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.

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

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.”

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.