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.

Musicals in the Round

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

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

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

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

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

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

History Enriched

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

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

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

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