Directing Women

As the conversation about gender parity in the theatre continues, and as many begin to demand not just conversation but actual parity, several exciting centers of discussion and progress have appeared in recent years. One of the most visually snazzy and, for me, most interesting is Victoria Myers and Michelle Tse’s “female voices of the theatre” website The Interval: The Smart Girls’ Guide to Theatricality.

The site is nicely varied with petitions, contests, photo essays, writing by the founders/editors and guest columnists, and tons of interesting statistics in addition to the blog’s bread-and-butter, interviews.  Some of these take the form of brief statements from women about what’s going on in theatre, but most are long-form conversations with major figures such as writers Lisa Kron, Marsha Norman, and Sarah Ruhl, composer Jeanine Tesori, designer Mimi Lien, actors Kelli O’Hara and Laura Benanti, and artistic director Susan Bernfield.

Directors are not neglected.  Myers’s chats (illustrated with Tse’s photos) with top helmers such as Kathleen Marshall and Susan Stroman seem so relaxed and candid that I feel I’m getting to know these titans over the proverbial cuppa coffee.  Even better, they’re often quite instructive, offering insights into the thinking of some of the very best artists in our field.

The most recent long interview, with director Leigh Silverman and choreographer Sonya Tayeh in the rehearsal room for their recent Encores Off-Center concert reading of Andrew Lippa’s The Wild Party, enlightens its readers about the approach that Silverman, a sterling director, takes to her work.  For example, I found the following comments, which she made specifically in reference to concert staging, to be an especially articulate statement of a critical challenge facing directors of full productions as well:

[Y]ou train the audience to watch the show in the way that you want them to watch it and not set them up with wrong expectations from the beginning….  I feel like my job as the director, frequently, is to have a vision of how an audience is going to enter a world, what they’re going to be taught, and what they’re going to be taught right away. And who it is that they’re supposed to be watching and how to watch them. It’s one of the most important things I can do as a director once you move into that production process, which is to figure out how to let the audience in, let them know what world they’re in, and who those people are. That entry point is crucial. You as a director have to build that portal or else they don’t come with you.

Reflecting on her career, Silverman expresses concerns about the obstacles facing young women that seek to direct.  Her comments are dismaying, but her achievements in the face of such headwinds are inspiring:

It’s really hard to be in your 20s and a director, and trying to get a job and get people to believe that you can handle a room. I’m finally fucking old enough—because I’m 40—that no one cares what I’m wearing and, more importantly, I don’t care. When I was younger I lied about my age all the time. I was constantly trying to assert because I had to. No one takes young women directors seriously in the way that they should be, and I felt like I had to do that. And I think that relates to everything about how you dress, how you talk, how you look, what you wear. As I’ve gotten older, that stuff has been able to fall away….  [T]he hardest time I think for a young female director is in those early years, because I think it’s really the place where young men and women are treated very differently as directors. It’s the thing that people say: men are hired for their potential and women are hired for their experience. People look at a young man and he is bright and he is shiny and they’re hiring for his potential and people look at a young women and are like, “I don’t think she can handle it.”

Elsewhere in the interview Silverman remembers that in 2006 she was only the seventh woman that had ever directed on Broadway and notes that the number has grown “exponentially” in the ensuing decade.  Still, she is frustrated about the rate of change:

I do not understand it. I do not understand why it’s not part of the conversation artistic directors have. When they’re talking about what plays they want to do and what musicals they want to do, why not have it be half and half? Why not? Why is that not part of our conversation still? Still. I feel like it will change, but I find it kind of frustrating on a daily basis. So when people say, “How do you feel about being that woman?”… I was so proud of that, and I was so happy that year that Pam [MacKinnon] and Anna [Shapiro] won. I mean that was like a revolution. It was unbelievably radical. I never thought. In some ways the world is changing incredibly fast and it’s exhilarating and in some ways you’re just like, “What?! Still?!” So when it’s like “women directors” and “only woman,” and I’m like, eh, I feel like we have to keep talking about it until it’s part of the conversation and then we’ll all just be like, “Cool. It’s part of the conversation.”

She traces some of the problem to cultural forces that have affected many girls and young women, including herself:

I think women have a very hard relationship with ambition. I’ve worked very hard in my life to have a comfortable relationship with it. I feel happy and proud to say that I am ambitious and that I don’t think that’s bad. I think Lisa [Kron] and Jeanine [Tesori] are ambitious. Lisa and I have talked a lot about what that word means over the years. I think it’s only people with ambition, with vision, with drive and passion, that can break through. I think that, in general, the idea of women having ambition is uncomfortable for women. I think that’s a self-generated myth. It goes along with a reflexive apology that women feel like they must do; I think they don’t even know that it’s happening. So I do feel all the time like women need to find a level—and I say this to myself also—that we need to feel a greater appreciation for our own ambition and not feel like it’s wrong or dirty, or like it’s a bad word or ugly, or that we shouldn’t talk about it because it’s not polite. I think you don’t get anywhere by being polite. And by “anywhere” I mean wherever it is you’re going—the full expression of whatever it is you want to be doing. And that requires an idea and that requires ambition. Particularity if you’re a director whose job it is to lead people—you need it. It has to be in your DNA.

And speaking of leadership (my personal obsession among the director’s job responsibilities), Silverman’s take suggests there are no one-size-fits-all formulae, and no short-cuts:

[I]t’s all personality. Some people like to lead by fear and some people lead by kindness and some people lead by being the class clown. It’s a combination of who the person is and who the people in the room are, and I think the struggle for authority can be a real one and a real difficult one. I have to say, I’ve just encountered it less in the last five to eight years. I think it’s just experience. The experience relaxes people and then relaxes me. But I’ve also had so many terrible experiences. And I’ve had so many terrible experiences where I’ve really learned. You get hazed. I can’t speak to whether that happens to men too, but I know it happens to women. There’s a kind of hazing process because no one is going to give you authority, you have to learn how to take it, and how you take it and how generously or graciously you do it, I think is where the personality part comes in.

With an Obie Award and a Tony nomination under her belt and a rapidly growing resume of high-profile (and highly successful) projects, I suspect that Leigh Silverman has less trouble than ever taking authority.  When asked at the end of the interview to describe her in just a few words, her collaborator, choreographer Tayeh, says (in part), “A firecracker who owns the room.  A force.”  Regardless of gender, I think most of us directors would love to be characterized like that.

If you’re intrigued by these excerpts, by all means check out the full interview.  You can keep up with what’s going on at The Interval by liking their Facebook page.

Phone Cards

It certainly was eye-opening to see how much anger, exasperation, and other interest was generated by the discussion here and on Facebook (on my profile and at about the mobile phone problem in the theatre.  There is still some concern about phones ringing or vibrating audibly, but even more now about patrons actually turning on smart phones mid-show, usually for texting, email, or something similar.

The main reaction from most of us on stage and behind the scenes in the theatre does seem to be outrage.  But “an unrelentingly aggressive campaign of shaming” audience members who engage in distracting behavior, as prescribed by critic/playwright Terry Teachout in a blog post last year, may not be completely harmonious with our other goals for audience development, as the dynamic artistic director Lauren “Warhol” Caldwell pointed out.  Some (including the illustrious Alfred Molina, in a July 10 post on his Facebook profile) have asserted that treating audiences badly and/or presenting them with inadequately compelling theatre may have played a role in bringing us to the current juncture.

So.  What is to be done?

I hope we can agree that we should all be doing our best to keep ticket prices affordable, treat our audience members with courtesy and respect, and provide them with a comfortable and pleasant theatregoing experience.  It should also go without saying, I think, that we should all be working to make theatre that’s compelling enough to make people want to look at the stage more than their Samsung Galaxy Note 4.

Beyond those givens, I feel I may have learned a few things in the course of the conversation, maybe had some small epiphanies, and (as unlikely as it seems) perhaps had a useful idea.  First I think we need to keep in mind that the vast majority of our audiences want to see the whole show undisturbed by bright smart-phone screens or noises; threatening and berating all of them indiscriminately is apt to be counterproductive if we want the theatre to be a place where people want to go.  I’ve also realized that my natural shyness and aversion to confrontation may have kept me from doing my best to work on this in my own theatre.  I’m haunted by the remark that using devices should be treated like smoking, because I can’t remember ever seeing someone light up in the theatre and I would love for us to find our way to a culture in which the current distractions are equally unthinkable.  Finally, I do think calling thoughtless people to account needs to be part of our strategy.

I’ve come to believe that maximizing audience engagement is probably a key to success in all this.  My impression is that smart-phone screens are less frequently seen in intimate 99-seat black boxes than in 1,000-seat proscenium spaces, not only because the smaller audience size means a smaller group of potential offenders but also because in the cozy theatres audience members feel less anonymous and more a part of the audience community–and of the show itself.  Perhaps we can psychologically “shrink” our theatres by making stronger connections with our audiences.  The estimable playwright, librettist and director William M. Hoffman inspired me in this discussion by recalling a production at which he personally asked the entire audience, at every performance, to take out their mobile phones and turn them on, then asked the stage manager and light-board operator to lower the house lights and stage lights so that everyone could admire the effect–and presumably think for a moment about just how bright those darned screens look in a darkened theatre.  Patti LuPone also inspired me, less (on reflection) by snatching a textophillic audience member’s phone than with her charming, personal, heartfelt chat with the next night’s audience about why it really matters so much if someone checks out of the performance to check in with a BFF on an iPhone.  The staff at Michael Halberstam’s Writers Theatre in Chicago had previously inspired me with a sincere, crystal clear curtain speech about the connection between play and audience that makes that company so special–and how their regular audience knows that a phone-wielding audience member inevitably breaks that connection.

Long ago, when I was the day-to-day leader of a professional resident theatre company in New York, I truly loathed making curtain speeches (and our board members wanted us always to make them, mostly to beg for money).  I argued that they seemed amateurish and impeded the audience’s journey into the world of the play, but mostly I just felt awkward and wanted to stay hidden safely in the theatre’s office.  Today I think it’s imperative at least to experiment with incarnate (rather than pre-recorded) curtain speeches that are extemporaneous and demonstrative enough to excite the interest of theatregoers and potentially impress upon them that something of significance is being said.  I feel the need now to say, for example, “Almost everywhere now it’s normal to pull out your phone and connect with the outside world, but this needs to be a special and magical place apart from all the rest, where you really cannot do that.”  I want to say clearly that, “If you use your phone during the play, even very briefly, you may not think you are distracting other audience members, but truly you are; your quick look at your phone can literally ruin the play for dozens or hundreds of others that have invested the cost of the ticket plus the time to get here and park and watch and get home.”  I want to say honestly that, “The actors can see you and hear you, and in live theatre your participation in the event is deeply meaningful to them and everyone else involved in the show.  When you turn on your phone you not only distract them, you hurt their feelings–they’ve spent many hours over many weeks shedding blood, sweat, and tears preparing to offer themselves to you tonight, and it’s truly painful for them if you dismiss them and their work by behaving as if they’re more boring than a cell phone.”

I know this won’t work for everyone.  Probably some immature or downright sociopathic types still won’t hear it.  Probably some immature or downright sadistic types will revel in ruining plays for throngs of people and wounding the tender hearts of thespians.  But I still think we’ve got to give people the best possible chance to understand the implications of their mostly thoughtless actions–regardless of how much I will truly writhe as I stand before them trying to articulate all this.

In my own situation, producing and directing university theatre for an audience made up partly of students that attend mostly or entirely because it’s a course requirement, I need to get more involved in preparing that part of the audience.  It will be one more thing for already-overwhelmed faculty, staff, and students to do, but I think we’ve got to get the artists that are doing the plays into those classrooms to talk about why it’s not just “theatre etiquette” that we’re talking about, it’s involvement that’s integral to theatre itself.  This won’t work perfectly or completely either, but here again I’ve come to think we’ve got to try.

Lest you think I’ve gone completely soft, let me add that I still think we need to hold audience members accountable.  My dilemma has been that any immediate intervention–an usher or house manager charging down an aisle, for example, leaning over several people to whisper (loudly enough to be understood) to someone that he’s breaking the rules and disturbing fellow patrons and distracting the performers, possibly followed by some argument or discussion (“I just need to finish making this dinner reservation on OpenTable and then I’ll turn it off until it’s time to get an Uber ride!”)–just seems to compound the problem.  Distraction piled on distraction.

In an effort to change the culture, I think we need to enlist the help of the vast majority of audience members that don’t want to be bothered by phone users any more than we do.  I would like to add to the curtain speech perhaps a quick poll (“Please raise your hand if you really are bothered by someone using a cell phone in the audience, even if it’s done silently”) and then a request to join the effort to educate and reform those few that still don’t get it.  But this too holds the potential to create more disturbance rather than less; we don’t want shouting matches or wrestling scrums to break out routinely in the orchestra-center section when vigilante ticket-holders take matters into their own hands.

So how about this?  It needs fine-tuning, it won’t work every time, and it may seem a bit extreme at first, but bear with me.  Could we provide every audience member with an index card (perhaps tucked in the program but I think better handed out separately) printed with a statement such as “Please turn off your device.  It’s distracting me.  Thanks.”?  Would some, many, or even most audience members be willing to hand the card to a stranger in the next seat over or the next seat down, perhaps even placing it directly over a smart-phone screen to get the message across?  Might this work, silently but effectively?  I want to give it, or something like it, a try.  I do hope it doesn’t lead to a new norm in which the ushers hand each audience member a whole packet of cards with different statements (“Your candy wrappers are driving me to homicidal distraction;” “Please stop asking your companion what was just said on stage–I’ll give you a full plot summary in the lobby when this act is over;” etc.).

I’m still mulling the question of latecomers.  The people that missed the impassioned curtain speech entirely because they got to the theatre ten minutes after the scheduled curtain time also seem to me unusually likely candidates to forget to turn off their ringers and maybe also to check basketball scores or reply to a “Wassup” text just as Juliet is preparing to go all hara-kiri, Elizabethan style.  Here’s my fantasy tactic, which I think is probably too punitive or perhaps just impractical.  When audience members arrive after the house lights have dimmed, the usher or house manager informs them, politely and even regretfully, that they can’t be seated until intermission–unless each and every one of them turns over a phone to be held by the staff until the end of the performance.  Didn’t bring a phone? Sorry, you’ll have to wait until the break.  Too much?

To sum up, I think we (directors, producers, front-of-house staff, teachers, and even like-minded audience members) need to roll up our sleeves and get elbows-deep in this problem.  No one wants to do this less than I do–I would so love to leave it to others and remain in the background muttering softly to myself.  But this problem really is threatening the well-being of dramatic storytelling for communal audiences.  We may already be losing audience members that have gotten fully fed up (I myself stopped going to movie theatres years ago); we could lose invaluable artists such as Patti LuPone, who felt like throwing in the towel after the incident; we could find one fine day that theatre artists everywhere have just melted into exasperated puddles of goo, which is how I sometimes feel I’ll end up myself.

What do you think?  Right track?  Wrong track?  Ideas worth adopting, others worth only a derisive laugh?  And what other ideas would you propose?

“Turn Off Your ******* Phones”

Patti Lupone photo by Rob Rich © 2011 516-676-3939

Patti Lupone
photo by Rob Rich © 2011 516-676-3939

The recent news about Patti LuPone confiscating a mobile phone from a text-happy audience member at a performance of Douglas Carter Beane’s Shows for Days at the Mitzi Newhouse Theater at New York City’s Lincoln Center for the Performing Arts has me sputtering with frustration about audience members who use their smart phones (or forget to turn off the ringer) during performances.  Ms. LuPone says the situation may drive her from the stage completely.  It may drive me right off my rocker.

Full disclosure: About twelve years ago I was sitting in a West End theatre watching a play when I shifted in my seat in such a way that I accidentally pushed a button that turned on the phone in my pocket (this was before the current era of glass-screened smart phones).  The phone activated with a pleasant, jaunty and seemingly endless little tune which caused some of those around me to shift in their seats, but not to actually assail me.  As I sought to extricate it from my pocket, I suppose to put it in silent mode, I apparently leaned on the power button again, causing another unwanted musical interlude.  This caused the poor woman directly in front of me to turn all the way around and give me a withering scowl which I could only answer with a helpless, apologetic wince.  Note to self: middle-aged men should take care about what they can reasonably carry in the pockets of tight blue jeans.  At least I recognized the second ditty as the one the phone played when powering down, and I was able to prevent additional humiliation by holding myself uncomfortably motionless until the interval.  I think that’s the only time I myself have disturbed a performance with a device, except that I now keep my iPhone on vibrate mode at all times, and it has been known to buzz softly but audibly in my breast pocket when I’ve forgotten to power it all the way down.

Ms. LuPone asks, quite reasonably I think, why people would take the time and go to the considerable expense of attending a star-studded professional theatre production if they are going to allow themselves to be distracted just as they would while sitting in their own homes with re-runs on television.  I now work almost entirely in university theatre, where (at my school at least) we tend to assume that most of the culprits are students that have been assigned to go to the production and, to one extent or another, don’t care about it and/or don’t want to be there.  This does not mitigate the unmitigated gall it takes, it seems to me, to blithely distract hard-working performers and potentially hundreds of fellow audience members, but apparently I am more self-conscious (and maybe even more other-conscious) than some people.

I’ve had the same question as Ms. LuPone in some of the worst phone experiences I have witnessed and endured as an audience member at professional productions.  I frankly feel that I wasted a Benjamin on a ticket to see Brian Dennehy and Robert Sean Leonard in Long Day’s Journey into Night twelve years ago; sure, I have fond memories of Philip Seymour Hoffman’s performance as Jamie, but just as Vanessa Redgrave’s Mary Tyrone reached the bottom of the stairs for her climactic speech a device somewhere in the orchestra seats began calmly repeating, “*Ping!* You have a call.  *Ping!* You have a call.”  I wish she had stopped the show, demanded the removal of the phone’s owner, gone back upstairs and started the speech over, but would that really have mended the experience for anyone?  I know that I dropped something north of $250 for a pair of nosebleed tickets to the 2012 Broadway revival of Evita, so I’m guessing the rather elderly woman a few rows in front of me must also have paid something substantial; that didn’t stop her from checking her email right around the time that Argentina’s first lady (in the diminutive form of Elena Roger) began to succumb operatically to her terminal illness.  That email addict was downright polite in comparison to the person directly behind me in my $140 seat at the recent revival of the revival of Cabaret; when her phone rang she actually took the call (“Hello, HOWARD?”), setting off a verbal set-to with an understandably enraged man a couple of seats down from her (“You don’t have to get NASTY,” she hissed at him).  In that case I still wonder if I shouldn’t have asked house management to call the police in order to prosecute her under New York’s no-cell-phones-in-theatres law, but ushers already sometimes seem to assess me as a possible nut case and I don’t really need fellow theatre professionals laughing in my face.

So, the question remains: what is to be done?

You may ask if this issue is even related to directing, but if you do I just may back you up against a wall with my index finger in your face, asserting in no uncertain terms that this is indeed a problem for directors (and actors and playwrights and designers and everyone else that gives a hoot about dramatic storytelling).  If our answer is just to carp about the inadequacy of house managers in the hope that they’ll make more trips down more aisles, further disrupting more performances with more whispered disputations with more selfish blockheads, we deserve what we’re gonna get, which is an endlessly repeating cycle of metaphorical graffiti defacing our art work.  We’re going to have to get involved in finding solutions.

We had pretty good results, I think, from a very explicit recorded pre-show announcement at the play I directed most recently here at Stephen F. Austin State University.  I saved the text:


And welcome to August: Osage County by Tracy Letts, sponsored in part by Tipton Ford-Lincoln.

This performance will have two ten-minute intermissions.

Please note that photography and recording devices are prohibited.

Please turn off your mobile phones and other devices completely, and please refrain from text messaging and similar activities during the performance. These are more distracting than you may realize, so please wait for intermission to turn on your device, even if it’s just for a moment.

Thank you, and enjoy this performance of August: Osage County.

Just in case, we played this at the end of the first intermission:

Welcome back. If you turned on your phone during intermission, please remember to turn it off again now. Thank you, and enjoy the second act of August: Osage County.

And this at the end of the second (yep, it’s an honest-to-goodness three act play):

Welcome back again. If you turned on your phone, please turn it off again now. Thank you, and enjoy the conclusion of August: Osage County.

Or perhaps I kid myself that we had good results, as one of the student ushers for the production told me that indeed he does recall mid-scene phone usage.  (And there is always the problem that the same dolt who can’t make it to the theatre on time and thus misses the announcement is also a leading candidate to keep his device on and maybe even use it during the show.)  Still, I like to think it was less than usual.  So, maybe more and longer and more detailed pre-show announcements?  Maybe.

But perhaps the best hope I’ve encountered is some form of the approach advocated in critic and playwright Terry Teachout’s aching and passionate blog post of a year ago.  In it he recalls one of the all-time great pre-show announcements, quoted in the title to the very blog entry you’re now reading and played before the curtain went up on a David Mamet play.  Then Mr. Teachout describes a rude rube distracting him, the rest of the audience, and the estimable actor John Douglas Thompson by catching up on some email in the midst of a performance of Mr. Teachout’s play for solo actor, Satchmo at the Waldorf.  After expressing regret for letting the miscreant get away clean, Mr. Teachout makes a pledge and a challenge:

The time, then, has come for an unrelentingly aggressive campaign of public shaming. From now on, I swear to chew out on the spot any playgoer whom I catch using a cellphone in the middle of a performance. So should you. So should we all—and so should every stage actor in America.

This has made me dream of a pre-show announcement in which we say (and mean it) that if we see someone using an electronic device, an usher will come to that individual’s seat to photograph him, the stage manager will stop the show until the usher has escorted him out, and his name (we’ll get it from the box office) and mug shot will be posted online and in the lobby of the theatre (this can’t be much more illegal than simply wresting someone’s phone from them as Ms. LuPone did, can it?).  If the errant audience member is a student, the photo will be used to identify him and his theatre teacher will issue a failing grade for the course.

As gratifying as that reverie may seem and as rousing as Mr. Teachout’s call-to-arms really is, though, I’m not sure even vigorous public shaming is the best prescription, or the last one we’ll need.  Inspired by Mr. Teachout, at a performance last fall of another play here at SFA I let a fellow audience member have it.  As I ground my teeth next to her, she sat texting away frantically as the house lights went down for the beginning of the show.  When the stage lights also faded to black, not willing to have the show start with her still texting un-confronted by me, I said in a booming voice for the whole audience to hear, “Would you please turn off your device now? It’s SUPER-distracting.”  She looked at me as if I were a lunatic (whether I am is not for me to diagnose, but anyway), she explained calmly that she was just finishing up a reply before turning it off (by now she was talking to me during the opening moments of the play itself), and then she shook her head and sighed with exasperation before moving several seats away from me.

Even if we all take up Mr. Teachout’s challenge, how many scenes will we demolish even more thoroughly than the texting-emailing-phoning demons themselves?  How many times will we raise our own blood pressure to dangerous levels, risk our own dignity and reputation for sanity, and potentially scare off innocent theatre-goers in the process?  And are we sure that Mr. Teachout is right that “That’ll shut ’em down”?

For now I’ve got nothing better.  But I’m in a state of despair similar to the one described by Patti LuPone.  I’ve just got fewer career options than she has.

If you’ve got ideas, please comment!

Color Vision Follow-Up: “The Revolutionary”

This intoxicating and inspiring article about Lin-Manuel Miranda and Hamilton: An American Musical in this week’s “T Magazine” in The New York Times gets at the heart of why the whole conception of America as seen through the lens of this “revolutionary” musical is a total game-changer.  I am so psyched!  Probably won’t be back in NYC to see it on Broadway until May, but I’m more than ready to buy my ticket now!