatre-goer (and I hope every director is).  Watching the blocking designed by talented and skilled directors such as Maria Friedman and Sam Gold–and watching mindfully, intentionally learning through observation–can work wonders.  If you have the chance to see either of these wonderful productions, by all means do, but whatever you can see in the round, even if the director has not solved all of the problems presented by this intimate format for theatre architecture, can be a useful teacher.

History Enriched

Direction, the fascinating and well researched book by Simon Shepherd of London’s Central School of Speech and Drama, provides an extensive, rich, complex supplement to the quick history of directing I offered near the beginning of Chapter Two of The Director’s Vision (Second Edition).  On pages 16-18 I relied almost exclusively on the theory offered more than sixty years ago by Helen Krich Chinoy in Directors on Directing.  Shepherd acknowledges this as “the ‘standard treatment’ of the emergence of directors,” but offers some very interesting alternatives that I would love to incorporate, however briefly, in a third edition of The Director’s Vision.

Shepherd credits Norman Marshall, author of The Producer and the Play (1957), with pointing out that, although it would be a long time before the work would be labeled as directing, by the 1830s Madame Lucia Elizabeth Vestris (manager of London’s Olympic Theatre) already “insisted on detailed rehearsals which…she led herself and, alongside this, she made innovations in the scenic arrangements of the stage, in the interests of greater realism….suggesting that, in the emergence of modern directing, the originary point was a woman.” (p. 79)  Although I took care to credit the contributions of Ellen Franz to the achievements of of Saxe-Meiningen, I’m now kicking myself for failing at the very least to list Vestris among the managers I catalogued as forerunners of the modern director.

Direction gives us a lot of additional interesting perspectives on the relationship of the profession of directing to the development of European and American society over the course of the past 150 years or so.  Shepherd goes on to speculate about the possibility of “The Irrelevance of Directing” in the new century and, pointing to the much longer history and perhaps greater persistence of the actor-manager, asks whether “directing as a role might seem to have had a relatively short life, a temporary blip in the long history of theatre.”

All of this is in Shepherd’s Chapter 4.  His book, published in 2012 by Palgrave MacMillan, is available from both Amazon and bn.com.  By the way, he mentions Louis E. Catron’s The Director’s Vision three times in Direction, and the mention in Chapter 4 is the most dismissive: “a how-to-do-it book which said bluntly that the ‘vision’ was more important than craftsmanship.” (p. 95)  Does The Director’s Vision (Second Edition) say that “bluntly?”  I don’t really think so, but that’s a topic perhaps for a future post.

Color Vision

The first update or correction I would like to make to The Director’s Vision (Second Edition) relates to the section of Chapter Twelve, “Casting,” on “Open Casting” (pages 167-170).  On page 169 I used the term “‘color-blind’ casting,” which is a phrase I would no longer use.  “Color-blind casting” is an expression that has been used for decades to refer to casting decisions made without regard to ethnicity, and I used it with good intentions.  I now recognize, however, that attempts to be “color-blind” are misguided in the context of a society in which issues of race are important and volatile.

Before I explain further, let me say that I still strongly support the idea of keeping an open mind when casting any role for which ethnicity is not a germane issue.  Casting is always a matter of convention.  For example, the audience must suspend disbelief in order to accept that, in the context of the story of the current Broadway musical Something Rotten!, the central characters Nick and Nigel Bottom are brothers when we know very well that the actors playing them, Brian d’Arcy James and John Cariani, are not related at all.  Some might argue that their similar complexion and dark hair color makes it easier to “buy” them as brothers, but their physical build is completely different with no apparent damage to the credibility of the story (which is admittedly fanciful in this case).  Couldn’t we still “get into” this story if one of the brothers were played by an actor with blond hair? by a Latino actor? by an Asian American actor? Then why not an African American actor?  Were Broadway audiences flummoxed and discombobulated when the renowned African American actor Phylicia Rashad replaced Estelle Parsons (who is white) as the matriarch of the family at the center of August: Osage County?  (They were not.)  And perhaps we serve the theatre and our diverse world by extending the boundaries of this convention, as director Liesl Tommy and the Dallas Theater Center did with their recent production of Les Miserables, in which young actors of different ethnicities played the same character at different stages of growth.  After all, if the performers had looked more alike the audience would not actually have been fooled into believing that a single actor had grown a foot during intermission (only to return to her original height for the next day’s performance).  The gloriously diverse cast of Lin-Manuel Miranda’s Hamilton: An American Musical (directed by Thomas Kail and produced Off Broadway by The Public Theater) raises fascinating and exhilarating possibilities for the ability of open casting to contribute to the thematic impact of a play.

Making deliberate choices, however, to expand opportunities for talented and skilled actors, to allow the casts on our stages to resemble more closely the mosaic of humanity around us in our communities, and to challenge our audiences’ assumptions about ethnicity and race is not the same as pretending to be “color-blind.”  It is appropriately respectful of cultures and heritages to see and embrace differences in the backgrounds of the actors auditioning for our productions.  And, in the context of the United States, a nation still plagued by racism and still fraught by the horrible historic evil of slavery and the ensuing shameful facts of Jim Crow, lynching and white-supremacist terrorism, segregation, discrimination (in housing, employment, education, and much more), and mass incarceration, I think it is disrespectful, counter-productive, and cowardly to feign “color-blindness.”  I regret the use of the term in the The Director’s Vision and apologize for my failure to change it before the book’s publication.

I am very much a work in progress and I have learned a great deal about American history and society even in the past few days.  I appreciate patience as I work to improve my understanding and my vocabulary, and I appreciate feedback that will help me continue to learn.  Please feel free to post comments about this important aspect of our work.

Welcome to The Director’s Vision

I hope this blog will be a source of information for and a venue for conversation among directors of dramatic stories.  In particular I want it to be useful to students of stage directing and early-career theatre directors, but mid-career and master directors, as well as directors of screen media, audio media, and interactive media, are more than welcome.  I will also be using the blog to update, correct, supplement, and enrich the material in The Director’s Vision (Second Edition) by Louis E. Catron and Scott Shattuck.  That’s a textbook intended primarily as a resource for students in introductory college-level courses in play directing.  I’m Scott Shattuck, co-author of this new edition; the late  Prof. Lou Catron of the College of William and Mary passed away before I began the process of revising and updating the book in 2012.  I’ll provide some information about my background and a little more about the book on the “About” page.

Please feel free to chime in with comments, additional information, questions, and concerns, whether about the book or the subject of directing.  Without the participation of readers (hopefully including fellow students and teachers of directing as well as amateur and professional directors) the blog won’t be as helpful to readers or to me as it can be with your contributions and interactions.  Let’s talk directing!