22 September 2011

Vanity, Thy Name Is Actor-Director

At this time of year, I get a lot of brochures and announcements from dozens of theater companies for the new season. I go through them and make decisions, usually in coordination with my friend Diana with whom I go to theater, about where I will put my subscription dollars this year. There are also lots of offers from production companies for single plays they’re promoting, offering discounts or other special deals. One that came a month or so ago was from a company whose work I’ve seen a number of times over the years. This company specializes in reviving old plays that have been neglected or even forgotten for decades. I have yet to see anything there that I’ve found more than a theatrical curiosity (and consequently I don’t go much anymore). The season’s usually selected by the company’s artistic director, who in the past has also directed most of the productions. (The company also arranges the publication of many of their scripts and it is the artistic director who makes the selection, edits the texts, and writes the introductions to the published volumes.) I’ve developed the sense that the forgotten plays the company produces reflect the taste of the artistic director with minimal input from anyone else because I’ve invariably wondered why the company decided to revive the plays I‘ve seen there. (It’s been my opinion, as I think I may have said on ROT before, that there’s usually a very good reason that a play’s been neglected or forgotten for years. On rare occasions a gem’s uncovered, but most of the time, “lost plays” prove not to be worth the effort. This theater’s rediscoveries haven’t changed my mind on this score.) Consequently, I’ve always looked on the company as a vanity operation, working to support the director’s ego. (I will admit, however, that their current choice, which I passed over when I got the notice a month or so ago, has gotten nice reviews even though it still doesn’t sound like a play I’d want to spend money on and sit through. That, of course, is purely a matter of taste.)

“Vanity productions,” on the analogy of “vanity press,” are ones in which the producer is also one or more of the principal artists, such as playwright, director, or lead actor. Dictionary.com defines a vanity production as one “produced as a showcase for one's own talents, especially as a writer, actor, singer, or composer”; a search of the Internet shows that the term is most commonly applied to the film business (where it most often designates films produced or otherwise backed by stars who want to appear in them), but I’m more familiar with it as a theater designation. In rare cases, there’s a special talent at work (Orson Welles for Dr. Faustus and Julius Caesar in 1937, among others; Geoffrey Holder for The Wiz in 1975; Mel Brooks for The Producers in 2001), but frequently the productions are self-indulgences, mounted because these artists want all the power or because they want to do something they’re not suited for by any but their own standards. Occasionally a vanity production can prove the common wisdom wrong; more often, it proves it right.

There are several permutations of the vanity production on the stage. Sometimes it’s an actor, often a star name, who wants to do a particular part or play and finds a producer and director or a theater the actor can persuade to present the production built around her. Sometimes, as in the revival house I described above, the director of a theater company, often one he founded or co-founded, uses the theater to present plays he wants to direct or act in and everyone else at the company just supports the director’s program. I once served as literary advisor for a small theater run by two women, one a director and the other an actress. They liked essentially old-fashioned plays—mostly ones with happy endings, but basically well-made plays in a realistic style. They had wanted to produce new plays because they thought that would attract critical attention and so they brought me in to find them scripts to meet their needs. I tried to convince them to expand to more adventurous fare because the simple notion that new scripts would be the thing to attract attention had long passed its shelf life, but I soon saw that what the two women were really looking for was plays the director would want to stage and the actress would want to perform in. That’s a vanity theater.

Another permutation is the group vanity production. In my experience, this is usually a troupe of young artists, often new college grads, who began working together somewhere outside New York City, found that they liked working together, gained some successes in their home base, and put together a show, sometimes a standard or classic but most often one they created in house (there’s often a budding playwright in the company, and sometimes a composer and lyricist as well). They decide they have to come to New York and produce their play here and storm the big city. I once took a bread-and-butter job running props for one of these out of Chicago: the cast, director, playwright, and producer (most of whom have never appeared here again) just knew they had the great American drama and so they set up at the historic Provincetown Playhouse on Washington Square. The play was mediocre at best (and Chicago’s a great theater town so you’d think these folks would have known better!) and closed very quickly after three performances. I imagined O’Neill, many of whose plays premièred at the Provincetown, rolling over in his grave.

Finally, there’s the actor-director—the director (usually) who decides that no one but he can do the lead role in the play he wants to direct. Most are directors who are also actors, so it’s not that they just decided to give it a shot, but they hadn’t made a habit of directing themselves, something that’s a great deal harder to do on stage than before the cameras. Occasionally it happens the other way ‘round: an actor who has a role she wants to do and decides she’s the best person to direct her in the part. In some cases, not all that rare when this kind of ego gets underway, the actor-director also does other jobs in the production (as we’ll see momentarily) and spreads her talents even thinner. Now, I’ve been an actor and I’ve been a director—though only once at the same time (a small part and I had no alternative)—and I can attest for anyone who’s never done either that these are tasks that each take a huge amount of concentration and focus, even under the easiest of circumstances. Once, while I was directing an Off-Off-Broadway production of Lady Windermere’s Fan, one of the actors told me on short notice that he’d have to miss a couple of performances because he’d gotten a gig in Boston. This is neither uncommon in showcase work nor unethical—paying jobs always take precedence. The short notice, however, was inconsiderate because there was no time to find a replacement and rehearse him, even if he carried a book. As a group, we decided that since I knew the play so well, I’d go on with a script and walk the part. We rehearsed the show a few times—and do you know I couldn’t manage the part! Now, I was a pretty decent actor and a quick study. I once had gone on (off book) in a one-act in college to replace an actor who’d taken ill just before the single performance and all I had was one day’s rehearsal. But I could not handle this role even with script in hand because I couldn’t split my focus and be both director and actor; my head was just in the wrong place all the time—and this would have been just two shows. We had to cancel the performances until the actor returned (for which he was not warmly welcomed back into the company).

Back in the early 1980’s, I was cast in a production of Macbeth at a small theater in TriBeCa where I had done some previous work. A few years earlier, I’d played Don John in a production of Much Ado About Nothing there that had been wonderful from all perspectives—it was excellently cast (if I do say so myself) and well directed; the costumes and set were handsome and well built. It was even a very happy production: everyone got on and we were all well looked after and respected by our fellow artists and the production staff. Strangers in the audience were enthusiastic and complimentary—even another actor I didn’t know who stopped me while we were working together on a film location and made a point of telling me how much he’d liked the show. (The mere fact that he’d recognized me was flattering!) In sum, it had been a terrific experience. So when the same director asked me take a part in Macbeth two years later, I didn’t hesitate. The difference was that this director, and I’m deliberately not naming him or the theater (which is now defunct in any case), was also going to play the title character. Now, Macbeth is a complex play and the character is a huge part (almost 30% of the play, statistically), so I had serious concerns about the same guy taking on two such substantial jobs, directing this script and playing the lead. (He was also artistic director of the theater so he had additional duties as producer.) I also wondered how he’d direct himself, since the Thane’s in almost all the scenes, but he had taken on an assistant director, a man I didn’t know yet.

Well, to make a potentially long story short, it was a disaster. This actor-director proved the axiom that if you try to do two jobs simultaneously, you’ll end up not doing either one well. When he was directing, he, wasn’t on stage with us acting. When he was acting, he wasn’t out front directing. The assistant director wasn’t good at seizing the reins, though I don’t know if that was because he wasn’t a strong enough personality or if he hadn’t been allowed to wield any authority. The ultimate outcome was that our Macbeth had trouble learning his lines and business and the rest of us were deprived of a focused director. The three of us who were playing Ross, Macduff, and Malcolm, who all knew each other (and our director/lead) fairly well and respected one another, felt so adrift in rehearsals that we took ourselves off after hours and rehearsed our scenes together, especially the “England scene” (act 4, scene 3), on our own time. (After we opened, all three of us experienced friends and acquaintances who told us that the England scene was the outstanding moment in the play—and no one knew that we’d worked on it independently.) It’s a terrible thing for actors to do—almost unethical, like bringing in a private coach without the director’s knowledge. But we felt we were protecting ourselves artistically and had no choice. This was not a happy experience in contrast to Much Ado.

A number of years later, I was doing a grad school project that involved seeing as many Shakespearean productions in New York City as I could get to. One company’s Hamlet appears to have been another case of this kind of vanity production. (Again, I won’t name the director, whom I’ll designate D, or the theater.) Co-directed by D, at the theater founded by D, with lights and set by D, and starring D, the production demonstrated once again the folly of directing yourself. In law, the maxim is that a man who represents himself has a fool for a client; in theater, a director who casts himself is himself the fool—the actor’s likely to be incompetent.

(A little more about D: He also taught acting, wrote plays, translated plays of Chekhov, and adapted prose works for the stage. He often staged these himself or acted in them or both. D started his theater six years before I saw his Hamlet—he takes credit for editing the text as well—and during that time staged 10 of the troupe’s 15 productions. D’s bio didn’t indicate in how many of those productions he’d directed himself. Oh, and he engaged in several non-theater pursuits as well: short-story writer, reporter for his home-town newspaper, and photographer—a veritable jack of many trades. It’s worth noting that D’s co-director for Hamlet also appeared on stage: he played Horatio—not an insignificant role itself. Vanity of vanities; all is vanity.)

Many difficulties, as I described in my Macbeth, can occur when a director casts himself: the show around the actor-director falls apart because he’s not out front to watch what’s going on on stage, or his own acting never matches his co-players’ because he’s devoting his talents to the production and not the role. Hamlet is Shakespeare’s longest play and the title character is the biggest role in all the playwright’s works—almost 40% of the more than 4000 lines. Under even the most propitious circumstances, it’s a monumental undertaking just to direct Hamlet or to play the title character, usually considered the Mount Everest of theatrical parts for men (and even the occasional woman). To venture both at once is tempting fate. Usually, as in the this instance and the earlier Macbeth, the result is a combination of these.

The clearest evidence for this split attention was the pacing of the work. The show was slackly paced: long pauses between lines were filled with an actor’s silent reactions. In one scene, Hamlet asks Rosencrantz and Guildenstern why they have come to Elsinore. Here’s how that exchange (act 2, scene 2) went in D’s staging:

“Were you not sent for?” asked D as Hamlet.

Pause. The courtiers looked uneasily at one another.

“Is it your own inclining?” the prince insisted.

Pause. The courtiers looked uneasily at one another.

“Is it a free visitation?”

Pause. The courtiers looked uneasily at one another.

“Come, deal justly with me: come, come; nay, speak.”

Pause. The courtiers looked uneasily at one another. Then Guildenstern said, “What should we say, my lord?”

The moment, which should have taken perhaps ten seconds, took over half a minute. Not being out front to note this, D, whose co-director, like the one for Macbeth, seemed not to have helped, allowed himself and his cast to engage in scene-study acting where time and other performance considerations are put aside while the actors explore the inner values of each beat, each line, even each word.

Within D’s own lines, there were also drawn-out, William Shatneresque breaks. He read many lines like this:

“Would I had met my [. . . break . . .] dearest foe in heaven
“Or ever I had seen that day, Horatio!” (act 1, scene 2)

“There’s a divinity that shapes our [. . . break . . .] ends,
“Rough-hew them how we will,—.” (act 5, scene 2)

At first, I thought D was using some idiosyncratic phrasing pattern, though the pauses didn’t seem to be “reaction” takes and I saw no meaning in them. Finally, I decided that D just didn’t know his lines. My first clue came in the second ghost scene (act 1, scene 5), when D’s Hamlet admonished Horatio that “There are more things in earth and heaven . . . ,” reversing the order of those famous words. Even a half-conscious theater pro would never make that mistake! Later, when D delivered Hamlet’s advice to the players (act 3, scene 2), which I used to use as an audition speech so I knew the words pretty well, he made a number of mistakes. After I got home, I checked the script and found that D changed Hamlet’s words in many other speeches, too.

(My family lived in Germany for several years when I was a teenager. My father, who’d learned German as a child because his grandmother spoke only German in her home, told me with great amusement that the German translations of world literature he read as a boy, including the plays of Shakespeare, were often labeled “übersetzt und verbessert”—translated and improved. Maybe D believed that’s what he was doing: improving Shakespeare.)

Splitting his focus between acting and directing, D apparently couldn’t bring the necessary concentration to bear on either task. Unwilling to give up either the role or the directorial reins, he ended up with a 3½-hour Hamlet with a big hole in the center. I’ve expressed reservations about playwrights who direct their own scripts—my experiences with that set-up hasn’t been good, either—but the problems engendered are different. I don’t doubt there’s also an element of vanity in a writer’s decision to act as her own director—no one else can do justice to my words—but playwrights don’t often also run the theaters—aside from D, Emily Mann at Princeton’s McCarter Theatre is the only one I can think of, and she was a director before she started writing plays—and that’s where vanity piles upon vanity. The leader of the revival theater, D, and my Macbeth director all were artistic directors of the companies where they assigned themselves to direct the plays they selected. The revival-house director, though he takes on many jobs, doesn’t cast himself, but the other two gave themselves permission to take the leads in their own productions and, because they also ran the theaters, had no one who could effectively say them nay.


  1. I've worked at the revival theater in question, and recently worked in the Vanity Project to end all Vanity Projects. So, I found this fantastically timely.

  2. I'll assume you know which theater I described. Thanks for the comment--and the confirmation.