11 April 2013

Reflections On Directing: Helping

by Kirk Woodward

[A few weeks ago, my friend Kirk sent me a terrific little composition of his he called “The Director’s Book of Weird Ideas.”  It’s pretty much about what the title suggests: a collection of advice and suggestions for inexperienced and novice directors on how to do the job.  It’s couched in a humorous tone, but the information is serious and, at least from my own experience, valid and accurate.  The book was too long to publish on ROT, so Kirk did a cut-down version which I’ll be posting in four parts starting today.  (Parts two, three, and four will be posted on 14, 17, and 20 April, so come back and see the rest of Kirk’s short course in basic directing technique.)

[Kirk, a frequent contributor to ROT, is, as readers of the blog will already know, an experienced and accomplished director at many levels, so he knows whereof he writes.  He’s also been an occasional actor—he just did a short run of a mystery play in which he appeared with his own son for, I believe, the first time—so he also knows about directing from the other side of the coin, what it’s like to be directed.  As a playwright-composer, he also knows the ins and outs of collaborating with a director from that perspective as well.  In other words, you can listen to Kirk’s advice with confidence that it comes from experience and consideration.

[Besides, I recommend it.  I know from my own experience that this is good stuff, the straight poop, and all that.  You follow these suggestions and, given some innate talent and careful thought on your own part, you’ll do fine.  If nothing else, your cast, crew, and playwright will thank you and appreciate your efforts.  That ain’t bad at all, trust me.  (After directing my first professional show, one of the actors came to me and said, in all sincerity, “I’d work with you again anytime.”  It was a wonderful feeling.  Of course, this was at the cast party and the actor was drunk, but nevertheless . . . .  ~Rick]


I began directing in the late 1960s, when “alternate” ideas about how to direct were very much in the air. I heard Richard Schechner speak, vividly and provocatively, about his experiences with The Performance Group.

Although I didn’t live anywhere near New York, I subscribed to The Village Voice and read about the daring experiments taking place in theater.

I took classes with people who had worked with Jerzy Grotowski. I made a trip to New York to see America Hurrah, directed by Jacques Levy and Joseph Chaikin, and Joan, written and directed by Al Carmines, the founder of the Judson Poets’ Theatre.

I saw Peter Brook’s breathtaking production of A Midsummer Night’s Dream, set in a sort of handball court and using circus techniques as the physical “language” of the characters – twice!

In other words, non-traditional ideas about directing were in the air, and they still are, although perhaps the atmosphere has changed somewhat, in part because the mainstream has adopted many of the practices that were avant-garde or experimental in the ’60s..

New techniques still receive attention – “Viewpoints,” championed by the director Anne Bogart, is one in vogue as I write.

My own directing has always been more mainstream in its approach. In a way this is curious, because many of my experiences in theater have involved teaching creative dramatics. (Most of the genuinely “weird” directing ideas in this book are based on those experiences.)

However, I notice I’ve become more, not less, experimentally minded as the years have gone on.

The fact is that directing techniques don’t matter at all, except to the extent that they help get the play on its feet in the right shape.

The best director I’ve ever worked with was my wife Pat, and she hated, hated non-traditional styles of directing (and of theater, for that matter). But what’s important are results, and she got them. She had at least four great gifts as a director:

She knew how to stage a play so that one moment not only flowed into the next, but made the next moment necessary.
  • She based everything that happened in her productions on character.
  • She knew how comedy works – she was one of the first people in the United States to be aware of Monty Python – and she knew where to find it in plays and what to do with it. She understood humor – comedy in character.
  • She was a brilliant psychologist when working with actors, approaching each one in the way that particular actor needed, getting the best out of each individual.
After Pat, the next director I think of as a model for directing was Lee Kahn, who led the theater program at Washington and Lee University when I was there. Lee was a more or less traditional director who loved non-traditional plays.

What I remember best about Lee is that he listened closely to what was happening in the plays he directed. He was as sensitive as anyone I’ve seen to what was actually going on with the actors. He listened.

I’ve always been interested in how, in even a standard rehearsal process, a director can use approaches that might seem unusual but that have the possibility of helping the production reach its potential, whatever that may be.

Many of us who direct think that our primary job is to lead, to pioneer, to command. All those things are important, but they’re not as important as they would be to General Patton – who so many of us think we are. Patton – forget Patton – I’d guess that a substantial number of us think we’re God Almighty. However, that job is filled.

But the job of Helper is always open, and it often goes unfilled.

We’re directors, we want to direct, we want to tell people what to do! So do lots of other people, in the theater and out of it. There’s no shortage of order-givers. (An extreme example is the auteur director, who feels that the production ought to reflect her or his personal vision, rather than that of the playwright.)

But helpers are scarce. There’s a special need in theater for people who are able to help the production get from point A to point [however far it can get].

Listening to theater historians, you might sometimes get the impression that directing began in the late nineteenth century, with the theatrical company of the Duke of Saxe-Meiningen, and that as a result it’s a relatively new occupation.

In fact, the Duke had more or less the same relation to directing as Konstantin Stanislavski had, just a generation later, to acting: he began to set down what people, subsequently to be known as “directors,” have always done, first as authors staging their own work, later as “actor-managers,” ultimately leading to the specialist we call a director.

But the fact is that there’s always been someone doing the work of helping the play get properly staged.

Aeschylus directed the Choruses of his plays (groups of moving speakers) because they needed someone to help them.

Moliere, Shaw, and Yeats directed their own plays because they wanted to help the actors see the plays the way they saw them.

I think it’s fair to say that whenever a play has been staged, there’s always been someone to guide it.

It’s hard for a director to think like a helper. Very few people become directors without at least an average sized, and often an over-sized, ego. There’s a lot at stake when directing a play, and the bigger the exposure and money that’s involved, the more likely it is that the director will try to be a Tower of Power.

Imagine, now – if you’re not – that you’re a director. If, as I say, a director ought be a helper . . . well then, who are we supposed to help?

For one thing, the director is supposed to help the author. A director is terribly tempted to think of her- or himself as the primary artist in a production. The primary artist is the playwright. (This assumes that the acting company is working with a script; developing a play from scratch is a different art.) No playwright, no play.

No such assumption exists in the movies, where it’s taken for granted that a director will run roughshod over whatever the “screenwriter” writes.

There are various reasons for this difference in approach between plays and screenplays. One, I think, is simply that there are many more steps involved in the production of a movie than there are in the production of a play.

A play production is a “flat organization.” Film is more of a processing plant. Where the scale of production of a movie is smaller, the writer seems to become a bit more important, as in many independent films, or the films of Ingmar Bergman.

But we’re talking about theater. Okay, then let’s just put on the author’s play, exactly as the author wrote it. Fine, try it! Immediately we find questions of interpretation that the author won’t help us with at all.

Just to take one extremely common example, a playwright gives us characters’ words but not their thoughts or feelings – certainly not in any detail, and sometimes in a way that doesn’t make much sense. The author needs help to get the full significance of the play onto the stage.

So a director definitely has an interpretive part to play in the staging of a play, but not in a void. The author guides the director, and the director accepts the responsibility of helping the author (living or dead, present or absent).

In a way, the director is the author’s representative, not a free agent but authorized to make the necessary decisions on the author’s behalf. The more complex the play, the more complex those decisions will be.

So a director’s first task, I’d say, is to help the author by doing the grunt work of reading the play: 
  • again and again
  • to understand it
  • to get clear on what’s happening in it (often a more difficult task than it seems)
  • from the perspective of each character
  • from the perspectives of time and setting
  • from the perspectives of history and society and economics and politics and religion
  • for theme
  • to understand its principal actions
  • going away from it and coming back to it, and
  • noting the places where it seems different this time . . . .
And so on. A director, then, helps the author by preparing. A director ought to end up understanding the play as well as the author (presumably) did.

(A NOTE: Theatrical terms can be remarkably imprecise, and it sometimes seems like actors, directors, and teachers all have their own individual vocabularies. An example is the word action, which I use a number of times in these reflections. As I use it, “action” means what the actor does, as the character, to try to achieve a goal. When Hamlet, for example, says to his mother, “Mother, you have my father much offended,” his action is, perhaps, “to shame his mother.” The actor, in collaboration with the director, selects the action and then chooses how to carry out the action.)

What if the director doesn’t like the play, after all this work? My strong advice is not to direct it. It’s terribly difficult to do justice to a piece you don’t like. If, however, for reasons of money, timing, or pride, you find you do have to direct it, look for its strengths and do the best you can with those.

You as a director will help the author if you accept the challenge of representing the author in doing your best to put on the play the author wanted. This doesn’t mean slavishly following all the stage directions (which the author may not have written anyway), and it doesn’t mean giving away your right to think.

It does mean to help the author get her or his play on the stage, and not some other play, even if it’s one you thought up.

A director’s job is also to help the audience. Why? The answer is: because they don’t know where to look – both factually and figuratively. An audience needs help in focusing its attention on the right thing at the right time.

Practically speaking, this means in the first place the physical staging of the play – “blocking” it. A director’s job is to make sure that, inside that whole stage space (whatever its shape), at each moment the audience knows what it should be looking at.

In film or television, you can focus attention by pointing the camera at what you want the audience to see. Stage space is different. An audience can potentially be looking anywhere at any moment of a play.

So the director needs to think about what focuses the audience’s attention. For example, although there are exceptions to all the following, typically:
  • physically higher gets more focus than lower
  • brighter gets more focus than darker
  • closer to the audience gets more attention than farther away from the audience, and, most important of all,
  • moving gets more attention than standing still.

Finally, a director’s job is to help the actors. Directors so often think they’re the most important people in a production. The obvious answer is this: they’re not on stage. The actors are.

Not infrequently a director will try to answer this answer by creating staging that overpowers the actors, or by staging a play in such a “personal” way that all the audience can focus on is, “What an amazing directing job!”

But in that case the focus of the audience – which we’ve already said needs to be on what’s important in the play at a given moment – is misplaced.

Not only are the actors the ones on stage, but frequently they’re uncomfortable about it. They’re exposed. They’re vulnerable.

They’re people who spend their time becoming as emotionally sensitive as they can, and then they’re put out on stage where everyone can see their emotions. This is not an easy thing. Actors need support.

More specifically, actors need a secure atmosphere where they can feel free to explore and develop. And the director is specifically and directly responsible for providing that.

Many kinds of director make the actors’ work much more difficult than it ought to be. The tyrant director makes the actors resemble turtles pulling their heads into their shells. They don’t want to be assaulted – why should they? So they withdraw.

Equally unsupportive, on the other end of the spectrum, is the director who doesn’t give any direction at all. Neither kind of director is sensitive to the actors’ needs. This is a disaster, because, again, the actors are the ones who will be doing the play.

At the most basic level, working with actors, I try to mention something (real) that’s good about the work in a problem area, before mentioning – in a way that makes it clear I’m sure they’ll solve it – what the problem is.

Praise has to be genuine. It doesn’t have to be huge. Even a little praise helps, and you can always find something to praise. But when you do give positive reinforcement, don’t qualify it. Say it, and then suggest what the actor can add that will make the work even better.

To my mind, the role of helper is a much more satisfying an approach to directing than an authoritarian approach. No less an authority than George Bernard Shaw also thought so. Shaw directed dozens of productions himself (almost always of his own plays), and when he was ninety he wrote for the publication Drama:

“The perfect [director] lets his actors act; and is their helper at need and not their dictator.”

Finally, a director should spend at least a little time thinking about what the director wants the production to accomplish. What should the result be?

It’s surprising how easy it is to overlook this question. “My job is to direct – what else is there? I’ll leave the result up to the audience.”

Well, if the unexamined life is not worth living (as Socrates said), then the unexamined play is probably not worth doing (as Aristophanes might have said).

The director may not want any result more complicated than for everyone to have a laugh or a good time. (I’ve directed once or twice where my highest hope was that no one would find and hurt me.)

But seriously, folks, we’re functioning human beings living in a real world. Is there anything important to us that’s reflected in the play? What excited us about the play in the first place? When we initially read it, why did we think it was a worthwhile piece (assuming we did)?

We mustn’t lose that first impulse, but, instead, hang on to it, and use it as a reference point for work on the play. We may find that it gives ideas about the piece that you might not otherwise have had.

[As I said, this is the first part of four.  You’ll be doing yourself a favor if you return next week to read the rest of Kirk’s “Reflections on Directing.”  I hope you will.  Tune back in on Sunday, then—same Bat-time, same Bat-station.]

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