All in the Timing, our first show of the 2016 season, is an adventure of sorts for The Brass Tacks Ensemble. We have handed over the reins of the show to five (count ‘em, five) directors–a couple of whom have never directed before–and while coordinating schedules and rehearsals for these five and their casts has been frustrating at times, the result of their work in the rehearsal room has been a joy to watch.
It has also given me food for thought.
What, ultimately, is the job of the director?
When I first started directing, I really thought I had to put my imprint on the play. I was the one who had chosen to do it (with the permission of the producers). I was the one who was going to cast it. I was the one who would lead that group of actors, designers, and tech people. Since everyone was going to look to me, it must be my show, playwright be damned.
I reasoned, therefore, that I must have a vision, a concept, a whatever-you-want-to-call-it that would make it my own. Otherwise, how will they know it’s me? How will they know that I’m the director if I don’t go all out?
(A director friend of mine used the word “conceit” to describe the director’s take, and while I’m sure she didn’t interpret it in any way other than as a handy synonym, I realized later that the word was a perfect way to describe what the director sometimes does: Directing can, unfortunately, be all about the ego.)
I’ve never altered the setting of a play–for example, setting Doctor Faustus in the Jazz Age–unless, of course, I simply placed it in our own 20th- or 21st-century setting. (Or in the ever-popular “timeless” setting.) I have, however, presented plays using different theatrical styles. So, Shakespeare à la Brecht, Shakespeare à la Pirandello, Shakespeare à la Beckett. Any way that would “help” the audience understand the themes of the play as I saw them. You know, the important stuff. And, in the process, I would be setting myself apart and getting the audience to see how clever I was.
And I did set myself apart. Not in the way I’d hoped. And I did get the audience to see how clever I was–or, rather, how clever I thought I was. And, in the end, I obscured things even further.
Keith Johnstone, the great improvisation teacher, would tell his performers to stop trying “to be original.” Stop trying to be funny and tell a story. Why? Because you will reveal your originality without even trying. Your idiosyncrasies and your experience make you original. I don’t see the color red the way you see the color red, and by watching your performance, my mind will be opened up a little bit more. (“I never thought of red that way.”)
There is a reason you as a director choose the script that you choose. You may not even know why, but there is something in those pages that screams to you, “This must be staged!” And those things that drew you to the play in the first place are the things that will be emphasized in the production; they are the things that will give the production thematic shape. Whether you try to emphasize them or not.
If there is one thing that I’ve learned over the years, it is that the director is the director and the playwright is the playwright. (It helps that I’ve done each of them. Working from both sides of the script has helped me appreciate each of the roles and their contributions to the process.) The play is already written. You don’t need to do any heavy lifting to “make it work.” The play does the heavy lifting (with the support of the actors, it’s true).
As a director, you’re there to make sure nothing goes wrong. Or, as I like to tell actors, the director is there to tell you a) when it’s incomprehensible and b) when it’s boring. And then he or she will give you helpful suggestions if you don’t know how to make it comprehensible and un-boring.
It’s amazing how much more time you have to focus on the telling of the story and the quality of the acting when you’re not worried about your concept being demonstrated. And audiences want to be told a story. First and foremost.
The best compliment I’ve ever received for a play I’ve directed: “I’ve never really understood the play until I saw this production.” Why? Because we weren’t hiding the show under a concept. The production wasn’t being obscured by a search for originality. We just focused on telling the story as clearly and as entertainingly as possible. (Which I suppose is a sort of concept in the end.)
The person giving the compliment thought that I may have been involved in the production in some way. She certainly didn’t give any indication that she knew I was the director. And I didn’t tell her. Why should I have? She enjoyed the play. She understood the play. Why go beyond that?
I had done my job.
James Ingagiola is the Artistic Director of The Brass Tacks Ensemble.