Speak the Speech

Costume designs by Angela Bacarisse, lighting design by Amanda Warren, scenic design by Tara Houston, choreography by Caitlin Parker. Photo by Hardy Meredith/Stephen F. Austin State University

Costume designs by Angela Bacarisse, lighting design by Amanda Warren, scenic design by Tara Houston, choreography by Caitlin Parker. Photo by Hardy Meredith/Stephen F. Austin State University

I resolved a few months ago to put my money where my mouth is, or rather put my mouth where my blog-tification was, and try out my theory about how we might make progress on the cell-phone scourge in our theatres.  So, before each performance of Mary Zimmerman’s The Arabian Nights, produced recently under my direction at the university where I work, I gave the speech I had previously said that I wanted to give.

As a rule we had been using signs at the auditorium entrance and a pre-recorded announcement before the opening curtain, and sometimes asking ushers to remind patrons as they presented their tickets and received their programs to remember turn off their mobile phones.  These had proven maddeningly ineffective as we observed a few audience members using smart phones with their blindingly bright screens in the middle of most performances, and we got complaints about this every time we took an audience survey at our Mainstage shows.

Photo by Hardy Meredith/Stephen F. Austin State University

Photo by Hardy Meredith/Stephen F. Austin State University

For The Arabian Nights my assistant director, who was also serving as house manager, was more diligent than ever about urging the ushers to remind every single patron to turn off their phones.  They apparently did this very reliably, but I noticed two things as I overheard their interactions with arriving patrons.  First, most of the student ushers seemed sheepish, as if tacitly apologizing for the request they were making; perhaps without realizing it they felt worried about coming off as bossy or un-cool with their peers and/or impertinent or disrespectful of their elders.  Also, upon reflection, I concluded that we were not requesting the right thing: when we asked audience members to turn off their phones as they arrived, they may have been thinking, “I’ll put it on silent mode,” or even “I’ll turn it off for now,” but what we really want is for them to leave their phones off and in their pockets–not just silenced but with the screens dark–until intermission and again until after the final curtain.

We didn’t use the cards described in my previous post on this topic.  We draw a substantial part of our audience from our Theatre Appreciation course as all of the students in the class are required to attend, and one colleague that had taught several sections worried that this strategy might backfire if some of the most resentful and impudent students decided to make a sport of collecting and showing off the cards.  So we tried out one experimental strategy at a time.

I continued to worry about latecomers that missed the curtain speech, but we took no extraordinary measures to ensure their compliance.  Each of them was personally reminded by the house manager to turn off their phones before entering the theatre, but they were not otherwise lectured, frisked, nor detained.

Photo by Hardy Meredith/Stephen F. Austin State University

Photo by Hardy Meredith/Stephen F. Austin State University

Thus, the main innovation was the pre-show speech, which I delivered personally each and every night.  I believed it would be more effective if perceived as extemporaneous, so its exact content varied a bit from night to night, but when I was most on my game it went approximately like this:

Good evening!  I’m Scott Shattuck and I directed the play you’re about to see.  I wanted to take a moment to welcome you and thank you for coming, and to say that we hope you enjoy the show.  We love all the feedback we get from audiences that seem to love our productions, but we also get one persistent complaint from the great majority of our patrons–about the very few theatregoers that use their mobile phones while the performance is in progress.  You might not think that just pulling out your phone briefly to see who sent you a message or even to check the time would bother anyone, but our audiences tell us that it really does: they’re distracted and disturbed by the bright screens on the phones we all use nowadays.  They also tell us that they’re annoyed by a ringing phone, of course, but also even the buzzing of a vibrating phone, I so I invite you now to power your phone all the way down [at this point I pulled out my iPhone 6 and actually did so] so it won’t light up or make any sound at all.

In addition to being polite to those around you in the audience, I want to ask that you respect the efforts of the performers on our stage tonight.  They can see and hear you, and they’ve worked literally hundreds of hours over many weeks to make this performance absolutely as good as it can possibly be for you.  When they’re giving their all up here and they look out and see someone looking down at a phone instead of at them, it hurts their feelings.

And it’s the the fact that they do see and hear you, that you’re communicating with them as they perform for you, that makes live theatre a unique experience.  I know it’s the most natural thing in the world now just to grab your phone and glance at the screen almost anywhere, and–believe me–I’m just as addicted to mine as any of you are to yours.  But I think this needs become perhaps the last screen-free place in our world.  It’s the two-way process of you giving your full attention to the actors as they give their full energy and concentration to you that makes this a such a special space.

So, please, just for the next hour-and-a-quarter until intermission, and then again for the forty-five minutes of the second act, leave you phone off.  We’ll make it worth your while.  We really do want you to enjoy the show, but we need you to play your part as well, so instead of inviting you to “lean back and relax,” instead I ask you to “lean forward and engage” with The Arabian Nights.  Thank you!

Yes, it was that long.  And yes, it was that blunt (although I tried to sound friendly and welcoming, as well as sincere, as I said it).  Oh, and that last part?  I totally stole that from the curtain speech I heard at Michael Halberstam’s miraculous Writers Theatre in Glencoe, Illinois (a lovely suburb right outside Chicago).

Photo by Hardy Meredith/Stephen F. Austin State University

Photo by Hardy Meredith/Stephen F. Austin State University

And here’s the thing: It completely worked.  Over the course of five performances, we had just a couple of phones ring momentarily in the second act, but both were silenced promptly (we did use a recorded announcement to remind our patrons before the the show resumed, but apparently a couple of people still didn’t get their phones turned off again by the end of intermission).  And not a single person in an audience that numbered more than 1,000 over five performances was seen to turn on a smart-phone screen to check messages, Facebook, e-mail, or even the time.  As far as I know, this had not happened at five consecutive performances in our Mainstage theatre in years.

A couple of Theatre Appreciation instructors responded to my request for their assessment, and both expressed belief that the speech had done the trick (I had not found or made time to speak to any of their classes, I’m afraid).  Several audience members, some well known to me and some I had never met before, approached me after performances to offer support for the effort.  (And, by the way, the show went marvelously, with bigger houses and more enthusiastic crowds than I had dared to hope for.)

So, is this the secret?  I certainly hope so.  And I am happy to share the idea and the details of implementation freely and joyfully.  I hope that other educational theatres at all levels, community theatres, and professional companies–even those on Broadway, where as a theatergoer I can attest first-hand that these devices (no matter how handy elsewhere) are a blight on our artistic discipline–will make use of our experience.  Please consider enlisting your audience’s help in this or whatever way will work best with them, spread the word as widely as you please, and join me in thanking Patti LuPone, Bill Hoffman, Michael Halberstam, and everyone else that has made an inspirational effort to engage audiences intentionally and effectively in the elimination of theatre-killing distractions in our venues.

Photo by Hardy Meredith/Stephen F. Austin State University

Photo by Hardy Meredith/Stephen F. Austin State University

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.

Phone Cards

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

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

So.  What is to be done?

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

“Turn Off Your ******* Phones”

Patti Lupone photo by Rob Rich © 2011 robwayne1@aol.com 516-676-3939

Patti Lupone
photo by Rob Rich © 2011 robwayne1@aol.com 516-676-3939

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Hello!

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

This performance will have two ten-minute intermissions.

Please note that photography and recording devices are prohibited.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

If you’ve got ideas, please comment!

Color Vision Follow-Up: “The Revolutionary”

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

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.

Color Vision

The first update or correction I would like to make to The Director’s Vision (Second Edition) relates to the section of Chapter Twelve, “Casting,” on “Open Casting” (pages 167-170).  On page 169 I used the term “‘color-blind’ casting,” which is a phrase I would no longer use.  “Color-blind casting” is an expression that has been used for decades to refer to casting decisions made without regard to ethnicity, and I used it with good intentions.  I now recognize, however, that attempts to be “color-blind” are misguided in the context of a society in which issues of race are important and volatile.

Before I explain further, let me say that I still strongly support the idea of keeping an open mind when casting any role for which ethnicity is not a germane issue.  Casting is always a matter of convention.  For example, the audience must suspend disbelief in order to accept that, in the context of the story of the current Broadway musical Something Rotten!, the central characters Nick and Nigel Bottom are brothers when we know very well that the actors playing them, Brian d’Arcy James and John Cariani, are not related at all.  Some might argue that their similar complexion and dark hair color makes it easier to “buy” them as brothers, but their physical build is completely different with no apparent damage to the credibility of the story (which is admittedly fanciful in this case).  Couldn’t we still “get into” this story if one of the brothers were played by an actor with blond hair? by a Latino actor? by an Asian American actor? Then why not an African American actor?  Were Broadway audiences flummoxed and discombobulated when the renowned African American actor Phylicia Rashad replaced Estelle Parsons (who is white) as the matriarch of the family at the center of August: Osage County?  (They were not.)  And perhaps we serve the theatre and our diverse world by extending the boundaries of this convention, as director Liesl Tommy and the Dallas Theater Center did with their recent production of Les Miserables, in which young actors of different ethnicities played the same character at different stages of growth.  After all, if the performers had looked more alike the audience would not actually have been fooled into believing that a single actor had grown a foot during intermission (only to return to her original height for the next day’s performance).  The gloriously diverse cast of Lin-Manuel Miranda’s Hamilton: An American Musical (directed by Thomas Kail and produced Off Broadway by The Public Theater) raises fascinating and exhilarating possibilities for the ability of open casting to contribute to the thematic impact of a play.

Making deliberate choices, however, to expand opportunities for talented and skilled actors, to allow the casts on our stages to resemble more closely the mosaic of humanity around us in our communities, and to challenge our audiences’ assumptions about ethnicity and race is not the same as pretending to be “color-blind.”  It is appropriately respectful of cultures and heritages to see and embrace differences in the backgrounds of the actors auditioning for our productions.  And, in the context of the United States, a nation still plagued by racism and still fraught by the horrible historic evil of slavery and the ensuing shameful facts of Jim Crow, lynching and white-supremacist terrorism, segregation, discrimination (in housing, employment, education, and much more), and mass incarceration, I think it is disrespectful, counter-productive, and cowardly to feign “color-blindness.”  I regret the use of the term in the The Director’s Vision and apologize for my failure to change it before the book’s publication.

I am very much a work in progress and I have learned a great deal about American history and society even in the past few days.  I appreciate patience as I work to improve my understanding and my vocabulary, and I appreciate feedback that will help me continue to learn.  Please feel free to post comments about this important aspect of our work.