At Last, a Director’s Career Guide

1rNqYkVDQuq1BbChqkqUegThe reference materials in the SDC Foundation‘s Stage Directors Handbook (2nd edition: 2005) were certainly useful, and K Callan’s Directing Your Directing Career (last updated 19 years ago) was a well-meaning effort. But we have long needed a book with serious, well informed, step-by-step career advice for talented, educated, trained stage directors seeking professional opportunities.

That need has been met by Kent Thompson‘s worthy new book, Directing Professionally: A Practical Guide to Developing a Successful Career in Today’s Theatre (2019). The latest in Jim Volz’s “Introductions to Theatre” series from Methuen Drama, Thompson’s book devotes much of its length to a useful description of the directorial process as it unfolds specifically in professional (as opposed to amateur or educational) theatre. It is the substantial portion devoted specifically to the business of career development, however, that most captures my interest.

Thompson is highly qualified to illuminate the path of the freelance director, having come to know it well both as a freelancer himself and as an artistic director who hired scores if not hundreds of directors, first at the Virginia Shakespeare Festival, then for a  long stint at the Alabama Shakespeare Festival and finally for more than a decade at the Tony Award-winning Theatre Company of the Denver Center for the Performing Arts. He shares his insights intelligently, clearly, and compassionately, with admirable attention to the ethics of the journey.

Thompson begins with some valuable context, delineating the difference between nonprofit and commercial theatre, for example, listing cities with enough professional theatre activity to make them viable as possible home bases, introducing the unions and collective bargaining agreements, describing the role of the agent and dismissing the practicality of a personal manager for almost any stage director, and–crucially–bringing down to earth any unrealistic earnings expectations the reader may hold. Quoting Laura Penn, executive director of our labor union, the Stage Directors and Choreographers Society (SDC), Thompson puts freelance directing in financial context:

“‘In 2016…. On average, [SDC members directing for professional nonprofit theatres] earned $14,695.04 (gross) through their work directing…. [Only] 9 percent made $40,000 or more. There are exactly three freelance directors working in the non-profits who earned $100,000 last year…. Obviously most, if not all, freelance directors are also teaching, temping, or running Airbnbs out of their homes.'”

Since Thompson advises that the reader “travel to other countries and visit other cultures,” attend as much theatre as possible, and do other important things that are not usually free, thank goodness he discusses the best “survival jobs” in some detail.

Annotated lists of tactics for “finding a pathway forward” toward professional directing opportunities (“Assist experienced directors,” “Become the entrepreneur of your own career,” “Direct workshops and readings…,” “Direct anywhere and everywhere,” etc.) and “finding a mentor” (“Don’t stalk!”) set the tone for the book’s most practical facets. An interesting chapter on interviewing and negotiating arrangements for an initial professional gig follows.

After a chunky middle section about directorial process (drawing some useful distinctions about how it goes in professional theatres in particular, which is sensible since many directors new to professional productions will have had most of their experience in academic settings where things may be done somewhat differently), Thompson gets into what is, for me, the juiciest part of his book. “Finding Your Next Directing Job(s)” (Chapter 8) has some of the most specific and practical guidance that I’ve ever seen on career development for freelance directors. Discussions of “Finding agents and advocates,” keeping in touch with mentors and potential producers, social media and networking, circumstances that can lead to subsequent employment, staying current in the field while making a living (usually in a “day job” of some sort), and living an itinerant artistic life are the very topics I’ve long wanted to share with students and early-career directors (and certainly could have used myself a decade or three ago). A sensible chapter on self-care and continuous artistic/professional learning follows. Most of the last part of the book is devoted to an insightful discussion of pursuing and starting a full-time staff position of artistic leadership at a professional theatre. For those who can expect to be seriously considered for the position of artistic director at a large regional theatre, it’s invaluable.

But, to be blunt, that’s a vanishingly small number of people, which brings me to one thing that worries me a little about the book. I feel it would be important to keep going back and re-reading that quote from Laura Penn while absorbing Thompson’s advice for developing a directing career. As sensible as his guidance is, it creates an atmosphere of normality about this career path which I just haven’t seen in the time I’ve spent around professional theatre. If an earnest and ambitious young director, no matter how talented and hard-working, were to follow Thompson’s suggestions by the numbers, they* might expect to find themselves getting a string of guest directing gigs and maybe even an opportunity to become an artistic director. And the truth is, that is unlikely to happen without the intervention of a lot of luck and maybe some privilege and even a dollop of who-you-know. In fairness I should remember that Thompson writes at some length about fallow periods, survival jobs, and strategies for staying creatively active and psychologically/socially/spiritually healthy, and these too are helpful passages.

It is not a complaint to say that the vast majority of Thompson’s career advice boils down to networking, and networking, and networking some more. It only makes sense: no one hires a director from a resumé. Potential mentors, agents, and advocates as well as producers have got to see your work to gain confidence in and pinpoint the style of your artistic product. They’ve got to get to know you as a person (and by reputation) to get a sense of how you will relate to actors, other collaborators, and staff members. They’ve got to get to know your approach, ideas, passions, ideals, and lived values. Beyond question, they’ve got to be sure of your work ethic and trustworthiness. If your show in Seattle got a great review you’ve got to get it in front of that artistic director in Atlanta or it won’t matter in their decision. Thompson vividly describes the balancing act needed to position an emerging director in the consciousness of producers and their influential advisors without being so aggressive as to alienate those decision makers and the people they trust. Thompson’s book stands out from others by providing straightforward, clear, common-sense, specific networking tactics in an encouraging, caring tone.

I honestly doubt that it’s realistic for anyone to expect to make a good living just by directing plays and musicals (the exceptions may be outnumbered by lottery winners). The most successful professional directors that I know are also some combination of teachers, playwrights, actors, arts administrators, dramaturgs, stage managers, casting directors, designers, theatre technicians, assistant/associate directors, musicians, choreographers, producers, coaches, professionals in related forms (opera, film, television, dance, etc.) and/or authors (like Kent Thompson, come to think of it).

When it comes to the part of such a career that’s comprised of stage directing, though, Thompson’s Directing Professionally is an indispensable guide. For every emerging director, this book is a must-read.

*I’m still trying to get used to using “they” as a singular pronoun. But I’m doing it, so here you go.

A Trump-as-Caesar Reader

Earlier this summer, director Oskar Eustis’s production of William Shakespeare’s Julius Caesar, which had been mounted by the Public Theater (of which Eustis is the artistic director) as part of its Free Shakespeare in the Park program’s 2017 Delacorte Season in New York City’s Central Park, became a lightning rod for discussion and conflict.  The depiction of the title character, a populist Roman ruler assassinated by senators concerned that his ascent could mean the end of their democratic ideals, was perceived as a doppelganger of Donald Trump.  Some political partisans, who misinterpreted the show as an attempt to normalize or advocate violence against Trump and other Republican politicians, spoke out against it, protested it, and even interrupted the production.  Two corporate sponsors withdrew support from The Public, and the National Endowment for the Arts distanced itself from the show.  All of this became the predominant topic recently on this blog’s Facebook page.  In fact, I posted so much related to this topic that I thought it might be useful to try to consolidate the various articles and links into this blog post.  To that I have added some additional material that may be of interest.


Delacorte Theater stage viewed from aisle M-N By: This photo was taken by participant/team Lazy Bastards as part of the Commons:Wikis Take Manhattan project on October 4, 2008. (Contributed by author), via Wikimedia Commons

The Director’s Vision’s first Facebook post about the Julius Caesar controversy was a link to The New York Times review by their new co-chief theatre critic Jesse Green.

Next I posted “a brief snip” of video from a speech that Eustis gave from the stage of the Delacorte before a performance of Julius Caesar after the controversy had erupted.  That was shared from The Public’s Facebook page, which also has a more complete version of that speech.  In fact there is quite a bit of interesting stuff about The Public’s response to the controversy on their page, so please check it out.

In the comments on that post I then linked to an interview by New York Times writer Michael Paulson in which he elicits a statement of intent from Eustis.  I also linked to the director’s program note, which had been posted on The Public’s web site.

My friend, the actor Ashley Smith, had pointed out this Deadline article about some fools threatening completely unrelated theatresThis piece in Vox made clear how wrong-headed the protests and other complaints really were.

Next came an interview by Washington Post theatre critic Peter Marks with Eustis about the controversy.  I also linked to Marks’s review.

In addition to the New York Times news article linked above, there was a thought piece from Vox about the performance interruptions.

Then the eminent critic and scholar Dr. Samuel L. Leiter re-posted (and recommended) something that had previously been re-posted (and recommended in the strongest possible terms) by the very distinguished classical actor Peter Page.  That turned out to be part of a very substantial three-part piece of writing by one of my heroes, the great actor/director/scholar Dakin Matthews.  Mr. Matthews has been kind enough to give permission to re-post the entirety of this writing here.  Many thanks to him for this extensive, fine-grained, and extraordinarily useful analysis.  Part one:

Julius Caesar in the park! Okay, let’s all take a deep breath!

First of all, can we please distinguish between the play and the production? And can we also distinguish between free speech and corporate support?

Let start with the second distinction first. Nobody so far is trying to close down the production—though I’m sure some would like to. But sponsorship, whether corporate or individual, is voluntary. Any theatre that begs for corporate sponsorship knows exactly what it is doing, and knows both the upsides and the downsides. And any sponsor, corporate or individual, has every right to give, deny, or (within limits) withdraw its sponsorship. And anyone in the public has every right to boycott any corporate entity if he or she disagrees with that corporation’s actions, whether political or economic or social or benevolent or whatever. It’s free speech and free action all around.

Take a contrary hypothetical: suppose a corporation funded a theatre, and then that theatre never cast minorities in important roles; how would you feel about a withdrawal of corporate support? Would you boycott that corporation? Or come to its defense?

I think the question of government support is a little trickier, and overwhelmingly much more political. But again, how would you feel if government support went overwhelmingly to those companies that equally overwhelmingly hired non-minority performers? (Perhaps that is even the case right now, or could be soon.)

Now about the play and the production.

Shakespeare’s Julius Caesar is a maddeningly complex, highly sophisticated play about a number of things: about Brutus and Cassius and Antony and Caesar in particular, or at least about how Shakespeare tried to understand them, but also about the individual in society, the tensions between democracy and monarchy, the psychology of the strongman and the psychology of the assassin and the psychology of the mob, a particular critical moment in early western history, the use of rhetoric in public discourse, politics and ambition, stoicism and its discontents, good intentions and mixed intentions–and even possibly the tenuous state of the Elizabethan monarchy at the turn of the seventeenth century.

Yes, an argument can be made about the topicality of certain of Shakespeare’s plays—Shakespeare himself occasionally forges the link himself, and certainly his contemporaries did as well—especially about his history plays (see Richard II and Henry IV for well documented examples—as well as Coriolanus). And Shakespeare’s plays were produced by his own company pretty much in what was for them “modern dress,” and have been produced in what has been, for succeeding audiences, “modern dress” ever since. So there’s nothing new or unprecedented about leading audiences to make connections between the world of the play and the world they live in. What would be the “purpose of playing” if plays didn’t do that? (See Hamlet.)

So you can’t really challenge the current production on “general principles”—that modern dress somehow invalidates the production or that topical application, whether implied or inferred, is somehow both unwelcome and corrupting.

But you can challenge any individual production, it seems to me, on its specific invitation to topical readings.

And what are the bases of such challenges? I think there are a number, but we must always remember that no production actually wipes out the play text. Julius Caesar the script remains uncorrupted in whatever form it comes down to us, and can withstand any wrongheaded or well meaning production that may call itself “Shakespearean.”

Nonetheless, one can challenge any specific production, first and foremost, for essentially betraying the play. (And I’m not suggesting they don’t have the right to do that, and no one could stop them anyway; I’m just suggesting that betrayal is always possible, and that I’m not sure it a good choice. But betrayal of his intentions was the option that Shakespeare had to embrace when he co-created unfinished works of art and left them for his fellows and future generations to finish. “How many ages since, etc.” And just as Cassius and Brutus are wrong about how future playgoers will evaluate their actions, so playwrights can never be sure how future actors will interpret their works.)

One sign of what I call “betrayal” might be the excising of critical portions of the text (or additions to the text) that mask or distort what Shakespeare’s interpretative intentions were. (Yes, I still believe in the author and his intentions, as do most actors I know. And most playwrights.) Another might be the clear violation of the meaning of a critical part of the text, or of an action indicated by the text, without actually cutting or adding to it. I have actually heard more than one director say, “I know that’s not what the text means, but let’s do it that way anyway.” Sometimes it’s harmless—“Who in the press calls on me?”—but sometimes it’s not.

But injudicious cutting or interpolating or deliberate misinterpretation are not the only reasons why one might challenge a particular production, because the primary task of any production is to produce an interpretation of of a playscript—and here I use the original meaning of ‘interpretation,’ the live voicing and/or presentation of a performance. Again, I believe that Shakespeare, in the case of Julius Caesar, wrote a very carefully balanced narrative, which, while extraordinarily complex, does not seem to me necessarily ambiguous—‘ambiguous’ in the sense of giving a director unconditional permission to slant the narrative or the dramaturgy any which way he or she chooses.

Many critics of the production believe that the slanting of the narrative by the director’s clear intent to have the audience see Caesar and his wife as stand-ins for President Trump and his wife—especially as the climactic action of the first part of the play is the assassination of the ruler—crossed some kind of interpretive, and even socially and politically permissible, line. Supporters of the production, including the director himself in a note posted on the Public’s website, continue to point out that Shakespeare, and presumably this production, make it very clear that assassination is not only not condoned, but is shown to have destructive consequences for democracy.

I suspect both responses are a little simplistic.

Art has always tended to cross lines, and sometimes the consequences are positive and sometimes negative. A graphic staging of the murder of a character deliberately identified as Donald Trump (even if his name is Caesar) is indeed provocative. Offensive to his supporters and even to some of his detractors, who nonetheless find the graphic representation of such an assassination unnecessarily provocative. (For the record, Queen Elizabeth I seems to have been more offended by an abdication scene of one of her predecessors and by his murder scene.) And while they may not admit it, I suspect more than a handful of his most fervent enemies will probably find a perverse pleasure in this assassination fantasy.

But, frankly, a director’s disclaiming post about one of the purposes of the production being a staging of the chaotic consequences of assassination could sound a little like protesting too much. I think that is clearly one of the purposes of the script, perhaps even its primary dramatic purpose; but a visual and interpretive slant as strong as replacing Caesarism with Trumpism seems to me unlikely to maintain the necessary thematic and psychological balance of the play. I will know more when I see the production tonight; but even its defenders have mostly admitted that the second half of the production, where this balance is carefully worked out through a series of shifting sympathies among the three surviving protagonists, seems a muddle; and that the wonderful performances of Cassius, Brutus, and Antony (the latter a cross-gender triumph) tend to get overwhelmed and flattened out by the extreme topicality of the Trump/Caesar identification; and that even that characterization, replacing a truly world-shaking and widely admired (however monumentally flawed) soldier, statesman, politician, and literary stylist like Caesar with a petty, preening blowhard, does little to honor Shakespeare’s careful psychological portrait and the delicate balance among the four leading characters.

I’ll give you my personal judgement on all this tomorrow.

Dakin Matthews, continued:

Julius Caesar in the Park, part two.

(A long, as yet unfinished read)

This is not really a review yet, this is the beginning of a report on what I saw and an analysis both of the production choices and of the brouhaha surrounding this production.

First, it must be read in connection with my earlier posting, in which I attempted to untangle what I thought were some overly simplistic—and sometimes knee-jerk—reactions to the whole thing. (And I beg no one to take any of my statements out of the larger context of the discussion. I am an avid supporter of the Public Theater, and of Oskar Eustis my friend in particular, and I will not have my name or my opinion dragged into any diatribe or movement to sanction this production, this company, or its current charismatic leader.)


Corporate support of the arts or culture in general, withdrawal of that support for whatever reason, and boycotting a corporation for either supporting or withdrawing support are all voluntary actions in a democracy and do not amount to censorship. Such actions may be deplorable or admirable, depending on the specific situation. If the dreadful Citizens United has taught us anything, it is that free speech can be expensive, but finally the “free” in “free speech” was never intended to be a financial term. If conservatives have called for boycotts or withdrawals over presentations or programs they did not like, so have liberals. The day after Delta and Bank of America announced their withdrawal of support, partial or total, from the Public Theater’s Julius Caesar, J.P. Morgan announced it was withdrawing its advertising (and its revenue) from Megyn Kelly’s airing on NBC of the Alex Jones interview. No one should be surprised to find that when corporations spend money on something, they do not act from self-interest; and sometimes that self-interest bows to the pressure exerted by their customers or stockholders, both of whom can be offended in ways that make the corporations uncomfortable.

(By the way, there has been a lot of pushback against Delta for supposedly supporting an Obama-assassination-themed production from the Guthrie and the Acting Company some years back. I’ve seen that particular meme repeated ad nauseam in the Public’s defense. Well, I saw that earlier production (and I am a proud founding member of the Acting Company), and there is frankly no equivalency. It was modern dress and the Caesar was black, and the production was good and well received, but there was absolutely no overt attempt to identify him as President Obama, even if that’s where the director claims to have drawn his inspiration. Black “presidents,” like Morgan Freeman and Dennis Haysbert, were popular memes around then, if you recall.)


The other thing I attempted to unravel—and that will be my primary concern here with regards to the specific production of Julius Caesar–is the difference between a playscript and a production of a play. Playscripts are not plays, they are detailed instructions for plays, as scores are instructions for symphonies. Some playscripts may also be marvelous literary documents (like Shakespeare’s), as some costume renderings are wall-worthy art; but that’s not their purpose. They embody a co-creator’s intentions for an eventual production; they contain detailed instructions, like a blueprint. And the instructions are given to the stage artists, whose work, each time it is done, embodies not just the writer’s artistry but their own particular creativity as well. That’s the deal.

So to say that a “play” has a certain “meaning” or “lesson” for us is a statement whose truth is dependent upon how a particular production of that play integrates the work of its two principal creators, the author and the stage artists who interpret it. And inasmuch as Shakespeare is most likely the greatest professional playwright who ever wrote, surely this means that this integration and interpretation by the living stage artists should factor in a rather serious respect for the playwright’s literary, thematic, dramaturgical, and psychological skills. Or as I often put it to my students, “When Fred Astaire asks you to dance, don’t insist on leading.” Shakespeare’s script may indeed offer us such a lesson, but an individual production, in its particular appropriation of that script, may not. (In my opinion, this play is a particularly excellent example of that; historically, perhaps the majority of performances of this play have insisted on presenting Brutus as the unflawed hero of democracy, and have achieved this by carefully selective cutting and staging emphases.)

At the same time, when a play becomes a classic, in reality it may (perhaps even must) forfeit, to some extent, the author’s dominant claim to intentional pre-eminence, especially when both the culture and the staging conditions change radically. The text may then become the “raw material” for further artistic mining, which may result in unearthing “ore” beyond the original author’s intention. That is also the deal, the Faustian bargain that playwrights tacitly accept when they write for the ever evolving stage, for productions that may take place “many ages hence. . . In states unborn and accents yet unknown.”

Still, it is my belief (and others may not agree) that any producer who touts a performance as Shakespeare’s Julius Caesar, and the themes and characters and “lessons” therein as Shakespeare’s own, had better be damn sure that he or she is not just using Shakespeare to advance another, identifiably non-Shakespearean agenda, whether artistic, cultural, ideological, or political. But, of course, identifying exactly what the tolerable mix of fidelity and invention is, where the line can be drawn, and whether it should be drawn, is devilishly difficult. But just because it is difficult, doesn’t mean one shouldn’t try.


First of all, I must report with some embarrassment that I am writing this analysis after reading some kind words Oskar wrote about me in the program, words which I read for the first time when I took my seat in the Delacorte on opening night. Some may therefore read my analysis as the height of ingratitude. Oskar, I know, will not. He and I have been friends for over three decades, and while he claims to have learned from me, I wish to state for the record that I believe I have learned far more from him over those decades than he from me. The value of passionate engagement in the culture and the arts. The right mix of social activism and social grace. Commitment to a strong vision for society and the courage and flexibility to engage with those who may not always share that vision. An appreciation for the truly innovative. An unshakable faith in diversity at all levels. Provocation tempered with real care. The right blend of prudence and exuberance. All areas where I find myself often in need of improvement.

Next, though I think the current kerfuffle has indeed been driven primarily by a right-wing engine of faux outrage—which I think various journalists have documented fairly clearly—nonetheless I think it is still possible and necessary to ignore all the political noise and attempt to undertake a mainly artistic analysis of the production’s strengths and weaknesses. (The left-wing engine of faux outrage is not all that silent either.)

Third, I do know this play quite well, both as a scholar and as a theatre professional. I’ve written extensively about it, I taught it almost every year of my academic life, and have read most of the important critical literature. I’ve seen lots of productions, dramaturged it twice, directed it twice, and appeared in it at least seven times: twice as Brutus, twice as Caesar, twice as Casca–and as other plebs, citizens, and soldiers. I’ve worked with some mostly white casts, but also with black Caesars, black Cassiuses, black Brutuses, and black Antonys, and women in men’s roles, in modern dress, in period dress, and in between. Twice Oskar and I worked together on productions; both times I thought we both learned a lot.


Finally, let’s be frank, the production’s conception of the title character does not “suggest” Trump—it absolutely identifies Trump, and his wife, through a series of semiotically unmistakable gestures and props and set pieces and stage business and characterizations and habits of speech and costumes and additional text. It does not allow or invite audiences to draw the similarity, it forces them to, it needs them to, it makes it impossible not to. Much of the success of the early part of the play is firmly rooted in this deliberate identification. So let’s not pussy-foot around it—this is a specifically Trump-centered production, and Fox News is closer to the truth (Oh gasp!) in its faux outrage when it headlines that “Trump is assassinated in Central Park” than the play’s defenders are who claim that it’s just a fictional “Julius Caesar.”

I read one blogger who claimed it is simply not true to say that the play “depicts” the assassination of Donald Trump. In fact, that’s exactly what it does. What it does not do, ever, is “condone” it. Still some questions remain: what is the purpose, what is the effect, and what is the propriety of even a metaphorical suggestion of violence against one’s political opponent—and more specifically against one’s head of state?

Does the mere depiction of such an action cross some kind of ethical, aesthetic, cultural, political, or legal line? Even to some creators of similar depictions, it apparently does cross one line–of taste. Kathy Griffin thought so, and said so—under some pressure admittedly–and hers was just a depiction of a depiction of Trump’s beheading, a photograph of a mask of his likeness. And among Obama’s supporters, depictions of Obama being lynched created a fair amount of left-wing outrage–as it should–though I have yet to hear any apologies for those. The mask was not Trump, the drawings and the effigies were not Obama, and Gregg Henry’s Caesar is not literally Trump; but all are works of art clearly and intentionally depicting violence against them, and we should be honest about the fact that art sometimes wants to speak quite directly through such likenesses. And we should take it seriously. And not be disingenuous about it. Oskar certainly has not been.

But we can still question, when we give artists that space, when we concede that they have that right, whether they use it appropriately—because all rights come with obligations. I know, I know, some artists reject outright the idea of appropriateness, even thrive on being inappropriate. But I’m not necessarily talking about culturally or socially appropriate, or even about tastefulness or tactlessness; I’m talking about aesthetics. And I’m talking about the full context in which such provocative depictions may be made, and whether they are artistically successful or self-defeating depictions.


So I guess we’re right where Oskar put us all in his opening night speech—looking into the “mirror up to nature.” If like me, you believe that Hamlet, in select parts of the play, is actually channeling Shakespeare’s own opinions (why else would a 9th century Danish Prince talk about London’s 17th century children’s theatres?), then surely his advice to the players is advice to all players. And too often that advice is condensed to just the plain mirror image, as if some kind of contemporaneous topical reflection is what Hamlet (and Shakespeare) is talking about. But it’s not. Shakespeare also used “mirror” when he clearly meant “model” or “example”—see Lady Percy’s stirring eulogy for her husband in 2 Henry IV.

(Of course, while we’re on the subject, this is the same Hamlet who also thought it entirely appropriate to slant a performance of an extant play on regicide (“The Murther of Gonzago”) to give it a more specific reference to an existing ruler, even adding lines of his own to the text to sharpen the topicality. So if Hamlet is still channeling Shakespeare here, one would have to conclude that the bard would have no great problem with what Oskar is up to. Of course the Prince was probably also funding the performance, so he’d also have no objections to the changes, and arguably the players would have had no choice but to accept his directorial intrusions.)

But back to that “mirror up to nature.” What the entire phrase and the surrounding context call for is the appropriate depiction of human behavior for a specific purpose: “to hold, as ‘twere, a mirror up to nature, to show virtue her own feature, scorn her own image, and the very age and body of the time his form and pressure.” Now the first part of this is pretty unambiguous, theatrical mirrors are not neutral reflectors, except for narcissists who simply wish to gaze lovingly into their own eyes. Plays are only mirrors, as ‘twere; they’re not reflective neutrally. The theatrical mirror is a much more complex apparatus; its job is to show you human nature. If I may paraphrase, it is specifically constructed to show you what you should be (virtue), what you shouldn’t be (scorn) and what you currently are. (I should add that I’m not sure the final phrase can be construed only to mean the present time; it is possible that Shakespeare thought that the theatrical mirror should also try to accurately reflect what human nature was like in other eras and times. The metaphor is from wax seals, the image left in the wax exactly captures–in concave of course–the impression of the signet or seal–its form and the pressure with which it is applied. And I’m pretty sure Shakespeare thought “human nature” was pretty consistent and recognizable across all ages.)

The theatrical mirror offers primarily an occasion for self-evaluation, not simply recognition—by an individual and by a society. And when that theatrical mirror is specifically a history play, rather than a simple fiction, it offers an occasion for self-evaluation by presenting us, not with pictures of ourselves, but with (perhaps re-fashioned) examples from the past with whom we share a human nature and whose dilemmas and decisions, even in a radically different culture, we may be able to identify with and sympathize with (because we share that nature), and from whose actions—and their consequences–we may be able to learn something about ourselves and our choices.

So what happens when a character called Julius Caesar becomes Caesar in name only and Donald J. Trump in almost every other way—to the point where a wonderful actor is required to mangle Shakespeare’s verse rhythms in order to capture our president’s bullying fifth-grade schoolyard cadences? There is clearly a gain in comedy and perhaps in pertinence (or impertinence), but there are clear losses as well. A specific tone of satire and parody is introduced which may clash with, and be counterproductive to, the inherent and ironic seriousness of the rest of the play. The extreme topicality also practically compels us to go hunting for other contemporary parallels, and we find them of course in Caesar’s wife—proverbially beyond suspicion—now saddled with Melania’s accent and attitude, and haunted by her soft porn modeling career. And Jared’s flak-jacket over blazer ensemble. But we also find them—and if we’re a right-wing website we blare them out—in the fact that “all the conspirators save one” are women and minorities, and of them, only the white man, it is finally declared, was acting nobly out of principle. Topicality, it seems, can cut both ways, and color-blind casting does not always blindfold an audience.

So why make so strong a choice about Caesar, when it should have been obvious that such a choice could have at least a disruptive effect not only on the production itself, but on the perception of the production? (Unless disruption, as it is for Steve Bannon, was the point.)

I suppose it was almost irresistible. The director himself tells us he made that decision the day after the election. And to be fair, the playwright himself supplied a lot of encouragement. Shakespeare’s Caesar is not just physically compromised (epilepsy, partial loss of hearing) but clearly pompous, egotistical, not invulnerable to ambition, and a sucker for flattery. (It was particularly piquant to see one recent New York Times front page feature–below the fold–on the production’s provocative portrait of Caesar, printed right next to a story about Trump’s recent Cabinet meeting orgy of sycophancy and ass-kissing.)

But Shakespeare’s Caesar, while deeply flawed, is still history’s Great Man as well, a conqueror, statesman, literary stylist, adored icon, consummate politician, “mighty, bold, royal, and loving” as one character calls him, and a man whom even his assassin praises as one he has never known to let his affection sway more than his reason. He may be now in decline, even in decay, but he may also be “the ruins of the noblest man / That ever lived in the tide of times.” In other words, even a failing Caesar carries behind him a train of world-changing conquests, glories, triumphs, and spoils, while a Caesar shrunk to Trumpian dimensions trails only a string of bankruptcies, lawsuits, failed promises, garish buildings, lies, and gold-plated scat. The displacement of a larger-than-life figure by a smaller-than-life one does the play no favors.

So in such extreme topicality there may be a diminishment, a diminishment that may extend, unfortunately, to every other character, and a diminishment in the aesthetic coherence of the play as a whole.


Because scripts are not merely suggestions, like architectural sketches on a napkin. They are, for lack of a better word, foundational. So now it becomes necessary to try to identify what exactly Shakespeare’s script may have envisioned for any production. By this I do not mean that all his intentions are recoverable or stage-able today. Or that they have to be. I will always honor the interpretive right—even the interpretive necessity–of his living co-creators to leave their mark on his plays and make them accessible to a 21st century audience. What I mean is that a script, like a blueprint, is a complex set of instructions for constructing a production; and not understanding any part of it, or tinkering with any part of it, is likely to have negative system-wide repercussions. And unlike a blueprint, scripts deal with human behavior, not inorganic materials—so the complexity is exponentially multiplied.

Take this script, for example. First of all, it is a history play, so all the primary characters already have their own legendary reputations, and the audience’s knowledge of those reputations, exerting pressure on the narrative. Then it’s a seventeenth century reflection on a first century BCE event and a first century BCE culture. And it represents, therefore, not what we now know and think of that era and that deed, but what Shakespeare and his contemporaries knew and thought. And what they knew was strongly influenced by the enormous impact that ancient Rome had on the educated Renaissance Englishman, and on the mostly self-educating William Shakespeare in particular. (In addition, it is now so familiar a script—in fact for many people their likeliest source of what little knowledge they have about the events portrayed—that it will always present directors with the temptation to do something surprising and disruptive to counteract that familiarity.)


There were four primary interpretive frames, I think, through which Shakespeare is likely to have looked back on, and understood, and tried to reproduce the events of March, 44 BCE.

1. First was that of a Christian writer evaluating a pagan culture, in particular the various philosophical bases of its ethical behavior—like Stoicism, for example with its doctrines of dispassion and suicide; and the three most recognizable pillars of the Roman ethos: duty, honor, friendship. (Many of these doctrines Shakespeare and his peers would have absorbed from their reading of Cicero and his disciples.)

2. The second was that of a monarchist examining a democracy.

3. The third was as a writer who had an almost personal relationship to Roman culture because of the dominance of Roman-based rhetorical studies in his education—again from Cicero and his followers. Shakespeare may therefore have felt compelled, almost in the interests of verisimilitude, to anchor much of his characterization in the persuasive powers of the principal characters. To be a Roman was to be a rhetor. Rhetoric would be pervasive in any depiction of Roman affairs, and would help to create the Roman era with the same kind of historical accuracy that we would now expect from authentic costuming and properties and architecture.

4. And fourth, as reader of Plutarch, whose Parallel Lives only reinforced Shakespeare’s natural curiosity about the psychological makeup of the great Greek and Roman heroes, and whose insistence that it is not only in the large deeds of great men that we come to understand them, but sometimes in their small actions and casual thoughts as well. It is almost impossible to underrate this last influence. Shakespeare will lay out the sequence of events with a great deal of skill in his plotting, making some adjustments along the way; but that is not what really interested him. It’s not what happened, but how it happened, and more importantly why it happened. Or to be more accurate, since this is performance art, why it is happening before our eyes. And almost always the why is to be found in the psyches of the principal players.

I would suggest therefore that he found the fascinating tale in history and then asked himself something like, what were these men and women thinking—both as individuals and as members of an influencing culture; what were they feeling, what did they imagine they were doing? What did they want? Did they even know what they wanted? These men and women may not have had the same culture as we do, but they had the same human nature. I should be able to understand them, I want to understand them, and I want to offer others a credible depiction of their behavior. The actions are a given, the people and their motives however, may still be still something of an enigma. I want to humanize them, not as oversized figures of out of history books, not statues, but flesh and blood. Maybe larger than life, but still lifelike, living.

Of all these frames, I think our modern audiences mostly share only the fourth. Not that we have read Plutarch, but it is that author’s and Shakespeare’s fascination with the complexity of human behavior, and their determination to depict it in all its complexity, that we now share and even crave of our best artists.

But the other three frames have left their mark on the dramaturgy of the play as well, and while they cannot always be reproduced, they cannot be easily dismissed or dismantled either. They are part of the warp and woof of the play, so players have to find some way to honor them.

For the first frame, with a much more secularized audience today, there should be no problem, as long as we understand what Shakespeare is up to. Brutus is to some extent a sympathetic embodiment of Shakespeare’s critique of Stoicism. And Brutus’s struggle with honor–is it intrinsic to a man or bestowed on him by others?—a concern Shakespeare will explore more deeply and harshly in Troilus and Cressida—is a struggle not unknown in modern times. As is Brutus’ parallel struggle to be true to his “philosophy.” But both are essential to the play, and are deeply intertwined. The word honor rings out clearly in all the crucial scenes; and any interpretation that does not give it the pre-eminence, and the specific development that Shakespeare accorded it, risks distorting the play—especially as Brutus, while not the title character, is clearly the protagonist of this play.

For the second frame, there should be very little difficulty honoring its presence. Tyranny, demagoguery, populism, mobocracy, plutocracy, oligarchy are still very much with us—perhaps even more so—out at the polarized edges of the political spectrum, as are monarchy and democracy towards the middle. Even Shakespeare had little trouble shining a harsh light on the abuses of monarchy, though he does seem a hold a rather harsher light on the abuses of democracy. He nowhere seems to condone assassination, but then again he did not live in the Hitler era. But to say he nowhere condones regicide is a bit of an overreach. What happened on Bosworth Field? (Though I believe I read recently that Henry VII officially backdated his official claim to the crown to the day before Bosworth Field to prevent that specific charge.)

For the third frame, though we are not so educated in rhetoric, we can probably still recognize it in all its variations when we hear it. (And when we don’t recognize it as just rhetoric and not reality, we sometimes get manipulated into making horrible decisions.) But how this frame affects Shakespeare’s dramaturgy is a little more complex. There are so many scenes of persuasions–of individuals and groups–and so many framings of those scenes, when the persuading characters explain, either before or after, exactly where the weaknesses of their listeners lie, and which rhetorical strategies can best take advantage of those weaknesses. So this particular structure, it seems to me, is fundamental to Shakespeare’s organization of his materials, and needs to be honored somehow–because again it is an essential part of the play’s dynamic, a thread that cannot be pulled out without damaging the tapestry.

As for the fourth frame, what it mostly requires of modern players is that they pay as much attention to the complex interior lives of the principals as Shakespeare does. This play is particularly challenging in that regard because it presents the principals in ways that arouse shifting sympathies over the course of the action. We should be constantly re-evaluating the main characters as they reveal hitherto unknown sides of themselves. Our assumptions are constantly being challenged by the surprising complexity of their psyches. And we must learn, as in life, not to take everything people say about themselves, or about others, as true. There is much in the play about “putting up a front” before others—“as our Roman actors do”—as there is about construing “things. . . clean from the purpose of the things themselves.”


With these disclaimers, and these frames, I will try, in an upcoming post, to give this production a critical look, not as a provocative piece of political activism, but specifically as a work of performance art.

And the final (third) part of Dakin Matthews’ writing on this subject:

Now my personal opinion—and that’s all it is–about the production itself. Please take nothing I say out of context.

Let’s get the Trump business out of the way first.

1. A modern dress production—set in the U.S. or elsewhere–is a perfectly valid choice for a play as political as this. But familiarity is not really the primary goal of such a choice. Rather it is to make the play more understandable for the audience, and through that understanding, more relatable to their own social and political situation. A transfer to any period other than that imagined by the author can potentially make the play more understandable, as long as the new period provides equivalencies that illumine rather than obscure the original; and other periods than our own can do that as well. However, some periods may simply not be amenable hosts because they do not provide equivalencies or are even less familiar than the original. Contemporary America strikes me as a nearly perfect choice because of the wealth of equivalencies and the high level of interest in and information about the current political situation. And the danger to our own institutions.

2. However, should a conceptual transfer become too specific, too topical, or too silly, too self-referentially clever, then it can overwhelm the original by creating false equivalencies, and by distracting audiences from what Shakespeare calls the “necessary question of the play.” To aggravate this, dropping what is essentially a SNL sketch parody into the heart of this play wounds it, in my opinion—though not necessarily fatally—by creating a contemporary incoherence of tone, uncalled for by the original text and unhelpful, finally, to the overall production– however much it may have created both a temporary frisson, not to mention a lot of press and support.

3. There are really two reasons, in my opinion, why this choice hurts the production more than it helps it. The first is social and the second is theatrical.

4. As I tried to clarify in my earlier analysis, one might object to the performance choice because it is inappropriate and even offensive socially. Simply put, is it ever appropriate to graphically represent the brutal murder of one’s political opponent, let alone the head of one’s state? The defense that it was “Julius Caesar” and not “Donald Trump” who was knifed onstage is disingenuous at best and dishonest at worst. One cannot spend 59 minutes saying, “Look, it’s Donald Trump—look, it’s Donald Trump!” and then at the top of the hour claim, “Nothing to see here folks, it’s just Julius Caesar being assassinated.” This is the case that some of the play’s defenders are making, and it’s bogus. Almost as bogus as the supposed “Obama-assassination-production of Julius Caesar” some years back, about which even the director admits there was never any overt attempt to identify Obama with Caesar. And I don’t think it is a defense which Oskar has ever made. I have generally found Oskar, bless him, to be anything but disingenuous.

5. The Public’s Caesar is meant to be read as Donald Trump, pure and simple. The name, as Lady Bracknell might say, is immaterial. In the final act, a defeated Brutus enters and urges his companions to “rest upon this rock”; but there is no rock, there is what I take to be a cheesy hotel room. Calling it a rock doesn’t change the visual fact that the final scene is meant to be seen as indoors in a run-down room for rent. The visual trumps the purely nominal.

6. So the question remains about the depiction of the brutal murder of one’s political opponent or one’s head of state. Personally, I cannot think of a case where I would find it appropriate; and I suspect I would usually consider it offensive. (I know that is true in every case where a similar depiction was aimed overtly at Barack Obama.) I’m not talking about satire or ridicule, though there are also times when satire and ridicule might be socially inappropriate as well–if it is racist or sexist, for example, or attacks a person’s family, or comes at a time of personal crisis, like the loss of a loved one. I’m talking strictly about depictions of murderous violence. Of course, one man’s inappropriate is another man’s offensive. And the line between inappropriate and offensive is generally partisan—as is the line between “inappropriate but necessary” and “inappropriate and unnecessary.” So at that level it may be more a matter of personal taste and social courtesy. I get that, and I also get that offensive speech is constitutionally protected, perhaps even more so than inoffensive speech.

7. But there is another question beyond whether a depiction is “socially acceptable.” Is such a depiction socially productive? If the depiction was meant to “start a conversation,” did it start one that benefitted society? Oskar is very clear in his conviction that the Public’s offerings are part of a necessary civil conversation, one that can be at times more uncomfortable than “civil.” One can question whether this particular “conversation” contributed to the reduction of polarization, or merely aggravated it. Whether it spoke to those who needed to hear it, or only to those who wanted to hear it. It may have moved the questions of “artistic freedom” and “free speech” and “corporate support of the arts” to the fore, but did it do anything for the themes at the heart of this play: the allied dangers to democracy presented by tyranny, demagoguery, populism, and violence? Oskar spoke eloquently of the “clash of ideas” necessary for a democracy, but did this production reduce the noise level so that the “sharing of ideas” was made more likely, or it did it merely increase the din, so nothing could be heard clearly amid all the shouting? I think that’s a fair question.

8. At the same time, I understand there is no hard and fast rule which says that all public speech must be civil or even constructive. Free speech is a right, but the access to exercise that right can be and often is quite limited by the structures of government and the power of money. Sometimes all one can do to combat injustice or raise an alarm is stand in the street and yell. Protest is almost by definition boisterous, disruptive, and inappropriate. There are times when even highly offensive speech is not only protected but necessary. This may be one of those times; but one can still ask the question, is this particular form of protest effective?

9. I would argue that finally it is not—and here we get into the aesthetic argument–mostly because the tool (Shakespeare’s script) used to mount the protest was not constructed for, and indeed is ultimately ill suited for, that purpose. You can try to hammer a nail in with a shoe, but it might compromise the shoe and still not get the job done. You can also try to hammer a nail in with a bronze bust of Shakespeare, and in a real emergency you might have to (“for want of a nail, etc.”); but the result may still be serious damage to the bust, and even then you might end up with just a bent nail. To put it in the bluntest possible terms, perhaps one should write his own protest play, and not use Shakespeare’s as a stalking horse–and then as a protective shield when the tactic misfires.

10. One of the problems with the production, in my opinion stated earlier, is that it diminishes Caesar even further than Shakespeare himself did, and substitutes one kind of humor (satirical and parodic) for another (ironic), which while it may please the multitude, is in my view, to paraphrase Hamlet, injudicious. And finally it does not quite have the courage of its own convictions. There were, after all, four principal Caesar partisans: Caesar (Trump), Calpurnia (Melania), Octavius (Jared), and a female Antony for whom there surely was an obvious candidate—Caesar’s confidante, tireless defender, master of his public campaign, and manipulator of public opinion. But I guess we should be thankful we were spared a Kellyanne Conway version of Antony’s forum speech, and treated instead to a virtuoso performance from Liz Marvel.

11. Speaking of actors, you do not usually get four such wonderful actors as Ms Marvel, Gregg Henry, John Douglas Thompson, and Corey Stoll onstage all at the same time, not to mention crowds that are truly crowds and crowd scenes that are wonderfully staged and truly galvanizing—and for all that the production was well worth seeing. In fact the first half of the show, even with the unsettling Trump material, was staged and acted with a briskness and clarity and inventiveness that was altogether remarkable.

12. But finally, the production was, I felt, less successful that it could have been—especially in the difficult second half. Granted, most of the play’s dramaturgical challenges are in the later scenes, and it is the rare production that makes them work. So Shakespeare will have to shoulder some of the responsibility for that. But so will the production design, which never managed to escape from the curse of the modern tendency to design a set that works wonderfully for a critical part of the play and woefully for other parts, in this case for most of the second half. The initial look of two great gearlike projections suggested a kind of inhuman society that ground its people down (which would perhaps have been more visually apt for a production of Coriolanus). When they meshed to form the Senate chamber, the effect was thrilling. But then, when the play shifted to other locations, there they still were, relentlessly urban and incapable of being subsumed into any other environment. The result was the unfortunate inability to portray martial action effectively and the aforementioned cheesy hotel room that served both as “tent” and “rock” of refuge. Shakespeare’s plays written for the neutral unit set always present a challenge to modern designers, who must find a way to recreate the period the director chooses for the play without being so overspecific as to undermine the fluidity of the action and the appropriateness of the setting.

13. But beyond the design and beyond what I consider the initial directorial misstep, both in tone and in dramatic weight, of the over-reliance on the Trump identification, there were other ways in which specific crucial elements of the script were cut, ignored, or warped so that Shakespeare’s careful blueprint went unheeded and the resulting construct became unwieldy.

14. To take what was for me the most egregious example—the Cinna the poet scene. Once Orson Welles had more or less restored this critical scene into the American repertoire by his brilliant staging of it, it resumed its rightful place in most productions. But Shakespeare’s point is very clear: a mob of citizens aroused to blind vengeance by Antony’s funeral oration tears an innocent man to pieces solely out of bloodlust, on the pretext that he has the same name as one of the conspirators. The Public’s staging presents us with exactly the opposite reading. It is no mob of enraged citizens, it is uniformed officers of the law. It is not the People who have gone rogue, it is the Man, the Police. Now while this version may appeal more to contemporary radicals and even reflect, in the view of most Americans, a very serious problem in our current culture, it simply defeats the purpose of the scene in the dynamic of Shakespeare’s play. Shakespeare’s point is that the anarchy and chaos willfully unleashed by Antony will create an opportunity for him to seize control of power. The Public’s version suggests not a riot, not an outbreak of mob violence, but organized and murderous oppression by an establishment already in power. (That a poet is manhandled by people driven to take extreme measures because of their outrage over a political injustice is not without its irony here.)

15. To my mind, a similar misstep is made in a scene towards the end of the play when a heavily armed and shielded swat team (the army of Antony and Octavius) mows down apparently unarmed (and un-uniformed? it was hard to tell) civilians (the army of Brutus and Cassius). Again, not two armies clashing on the plains of Philippi (pronounced Phil-LIP-eye, by the way), but one ragtag defenseless group of protesters mercilessly dispatched by a supremely efficient killing machine–perhaps in the parking lot of that cheesy motel? Once again, appealing perhaps to the more devout anti-establishment types among us, but not at all what Shakespeare—or history–provides us. The result is an absolute skewing of the carefully calibrated portrayal of both the event and the principals. And of course it makes a complete hash of all the martial strategy discussed in the previous scenes and defeats all the irony embedded in Cassius’s yielding to Brutus’s inferior battle plan and his own subsequent misread of events, and in Brutus’s bad tactical choice at the crisis point of the battle.

16. It strikes me that both staging choices—in clear contradiction to Shakespeare’s intentions–are essentially railings against a Police State–which are, to my mind, nowhere the spine of Shakespeare’s play except perhaps in a very minor way, and only overtly in the single icy scene when the new triumvirate pricks down its imagined enemies for execution. And even that scene is deprived of its deliberate “coolness” by the multiple executions being violently staged in the background, which draw most of the attention away from the subtler dynamics of the scene, in particular the growing cracks in the triumvirate itself and Antony’s utter callousness and disregard for his associates. These are all examples where strong visuals, some of them directly contrary both to historical fact and/or Shakespeare’s dramaturgical and thematic intentions, are allowed to thwart the purpose of the play, in the service of a shocking contemporary reading. I’m sorry to say that this can look at best like preaching to the choir and at worst like pandering to the political left.

17. But finally, I think the production could have overcome all these powerful and challenging staging choices, in fact even partially justified them, if only it had done more to honor what I think is the primary strength of the play—the deep humanizing of the central characters. And this, I think, is due more to the cutting than to the performing.

18. By humanizing, I mean—as I stated earlier—that I think Shakespeare’s specific purpose in dramatizing the story of Caesar’s murder and its aftermath is not primarily to teach us any particular lesson about the counter-productivity of political assassination. There needs no poet come from the grave to tell us that; history has already made it quite clear, as Shakespeare informs us elsewhere in the canon, through the mouth of Camillo (WT 1.2.356-351). The story already carries that “moral”; so of course the play will too. But what Shakespeare, I think, primarily offers us is an understanding of the events through his exploration of the psyches of the principal characters, as well as through the psyche of the mob. And his principal understanding of human behavior comes from his exploration of two facets of the human psyche: the fact that human beings do not always know why they do things; and the fact that humans can be fooled, even by themselves. The second insight is mostly a classical one, though man’s capacity for self-deception strikes a more contemporary note; the first is surprisingly modern, and it is why I think his plays are endlessly fascinating. And I think the cutting eliminated, suppressed, or downplayed too many occasions for the actors to explore these particularly Shakespearean insights into his characters.

19. Of course, plays can and should be sometimes cut. And playing about two hours without an intermission is perfectly defensible; but the longer the play the more will need to be cut, and the more likely something essential will be lost. Most scholarship suggests that in the Shakespeare’s outdoor theatres, at least, intermissions were unlikely. Indoors, candles had to be trimmed, so there may well have been musical interludes. In my experience, however, modern productions of this play can benefit from a well-placed intermission, primarily because of the clear structural and temporal (and emotional) break between the assassination and its immediate aftermath and its longer range consequences. But finally the question is not about whether the play should be cut, but what precisely is cut, and the effect that those cuts have on the overall impact of the play.

20. I thought there were a number of cuts—and again this is only my opinion, based on what I think is at the heart of the play—that did the play no favors. (Caveat. I do not have a copy of the production script, so I’m working mostly from memory here, and it’s possible I may say something was cut when in fact it was spoken, but without the kind of emphasis I would have preferred.)

21. The one I most missed was the complex second announcement of the death of Portia at the end of the rightfully famous “tent scene.” I realize there is a long theatrical tradition defending this cut, one mostly based on a critical (or rather uncritical) insistence on Brutus’s absolute integrity and honesty. But for me the scene is crucial to an understanding of Brutus. He has been living with the knowledge that his wife has killed herself from the beginning of the scene; his grief, to some extent, clearly fuels his surprising emotionality in his fight with Cassius, as he himself admits. But his reputation and his self-regard as a man always in control of his emotions is so important to him, and so necessary, as he thinks, to his ability to lead, that once he has completely vented his grief, he then purposely participates in a charade (and a lie) whereby he forces another man to bring the news of her death (seemingly for the first time) so that he can display the appropriate stoicism. In front of Cassius, who knows the truth. And Cassius, after an extremely emotional reconciliation with Brutus, watches this happen–in who knows what state of astonishment–and then who knows why defers to Brutus’s flawed analysis of military strategy. The psychic complexity of this, for both principals, is almost mind-boggling; and it is lost by the cutting of the scene. And this behavior is not just a one-off thing for Brutus. If you read back through the entire play, his concern for the appearance of honor is at least as strong as his concern for actual honor. His private turbulence is again and again masked in public, though those closest to him offer plenty of evidence that he is not the dispassionate Stoic he wants other to see. There are moments when he himself will acknowledge his interior distress, sometimes obliquely sometimes directly, but it is clear that his personal and familial need to appear more honorable to other men than he really is, is his Achilles heel. And it is a fault which Cassius exploits to the maximum in the early scenes by his constant and clever insistence that he merely wants to be Brutus’s mirror and show him what he is, and what other people think of him, as an inducement to what he should think of himself. And Cassius actually announces that it is precisely Brutus’s “honor” which is his weakness, again a speech that was cut in this production. The final result is a flattening of not just the character of Brutus, but of Cassius as well. (Also later cut is Cassius’s surprising confession, just before the battle, of his loss of faith in his Epicurianism and the stirring of an irrational belief in omens. Brutus’s confusion at the same time about the proper stoic attitude towards suicide is retained however. But then seriously underplayed is Cassius’s need to let his friend know privately that he is going along with Brutus’s battle plan unwillingly. These are all fine touches, illustrative of Plutarch’s insistence that small actions and offhand remarks often tell us as much about the minds of great men as their heroic deeds.)

22. A similar flattening, I think, happens with Casca. First of all, his comic report on what occurred during the Lupercalia, specifically what happened when Antony offered Caesar the crown, is presented to the audience as an accurate report–by having it staged just as Casca narrates it. In his retelling, and the Public’s staging, Caesar tries to take the crown and only demurs when the people voice their disapproval; and he is clearly unhappy to be cheered only when he removes his hand. That may be what happened–though it is not what Antony suggests later. (We will eventually find out that he probably does want the crown, but at this point we do not know that.) Casca is, however, clearly an unreliable narrator, twisting the facts, hinting at his disapproval of Caesar’s ambition, and at his own possible willingness to join the conspiracy against him, but always sarcastically and obliquely enough as to be deniable. He mostly feigns not just disinterest but also ignorance. And at his departure, Brutus comments on his apparent slowness. Cassius corrects Brutus’s evaluation, pointing out that the apparent “tardiness” is just a comic strategy (and perhaps a protective front); Casca will respond, he promises, once he can be made to see that the enterprise will be “bold and noble.” This entire exchange about the personality of Casca is cut, which makes somewhat unintelligible the following scene where Cassius basically enrolls a timorous Casca in the conspiracy by a blatant show of extravagant boldness and hyper-Roman nobility. Without this preparatory explanation, we might fail to see that Cassius’s persuasion of Casca through Roman “boldness” is no less a rhetorical persuasive technique than his clever enticing of Brutus through the mirror of “honor.” Instead we only see Cassius, accompanied by some shouting protestors, parading through a thunderstorm in manic high spirits.

23. And inasmuch as so much of the play is about people exploiting other people’s weaknesses through persuasion—not just Cassius building the conspiracy, but also Decius Brutus manipulating Caesar, Portia displaying greater stoicism than Brutus (by deliberately cutting herself) to gain his confidence, Antony manipulating the crowd then deceiving Lepidus–what should be a clear motif is partially obscured by the cuts. And this motif is also really a submotif of a larger theme, that people are not always what they seem, and certainly not always what they say they are–partly because people can be deliberately deceptive, but also partly because people don’t always know what they are deep down.

24. Let me give one more, perhaps even a debatable example–the long wonderful scene between Antony and the conspirators after the assassination. The preparatory scene with Antony’s servant is cut—not unusual, but we do lose some important information. We lose, for example, Brutus’s guarantee of Antony’s personal safety. But we also lose a little irony. In making his promise, Brutus praises Antony as “a wise and valiant Roman, / I never thought him worse.” And he says this not that many minutes after he had earlier demeaned Antony to the conspirators as impotent, unRoman (unlikely to choose an honorable suicide) and one “given / To sports, to wildness, and much company.” Antony subsequently puts on an impressive display of grief and amenability and self-deprecation all at once. And political pragmatism. But after the conspirators have left, we quickly see that all but the grief was an act. He breaks into an angry soliloquy promising revenge, havoc, chaos. Then Octavius’s servant enters and momentarily is stunned into tears by the sight of Caesar’s mangled body. It is at this point that Antony notes, “Passion, I see, is catching, for mine eyes, / Seeing those beads of sorrow stand in thine, / Begin to water.” Antony seems to be saying, very specifically, that there were no tears until that moment, and what caused the tears was seeing another person cry. For me this is an indication that wheels, as they say, are turning. After a general promise of havoc, Antony now begins to consider more deeply the means to create that havoc. (Getting Brutus to cede the final funeral oration was very likely already laying the groundwork.) But the idea of a primarily emotional appeal to the people, as opposed to Brutus’s plan for a rational appeal, now begins to take a more specific form. If I weep, the thought seems to be, I can get them to weep. And of course that is exactly what Antony will do. And it will work. This kind of detailed portraiture, of a person able to calculate even in the midst of harrowing grief and boiling anger, of a person able to feel deeply and yet at the same time evaluate those feelings as a possible rhetorical strategy, this is Shakespeare at his best. And this is what I occasionally missed.

25. And this is not to take anything away from Ms Marvel’s performance; she was one of most successful and moving Antonys I have ever seen, particularly in the great funeral oration, which was also, I thought, brilliantly and effectively directed. In fact, all the principals, I thought, were outstanding. But I also think they were occasionally denied the necessary materials to make their characters as deeply, surprisingly human as Shakespeare provided for–which can be, I’m afraid, a result of a somewhat agitprop take on the play.

26. So partially through cuts, partially through loss of emphasis, partially through a desire to streamline the action, partially through an activist desire to make a strong contemporary political statement, I felt the complex humanity–which is for me the hallmark of a Shakespeare play and the reason I keep returning to his work–that critical insight was left only partially explored.

27. But it must be said, this is true of almost any great Shakespearean play. They practically defy definitive productions, not, in my opinion, particularly because they are ambiguous and can tolerate any number of (even contrary) interpretations, but because they are so rich and so complex that they continue to yield benefits the more they are explored. And even when they are occasionally treated more as vehicles for the insights or passions of other artists, they continue to surprise and please. (And who’s to say, even a badly aimed pick may uncover a hitherto unknown vein of gold.) After all, these plays must, always must, be co-created anew by each generation of performing artists to meet the concerns of their culture. That’s the deal. They are part of our shared artistic heritage, they belong to us. All of us. And they will survive, I am sure, whatever any of us does to them. Unless we silence them.

The Trump-as-Caesar controversy has reminded the world, as Mr. Matthews notes above, that five years ago the Guthrie Theater and The Acting Company mounted a production of the same play in which Caesar was depicted as a Barack Obama-type figure (interesting to note that it was supported by one of the corporations that withdrew sponsorship from The Public).  The director of that production, Rob Melrose, wrote this piece for  At the same time that my friend, the director Laura Livingston, brought that essay to my attention, my friend and colleague, scholar/director Dr. Rick Jones posted a link to this remarkable account by Corey Stoll, the actor that played the leading role of Brutus in Eustis’s production, of the experience of preparing and performing the show.

Charles McNulty of the Los Angeles Times made an interesting case, in his essay about Shakespeare’s Richard II at the Old Globe Theatre, for the political rhetoric of director Erica Schmidt’s production of that play in San Diego.  The L.A. Times also published this account, by Jessica Gelt, of the emergence of the controversy.  In the same package, the Times had an interesting piece by opera critic Mark Swed linking the controversy to the work of director Peter Sellars and the ongoing challenge of balancing artistic (and political) integrity with the need to attract contributed support.

Scholars expressed concerns about the funding cuts triggered by the controversy in this article in the Chronicle of Higher Education.

Howard Sherman was present for one of the interrupted performances; here’s his column about it for The StageOn a lighter note, Mr. Sherman posted this clip from a late-night comedy show.

If I’ve gotten anything wrong here, please let me know and I’ll do my best to correct it.  If you’ve run across anything else that would be interesting to add to this compilation, please note it in a comment and I’ll look into linking to it.  If I find anything else to supplement these links and quotations, I won’t hesitate to continue to build on this post.  Hope this material is useful!




Blog Fail (Again)

Once again it’s been an absurdly long time since the last post.


Well, see, I started a new job at the end of August (which, you’ll note, corresponds with the date of the last Director’s Vision post).  I was just getting the hang of it and finishing up my first major projects (for the first time I’m a professional performing arts presenter after decades as a theatre producer) when….  The world got a November surprise that knocked me–and a lot of the people I know best and work with most closely–off balance.  I’m still figuring out how to respond to that, and how the work relates to the response.  But I’m clear now that the work goes on.  And so will the blog.

Occasionally, anyway.

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.”

The Imperfect Road to Authentic Casting

There’s a lot to learn from Howard Sherman’s post yesterday on his Arts Integrity Initiative blog, about the casting process for Porchlight Music Theatre‘s upcoming production of In the Heights and the way that the company and the Chicago Sun-Times announced the cast. I am inclined to agree that the Sun-Times reporter that Mr. Sherman quotes seems more behind-the-times than a big-city arts journalist for a major daily newspaper ought to be, and there’s no arguing with Sherman’s idea that “at a time when the conversation around race in this country is both heightened and often divisive, certainly the arts are one place where care and consideration can prevail.”

I do worry, though, that Mr. Sherman may be a bit overzealous in an effort to root out imperfections in a theatre company’s approach to a work such as In the Heights. The company apparently went to some lengths to find top-flight talent that’s appropriate for the show, but Mr. Sherman scolds artistic director Michael Weber for (among other things) seeming to be proud of that effort, and for needing to search for Latino/a performers instead of knowing them already.

Mr. Weber strikes me as a good guy (to the very small extent that I know him—his company is an internship venue for advanced students from the theatre school where I work, and he is one of my 1,500+ Facebook “friends”). I applaud Porchlight for doing Quiara Alegria Hudes & Lin-Manuel Miranda’s musical, for working hard to cast it as well as they can, and for moving forward on other fronts as well. I’m disinclined to second guess their promotional language or their staffing choices, imperfect though they may be (perhaps this is partly because I know first-hand about the myriad challenges of running a mid-sized theatre company). I celebrate the good things they’re doing and I would encourage them to keep getting better and better. But maybe that’s just my style–and mine is obviously the privileged perspective of a white Anglo middle-aged man, so take it with a grain of salt if you think you should.

[I chatted briefly online with Mr. Sherman before posting this, and he didn’t provide me with a response to incorporate into this post.  I know he will feel free to comment or send me a statement to incorporate in this post if chooses to do so.  He did send me a link to this blog post by Dr. Trevor Boffone which provides a little more dimension–some of it disappointing–to the story.]

I am grateful to Mr. Sherman for teaching me some new vocabulary: he uses the words “Latinx” and “Latinao” in his article, and either one seems more elegant than “Latina/o” and more concise than “Latina and Latino,” so that’s helpful (although, as you can see, I’m not fully comfortable with the newer words yet).  [Dr. Boffone’s post uses another clever word I had not seen before: “Latin@.”]  Mr. Sherman also uses the phrase “people of color,” which is fine by me, but I remembered that the great playwright August Wilson had objected to the phrase “artists of color,” so I asked Mr. Sherman for a possible alternative.  He suggested the new adjective ALANA (African, Latino/Hispanic, Asian and Native American), which is intriguing, but he cautioned that it is not yet widely used and therefore probably not yet understood by many.

I do agree with Mr. Sherman’s point, that “there’s an essential need for everyone to step up their game,” and I continue to consider his advocacy invaluable. I hope his insights will help me and others to speed our journey toward equity, inclusion, and related virtues.

UPDATE (July 27): Mr. Sherman has posted a detailed follow-up to the post linked above.  He quotes at least two people who criticize the casting, in the central role of Usnavi, of an actor who is white rather than Latino.  There is significant balance in the rest of Mr. Sherman’s  exploration of the issues a theatre company such as Porchlight faces when diversifying its repertoire, though, and in his last paragraph he states that “Exploring a single situation at a small theatre in Chicago is not meant to vilify that company, but only to highlight how challenging it seems to be for so many to move to a place of true diversity and equity….”  If you’ve followed the story this far, I’ll bet you’ll want to read this new post in its entirety on

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.
I stand by the Dramatist Guild on all of this and I quote:
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.”
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.”
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.

Directions to a Blog


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.

Welcome to The Director’s Vision

This blog was launched as a source of information for and a venue for conversation among directors of dramatic stories.  I hoped it would prove useful to students of stage directing and early-career theatre directors, but mid-career and master directors, as well as directors of screen media, audio media, and interactive media, have always been more than welcome.  I have also used the blog to update, correct, supplement, and enrich the material in The Director’s Vision (Second Edition) by Louis E. Catron and Scott Shattuck.  That’s a textbook intended primarily as a resource for students in introductory college-level courses in play directing.  I’m Scott Shattuck, co-author of this new edition; the late  Prof. Lou Catron of the College of William and Mary passed away before I began the process of revising and updating the book in 2012.  There’s some information about my background and a little more about the book on the “About” page.

Over time the blog has become less and less active, but I do continue to post up-to-date links, leads, and other resources on the related Facebook page at, so please feel free to follow that page. If and when I do post a new item on the blog, I will make it known on the Facebook page.

Please feel free to chime in with comments, additional information, questions, and concerns, whether about the book or the subject of directing.  Without the participation of readers (hopefully including fellow students and teachers of directing as well as amateur and professional directors) the blog won’t be as helpful to readers or to me as it can be with your contributions and interactions.  Since the blog has become so infrequently active, it is faster and more reliable to reach me via the Facebook page.  Let’s talk directing!