A Televised Masterclass

AUSTIN_PENDLETON_backstage_August_2006I first became aware of Austin Pendleton, if memory serves, by listening to the original cast album of Fiddler on the Roof (he played Motel the Tailor in Jerome Robbins’ record-setting Broadway production of Harnick and Bock’s masterpiece).  I’d certainly seen him on screen–his IMDB page lists 136 acting credits since 1968–but for years I thought of him mostly as the mousy son-in-law of Tevye the Dairyman.

In recent years, although Pendleton has remained a busy actor (and has become a playwright), I’ve thought of him mostly as a director, as well as the last artistic director of the acclaimed Off Broadway Circle Repertory Company.  He has directed five Broadway shows, according to the Internet Broadway Database, with casts including stars as bright as Elizabeth Taylor, and many more productions Off Broadway, in regional theatre, and at London’s Royal National Theatre.  I’m ashamed to admit that I don’t think I’ve ever seen anything that he directed.

In 2009 and 2011 he directed a pair of Anton Chekhov plays for New York’s Classic Stage Company (CSC).  During the run of the latter production, of Three Sisters (for which Pendleton later won an Obie Award), he appeared on CUNY-TV’s interview program Theater Talk with the show’s producer, Susan Haskins, and New York-based theatre reporter Michael Riedel.  The resulting interview forms an unusually incisive 20-minute masterclass on directing.  The clip is from YouTube.

“These people [directors such as Jerome Robbins and Mike Nichols, who directed Pendleton early in his acting career], I mean they’re brilliant, but they’re into telling the story.” – Austin Pendleton

The second edition of the textbook The Director’s Vision is dedicated “To my teachers.”  They emphatically include that sensitive director of well-crafted and exquisitely detailed productions, Tom Whitaker, who made me aware of this interview.  Thanks, Tom.


Photo Credit: Weimar03 at English Wikipedia [CC BY-SA 3.0 (http://creativecommons.org/licenses/by-sa/3.0) or GFDL (http://www.gnu.org/copyleft/fdl.html)%5D, via Wikimedia Commons


What Happened to My Blog?

Here’s my first blog post of 2016.  Where has The Director’s Vision been for six months?

One easy answer is “on Facebook!” Throughout the time since my long-ago last blog post, I’ve kept posting links and other tidbits at facebook.com/thedirectorsvision. I hope some of you have enjoyed them and maybe even learned something. That’ll continue (God willin’ and the crick don’t rise, as my father used to say).

It could be that I subconsciously panicked when my last post went quasi-viral, having been linked from TCG’s American Theatre magazine site.  I certainly wasn’t used to having thousands, rather than maybe dozens, of readers, and I did get gently scolded about something in my “journalism” (I didn’t set out to be a journalist, but it’s true: if you’re blogging, you’re doing journalism).  So maybe, without consciously intending to, I went into hiding for the first half of this year.

I think mostly, though, I just had too many other things rise high on my list of priorities.  For example, I was invited to start a new role at the university where I have a “day job,” and learning about it while gradually starting to take on some of the new responsibilities has sent me running this way and that.  I also had an amazing opportunity last month to participate in a top-flight leadership development opportunity: it was incredibly intense and I hope I learned some things that will be relevant to what we’re talking about here on The Director’s Vision blog.

Anyway, it’s a long holiday weekend now and all of my excuses have vanished, so I promise a substantive post within the next few days.  Looking forward to writing for you again, and hoping you’ll join in the conversation!  In the meantime, happy Independence Day to my American readers and anyone else that’s celebrating along with us Yanks.

Oh, and thanks for your patience.  I’m grateful that you’re back.


An Actor Exits

Broadway World reported yesterday that the Tony Award-winning actor Tonya Pinkins had resigned from the cast of the current Off-Broadway production of Bertolt Brecht’s Mother Courage and Her Children at Classic Stage Company (CSC), directed by CSC artistic director Brian Kulick (who is in his final months at the helm of that theatre company).  Pinkins’s statement about the reason for her departure, printed in full today on Playbill.com, is crucial reading for any director or student of directing that’s interested in the many recent and current conversations about equity, diversity and inclusion in theatre, directorial authority, and more.  For directors especially, it is also very interesting to read Kulick’s response to Pinkins’s decision.

What issues does this situation raise about who should be producing and directing what, who should be making what decisions, and how the actor-director collaboration is affected by issues including white supremacy, stardom, patriarchy, and the director/producer phenomenon?  Did Kulick handle this as well as possible in the best interests of the theatre company, the production, and his directorial vision for it?  What else does the Pinkins departure and the Kulick response bring up in your mind?  Thoughts (and other questions) are welcome in comments here or on The Director’s Vision Facebook page.

UPDATE: In a clarifying status update on Facebook, fellow Mother Courage actor Michael Potts wrote: “While I won’t talk publicly about our process on Mother Courage, I do feel compelled to correct the record on a particular statement made in [the] broadwayworld.com article before an actor’s reputation is ruined. AT NO TIME did any actor threaten ‘to kill’ Tonya. The actor said IN REHEARSAL, that as his character (an armed, enemy soldier), if Mother Courage made such a move, the truth of the scene would dictate that he kill Mother Courage. This was the script we were using and had been rehearsing with Tonya for 5 weeks. Again, this was said to Tonya in rehearsal with other actors present. NO ONE threatened the life of Ms. Pinkins.”  That’s what I understood from Ms. Pinkins’s statement, but perhaps Mr. Potts is correct to go out of his way to avoid any possible misunderstanding.

AND ANOTHER (January 1, 2016): Michael Potts has published a more lengthy update on his Facebook feed.  In it he strongly supports Tonya Pinkins’s declaration on race and gender in theatre, but offers a differing perspective on the rehearsal and preview-performance process behind CSC’s Mother Courage:

I’ve tried to avoid this, but I see things spiraling out of control. Two issues are being conflated. The first, ‪#‎BlackPerspectivesMatter‬, in which she is completely correct and I wholeheartedly support. The polemic she sets forth in her incredibly well composed statement on race and sex in the theater, is spot on. The second, the Mother Courage rehearsal process is pure hyperbole.

“The question of Mother Courage being delusional (inelegantly put by the director, for certain) was brought up during our very first week of table work. The director was referring to Brecht’s own writing about the character. As he put it in more elegant fashion and repeatedly stated during the entire rehearsal process, Mother Courage is a tragic character because she never learns. War teaches her nothing.

“Actors know very well that there is nothing incongruous about a director holding one view of the character and the actor holding a different view. Directors normally defer to the actor in nearly all cases. Hopefully, out of this creative tussle, something transcendent appears. Such was the attempt in our production.

“Make no mistake, Tonya ran our production from the start. She was Momma Courage, yes ‘momma’, her request and everyone complied including the Brecht estate. Throughout the rehearsal period, when she wanted to make a change, any change, it was allowed.

“Also, actors are aware that even during technical rehearsal and previews, performances are still evolving and subject to change. However, we also hope by that time, after weeks of rehearsal (4 weeks in this case), certain things are beginning to set up. Though, it’s still possible, wholesale changes in blocking and script are normally less frequent at this stage. Therefore, it is also expected that when an actor decides to make a major change in dialogue and/or blocking that involves fellow actors, that there’s a little friendly heads up if not rehearsal given to those actors. Unfortunately, Tonya didn’t get around to doing that. Still, every actor rolled with it. The director wishing to protect the whole has the job of addressing the situation for the sake of everyone involved in telling the story.

“Allow me to address the ‘fur incident’. This was in the script from day one of rehearsal. There were no problems or questions about this part of the scene through 4 weeks of rehearsal. None. We move to the theater. Costumes are added to the technical process of mounting the play. The scene proceeds and only then is there a conflict about a fur. Tonya states her intention to take the fur and explains it’s what Brecht wrote. This is true…in another translation,-not the one we’d been rehearsing for 4 weeks. The actor wearing the fur defends his position grounded in the text we’re working from. Tonya again asserts it’s what Brecht wants and that she intends to take it. The actor defers to the director. Compromises are immediately offered to resolve the issue. None were suitable to Tonya. The debate is tabled and both Tonya and the other actor confer with the director privately. The decision is reached to do the scene as written. During that evenings performance, Tonya takes the fur. The actor has no choice but to let it stand. She is Mother Courage, after all. Too long a story, shortened, both director and actor acquiesce to Tonya’s choice. Tonya takes the fur for two additional performances then announces that she won’t do it anymore. No explanation. Why was it so essential that a week and a half debate was required? Why after 2 performances, was it now ‘suddenly’ not essential? Was it really about Brecht’s intention? What was this conflict/demand really about? Such was the process of this Mother Courage. I witnessed time and again our director bend over backwards, to the point of spinelessness to try to appease Tonya.

Anyone who has worked with Tonya knows that no one silences her. ‘No one puts baby in the corner!’ Tonya is a force. Her brilliance is clear, her intelligence evident by her release referenced in this post.

“Of course, there were honest creative differences as in any other creative endeavor. However, no one was ever muzzled, rebuked, rebuffed, made voiceless or enslaved.

“Put simply, Tonya wanted to move in an entirely different direction once the show was already rehearsed and set. It was too late in the game to re-rehearse a concept.

“Unfortunately, these statements have led people to conclude that the play is a complete mess, that those of us still involved are left with something lesser and by extension we are lesser actors and a director and theater company’s reputation are being unfairly trashed. I’ve read people already conclude that the director is a racist and sexist. You would be mistaken on all counts. Though, there are justifiable critiques of this production, none of them rise to the level of what’s being insinuated.”

THE LATEST (THAT I’VE SEEN–January 2):  At the risk of appearing to propagate a squabble, I want to continue to give the fullest picture I have of this discussion.  I do so because I don’t think it’s just squabbling; I think Tonya Pinkins has kick-started a very important conversation, it has become quite public (at least among theatre-makers), and additional shadings in understanding of her perspective may be valuable.

Ms. Pinkins responded to Michael Potts’s longer statement with this comment: “It deeply saddens me that my wonderful costar feels he must defend, The establishment.  Michael, you know nothing of what was communicated between myself and the producers and anyone else. You simply saw the fallout. I’ve been working on this production long before you were even considered.  I don’t believe any of the men would have treated me the way I was treated if I was a White woman.  Believe me if I had ‘run’ the show , there would be a finer product.”

Mr. Potts then wrote: “Tonya, the show is a fine product. YOU are a wonderful Mother Courage. You are made for the role. No, I do not know what transpired privately between you and the producers. I can only and was only speaking to what transpired in my presence.”

To which Ms. Pinkins replied: “You speak to your perspective as a man in the room. The patriarchy always thinks it can tell a women what to think and feel and interpret when her No is a ‘Yes’.”

ANOTHER COUNTRY HEARD FROM (January 2): Broadway World reported that author and activist Larry Kramer had chimed in on his Facebook profile on New Year’s Day in support of Tonya Pinkins, and published his statement about the situation.

Morgan Jenness posted Michael Potts’s longer statement for Mr. Kramer to read.  Mr. Kramer responded: “morgs, i’m afraid i find potts’ response petty and simple-minded and not dealing with the main issues. first and foremost how dare kulick cut an hour from this script and what was left after this castration, which no doubt tonya was troubled by, as she should have been, and potts should have been too. as rehearsals continued and previews too it sounds like tonya was just doing what any great actress would be doing if reaching for even higher levels — trying to work things out emotionally and as is often the case still learning after the curtain comes up. so tonya didn’t tell all the actors what she was thinking, or suddenly found herself trying, or told them too pointedly, hurting the pooor baby’s feelings. haven’t they worked with great actors before? I have. glenda jackson did what the fuck she wanted, thank god because ken russell was incapable of helping her, which sounds a lot like kulick not being able to help tonya and her knowing it, thus increasing her frustration factor. i had the privilege of watching rehearsals involving such as kim stanley, geraldine page, ralph richardson, the great olivier, and was friends with the great luise reiner. they all had and did and reacted just as tonya did.”

I post Mr. Kramer’s comments not to endorse or validate them, but because his very strong point-of-view may provide additional matter for the discussion at hand, especially as it relates to the role of the director.

IN THE INTEREST OF BALANCE (January 2): I think I should mention that Mr. Potts has received more than 75 comments, more than a few of them from high-profile theatre professionals, thanking him and/or expressing support for his longer Facebook post.

THE LATEST NEWS: All comes courtesy of colleague Matt Saltzberg.  First, the role has been re-cast: http://www.broadway.com/buzz/183344/kecia-lewis-steps-in-after-tonya-pinkins-abrupt-departure-from-mother-courage-and-her-children-off-broadway/

And, the composer for the production, Duncan Sheik, gives an interview: http://www.americantheatre.org/2016/01/04/duncan-sheik-on-cscs-disputed-mother-courage/

ANOTHER UPDATE: American Theatre magazine just posted a podcast that includes an interview with Ms. Pinkins.  “I think that actors do not realize how powerful they are,” she says late in the interview.  “We’re not treated like we’re powerful.  But I want to inspire actors to take that power.”  That should be heard in context and is excerpted just to pique your interest!  Click here to listen (the Pinkins/Mother Courage section starts right around 12:40, but the news that precedes it is interesting too).

THE PRODUCTION CONSIDERED: Charles Isherwood’s review in The New York Times calls Mother Courage, now with Kecia Lewis in the title role, calls the production “terrific,” “searing,” and “by any measure the finest of [CSC]’s Brecht cycle.”  He says Ms. Lewis’s performance (given partly with script in hand) is “commanding,” “powerful, complex and persuasive.”

Directions to a Blog


Just a quick post today to direct you to another cool blog (see what I did there?).  New York-based director Cat Parker has assembled an impressive array of sharp interviews with colleagues she calls “NYC’s Indie Stage Directors.”  They make for insightful, informative, interesting reading, and I recommend them to fellow students of directing.

I hope you’ll visit Cat’s blog, DirectorSpeak.

A tip of the hat to the great Regina Taylor for making me aware (on Facebook) of the existence of Cat’s blog.

Another Curtain Speech

Anton Chekhov, politely refraining from use of a mobile device

Anton Chekhov, politely refraining from use of a mobile device

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

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

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

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

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

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

This Director’s a Beast of at Least Four Nations

Cary Fukunaga

Cary Fukunaga “Beast Of No Nation” at Opening Ceremony of the 28th Tokyo International Film Festival. By Dick Thomas Johnson from Tokyo, Japan

I was more than intrigued enough by the can’t-look-away-or-even-blink direction of True Detective‘s first season on HBO to become curious about the work of Cary Joji Fukunaga.  I was also delighted when he won an Emmy Award for his work on that gripping series.

When I saw Beasts of No Nation on Netflix, though, I felt compelled to learn more.  Beasts is the first film distributed from day one by Netflix, which premiered the movie simultaneously in art-house cinemas and  on its home video streaming service.

It  depicts the experience of a child forced into service as a soldier under the command (and under the spell) of a charismatic and depraved warlord fighting a fictional civil war in an unidentified west African country (it was shot in Ghana).  The movie is devastating in its authenticity, shocking, heartbreaking, and sickeningly violent, yet it is hypnotically beautiful, sometimes hallucinatory in its visual intensity, sometimes surprisingly funny, and maybe, just maybe, a little bit hopeful about the resiliency of the human spirit.  Somehow it ended up reminding me of Francis Ford Coppola’s Apocalypse Now, which for decades I have called the greatest movie I’ve ever seen.

Fukunaga not only directed but also wrote (dramatizing the novel by Uzodinma Iweala), produced, and lit the film as its director of photography.  When the camera operator pulled a hamstring, the director (after recovering from malaria) even shot the rest of the picture himself.

Fukunaga has said he hopes as many people as possible will see Beasts on a big screen, and I for one would love to, but I don’t live near a theatre that’s showing it.  It has been a complete disappointment at the box office yet millions have seen it in their homes.

Idris Elba, the formidable British star that plays the warlord, called “The Commandant,” is said to be a likely Oscar nominee, and the miraculous performance of novice actor Abraham Attah, who was 14 (but looked as young as his character, the happy-go-lucky 11-year-old Agu) when the film was made, has generated considerable speculation that he might become the youngest best-actor nominee in the history of the Academy Awards.  In a ten-nod Best Picture race I wouldn’t be surprised to see Beasts itself get a nomination, though perhaps Fukunaga himself is a longshot.

Having seen Beasts, I found myself at home sick one day last week, unable to get much work done but functional enough to watch a couple of movies.  I found that Fukunaga’s 2011 feature, Jane Eyre, filmed in the north of England and starring Mia Wasikowska, Michael Fassbender, Jamie Bell, Judi Dench(!), and Simon McBurney, with a script by Moira Buffini, was also streaming on Netflix, so I had a look.  In many ways it is very much in the tradition of other good recent adaptations of romantic novels (such as Joe Wright’s 2005 Pride and Prejudice), but it is redolent of its director’s distinctive, simultaneously dark-yet-airy style.  It is a very good movie, and it is unusually well acted.

Now on a mission, I next found Fukunaga’s first feature, the acclaimed 2009 indy Sin Nombre, on iTunes, and rented it.  It is an arrestingly strong directorial debut, winning a top award for him at the Sundance Film Festival. It too is beautifully shot and beautifully acted.  It was shot mostly in Mexico and most of the dialogue is spoken in Spanish, one of two additional languages in which the English-speaking, California-born-and-reared American Fukunaga is fluent (his father’s ancestry is Japanese, his mother’s is Swedish).

I thought I noticed several commonalities among these films (which are also present in True Detective).  The destruction of childhood at the hands of others (whose souls were perhaps also poisoned at a young age?) is a consistent theme (he is planning a film inspired by the suicide of Jadin Bell, a bullied gay teen).  Fukunaga’s worldview is hugely compassionate yet deeply haunted.  He has a truly extraordinary sense of place, conveying an expansive and highly specific sense of each world he explores/creates on screen, finding the terror that permeates remarkably beautiful landscapes and the beauty that radiates from remarkably terrible settings.

In a few cases Fukunaga has worked with some of the most acclaimed actors in the world (Dench, Fassbender, True Detective‘s Matthew McConaughey), but he is better known for drawing amazing work from fresh talents (Wasikowska) and complete neophytes (Attah and Sin Nombre‘s Edgar Flores).  I couldn’t help wondering how he elicits such deeply felt, nakedly honest performances from his casts.

My reading provided few clues, but what I did find was gratifying to me as a proponent of clear, economical storytelling–and respect for actors.  In Allen St. John’s interview with Fukunaga for Forbes magazine (Feb. 9, 2014) about True Detective, the director said:

I think I learned discipline on Jane Eyre. Charlotte Bronte’s dialogue, the intellectual duel between Rochester and Jane Eyre’s character is so compelling that you didn’t have to do much with the placement of cameras. It was up to the actors to do most of it.  The tete a tete they have by the fireplace I literally just put the camera over each actor’s shoulder and let them do their best work. At times it felt like I should be doing something else instead of just sitting there. But it was the right thing.

I knew that what was going on [when detectives played by Michael Potts and Tory Kittles were interrogating McConaughey’s character in True Detective] was going to be really interesting. Especially contextualized and juxtaposed with the past. So my idea was to be as simple as possible. No reason for shaky hand-held cameras. Just set the camera down and let the actors do their work.

Fukunaga is not above shooting his inexperienced actors without actually telling them that the camera is on.  This is him speaking to Jada Yuan for an interview on vulture.com (Sept. 30, 2015):

…a lot of times I would shoot without calling “rolling.” When you’re dealing with non-actors — and the same thing happens in America — they change as soon as you say, “Action!” There’s something about people just being people that feels much more authentic….  [W]e would start rolling scenes without people knowing, and then [Idris Elba] would start giving people an order. It looked more authentic because then people were living in the moment of whatever was happening.

As impressed as I have been by the virtuosity of some of Fukunaga’s camera blocking, I am also inspired by his desire to serve the story, the actors, and the audience without foregrounding his own contribution.  Katey Rich wrote in Vanity Fair (October 18, 2015):

The single-take action sequence in the fourth episode of True Detective became famous, but Fukunaga says he doesn’t like shots—single takes or otherwise—that call attention to themselves. “You are, as a director, a sort of conductor of the whole thing, the orchestra,” he says. “You aren’t letting the music speak for itself. You’re like doing all this crazy shit, and everyone is looking at, you know, instead of listening to the music.”

I also sense that Fukunaga is a highly practical craftsman/leader, enormously prepared but also enormously flexible.  I’m impressed by his willingness to puncture the myth of the purist auteur in this quote, which is also from his chat with Yuan:

I compromise all the time. You find solutions. If anything, that’s probably my skill-set: trying to get what I want, but also making everyone else and the powers that be happy as well.

Everything I’ve seen and read makes me want to learn still more about Cary Fukunaga and how he does his consistently excellent work as a motion picture and television director.  In fact, writing this post has made me want to go back and watch the whole first season of True Detective again, and most of the movies as well.  I think he is an artist worth following, and I’m eager to see what’s next from this 38-year-old filmmaker.  Here’s Rich again in Vanity Fair:

“There are directors who are brands,” Fukunaga says. “People are going to see a Tarantino film, people are going to see a Fincher film. That’s very helpful.” How about a Fukunaga film? “Probably not yet,” he says. “Hopefully in a couple years, a couple more films, people want to see a Fukunaga.”

In this case, I guess, I’m an early adopter.  I want to see a Fukunaga.

Speak the Speech

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

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

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

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

Photo by Hardy Meredith/Stephen F. Austin State University

Photo by Hardy Meredith/Stephen F. Austin State University

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

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

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

Photo by Hardy Meredith/Stephen F. Austin State University

Photo by Hardy Meredith/Stephen F. Austin State University

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

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

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

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

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

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

Photo by Hardy Meredith/Stephen F. Austin State University

Photo by Hardy Meredith/Stephen F. Austin State University

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

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

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

Photo by Hardy Meredith/Stephen F. Austin State University

Photo by Hardy Meredith/Stephen F. Austin State University

Team Dreamer

In 2000, the great Australian director Michael Blakemore, who rose to fame in Great Britain, became the only person ever to win both the Tony Awards for directing–of a play (Michael Frayn’s Copenhagen) and a musical–in the same year.  His second Tony that evening was for directing the Broadway revival of Cole Porter’s Kiss Me, Kate, which remains to this day the best revival I have seen of a traditional mid-20th century book musical.

His acceptance speech also remains my favorite, for its modest charm but mostly for its honesty.  I wish I could link to a video recording of it or at least quote it precisely but I have not found it (if you do, please send me a link!).  I can closely paraphrase my favorite part of what he said, however, by cribbing from the detailed credits available at ibdb.com.

“The fact is,” he said (approximately), “when you have Robin Wagner designing the sets, Martin Pakledinaz designing the costumes, Paul Gemignani directing the music, Kathleen Marshall doing the choreography, and Ara Marx as your stage manger, directing a Broadway musical is quite easy.”  And, believe me, I’ve been there–most recently with Little Shop of Horrors in 2012.

In fact, I am one of those directors that just isn’t all that good at many of the various component art forms and crafts that go into an excellent production.  Now, if you count producing, I’ll take credit for some ability there, and I assume I could still act pretty well (from the neck up, anyway) if I could remember the lines, and maybe even sing a little.  But scenery, costumes, lights, sound, hair, props (I’m not even very good at shopping for them, let alone building them), projections?  Nope, nope, nope, nope, nope, nope, nope.

I could probably still put on my own makeup, but I couldn’t build a beard.  It’s been far too long since I’ve stage managed anything to know if I ever could again.

And dance–choreography?  Don’t make me laugh.  Music direction?  I can actually conduct a little (long story), but I can’t even plunk out a melody for the singers on a piano.  I was recently out to dinner with a talented colleague that teaches musical theatre at another university, and I felt for him when he complained that he always has to serve as musical director as well as director, but mostly I just felt jealous that I don’t have the chops to do the same.

So, especially when directing a musical, I sit in the rehearsal hall making self-deprecating jokes about having precious little to do and thanking everyone and everything for the team of knowledgable, skilled, creative people on the team all around me.  It’s axiomatic–a cliché, but not an incorrect one–that 50, 75, 90 or 99% of a production’s success can be ascribed to casting.  In my experience, it’s just as true that success depends on the group of “creatives” that come together to male the production along with the cast and director.

At the moment I’m heading into auditions and then immediately into rehearsals for a show that is not a musical but that involves a great deal of both music and dance, and even more creative movement to bring the storytelling to life.  As producer of my university’s Mainstage Series, I chose this play because it complemented other titles  that we wanted in the season for good reasons.  As a director I chose it for its thematic content (it’s a story about storytelling, and I can’t get enough of that stuff) and because, consciously or unconsciously or both, I wanted a challenge, and this play is very different from what I usually do–and what I feel confident doing–as a director.  It also depicts a world that I know little-to-nothing about.

What is all-too-characteristic of me is that I agreed to direct this play–indeed I picked it–with blind faith that the right team would come together to realize it for an audience.  Sure, I knew I would be working with faculty designers I know and trust and admire enormously.  And the idea of one of our most experienced, sharp, and dedicated student designers joining us was a no-brainer.  We’ve got a first-rate student stage manager.  A student that I trust (because I’ve worked closely with him recently in the classroom and rehearsal hall) asked to assist me and he’ll do a great job, but he doesn’t fill any gaps in my expertise.

Then began the small miracles upon which I rely far too completely (I hope I’m not jinxing anything by writing this prematurely!).  I asked the student that had assisted with the dances in our last musical if she would choreograph and she grabbed the project by the throat–she’s already way out ahead of me on research and specific ideas.  We have new faculty arriving; one recently served as dramaturg for a different production of this play and the other served as movement coach and fight director at yet another school: I will pay visits to their offices soon, I’m sure, on bended knee.

Most of all I was really sweating the need for a composer/music director.  I begged a brilliant colleague I’ve known for decades to lend a grad student from his composition studio that could do it (“I have no plan B!” I confessed).  He found one!  Hooray!  The student could not schedule it.  Oh, no.  He changed his schedule and got free!  Hooray-hoorah!  And he is bright and enthusiastic and collaborative and has high standards and is flexible, and we have begun.

The whirlwind of meetings and approaches and sketches and schedules and inspirations is underway and, as ever, it is exhilarating.  In the real world of jam-packed calendars and chaotic comings-and-goings, the director’s role emerges: I’m the one that everyone most needs to talk with, making me wonder if perhaps I won’t be useless after all.

But, oh, what gratitude I feel to have such a team to collaborate with.  I certainly couldn’t do this show without them, but with them perhaps I’ll end up, like Mr. Blakemore, saying it was all “quite easy!”

Je Me Souviens

The recent annual conference of the Association for Theatre in Higher Education (ATHE) in Montreal turned my head around in several ways.  The theme of the conference was “Je me souviens,” which is the motto of Quebec and means something like, “Lest we forget” or simply “I remember.”  As a result, many of us were thinking in various ways about memory and history in relation to theatre and performance.

By Joanne Lévesque (Own work) [CC BY-SA 3.0 (http://creativecommons.org/licenses/by-sa/3.0)], via Wikimedia Commons

By Joanne Lévesque (Own work) [CC BY-SA 3.0 (http://creativecommons.org/licenses/by-sa/3.0)%5D, via Wikimedia Commons

As journeyman directors we may be called upon to stage stories drawing on a potentially vast range of content, and few if any of us can claim to be experts in so many subjects.  For a period of weeks we lead a theatre company and then an audience into territory that may be completely unfamiliar, not only to them but to us.  Certainly part of our job is to study the available “maps,” researching geography, society, culture, history–memory–to illuminate our paths.  But how much must we learn of each setting, each community of characters, each character’s belief system, each time period?  How much must we, in effect, “remember?”

One excellent panel I attended in Montreal addressed questions related to these in ways I found thought-provoking and ultimately reassuring.  The renowned American director Sharon Ott began with a rather startling statement: “I profoundly doubt the veracity of the stories we tell ourselves when we remember.”  This launched a fascinating discussion with Canadian directors Gordon McCall and Catherine Joncas that included contemplation of history as un-knowable in any absolute way.  They talked of learning to trust stories that are more deeply connected to spirituality than is factual history.  At another good session, Prof. Siouxsie Easter spoke of the idea from Simon McBurney (Complicité‘s Mnemonic) that remembering is “not just an act of retrieval but a creative thing.”

(An alternate point-of-view is emerging among some LGBTQ people in response to the trailer for Stonewall, a fictionalized movie treatment of the 1969 rebellion in New York’s Greenwich Village that lit a fire under the gay rights movement, which was written by playwright Jon Robin Baitz and directed by Roland Emmerich of action-adventure movie fame.  Some are calling for a boycott of the movie, saying it “whitewashes” the riots by downplaying or neglecting the courageous contributions of people of color and trans people such as the African American drag queen Marsha P. Johnson.  Baitz and Emmerich are saying that the role of diverse people is depicted in the full film even though their story centers on a handsome young white gay cisgender man [an American who happens to be played by an English actor, but that’s a subject for another post].  The boycott’s leaders say they want the truth, the facts, the history of the rebellion to be represented accurately in the film, and all accounts do indeed suggest that drag queens, trans people and people of color were indeed among those that took the lead in the Stonewall fight.  [For an exhaustively researched account of the riots, see my friend David Carter’s amazing book, Stonewall.])

If history is subjective and inevitably incomplete, though, is there any point in researching it?  I started to ask in the Ott/McCall/Joncas session if these directors didn’t still want to learn as much as possible about the historical context of whatever they were directing, but I concluded that the question answers itself.  Then another person attending the session asked a more penetrating question: What if an invention, well-intentioned but born in part of a lack of information, becomes a cultural misappropriation? When is it acceptable to use another’s story for our own artistic purposes?

Joncas had a provocative answer, and one I hope is right: “When it’s good.”  Maybe we can never know as much as we would like, or as others might think we should, about the contexts of the plays we direct, and certainly we can never know it all.  But if we come to know as much as we can, inquiring and collaborating with an open mind and voracious curiosity with our dramaturgs and other team members, if we work with respect and integrity, and if, in the end, our productions are worthy of being called “art,” perhaps we can hope that is enough.

Directing Women

As the conversation about gender parity in the theatre continues, and as many begin to demand not just conversation but actual parity, several exciting centers of discussion and progress have appeared in recent years. One of the most visually snazzy and, for me, most interesting is Victoria Myers and Michelle Tse’s “female voices of the theatre” website The Interval: The Smart Girls’ Guide to Theatricality.

The site is nicely varied with petitions, contests, photo essays, writing by the founders/editors and guest columnists, and tons of interesting statistics in addition to the blog’s bread-and-butter, interviews.  Some of these take the form of brief statements from women about what’s going on in theatre, but most are long-form conversations with major figures such as writers Lisa Kron, Marsha Norman, and Sarah Ruhl, composer Jeanine Tesori, designer Mimi Lien, actors Kelli O’Hara and Laura Benanti, and artistic director Susan Bernfield.

Directors are not neglected.  Myers’s chats (illustrated with Tse’s photos) with top helmers such as Kathleen Marshall and Susan Stroman seem so relaxed and candid that I feel I’m getting to know these titans over the proverbial cuppa coffee.  Even better, they’re often quite instructive, offering insights into the thinking of some of the very best artists in our field.

The most recent long interview, with director Leigh Silverman and choreographer Sonya Tayeh in the rehearsal room for their recent Encores Off-Center concert reading of Andrew Lippa’s The Wild Party, enlightens its readers about the approach that Silverman, a sterling director, takes to her work.  For example, I found the following comments, which she made specifically in reference to concert staging, to be an especially articulate statement of a critical challenge facing directors of full productions as well:

[Y]ou train the audience to watch the show in the way that you want them to watch it and not set them up with wrong expectations from the beginning….  I feel like my job as the director, frequently, is to have a vision of how an audience is going to enter a world, what they’re going to be taught, and what they’re going to be taught right away. And who it is that they’re supposed to be watching and how to watch them. It’s one of the most important things I can do as a director once you move into that production process, which is to figure out how to let the audience in, let them know what world they’re in, and who those people are. That entry point is crucial. You as a director have to build that portal or else they don’t come with you.

Reflecting on her career, Silverman expresses concerns about the obstacles facing young women that seek to direct.  Her comments are dismaying, but her achievements in the face of such headwinds are inspiring:

It’s really hard to be in your 20s and a director, and trying to get a job and get people to believe that you can handle a room. I’m finally fucking old enough—because I’m 40—that no one cares what I’m wearing and, more importantly, I don’t care. When I was younger I lied about my age all the time. I was constantly trying to assert because I had to. No one takes young women directors seriously in the way that they should be, and I felt like I had to do that. And I think that relates to everything about how you dress, how you talk, how you look, what you wear. As I’ve gotten older, that stuff has been able to fall away….  [T]he hardest time I think for a young female director is in those early years, because I think it’s really the place where young men and women are treated very differently as directors. It’s the thing that people say: men are hired for their potential and women are hired for their experience. People look at a young man and he is bright and he is shiny and they’re hiring for his potential and people look at a young women and are like, “I don’t think she can handle it.”

Elsewhere in the interview Silverman remembers that in 2006 she was only the seventh woman that had ever directed on Broadway and notes that the number has grown “exponentially” in the ensuing decade.  Still, she is frustrated about the rate of change:

I do not understand it. I do not understand why it’s not part of the conversation artistic directors have. When they’re talking about what plays they want to do and what musicals they want to do, why not have it be half and half? Why not? Why is that not part of our conversation still? Still. I feel like it will change, but I find it kind of frustrating on a daily basis. So when people say, “How do you feel about being that woman?”… I was so proud of that, and I was so happy that year that Pam [MacKinnon] and Anna [Shapiro] won. I mean that was like a revolution. It was unbelievably radical. I never thought. In some ways the world is changing incredibly fast and it’s exhilarating and in some ways you’re just like, “What?! Still?!” So when it’s like “women directors” and “only woman,” and I’m like, eh, I feel like we have to keep talking about it until it’s part of the conversation and then we’ll all just be like, “Cool. It’s part of the conversation.”

She traces some of the problem to cultural forces that have affected many girls and young women, including herself:

I think women have a very hard relationship with ambition. I’ve worked very hard in my life to have a comfortable relationship with it. I feel happy and proud to say that I am ambitious and that I don’t think that’s bad. I think Lisa [Kron] and Jeanine [Tesori] are ambitious. Lisa and I have talked a lot about what that word means over the years. I think it’s only people with ambition, with vision, with drive and passion, that can break through. I think that, in general, the idea of women having ambition is uncomfortable for women. I think that’s a self-generated myth. It goes along with a reflexive apology that women feel like they must do; I think they don’t even know that it’s happening. So I do feel all the time like women need to find a level—and I say this to myself also—that we need to feel a greater appreciation for our own ambition and not feel like it’s wrong or dirty, or like it’s a bad word or ugly, or that we shouldn’t talk about it because it’s not polite. I think you don’t get anywhere by being polite. And by “anywhere” I mean wherever it is you’re going—the full expression of whatever it is you want to be doing. And that requires an idea and that requires ambition. Particularity if you’re a director whose job it is to lead people—you need it. It has to be in your DNA.

And speaking of leadership (my personal obsession among the director’s job responsibilities), Silverman’s take suggests there are no one-size-fits-all formulae, and no short-cuts:

[I]t’s all personality. Some people like to lead by fear and some people lead by kindness and some people lead by being the class clown. It’s a combination of who the person is and who the people in the room are, and I think the struggle for authority can be a real one and a real difficult one. I have to say, I’ve just encountered it less in the last five to eight years. I think it’s just experience. The experience relaxes people and then relaxes me. But I’ve also had so many terrible experiences. And I’ve had so many terrible experiences where I’ve really learned. You get hazed. I can’t speak to whether that happens to men too, but I know it happens to women. There’s a kind of hazing process because no one is going to give you authority, you have to learn how to take it, and how you take it and how generously or graciously you do it, I think is where the personality part comes in.

With an Obie Award and a Tony nomination under her belt and a rapidly growing resume of high-profile (and highly successful) projects, I suspect that Leigh Silverman has less trouble than ever taking authority.  When asked at the end of the interview to describe her in just a few words, her collaborator, choreographer Tayeh, says (in part), “A firecracker who owns the room.  A force.”  Regardless of gender, I think most of us directors would love to be characterized like that.

If you’re intrigued by these excerpts, by all means check out the full interview.  You can keep up with what’s going on at The Interval by liking their Facebook page.