I posted a link to this Howlround review by Kyle Whalen of Lucas Hnath’s The Christians on the blog’s Facebook page this morning, but I want to feature it here to “extend its run” among Director’s Visioneers. In my Advanced Directing course I spend a week on the relationship of “The Director and the Critic,” and I think this essay will be a useful one for my students to read. I find its review of the Steppenwolf production interesting, but I find its analysis of the play itself invaluable.
I believe in directors doing as much of their own analysis and as much of their own research as possible. But I’m a “journeyman director,” by which I mean (to paraphrase Harper Lee), “You got anything needs directin’, I can do it.” I can direct Shakespeare but I am not an expert on Elizabethan drama; I can direct Euripides but I’m not an expert on Greek tragedy; I can direct Ibsen but I’m not an expert on early Realism.
A really good critic functions as an expert–a dramaturg, actually–that can give me a terrific boost on a job like that. I’m guessing I could direct The Christians, but I don’t know Hnath’s other plays as well as Whalen does, I don’t know Descartes and Thacker like Whalen does, and I haven’t taken a deep dive like Whalen takes here into this particular play. He gives me a lift through territory I’d have to wander around, pretty much lost, for quite a while without him. Fittingly, his article advocates for (and says the play “invites”) “intellectual humility.” As a director, few postures have served me better than intellectual humility.
What’s more, Whalen inspires me. With his final paragraph, a conclusion in which he links thematic material from the play to just the kind of audience reaction that reminds me why I keep on directing, Whalen leaves me champing at the bit to work on a production of this play.
So critics are far more than consumer reporters that sometimes unfairly shoo audiences away from our work by bleating “Thumbs down!” Critics at their best can function as researchers and text analysts, key advisors and indispensable colleagues that can light our way on our directorial journeys.