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.

 

The Critic as Colleague

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 dramaturgs, key advisors and indispensable colleagues that can light our way on our directorial journeys.

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.

The Casting Process Is History

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Lin-Manuel Miranda.  By John D. & Catherine T. MacArthur Foundation

One of the hottest topics of conversation at the Association for Theatre in Higher Education (ATHE) annual conference in Chicago earlier this month was no surprise.  Announcements in the press about the casting of Porchlight Music Theatre’s upcoming Chicago production of In the Heights by Lin-Manuel Miranda and Quiara Alegría Hudes had recently raised urgent questions.  Triggered by the reaction of some influential commentators to the company’s choice of an Italian American actor for the leading role of Usnavi (a character whose identity as a Dominican immigrant to the United States is central to the musical’s story, and one that was originally played on Broadway by Mr. Miranda), many attendees and some speakers at the conference discussed the value of authenticity in casting in the context of the ongoing need for more and better opportunities for actors of color.

 

In light of the currency of the issue, conference organizers* made a last-minute addition to the program which I found to be one of the more interesting sessions I attended (even though unfortunately I had to leave it a little early).  Princeton faculty member and award-winning dramatic critic Brian Herrera gave what he described as an “interactive performance” in which he answered attendees’ questions about a subject on which he is the best-informed researcher that I have heard tell-of: the history of casting.

As he spoke, Dr. Herrera’s theoretical point-of-view emerged, challenging conventional wisdom.  He asserted that the idea of the “best actor,” which most directors (and producers and their casting directors) would likely assert is the grail they seek in casting each role in a production, is for the most part a myth.  He went on to describe how an artistic casting process cloaked in a particular sort of mystery has often preserved traditional systems of privilege in the ethno-racial, gender and sexual identities of those assigned to plum roles in performances on stage and screen.

I may well be garbling some of this, and fortunately there’s no need to rely on my memory to learn from Dr. Herrera’s deep study of the practice of casting over time.  At his ATHE conference session, he directed us to an excellent article he authored–one that fortunately is available for free on the web site of the journal that published it, The Journal of American Drama and Theatre.

Here’s the article, which is entitled “The Best Actor for the Role, or the Mythos of Casting in American Popular Performance.”  I think it issues an important challenge for us to confront as we make casting decisions: Do we (directors and others that make decisions about who plays what parts) keep the process mystified–probably unconsciously in most cases–in part to protect our own implicit biases?


*Meaningless disclaimer: as the organization’s treasurer I am on the Governing Council of ATHE.  Not that it matters here, but I really had no significant role in programming for the conference.


Photo: By John D. & Catherine T. MacArthur Foundation (https://www.macfound.org/fellows/941/) [CC BY 4.0 (http://creativecommons.org/licenses/by/4.0)%5D, via Wikimedia Commons

The Road to Authentic Casting Is Also Slow

The conversation about the casting of In the Heights at Chicago’s Porchlight Music Theatre has accelerated since the last post about it here on The Director’s Vision blog.  Diep Tran published an impassioned article on line for American Theatre magazine, including statements from Quiara Alegría Hudes, co author (with Lin-Manuel Miranda) of the musical.  Ms. Hudes is emphatic that authentic casting is essential for any professional production of In the Heights.  It’s interesting, though, that she states that “I’m happy for schools and communities who do not have [Latino] actors on hand to use In the Heights as an educational experience for participants of all stripes.”  Ms. Tran points out that this attitude is far from universal among playwrights and advises consulting the author whenever the question comes up.

This was followed by the publication of an article by Priscilla Frank on The Huffington Post, opening up the conversation well beyond the theatre community.  The comments there have generated controversy.  Rhetorical questions from the chief theatre critic of the major daily Chicago Sun-Times, Hedy Weiss, implied that actors should be allowed to stretch to inhabit characters with backgrounds different from their own. (Ms. Weiss is the writer of the Sun-Times article that drew the scrutiny of Howard Sherman on his Arts Integrity Initiative blog.)  On Facebook Chay Yew, a playwright/director and the artistic director of a larger Chicago company, Victory Gardens Theater, expressed alarm and disappointment at this.  Mr. Yew’s reaction has in turn triggered further comment.  For her part, Ms. Weiss has now offered (on her Facebook profile) to attend a civil “town hall meeting” on the topic, and someone else has pointed out that the Alliance of Latino Theatre Artists – Chicago has planned a meeting on this very topic for August 9 at Victory Gardens.

I am working to ally with artists from ethno-racial backgrounds that have long been underrepresented and misrepresented in theatre and other forms of dramatic storytelling.  I support those that are working to increase equity, diversity, and inclusion in this work, and although the idea of authentic casting is newer to me I am fully on board.  It seems to me that Ms. Weiss and others that argue for “color-blind” casting, even when it works in favor of actors from backgrounds like my own, are–at best–missing a crucial point.  I am imperfect at all this and still learning how I can best help, and all of my thinking about it necessarily comes from the privileged position of an aging white Anglo male with a pretty cushy job as a university administrator (and a background as a professional and academic director and producer).  I also find some of the issues involved in all of this complex enough to be intriguing.

For example, it’s clear that authorial intent is a crucial ingredient in this conversation, but is it always the overriding consideration?  The Porchlight situation has arisen in the shadow of a decision that proved controversial by another professional Chicagoland musical theatre company, the Marriott Theatre in Lincolnshire, to cast non-Latinx performers in Evita.  Even though it is obviously set in Argentina, my guess is that the British creators, Andrew Lloyd-Webber and Tim Rice, did not have Latinx performers in mind in the 1970s, when they wrote this now-classic musical (the original West End stars were Elaine Page, David Essex, and Joss Ackland).  In the U.S. four decades later, though, I would argue that the need to increase diversity and inclusion is an extremely important factor, and in the Marriott case it should probably have been the controlling one.

In their statements to the press, the Porchlight folks have pointed out that they have no business asking the actors they audition about their ethnicity.  That’s true.  In retrospect it seems to me that if a top priority had been authentic casting, they might have employed an interview question along the lines of, “How will your own background help you to maximize the dimension, detail, and truth you bring to the role of Usnavi?”  To be honest, however, I don’t know that I would have realized the importance of such an interview in advance.

I’m also being honest when I say I worry about theatre companies such as Porchlight.  I don’t know a lot about this company’s particular circumstances but I know that it’s a mid-sized theatre, and I have some experience running one of those: I was the producing and artistic director of a mid-sized company in the 1990s.  We worked continuously to give the company a solid institutional image, but all the while we were painfully aware that we were operating on a shoestring, most years racing to stay a step ahead of some accumulated deficit and never with any financial reserves.  It would have been a stretch for us to do the sort of outreach that Porchlight has described, and when Ms. Hudes says “You may need to fly in actors from out of town if you’ve exhausted local avenues, and house them during the run,” all I can tell you is that it would not have been within our means to do so.  That doesn’t mean I disagree when she says that “The Latino community has the right to be disappointed and depressed that an opportunity like this was lost.”  I’m certainly in no position to say otherwise.

Ms. Tran writes that “If all else fails, it’s fine to not mount the show if you can’t do it the way its creators intended. Because when it comes to a choice between whitewashing roles of color or having no production at all, the latter is preferred.”  Here again I don’t mean to argue, but in case it’s of any use in the conversation I would offer that the cancellation of a scheduled production after the investment of all the resources required to prepare for it could easily have crippled our mid-sized company.  Also, it still looks to me as if Porchlight had honorable intentions to diversify its repertoire when it chose In the Heights.  To cancel the show entirely would strike me as unfortunate, especially if it might discourage future efforts to expand the range of material being produced by this company or others.

Let’s face it: before they committed to producing Miranda and Hudes’s musical, Porchlight should have had a more robust strategy for getting this right.  They should have involved more Latinx artists as key staff members in the creative planning and casting processes.  Perhaps they should have partnered with a Latino theatre company as co-producer.  I just find their mistakes all too human, especially given their limited resources.  I hope they find their way through this successfully.

Like Ms. Tran, I am “ready for theatres to do better, to commit to authenticity, and to stop making excuses.”  But my nature, my background and, I freely admit, very possibly my privilege seem to be making me more patient about it.

UPDATE (August 2): Howard Sherman’s latest blog post provides useful context.  “When it comes to respect and recognition, diversity and inclusion, there is a new arts narrative being written right now.”

Unkind Cuts

Schere_Gr_99In December of last year I learned, via an important article in Howard Sherman’s invaluable blog, about a production of Jonathan Larson’s Rent at East Tennessee State University (ETSU).  Its opening had been delayed by Music Theatre International (MTI, the licensing agent for the amateur performance rights to the show), which objected to the cutting of some scenes.  The director, Patrick Cronin, had excised the scenes because he thought his cast was too small to make the stage look “interesting,” according to an article by Heath Owens in the school newspaper, The East Tennessean.  It stated that “Cronin apologized for the mistake” and he and his company quickly restored the scenes, but it seems that the director may have been surprised by MTI’s intervention, because he noted that “I have directed hundreds of shows, and made many cuts before.”

Legally the case is unambiguous: ETSU had a contract with MTI that specified that the script must be performed as written, which is the standard arrangement.  Theatrically it’s also an especially egregious violation; it’s unusual, I think–I hope!–for any director to cut an entire scene, let alone multiple scenes, without permission.  And whether we’re talking about a scene or a sentence, it’s the principle of the thing: writers (and their heirs) own their work and deserve our respect and deference when it comes to their plays

Still, when I read Prof. Cronin’s response (“I have…made many cuts before”), I had to think, with a cringe, “Me too.”  Perhaps part of the problem is that I’ve directed quite a bit of classical theatre.  I’ve actually boasted about how much of a Shakespeare play I had cut while keeping the storyline and tone and much of the glorious detail intact.  There seems to be a different standard for Shakespeare.  I have relatively little experience with new-play development and, although at least two of my closest friends (as well as my co-author, the late Louis E. Catron) are playwrights, I have worked closely in production with only one living playwright (that would be another close friend, the wonderful Barbara Lebow).  Whether it’s the result of a blind spot or my personal hubris or my sense of what was routine and widely accepted practice earlier in my career, I have to admit that I, too, have made cuts in plays that I was directing.

I was interested to learn a little more about Prof. Cronin.  He is a full professor of theatre at ETSU as well as a deeply experienced professional character actor (readers of a certain age may remember him, as I do, as Syd Farkus, the “bra guy” on television’s Seinfeld).  I take him at his word that he is also a seasoned director, and I suspect that his experience has mirrored mine in working with many directors that made cuts, always in pursuit of the best possible production (according to the director’s taste and judgement), and emulating that behavior in his own work as a director.  He doesn’t seem to be simply a dilettante that’s spent his career isolated at a little school in the middle of nowhere; I’m guessing that he was doing what he thought was not only routine but right, based on quite a bit of experience.

I don’t mean to defend Prof. Cronin’s decision, or my own past choices to make cuts.  I just think that times have changed–for the better.  It’s easier than ever for playwrights and their representatives to know what’s going on with their work and for directors to contact playwrights with ideas and requests for permission.  Playwrights are standing up for their rights.  And that’s a good thing.

Still, I found myself wondering if there is a threshold even today for making small cuts without the author’s consent.  What if limited production resources cause a line or sentence or even just a word to make no sense in a particular production?  What if a tiny textual tweak would clearly make a particular production better?  Do all playwrights want to get permission requests for all cuts, no matter how slight?  I asked a few of them for their thoughts.

Jack Heifner, author of the record-setting 1976 Off-Broadway hit comedy Vanities and the Broadway play Patio/Porch, among other works (he is also an extremely valued and trusted colleague at the university where I work), wrote back to me at length to say: No means no.  “A director does not have the right to change anything without permission,” he wrote.  “Playwrights do not put words on the page in an haphazard way. We often work on something for years.  If a director cannot figure out why a writer has written something, then the fault is usually with the director. I have closed productions when they have changed or cut things in my scripts. If a director contacts me and asks if they can cut something, then sometimes I will agree. Most of the time I will try to explain why the scene is there or what my intent is. Sometimes I agree with the director and I will let them try the production with their suggested changes. The point is that when someone asks, then I am much more inclined to discuss changes with them. If they do not ask, then they are in violation of the licensing agreement.”

Mr. Heifner elaborated to clarify the writer/director relationship in the new-play development process: “When working on new plays, directors always have much more input. The process involves more collaboration. However, they still are not allowed to cut  or change something without the writer’s permission. In the professional theatre, the director always turns to the writer and says, ‘Would it be okay with you if we try that scene without those lines?’ Never are directors or actors allowed to change anything without consulting the author, even if it’s an ‘if, and or but.’ It is the director and actors responsibility to interpret and say the lines as written and not change anything.  I am always shocked that actors paraphrase something with the author in the audience. It’s insulting to the writer.”  He elaborated on the topic of unacceptable changes (I’ll post his reply in full as a note at the end of this post) and cited the Dramatists Guild “Bill of Rights,” then concluded: “Playwrights own their own works and we work hard to protect our rights. The bottom line for me is that if a director has an idea they want to run by me, then fine. I will listen to them and consider their change. However, I have the right as owner of the work to say ‘no.’ And my decision is final.”

Scott C. Sickles, a close friend, award-winning television writer, and published playwright that has been produced at theatres throughout the U.S. and internationally, also responded with considerable vehemence (and wit): “To give you a little hint on where I stand on this in general, I will tell the actors (or have the director tell the actors) that if I didn’t put a pause in the script, don’t take one. Unscripted pauses are an unauthorized adjustment to the text.  …’a period is the end of a sentence, not the end of the world.’  This is not just control freakishness. I write very much with rhythm and pace in mind. The actors can explore and discover all they want, and if they find a pause is needed where I haven’t written it or if it’s in the way where I’ve put it, I want them to tell me.”

Mr. Sickles’ response was not quite so fervent throughout, however: “That said… it’s all about permission, communication and respect.  As most of my productions have been first or second developmental productions where I’ve been present, a lot of this is not a problem. But I’m also not at every rehearsal, so when I’m working with a director I trust, I’m fine with them making cuts and adjustments and asking my permission later. As long as they understand I have final approval over the text, that’s fine. And I’m not married to the way I wrote it; I want it to be the best play it can be and if that means losing and changing stuff, fine.  But I don’t want to be blindsided.”

He’s very much a realist, and a man of the theatre: “There’s also the fact that sometimes we don’t notice if you’ve changed a little thing.  But if there are changes, no matter how small, I want the director to discuss them with me before they’re finalized. (My directors tend to only worry about words, so the silences are up to me to suss out and be bothered by.)  I also realize that sometimes there’s nothing you can do and the actor will pause or say the line the wrong way every time and there are some battles not worth fighting.”

“If it’s a production I’m never going to see, I rely on the integrity of the theater,” he continued.  Then he surprised me by going further with this distinction between productions he will see and those he will not: “I don’t know if the productions in Indonesia or Lebanon were even in English.  Pauses, minor word changes, little adjustments in productions I’m not going to see… Do whatever you want to do; tell me if it works.  As long as the integrity of the play, the scene, and the moment are intact, I’m probably going to be okay with it.

“But sometimes there will be a line like ‘oh’ and someone will want to cut it — and that ‘oh’ is the moment where, say, the protagonist makes a huge realization and the course of the play changes on that one syllable exclamation.  If you’ve got a living playwright who you can reach, I think it’s important to at least reach out,” he wrote.

Mr. Sickles, who has been developing new plays since 1992, most recently as dramaturg (2002-2009) and artistic director (2009-2014) of the WorkShop Theater Company, concludes with a colorful comment on the hypersensitivity of a few of his fellow dramatists: “There are a lot of writers who are so much more precious about their words than I am. You know the ones: you suggest cutting half a page that’s grinding the story to a halt and then you get tears and a forty minute explanation of why it’s there and what it means and how it’s so important and even if no one knows that they do…. Shoot me now. Fuck that, shoot them and make the changes posthumously.”  He notes that no playwrights were actually shot during his time at the WorkShop.

I also chatted about this with Richard Strahle, another close friend; his top credit is a produced screenplay but he is also a produced playwright.  Mr. Strahle was considerably more open to the idea of cuts in service of an improved production.  He asks that directors communicate with him when it’s convenient, but he is open to learning about cuts later if he is not present for the rehearsals or performances.  He said that he has found actors in particular to be helpful “editors,” and that his main concerns are the best possible outcome for the production and the availability of all the best suggestions for potential improvement of the script.  He agreed, however, that it is too psychically painful for him personally to hear his work altered without permission if he is present.

Clearly the consensus favors communication: reach out (via the licensing agency or literary agent if you do not have direct contact information for the playwright) if you want to make a cut.  And yet still, I wondered: Do the busiest playwrights really want to hear from every director that wants (or thinks she needs) to cut a phrase, a word, a syllable?

Thanks to Jack Heifner’s Festival of New American Plays, a few months ago I found myself getting a bite to eat with Mr. Heifner and two additional New York playwrights.  One of them was John Cariani.  Not only is he the author of the most-produced American play of recent years, Almost, Maine, he stays even busier as one of the stars of the hit Broadway musical Something Rotten!  I told him about, ahem, a friend that recently directed a play by another busy and widely-produced playwright.  The director had worked to help a particular young actor make himself understood consistently in the production, but in dress rehearsals the actor was still unable to say a particular adjective-noun phrase clearly, so the director cut the adjective (without permission).  I asked Mr. Cariani if he thought the playwright really wanted to hear from every director in such a situation.  I saw him starting to shake his head “no,” when the other guest playwright spoke up from the far end of the table. Chiori Miyagawa, a leading figure in the Off-Broadway experimental theatre scene, said that she doesn’t know of any playwrights who think it’s acceptable for directors to edit their plays without permission (she later clarified for me that she was talking about premieres and regional productions mostly and that she could understand a playwright feeling somewhat differently about, say, a 25th college production).  Mr. Cariani did not contradict her.

In retrospect my ahem-friend suspects that his production would not have been materially hurt by leaving the adjective in and adhering to the letter of the contract that licensed performance rights for the play.  And, although he does not think his cut materially hurt the playwright or her play, he does regret modeling bad directorial behavior with his cast and staff.

He speculates that Prof. Cronin may also have learned something about the way that directors work with writers and scripts in the theatre of today.


Here in full, as promised, is Jack Heifner’s reply to my question about unauthorized cuts:

I am always surprised when directors know nothing about the writer of the play they are directing. Sometimes they don’t even know the writer’s name. I have always said to my students, if you want to know more about a play then find out about the writer. You will most likely discover why they wrote what they did and you’ll have a better understanding of the playwright’s intent.
A director does not have the right to change anything without permission. Playwrights do not put words on the page in an haphazard way. We often work on something for years.  If a director cannot figure out why a writer has written something, then the fault is usually with the director. I have closed productions when they have changed or cut things in my scripts. If a director contacts me and asks if they can cut something, then sometimes I will agree. Most of the time I will try to explain why the scene is there or what my intent is. Sometimes I agree with the director and I will let them try the production with their suggested changes. The point is that when someone asks, then I am much more inclined to discuss changes with them. If they do not ask, then they are in violation of the licensing agreement.
This has nothing to do with the design of the play. I have enjoyed many productions of my plays where I saw inventive sets, costumes and staging that brought new understanding to the work. What these directors did not do was change my intent or my lines. When working on new plays, directors always have much more input. The process involves more collaboration. However, they still are not allowed to cut  or change something without the writer’s permission. In the professional theatre, the director always turns to the writer and says, “Would it be okay with you if we try that scene without those lines?” Never are directors or actors allowed to change anything without consulting the author, even if it’s an “if, and or but.” It is the director and actors responsibility to interpret and say the lines as written and not change anything.  I am always shocked that actors paraphrase something with the author in the audience. It’s insulting to the writer.
Some directors think because they are in charge of a production that they are allowed to change or reshape a play it in any manner they please without asking permission.  In those cases, I think the director should go write their own play since they show very little respect for the author’s intent. I know of a writer who went to see his show and was horrified to find an extra character had been added to the play without his permission. Dialogue from others had been reassigned to the character. The show was closed. I closed a production of VANITIES when I found out they had decided to set all the scenes in bedrooms, which is clearly not what I intended. I have had directors call me and say they wanted to cut a scene because it did not work. I always tell them that the play has had other productions and has already gone through rewrites. I have no intention of cutting something that has worked in the past just because a director is not capable of making the scene work. I think the most glaring example of a director being out of bounds was the entire HANDS ON A HARDBODY experience for Amanda Green in Houston.
http://www.americantheatre.org/2014/09/17/hands-on-a-hardbody-creative-team-blindsided-after-unwarrented-changes-made-to-songs-dialogue/
I stand by the Dramatist Guild on all of this and I quote:
1. ARTISTIC INTEGRITY.
No one (e.g., directors, actors, dramaturgs) can make changes, alterations, and/or omissions to your script – including the text, title, and stage directions – without your consent. This is called “script approval.”
2. APPROVAL OF PRODUCTION ELEMENTS.
You have the right to approve the cast, director, and designers (and, for a musical, the choreographer, orchestrator, arranger, and musical director, as well), including their replacements. This is called “artistic approval.”
3. RIGHT TO BE PRESENT.
You always have the right to attend casting, rehearsals, previews and performances.
Playwrights own their own works and we work hard to protect our rights. The bottom line for me is that if a director has an idea they want to run by me, then fine. I will listen to them and consider their change. However, I have the right as owner of the work to say “no.” And my decision is final.

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

cropped-directorspeaktall

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.

Another Curtain Speech

Anton Chekhov, politely refraining from use of a mobile device

Anton Chekhov, politely refraining from use of a mobile device

In an effort to limit or eliminate the use of mobile phones during a production she had staged, a directing-focused student at the university where I teach decided to try a live curtain speech, as I had done before each performance of the last play I directed.  Her show was a Chekhov one-act in an 80-seat “black box” theatre arranged in a thrust stage configuration, so the circumstances were different from those surrounding my spiel about six weeks earlier.

Her speech was somewhat different too, at least when I heard it–certainly it was far shorter.  Its main similarity to mine, beyond asking the audience to keep their mobile devices off during the performance, was her statement that an audience member could spoil the experience of the play for others by using a phone.  She said this far more concisely than I did.  She didn’t embellish with thoughts about potentially distracting the cast or hurting their feelings, or with discussion of the two-way communication that makes live performance unique.

The director reported that giving the speech “was a little awkward for me,” especially at the opening performance when the lighting for it was not what she was expecting. “Honestly though it was easier than having to schedule a time to record a [pre-show announcement] since I could just work on [preparing for the curtain speech] on my own,” she wrote.

The results were good.  I saw no phones in use at the matinée I attended, and the director reported that “I didn’t notice anyone on their cell phones and I haven’t heard anything in the contrary from any of the ushers or actors or anyone else” at any of the three performances.  She said that at other productions she had attended as an audience member in the same space she had been distracted by students turning notebook pages as they took notes for assigned reviews.  “I didn’t notice a problem” with that, she wrote, leading me to wonder if her speech had increased some audience members’ overall consideration for others seeing the play.

To me this student seemed a little nervous giving her speech, as I’m sure I did when I gave mine.  Her bottom line assessment: “Overall, it was worth it!”  Which was the same as mine had been.

If you use or hear a similar curtain speech, I would love to hear about it–and about the results.  Please comment here or leave a message on The Director’s Vision Facebook page (facebook.com/thedirectorsvision).  Thanks!