There’s Directing and Then There’s Directing

I was fortunate recently to see two remarkable productions on the London stage.  One was Edward Albee’s Who’s Afraid of Virginia Woolf at the Harold Pinter Theatre, directed by James Macdonald and starring Imelda Staunton, Conleth Hill, Luke Treadaway, and Imogen Poots. The other was Tony Kushner’s Angels In America (both parts, “Millennium Approaches” and “Perestroika”) at the Royal National Theatre, directed by Marianne Elliott and starring Andrew Garfield, Nathan Lane, Denise Gough, and Russell Tovey.  The two plays are very different from one another, obviously, but even more than that, the projects undertaken by these two excellent directors in staging these two major works of American drama were strikingly dissimilar.

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Photo: The Royal National Theatre, London, in 2005. By Jonathan FeBland, via Wikimedia Commons.

Macdonald’s production of Virginia Woolf was masterfully rooted in realism.  Designer Tom Pye’s richly detailed, sunken living-room set was tidy but palpably lived-in.  Charles Balfour’s lighting design was nothing short of brilliant in motivating and perfectly coloring every textured pool of light around that room and in walking us through each of the wee hours of the morning and into the cold dawn.  Indeed the only visual hint of abstraction was the chilling void beyond George & Martha’s front door, but even this could be interpreted as the effect of real darkness and fog.  (I also couldn’t figure out why, when every exit to the kitchen was taken upstage right, George puzzlingly went upstage left to refresh the heavy-drinking characters’ supply of ice cubes, but this hardly seemed an intentional departure from realism, and it’s not impossible to surmise that there might have been a freezer somewhere in the house besides the kitchen.)

As dazzling as Albee’s language is in this, his best-known play, and as flamboyant as Martha’s (and, to a lesser but still significant extent, Nick’s and Honey’s) behavior may be, the acting style was also essentially realistic.  Indeed, as great as Imelda Staunton’s performance as Martha truly was, the signal achievement of the evening for me was the far subtler but equally strong work of Conleth Hill as a deliciously wry, long-suffering, sometimes sadistic and sometimes tormented George.  His rumpled naturalism epitomized the show.

It was, unsurprisingly, the acting that drew practically all of the critical attention in this rapturously reviewed production.  Obsessed as I am with the craft of directing, I found myself ticking off the characteristics of a superb specimen: crackling rhythms and varied pacing, compositions and picturizations making full use of every inch of the stage to tell the story vividly and delight the eye with variety and dynamism, limpid clarity in structure and storytelling, surgical specificity in every circumstance and powerfully motivated action.  Best of all, that direction was practically invisible; only a textbook author (or the equivalent) would keep such a scorecard while everyone else in the audience was completely swept up in a harrowing and hilarious story enacted by some of the most compelling performers in the world.

At this point I might mention that on the same trip I saw a major West End production of another Albee play, the vastly inferior The Goat, or Who Is Sylvia?  It was gallantly acted by television star Damian Lewis, the great Sophie Okonedo, stalwart Jason Hughes, and the brave, expressive newcomer Archie Madekwe.  But the fine director, Ian Rickson, imposed gimmicks, perhaps to draw attention away from the bizarre defects in the strained outrage of a script.  (A lot of very smart people disagree with me about the quality of the play: at the time of its 2002 premiere it won Tony and Drama Desk awards and was nominated for a Pulitzer Prize.)  For me the most annoying of the tricks played in the show was the movement of the side walls of the scenery, expanding and contracting the width of the room in which the story is set.  Why?  To give us something to wonder about, other than what piece of crockery poor Ms. Okonedo would be called upon to smash next while screaming “goat f***er!” for the umpteenth time?

It was the complete absence of such foolishness and the quiet assurance of Mr. Macdonald’s seamless direction that made his production of Who’s Afraid of Virginia Woolf? so perfect.  He made it look easy, let the play and the actors enjoy the spotlight, and took his satisfaction from disappearing into the work.

My great admiration of this makes me feel somewhat hypocritical that I was a bit disappointed in the direction of “Part One: Millennium Approaches” of Angels in America.  Sure, the cast was excellent.  I had been a little worried that Lane’s compulsion to provoke laughter might deprive his Roy Cohn of the requisite darkness and (late in the play) fragility, but he was terrific in all those ways (and a pure delight as one of Prior Walter’s ancestors).  Garfield’s performance as Prior started out perhaps too arch but then proved intelligent, funny, and moving.  Gough had not gotten good reviews as Harper Pitt but she acquitted herself well.  Tovey‘s performance as Joe Pitt was the most honest and natural of all.  The rest of the cast was equally excellent.  The story was told with clarity and some visual flair as colorfully neon-framed turntables moved us from locale to locale in Kushner’s cinematic/Shakespearean/surrealistic scene structure.  But it was all just a bit more straightforward than I had hoped.

You see, this was not just a chance to see my favorite play live onstage for the first time in more than 20 years, and not just a chance to see it with an all-star cast.  This was a chance to see it interpreted by a mega-star director, Marianne Elliott, who had co-directed War Horse (Olivier nomination and Tony Award) and directed The Curious Incident of the Dog in the Night-Time (Olivier Award and Tony Award).  Curious Incident in the West End had, as a matter of fact, provided the most exciting night I’d spent in a theatre since first seeing Angels in 1994, because for the first time I saw the latest scenographic technology and some eye-opening experimental movement employed in the service of a story I really cared about.  The puppetry in War Horse was also revolutionary.  By the time of the dinner break between Angels Parts One and Two, though, there had been no such directorial excitement.

Or, rather, there had been only one moment of it: The final imagery of the four-hour first part was the arrival of the Angel, not from the theatre’s fly space but rising up out of what seemed to be dark, amorphous creatures that swirled like scraps of ash.  Here were the visuals, the puppetry, the abstract movement that had marked Ms. Elliott’s brilliant earlier work.  This would become the touchstone for the style of Part Two, and although the neon and mechanically moving playing spaces returned as touches (and although I’m not sure that the way Elliott’s Angel appeared is the way that Kushner’s writing calls for it to appear), this darker, more experimental and more directorially assertive style made me feel that the production as a whole had been worth a trip to London.

As “Perestroika” unfolded, the dark figures of the ensemble, moving low to the ground like insects or crustaceans while somehow evoking Erinyes, began to change the scenes, to lurk in the shadows of the earthly settings, and to hold and manipulate the Angel’s wings (only to become anonymous members of the council of wingless angels that Prior confronts in heaven).  In the scene within the Mormon Visitors Center, the director’s facility with puppetry brought the animatronic figures to life in a uniquely creative way.  The heaven setting stripped most of the masking out of the yawning Lyttleton stage house leaving only an abstract curving frame structure that had gradually been emerging from the upstage shadows since early in Part One.  The actors’ performances were in no way diminished (in fact Lane, among others, just seemed to get better and better) and Kushner’s text was in no way neglected, but Elliott’s confident interpretation, distinctive propensities, and kinesthetic visual flair moved into the foreground.

What the two productions had in common was not insignificant: a major investment in the most skilled and authentic work of some of the best actors on the planet, and a deep, detailed interest in the best writing of two of America’s greatest playwrights.  Yet one director set out to give his production as inconspicuous a shape as possible, while the other sought a distinctive and original approach that would establish a whole new vision of an iconic play.  It is important to note that Albee’s play is written to be performed in a particular way, and that at the time of the author’s death he had made it abundantly clear that he was not open to rangy reinterpretations.  It is also salient that Kushner not only welcomed the idea of an Elliott-led mounting of his masterpiece (presumably knowing her reputation and probably having seen her high-profile shows) but that he also participated extensively in the process of the production’s development.  Regardless, it is intriguing to ponder how disparate the director’s work can be, even in its goals, from play to play and from production to production.


Who’s Afraid of Virginia Woolf was broadcast live and video recorded for encore presentations that continue now in cinemas around the world, including showings today (Sunday, June 18, 2017).  Angels In America, “Part One: Millennium Approaches” will be broadcast live on July 20, 2017 and “Part Two: Perestroika” will follow on July 27 in cinemas around the globe.  Visit the National Theatre Live online to find movie theatres that will be showing these video presentations.

 

When Directing Is Much More Than Just Directing

While watching both the Broadway production of Hamilton in October and the national tour of Finding Neverland last week, one thing that struck me was the extreme and sustained level of collaboration required of directors Thomas Kail (Hamilton) and Diane Paulus (Finding Neverland).  Both productions were developed extensively, over a long period of time, in partnership with the shows’ writers (Lin-Manuel Miranda for the former and the team of James Graham with Gary Barlow & Eliot Kennedy for the latter) along with creative teams including choreographers (Andy Blankenbuehler for Hamilton, Mia Michaels for Neverland), music supervisors (Alex Lacamoire for Hamilton, David Chase for Neverland), designers, producers, and many more crucial talents.

The story of the development of Finding Neverland is an especially twisty tale, as it began with not only a different director (Rob Ashford) but also an entirely different writing team.  Paulus, as artistic director of American Repertory Theatre (ART) in Cambridge, Massachusetts (where the eventual Broadway and current national touring productions originated), came aboard as a producer as well as the director late in 2013; by the spring of 2015 the show opened on Broadway.

Thinking about the process required to direct a spectacular musical production as complex and integrated as Finding Neverland, it seems to me that Paulus’s work must have been quite unlike–and far beyond–even the most far-reaching and tight-knit collaborations I have experienced as a director.  For example, in developing the spectacular environments for the show (which depicts the creative process of early-20th-century British playwright J. M. Barrie as he created the characters of Peter Pan and Captain Hook), Paulus worked not only with scenic designer Scott Pask and lighting designer Kenneth Posner but also with projection designer Jon Driscoll, whose sensational work was integrated completely into the show’s visual scheme from top to bottom.

In addition, the production employed experts to fashion flying effects, an illusionist, and an “air sculptor” whose function was mysterious to me until near the end of the show.  At that point, a series of beautiful effects using fans to move and shape textiles, fog, and especially an airborne cascade of silver gossamer fragments made the story’s climax shimmer.  There were of course a costume designer and a hair & makeup designer, but also an animal trainer responsible for the adorable antics of a dog that served as pet to the family at the story’s heart.  No wonder Paulus worked with two different associate directors (Nancy Harrington for the ART and Broadway productions and Mia Walker for the tour) in addition to the show’s stage management staff.

I haven’t enumerated the various orchestrator/arrangers, music director/coordinators, the sound designer and the “vocal designer,” which is also a new title in my experience.  Throughout it all, uber-producer Harvey Weinstein was at the project’s center.

[Sidebar: For an interesting deep-dive into a similarly extensive collaborative creative process with directors at its center, check out author Charles Duhigg’s discussion, in his book Smarter Faster Better, of the development of the Disney mega-hit animated movie Frozen].

My point is that directing of this kind is an organizational leadership and integral creative role that’s only hinted at by the more typical interpretive job of staging a musical that is already fully developed, even in partnership with a music director, choreographer, and a full roster of designers and stage managers. This is a whole different art.

The same difference seemed evident in Hamilton.  In the process of developing the entire project–script and score as well as production–from scratch, Tommy Kail achieved with Miranda (and Lacamoire, Blankenbuehler and the rest of their collaborators) a theatre piece of transcendent and otherwise inexplicable unity.  For all its complexity I was astounded by its seamlessness; I couldn’t tell where the characterization ended and the music began, where the choreography ended and the props began, where the lighting ended and the writing began.  If that sounds nonsensical, it’s because it expresses the mysteriousness, to me at least, of the artistic apotheosis Hamilton reaches.

It may just be that the Diane Pauluses and Tommy Kails of the world have gifts that are denied to the vast majority of us directors.  If there is a practical lesson for us to draw, though, I think it must be that there are no practical limits to the range of disciplines we must forever work to master: from dramatic structure to musical composition to choreography, from all aspects of design to all branches of theatre technology, from visionary and inspiring leadership to organization and administration to teamwork and collaboration, from history to literature, from acting to singing to dance, from magic to animal training, from psychology to the deepest secrets of the human heart.  And, of course, the ultimate skill of weaving it all together.

Who Is Jeff Nichols and Why Aren’t You Watching His Movies?

According to Rotten Tomatoes (RT), the #5 best-reviewed movie of 2013 was Mud.  It featured an acclaimed title-role performance by one of the bigger stars in Hollywood, Matthew McConaughey, who (by the way) won that year’s Best-Actor Oscar for the eighth-best-reviewed picture (Dallas Buyer’s Club).  It also had supporting performances from Reese Witherspoon, Sam Shepard, Sarah Paulson and Michael Shannon, among other familiar actors.  And it boasts a 98% “fresh” RT rating.  Yet RT reports less than $22 million in box office for Mud; compare that to $274 million for Gravity, RT’s #1-ranked film in ’13, but also a blockbuster hit.

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Filmmaker Jeff Nichols at a gala screening of Mud in 2013. By larry-411 (Intro, “Mud” Gala Screening) [CC BY-SA 2.0 (http://creativecommons.org/licenses/by-sa/2.0)%5D, via Wikimedia Commons

Shannon anchors a repertory company of actors that are loyal cast members for the director of Mud, Jeff Nichols, who has also worked repeatedly with Shepard and, more recently, Joel Edgerton.  Edgerton co-starred along with Shannon, Kirsten Dunst, Adam Driver and Shepard (in a cameo) in Midnight Special, a poorly titled but beautifully crafted genre-grafting sci-fi/chase/supernatural/family drama released early this year.  Despite some ravishing special effects, that strong cast, and mostly enthusiastic reviews, Midnight Special made barely $3 million at the box office, according to RT.  It had its HBO premiere last night (if you subscribe to the premium cable channel or have HBO Go, it’s certainly worth a look).

Nichols launched his screenwriting and directing career with 2007’s spare, darkly lyrical Shotgun Stories, starring Shannon and set amidst a financially and spiritually impoverished clan in a desolate-if-rather-scenic patch of mid-America (of Nichols’ home state, Arkansas, to be more specific).  It established the filmmaker’s naturalistic style, his milieu in what lately the media has stereotyped as Trump country (his characters are often struggling or disappointed working-class white folks in rural regions of the central and southern U.S.), and his fascination with boys and young men groping for their meaning and purpose in the world.  It only began to hint at Nichols’ mythic vision; there is a latter-day Hatfield & McCoy/Mourning Becomes Electra feel to the proceedings, and the central characters are named Son, Boy, and Kid.  But it earned him a well-deserved reputation as a top-tier director of actors; small wonder that the likes of Jessica Chastain and Shea Whigham chose to join Shannon as stars of Nichols’ next feature, Take Shelter, released in 2011.  Although it had the strong support of the great opinion-maker Roger Ebert, Shotgun Stories (which is now available to rent on iTunes) grossed only $45,000 at the box office, according to IMDB.

Nichols has made five movies (he wrote as well as directed them all); of the four that I’ve seen, Take Shelter is my favorite.  I think Shannon, who plays a young father obsessed with protecting his family from a cataclysmic storm he mysteriously forecasts, deserved another Oscar nomination for his intense, profoundly haunted, sometimes outright-unhinged performance.  The picture somehow simultaneously achieves a realistically gritty, empathetic depiction of an economically insecure working man’s inchoate terror along with an extraordinary dreamlike quality.  It too got some of the best reviews of its year, but RT reports it made just $1.6 million.

From the evidence I’ve seen, Nichols has not yet created a film that’s great from top to bottom.  Take Shelter‘s ending is nightmarishly ambiguous, and it tantalizes us with the filmmaker’s potential.  Midnight Special‘s plot builds in a remarkably engrossing way (despite some obviously gaping holes) and its conclusion fully answers its dramatic question, but thematically it leaves us wondering what exactly was the point.  If you’ve seen any of these movies it was most likely Mud, and you most likely enjoyed it a lot but you more than likely would call it derivative of everything from Tom Sawyer to Stand by Me.  Whatever their imperfections, though, these are absorbing movies and every one is superbly acted by audience favorites.  So why aren’t they more successful?

Maybe Nichols’ latest film, Loving, will be his commercial breakthrough.  It’s a departure in that it’s a true story (of the interracial couple whose Supreme Court case forever established their right to marry even in the south).  But in many ways it plays to his strengths, it stars the popular Edgerton (with, of course, Shannon in a supporting role), it too has been well reviewed, and for the first time a Nichols film seems a fairly strong candidate to win one or more major awards.  So far, though, you haven’t seen it any more than I have–am I right?  I’m guessing, because RT says it’s made less than $7 million gross.

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Nichols with Loving stars Ruth Negga and Joel Edgerton at the Festival de Cannes.

Photo: Georges Biard [CC BY-SA 3.0 (http://creativecommons.org/licenses/by-sa/3.0)%5D, via Wikimedia

A Televised Masterclass

AUSTIN_PENDLETON_backstage_August_2006I first became aware of Austin Pendleton, if memory serves, by listening to the original cast album of Fiddler on the Roof (he played Motel the Tailor in Jerome Robbins’ record-setting Broadway production of Harnick and Bock’s masterpiece).  I’d certainly seen him on screen–his IMDB page lists 136 acting credits since 1968–but for years I thought of him mostly as the mousy son-in-law of Tevye the Dairyman.

In recent years, although Pendleton has remained a busy actor (and has become a playwright), I’ve thought of him mostly as a director, as well as the last artistic director of the acclaimed Off Broadway Circle Repertory Company.  He has directed five Broadway shows, according to the Internet Broadway Database, with casts including stars as bright as Elizabeth Taylor, and many more productions Off Broadway, in regional theatre, and at London’s Royal National Theatre.  I’m ashamed to admit that I don’t think I’ve ever seen anything that he directed.

In 2009 and 2011 he directed a pair of Anton Chekhov plays for New York’s Classic Stage Company (CSC).  During the run of the latter production, of Three Sisters (for which Pendleton later won an Obie Award), he appeared on CUNY-TV’s interview program Theater Talk with the show’s producer, Susan Haskins, and New York-based theatre reporter Michael Riedel.  The resulting interview forms an unusually incisive 20-minute masterclass on directing.  The clip is from YouTube.

“These people [directors such as Jerome Robbins and Mike Nichols, who directed Pendleton early in his acting career], I mean they’re brilliant, but they’re into telling the story.” – Austin Pendleton

The second edition of the textbook The Director’s Vision is dedicated “To my teachers.”  They emphatically include that sensitive director of well-crafted and exquisitely detailed productions, Tom Whitaker, who made me aware of this interview.  Thanks, Tom.

 

Photo Credit: Weimar03 at English Wikipedia [CC BY-SA 3.0 (http://creativecommons.org/licenses/by-sa/3.0) or GFDL (http://www.gnu.org/copyleft/fdl.html)%5D, via Wikimedia Commons

 

An Actor Exits

Broadway World reported yesterday that the Tony Award-winning actor Tonya Pinkins had resigned from the cast of the current Off-Broadway production of Bertolt Brecht’s Mother Courage and Her Children at Classic Stage Company (CSC), directed by CSC artistic director Brian Kulick (who is in his final months at the helm of that theatre company).  Pinkins’s statement about the reason for her departure, printed in full today on Playbill.com, is crucial reading for any director or student of directing that’s interested in the many recent and current conversations about equity, diversity and inclusion in theatre, directorial authority, and more.  For directors especially, it is also very interesting to read Kulick’s response to Pinkins’s decision.

What issues does this situation raise about who should be producing and directing what, who should be making what decisions, and how the actor-director collaboration is affected by issues including white supremacy, stardom, patriarchy, and the director/producer phenomenon?  Did Kulick handle this as well as possible in the best interests of the theatre company, the production, and his directorial vision for it?  What else does the Pinkins departure and the Kulick response bring up in your mind?  Thoughts (and other questions) are welcome in comments here or on The Director’s Vision Facebook page.

UPDATE: In a clarifying status update on Facebook, fellow Mother Courage actor Michael Potts wrote: “While I won’t talk publicly about our process on Mother Courage, I do feel compelled to correct the record on a particular statement made in [the] broadwayworld.com article before an actor’s reputation is ruined. AT NO TIME did any actor threaten ‘to kill’ Tonya. The actor said IN REHEARSAL, that as his character (an armed, enemy soldier), if Mother Courage made such a move, the truth of the scene would dictate that he kill Mother Courage. This was the script we were using and had been rehearsing with Tonya for 5 weeks. Again, this was said to Tonya in rehearsal with other actors present. NO ONE threatened the life of Ms. Pinkins.”  That’s what I understood from Ms. Pinkins’s statement, but perhaps Mr. Potts is correct to go out of his way to avoid any possible misunderstanding.

AND ANOTHER (January 1, 2016): Michael Potts has published a more lengthy update on his Facebook feed.  In it he strongly supports Tonya Pinkins’s declaration on race and gender in theatre, but offers a differing perspective on the rehearsal and preview-performance process behind CSC’s Mother Courage:

I’ve tried to avoid this, but I see things spiraling out of control. Two issues are being conflated. The first, ‪#‎BlackPerspectivesMatter‬, in which she is completely correct and I wholeheartedly support. The polemic she sets forth in her incredibly well composed statement on race and sex in the theater, is spot on. The second, the Mother Courage rehearsal process is pure hyperbole.

“The question of Mother Courage being delusional (inelegantly put by the director, for certain) was brought up during our very first week of table work. The director was referring to Brecht’s own writing about the character. As he put it in more elegant fashion and repeatedly stated during the entire rehearsal process, Mother Courage is a tragic character because she never learns. War teaches her nothing.

“Actors know very well that there is nothing incongruous about a director holding one view of the character and the actor holding a different view. Directors normally defer to the actor in nearly all cases. Hopefully, out of this creative tussle, something transcendent appears. Such was the attempt in our production.

“Make no mistake, Tonya ran our production from the start. She was Momma Courage, yes ‘momma’, her request and everyone complied including the Brecht estate. Throughout the rehearsal period, when she wanted to make a change, any change, it was allowed.

“Also, actors are aware that even during technical rehearsal and previews, performances are still evolving and subject to change. However, we also hope by that time, after weeks of rehearsal (4 weeks in this case), certain things are beginning to set up. Though, it’s still possible, wholesale changes in blocking and script are normally less frequent at this stage. Therefore, it is also expected that when an actor decides to make a major change in dialogue and/or blocking that involves fellow actors, that there’s a little friendly heads up if not rehearsal given to those actors. Unfortunately, Tonya didn’t get around to doing that. Still, every actor rolled with it. The director wishing to protect the whole has the job of addressing the situation for the sake of everyone involved in telling the story.

“Allow me to address the ‘fur incident’. This was in the script from day one of rehearsal. There were no problems or questions about this part of the scene through 4 weeks of rehearsal. None. We move to the theater. Costumes are added to the technical process of mounting the play. The scene proceeds and only then is there a conflict about a fur. Tonya states her intention to take the fur and explains it’s what Brecht wrote. This is true…in another translation,-not the one we’d been rehearsing for 4 weeks. The actor wearing the fur defends his position grounded in the text we’re working from. Tonya again asserts it’s what Brecht wants and that she intends to take it. The actor defers to the director. Compromises are immediately offered to resolve the issue. None were suitable to Tonya. The debate is tabled and both Tonya and the other actor confer with the director privately. The decision is reached to do the scene as written. During that evenings performance, Tonya takes the fur. The actor has no choice but to let it stand. She is Mother Courage, after all. Too long a story, shortened, both director and actor acquiesce to Tonya’s choice. Tonya takes the fur for two additional performances then announces that she won’t do it anymore. No explanation. Why was it so essential that a week and a half debate was required? Why after 2 performances, was it now ‘suddenly’ not essential? Was it really about Brecht’s intention? What was this conflict/demand really about? Such was the process of this Mother Courage. I witnessed time and again our director bend over backwards, to the point of spinelessness to try to appease Tonya.

Anyone who has worked with Tonya knows that no one silences her. ‘No one puts baby in the corner!’ Tonya is a force. Her brilliance is clear, her intelligence evident by her release referenced in this post.

“Of course, there were honest creative differences as in any other creative endeavor. However, no one was ever muzzled, rebuked, rebuffed, made voiceless or enslaved.

“Put simply, Tonya wanted to move in an entirely different direction once the show was already rehearsed and set. It was too late in the game to re-rehearse a concept.

“Unfortunately, these statements have led people to conclude that the play is a complete mess, that those of us still involved are left with something lesser and by extension we are lesser actors and a director and theater company’s reputation are being unfairly trashed. I’ve read people already conclude that the director is a racist and sexist. You would be mistaken on all counts. Though, there are justifiable critiques of this production, none of them rise to the level of what’s being insinuated.”

THE LATEST (THAT I’VE SEEN–January 2):  At the risk of appearing to propagate a squabble, I want to continue to give the fullest picture I have of this discussion.  I do so because I don’t think it’s just squabbling; I think Tonya Pinkins has kick-started a very important conversation, it has become quite public (at least among theatre-makers), and additional shadings in understanding of her perspective may be valuable.

Ms. Pinkins responded to Michael Potts’s longer statement with this comment: “It deeply saddens me that my wonderful costar feels he must defend, The establishment.  Michael, you know nothing of what was communicated between myself and the producers and anyone else. You simply saw the fallout. I’ve been working on this production long before you were even considered.  I don’t believe any of the men would have treated me the way I was treated if I was a White woman.  Believe me if I had ‘run’ the show , there would be a finer product.”

Mr. Potts then wrote: “Tonya, the show is a fine product. YOU are a wonderful Mother Courage. You are made for the role. No, I do not know what transpired privately between you and the producers. I can only and was only speaking to what transpired in my presence.”

To which Ms. Pinkins replied: “You speak to your perspective as a man in the room. The patriarchy always thinks it can tell a women what to think and feel and interpret when her No is a ‘Yes’.”

ANOTHER COUNTRY HEARD FROM (January 2): Broadway World reported that author and activist Larry Kramer had chimed in on his Facebook profile on New Year’s Day in support of Tonya Pinkins, and published his statement about the situation.

Morgan Jenness posted Michael Potts’s longer statement for Mr. Kramer to read.  Mr. Kramer responded: “morgs, i’m afraid i find potts’ response petty and simple-minded and not dealing with the main issues. first and foremost how dare kulick cut an hour from this script and what was left after this castration, which no doubt tonya was troubled by, as she should have been, and potts should have been too. as rehearsals continued and previews too it sounds like tonya was just doing what any great actress would be doing if reaching for even higher levels — trying to work things out emotionally and as is often the case still learning after the curtain comes up. so tonya didn’t tell all the actors what she was thinking, or suddenly found herself trying, or told them too pointedly, hurting the pooor baby’s feelings. haven’t they worked with great actors before? I have. glenda jackson did what the fuck she wanted, thank god because ken russell was incapable of helping her, which sounds a lot like kulick not being able to help tonya and her knowing it, thus increasing her frustration factor. i had the privilege of watching rehearsals involving such as kim stanley, geraldine page, ralph richardson, the great olivier, and was friends with the great luise reiner. they all had and did and reacted just as tonya did.”

I post Mr. Kramer’s comments not to endorse or validate them, but because his very strong point-of-view may provide additional matter for the discussion at hand, especially as it relates to the role of the director.

IN THE INTEREST OF BALANCE (January 2): I think I should mention that Mr. Potts has received more than 75 comments, more than a few of them from high-profile theatre professionals, thanking him and/or expressing support for his longer Facebook post.

THE LATEST NEWS: All comes courtesy of colleague Matt Saltzberg.  First, the role has been re-cast: http://www.broadway.com/buzz/183344/kecia-lewis-steps-in-after-tonya-pinkins-abrupt-departure-from-mother-courage-and-her-children-off-broadway/

And, the composer for the production, Duncan Sheik, gives an interview: http://www.americantheatre.org/2016/01/04/duncan-sheik-on-cscs-disputed-mother-courage/

ANOTHER UPDATE: American Theatre magazine just posted a podcast that includes an interview with Ms. Pinkins.  “I think that actors do not realize how powerful they are,” she says late in the interview.  “We’re not treated like we’re powerful.  But I want to inspire actors to take that power.”  That should be heard in context and is excerpted just to pique your interest!  Click here to listen (the Pinkins/Mother Courage section starts right around 12:40, but the news that precedes it is interesting too).

THE PRODUCTION CONSIDERED: Charles Isherwood’s review in The New York Times calls Mother Courage, now with Kecia Lewis in the title role, calls the production “terrific,” “searing,” and “by any measure the finest of [CSC]’s Brecht cycle.”  He says Ms. Lewis’s performance (given partly with script in hand) is “commanding,” “powerful, complex and persuasive.”

Directions to a Blog

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Just a quick post today to direct you to another cool blog (see what I did there?).  New York-based director Cat Parker has assembled an impressive array of sharp interviews with colleagues she calls “NYC’s Indie Stage Directors.”  They make for insightful, informative, interesting reading, and I recommend them to fellow students of directing.

I hope you’ll visit Cat’s blog, DirectorSpeak.

A tip of the hat to the great Regina Taylor for making me aware (on Facebook) of the existence of Cat’s blog.

This Director’s a Beast of at Least Four Nations

Cary Fukunaga

Cary Fukunaga “Beast Of No Nation” at Opening Ceremony of the 28th Tokyo International Film Festival. By Dick Thomas Johnson from Tokyo, Japan

I was more than intrigued enough by the can’t-look-away-or-even-blink direction of True Detective‘s first season on HBO to become curious about the work of Cary Joji Fukunaga.  I was also delighted when he won an Emmy Award for his work on that gripping series.

When I saw Beasts of No Nation on Netflix, though, I felt compelled to learn more.  Beasts is the first film distributed from day one by Netflix, which premiered the movie simultaneously in art-house cinemas and  on its home video streaming service.

It  depicts the experience of a child forced into service as a soldier under the command (and under the spell) of a charismatic and depraved warlord fighting a fictional civil war in an unidentified west African country (it was shot in Ghana).  The movie is devastating in its authenticity, shocking, heartbreaking, and sickeningly violent, yet it is hypnotically beautiful, sometimes hallucinatory in its visual intensity, sometimes surprisingly funny, and maybe, just maybe, a little bit hopeful about the resiliency of the human spirit.  Somehow it ended up reminding me of Francis Ford Coppola’s Apocalypse Now, which for decades I have called the greatest movie I’ve ever seen.

Fukunaga not only directed but also wrote (dramatizing the novel by Uzodinma Iweala), produced, and lit the film as its director of photography.  When the camera operator pulled a hamstring, the director (after recovering from malaria) even shot the rest of the picture himself.

Fukunaga has said he hopes as many people as possible will see Beasts on a big screen, and I for one would love to, but I don’t live near a theatre that’s showing it.  It has been a complete disappointment at the box office yet millions have seen it in their homes.

Idris Elba, the formidable British star that plays the warlord, called “The Commandant,” is said to be a likely Oscar nominee, and the miraculous performance of novice actor Abraham Attah, who was 14 (but looked as young as his character, the happy-go-lucky 11-year-old Agu) when the film was made, has generated considerable speculation that he might become the youngest best-actor nominee in the history of the Academy Awards.  In a ten-nod Best Picture race I wouldn’t be surprised to see Beasts itself get a nomination, though perhaps Fukunaga himself is a longshot.

Having seen Beasts, I found myself at home sick one day last week, unable to get much work done but functional enough to watch a couple of movies.  I found that Fukunaga’s 2011 feature, Jane Eyre, filmed in the north of England and starring Mia Wasikowska, Michael Fassbender, Jamie Bell, Judi Dench(!), and Simon McBurney, with a script by Moira Buffini, was also streaming on Netflix, so I had a look.  In many ways it is very much in the tradition of other good recent adaptations of romantic novels (such as Joe Wright’s 2005 Pride and Prejudice), but it is redolent of its director’s distinctive, simultaneously dark-yet-airy style.  It is a very good movie, and it is unusually well acted.

Now on a mission, I next found Fukunaga’s first feature, the acclaimed 2009 indy Sin Nombre, on iTunes, and rented it.  It is an arrestingly strong directorial debut, winning a top award for him at the Sundance Film Festival. It too is beautifully shot and beautifully acted.  It was shot mostly in Mexico and most of the dialogue is spoken in Spanish, one of two additional languages in which the English-speaking, California-born-and-reared American Fukunaga is fluent (his father’s ancestry is Japanese, his mother’s is Swedish).

I thought I noticed several commonalities among these films (which are also present in True Detective).  The destruction of childhood at the hands of others (whose souls were perhaps also poisoned at a young age?) is a consistent theme (he is planning a film inspired by the suicide of Jadin Bell, a bullied gay teen).  Fukunaga’s worldview is hugely compassionate yet deeply haunted.  He has a truly extraordinary sense of place, conveying an expansive and highly specific sense of each world he explores/creates on screen, finding the terror that permeates remarkably beautiful landscapes and the beauty that radiates from remarkably terrible settings.

In a few cases Fukunaga has worked with some of the most acclaimed actors in the world (Dench, Fassbender, True Detective‘s Matthew McConaughey), but he is better known for drawing amazing work from fresh talents (Wasikowska) and complete neophytes (Attah and Sin Nombre‘s Edgar Flores).  I couldn’t help wondering how he elicits such deeply felt, nakedly honest performances from his casts.

My reading provided few clues, but what I did find was gratifying to me as a proponent of clear, economical storytelling–and respect for actors.  In Allen St. John’s interview with Fukunaga for Forbes magazine (Feb. 9, 2014) about True Detective, the director said:

I think I learned discipline on Jane Eyre. Charlotte Bronte’s dialogue, the intellectual duel between Rochester and Jane Eyre’s character is so compelling that you didn’t have to do much with the placement of cameras. It was up to the actors to do most of it.  The tete a tete they have by the fireplace I literally just put the camera over each actor’s shoulder and let them do their best work. At times it felt like I should be doing something else instead of just sitting there. But it was the right thing.

I knew that what was going on [when detectives played by Michael Potts and Tory Kittles were interrogating McConaughey’s character in True Detective] was going to be really interesting. Especially contextualized and juxtaposed with the past. So my idea was to be as simple as possible. No reason for shaky hand-held cameras. Just set the camera down and let the actors do their work.

Fukunaga is not above shooting his inexperienced actors without actually telling them that the camera is on.  This is him speaking to Jada Yuan for an interview on vulture.com (Sept. 30, 2015):

…a lot of times I would shoot without calling “rolling.” When you’re dealing with non-actors — and the same thing happens in America — they change as soon as you say, “Action!” There’s something about people just being people that feels much more authentic….  [W]e would start rolling scenes without people knowing, and then [Idris Elba] would start giving people an order. It looked more authentic because then people were living in the moment of whatever was happening.

As impressed as I have been by the virtuosity of some of Fukunaga’s camera blocking, I am also inspired by his desire to serve the story, the actors, and the audience without foregrounding his own contribution.  Katey Rich wrote in Vanity Fair (October 18, 2015):

The single-take action sequence in the fourth episode of True Detective became famous, but Fukunaga says he doesn’t like shots—single takes or otherwise—that call attention to themselves. “You are, as a director, a sort of conductor of the whole thing, the orchestra,” he says. “You aren’t letting the music speak for itself. You’re like doing all this crazy shit, and everyone is looking at, you know, instead of listening to the music.”

I also sense that Fukunaga is a highly practical craftsman/leader, enormously prepared but also enormously flexible.  I’m impressed by his willingness to puncture the myth of the purist auteur in this quote, which is also from his chat with Yuan:

I compromise all the time. You find solutions. If anything, that’s probably my skill-set: trying to get what I want, but also making everyone else and the powers that be happy as well.

Everything I’ve seen and read makes me want to learn still more about Cary Fukunaga and how he does his consistently excellent work as a motion picture and television director.  In fact, writing this post has made me want to go back and watch the whole first season of True Detective again, and most of the movies as well.  I think he is an artist worth following, and I’m eager to see what’s next from this 38-year-old filmmaker.  Here’s Rich again in Vanity Fair:

“There are directors who are brands,” Fukunaga says. “People are going to see a Tarantino film, people are going to see a Fincher film. That’s very helpful.” How about a Fukunaga film? “Probably not yet,” he says. “Hopefully in a couple years, a couple more films, people want to see a Fukunaga.”

In this case, I guess, I’m an early adopter.  I want to see a Fukunaga.


Team Dreamer

In 2000, the great Australian director Michael Blakemore, who rose to fame in Great Britain, became the only person ever to win both the Tony Awards for directing–of a play (Michael Frayn’s Copenhagen) and a musical–in the same year.  His second Tony that evening was for directing the Broadway revival of Cole Porter’s Kiss Me, Kate, which remains to this day the best revival I have seen of a traditional mid-20th century book musical.

His acceptance speech also remains my favorite, for its modest charm but mostly for its honesty.  I wish I could link to a video recording of it or at least quote it precisely but I have not found it (if you do, please send me a link!).  I can closely paraphrase my favorite part of what he said, however, by cribbing from the detailed credits available at ibdb.com.

“The fact is,” he said (approximately), “when you have Robin Wagner designing the sets, Martin Pakledinaz designing the costumes, Paul Gemignani directing the music, Kathleen Marshall doing the choreography, and Ara Marx as your stage manger, directing a Broadway musical is quite easy.”  And, believe me, I’ve been there–most recently with Little Shop of Horrors in 2012.

In fact, I am one of those directors that just isn’t all that good at many of the various component art forms and crafts that go into an excellent production.  Now, if you count producing, I’ll take credit for some ability there, and I assume I could still act pretty well (from the neck up, anyway) if I could remember the lines, and maybe even sing a little.  But scenery, costumes, lights, sound, hair, props (I’m not even very good at shopping for them, let alone building them), projections?  Nope, nope, nope, nope, nope, nope, nope.

I could probably still put on my own makeup, but I couldn’t build a beard.  It’s been far too long since I’ve stage managed anything to know if I ever could again.

And dance–choreography?  Don’t make me laugh.  Music direction?  I can actually conduct a little (long story), but I can’t even plunk out a melody for the singers on a piano.  I was recently out to dinner with a talented colleague that teaches musical theatre at another university, and I felt for him when he complained that he always has to serve as musical director as well as director, but mostly I just felt jealous that I don’t have the chops to do the same.

So, especially when directing a musical, I sit in the rehearsal hall making self-deprecating jokes about having precious little to do and thanking everyone and everything for the team of knowledgable, skilled, creative people on the team all around me.  It’s axiomatic–a cliché, but not an incorrect one–that 50, 75, 90 or 99% of a production’s success can be ascribed to casting.  In my experience, it’s just as true that success depends on the group of “creatives” that come together to male the production along with the cast and director.

At the moment I’m heading into auditions and then immediately into rehearsals for a show that is not a musical but that involves a great deal of both music and dance, and even more creative movement to bring the storytelling to life.  As producer of my university’s Mainstage Series, I chose this play because it complemented other titles  that we wanted in the season for good reasons.  As a director I chose it for its thematic content (it’s a story about storytelling, and I can’t get enough of that stuff) and because, consciously or unconsciously or both, I wanted a challenge, and this play is very different from what I usually do–and what I feel confident doing–as a director.  It also depicts a world that I know little-to-nothing about.

What is all-too-characteristic of me is that I agreed to direct this play–indeed I picked it–with blind faith that the right team would come together to realize it for an audience.  Sure, I knew I would be working with faculty designers I know and trust and admire enormously.  And the idea of one of our most experienced, sharp, and dedicated student designers joining us was a no-brainer.  We’ve got a first-rate student stage manager.  A student that I trust (because I’ve worked closely with him recently in the classroom and rehearsal hall) asked to assist me and he’ll do a great job, but he doesn’t fill any gaps in my expertise.

Then began the small miracles upon which I rely far too completely (I hope I’m not jinxing anything by writing this prematurely!).  I asked the student that had assisted with the dances in our last musical if she would choreograph and she grabbed the project by the throat–she’s already way out ahead of me on research and specific ideas.  We have new faculty arriving; one recently served as dramaturg for a different production of this play and the other served as movement coach and fight director at yet another school: I will pay visits to their offices soon, I’m sure, on bended knee.

Most of all I was really sweating the need for a composer/music director.  I begged a brilliant colleague I’ve known for decades to lend a grad student from his composition studio that could do it (“I have no plan B!” I confessed).  He found one!  Hooray!  The student could not schedule it.  Oh, no.  He changed his schedule and got free!  Hooray-hoorah!  And he is bright and enthusiastic and collaborative and has high standards and is flexible, and we have begun.

The whirlwind of meetings and approaches and sketches and schedules and inspirations is underway and, as ever, it is exhilarating.  In the real world of jam-packed calendars and chaotic comings-and-goings, the director’s role emerges: I’m the one that everyone most needs to talk with, making me wonder if perhaps I won’t be useless after all.

But, oh, what gratitude I feel to have such a team to collaborate with.  I certainly couldn’t do this show without them, but with them perhaps I’ll end up, like Mr. Blakemore, saying it was all “quite easy!”

Je Me Souviens

The recent annual conference of the Association for Theatre in Higher Education (ATHE) in Montreal turned my head around in several ways.  The theme of the conference was “Je me souviens,” which is the motto of Quebec and means something like, “Lest we forget” or simply “I remember.”  As a result, many of us were thinking in various ways about memory and history in relation to theatre and performance.

By Joanne Lévesque (Own work) [CC BY-SA 3.0 (http://creativecommons.org/licenses/by-sa/3.0)], via Wikimedia Commons

By Joanne Lévesque (Own work) [CC BY-SA 3.0 (http://creativecommons.org/licenses/by-sa/3.0)%5D, via Wikimedia Commons

As journeyman directors we may be called upon to stage stories drawing on a potentially vast range of content, and few if any of us can claim to be experts in so many subjects.  For a period of weeks we lead a theatre company and then an audience into territory that may be completely unfamiliar, not only to them but to us.  Certainly part of our job is to study the available “maps,” researching geography, society, culture, history–memory–to illuminate our paths.  But how much must we learn of each setting, each community of characters, each character’s belief system, each time period?  How much must we, in effect, “remember?”

One excellent panel I attended in Montreal addressed questions related to these in ways I found thought-provoking and ultimately reassuring.  The renowned American director Sharon Ott began with a rather startling statement: “I profoundly doubt the veracity of the stories we tell ourselves when we remember.”  This launched a fascinating discussion with Canadian directors Gordon McCall and Catherine Joncas that included contemplation of history as un-knowable in any absolute way.  They talked of learning to trust stories that are more deeply connected to spirituality than is factual history.  At another good session, Prof. Siouxsie Easter spoke of the idea from Simon McBurney (Complicité‘s Mnemonic) that remembering is “not just an act of retrieval but a creative thing.”

(An alternate point-of-view is emerging among some LGBTQ people in response to the trailer for Stonewall, a fictionalized movie treatment of the 1969 rebellion in New York’s Greenwich Village that lit a fire under the gay rights movement, which was written by playwright Jon Robin Baitz and directed by Roland Emmerich of action-adventure movie fame.  Some are calling for a boycott of the movie, saying it “whitewashes” the riots by downplaying or neglecting the courageous contributions of people of color and trans people such as the African American drag queen Marsha P. Johnson.  Baitz and Emmerich are saying that the role of diverse people is depicted in the full film even though their story centers on a handsome young white gay cisgender man [an American who happens to be played by an English actor, but that’s a subject for another post].  The boycott’s leaders say they want the truth, the facts, the history of the rebellion to be represented accurately in the film, and all accounts do indeed suggest that drag queens, trans people and people of color were indeed among those that took the lead in the Stonewall fight.  [For an exhaustively researched account of the riots, see my friend David Carter’s amazing book, Stonewall.])

If history is subjective and inevitably incomplete, though, is there any point in researching it?  I started to ask in the Ott/McCall/Joncas session if these directors didn’t still want to learn as much as possible about the historical context of whatever they were directing, but I concluded that the question answers itself.  Then another person attending the session asked a more penetrating question: What if an invention, well-intentioned but born in part of a lack of information, becomes a cultural misappropriation? When is it acceptable to use another’s story for our own artistic purposes?

Joncas had a provocative answer, and one I hope is right: “When it’s good.”  Maybe we can never know as much as we would like, or as others might think we should, about the contexts of the plays we direct, and certainly we can never know it all.  But if we come to know as much as we can, inquiring and collaborating with an open mind and voracious curiosity with our dramaturgs and other team members, if we work with respect and integrity, and if, in the end, our productions are worthy of being called “art,” perhaps we can hope that is enough.

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.