14 April 2013

Reflections On Directing: Staging

by Kirk Woodward
[As promised, here’s the second part of Kirk’s advice to novice directors.  If you haven’t read “Helping,” the first installment, go back to 11 April and check it out before reading “Staging,” below.]

Suppose that you’re a director of a play. How do you stage it?

“Staging” a play means a great deal more than “blocking” a play (arranging the movements of the actors). Staging begins, actually, with the selection of the play itself.

Often – especially in the case of new plays – we directors think we can take any old piece of junk and turn it into a sparkling production. It’s been done, but don’t count on it.

Not only can audiences tell when a play is a waste of time – actors can too, and there are few things worse in theater than struggling through endless rehearsals when the actors loathe the play and wish they were someplace else.

My favorite theater story, told I believe in the Oxford Book of Theatre Anecdotes, is about the great British actor Ralph Richardson on tour in the provinces at a dreary matinee performance of some awful play. Richardson suddenly interrupts the play to ask loudly, “Is there a doctor in the house?” “I’m a doctor,” a man in the audience replies. “Doctor,” Richardson says, “Isn’t this play awful?”

On the other hand, pick a good play and you’ve done (according to Walt Whitcover, who taught directing at the HB Studio in New York) ninety percent of your work. (The other ten percent, Mr. Whitcover said, is casting.)

You can be virtually certain of being hailed as a good director if you pick a good script and cast it well.

Set design is a major part of staging a play, and in today’s theater design often precedes any work with the actors.

Depending on the theater where you’re working, a director may have a set designer to work with. The dynamics of that relationship differ; generally, the director and designer should work collaboratively, based on a shared understanding of the play.

On the other hand, the director may be the designer of the set (and the costumes, lights, makeup, and sound), and may even end up building it!

Whatever the situation is, the set of the play is the environment the actors will live in for weeks, months, or (if everyone is fortunate) even years. It’ll be, close to literally, their home away from home, as well as the home for the production.

So – a set must be an environment in which the actors can do their work, account for entrances and exits, for areas for movement and for stage pictures, for the details that will represent the play’s historical period and environment.

But the director should also ask questions like these: Will this set be fun for the actors? Will it be a space that will inspire and challenge them? Will they have a good time in it?

The same questions can be asked on behalf of the audience.

These questions may help to stir the imagination as much as play study and historical research will. After all, when people think about weird directorial ideas, the area of stage and set design is mostly what they’re thinking about.

I’m not suggesting doing something crazy for the sake of being crazy. A scenic design needs to serve the play.

I am suggesting letting the imagination free in thinking about the stage as a habitat for actors, without neglecting anything else.

Bertolt Brecht liked to rehearse a play for weeks before bringing the set designer in. By that time, the actors had given him ideas about the best way to use the space.

Few of us have the luxury of that kind of time. The technical work has to get done, and there’s only so much time in which to do it. A set may even have been designed before the play is cast.

But the director does have the opportunity to do the exploratory work in the director’s own creative mind.

Is there a more interesting way the performance space (including the auditorium, or wherever you’re performing the play) can be used than the usual? Does the play suggest anything out of the ordinary? Have you considered all the possibilities for exciting ways that the play, in this environment, can be staged?

There may not be any, but it’s certainly worth a thought.

Casting a play – selecting the right actors for the right roles – is also a crucial part of staging a play. Sometimes the director may not have enough actors to cast, or enough to give choices.

And ultimately you’ll have to do the best you can with whatever choices you have. You’re not psychic. You never know for sure how an actor will work out. Good luck.

Personally, I hate casting and have enjoyed the situations where someone handed me a cast to work with. I particularly hate telling actors no – they have so much invested in auditions. The director should be as considerate as possible, both of their feelings and of their time.

Years ago I stage-managed a reading where at the audition, the director paid special attention to an actress, an older woman, who came to the audition well after we’d shut down for the evening, pulling a grocery cart full of, among other things, clothes, papers, and a dog.

The director read her for several roles, and finally told her good night. When she’d left, I asked him why he’d given her so much time. “Didn’t you recognize her?” he said. “She played . . .” and he named several roles she’d done. He treated her as a human being. May we all be so thoughtful.

And please, don’t cast based on narrow ideas of race or looks. People come in all sorts. Look around the streets in New York City and you’ll see every combination of people, some of them families. Don’t draw arbitrary lines.

I worked with an actress once who told me how distressed she was to find that when she read an audition call for, say, the role of a nurse, it meant a white nurse. That’s an evil. We ought to grow past it.

Blocking the play – Eventually, of course, as the director you will need to tackle the issue of how the actors move as they perform the play. One would think that the director works it all out and tells them (“blocks” the play), and that’s the traditional and frequently used method. However, there are others.

For example, there is what may be called non-directional blocking. Basically this means letting the actors wander around stage until they find their own blocking, while you look benignly on. In non-directional blocking you don’t give blocking – you let the actors find it. (Eventually, of course, the movement should be “set” or finalized.)

This may sound like laziness to those who haven’t tried it, but it’s a valuable technique – under the right circumstances. Non-directional blocking works best:

The shorter the play
  • The smaller the cast
  • The more specific the set
So a two-character, one-act play set in a room with walls and furniture is an ideal candidate for non-directional blocking. A full-length play with a cast of twenty on a bare stage is not.

Or is it? Nothing’s impossible. But one of your tasks as a helper (remember?) is to help the audience focus, and it probably won’t know what to focus on if the cast has developed the staging by milling around.

An example of perfect conditions for non-directional blocking is a production of Brecht’s The Jewish Wife that I directed some years ago. The play is a one-act, and for most of it there’s only one character on stage (the husband comes in for a short, highly charged scene at the end).

We happened to do our show on an already-existing set of a bedroom, so the set was particularly specific.

Another approach to blocking is what I call semi-directional blocking. Semi-directional blocking allows the actors the freedom to develop their movement, while keeping it in a solid framework.

The idea is to stage the play, not by telling the actors how to move and where to stand, but by giving them actions that they can carry out. When you do this, you’re speaking the actors’ language, because that’s how they think (or should think) about what they’re doing.

Basically an actor will think something like “I want to make him change his mind, so I’m going to try to intimidate him.”

So during the staging rehearsals the director says to the actor, not “Cross left three steps and raise your fist,” but, “Intimidate him.” The actor will instinctively do something to accomplish that action.

It takes longer to stage a play this way than it does for a director simply to give the actors blocking. The process may need to be repeated and guided.  

An advantage to this approach is that while the play is being staged, it’s also becoming real to the actors.

They’re not just writing down instructions. They’re carrying out actions, actions that as a whole will be the substance of the play. And since they’ve developed the actions for themselves, they’ll remember them.

The work for the director is to be clear about what the appropriate actions are. “Make her think” is a poor action instruction. How is an actor supposed to do that? The directed action must be do-able.

For parts of the play that need to be carefully staged in order to make sure the focus is clear, do that in the traditional way. When a scene requires particular focus, stage it.

Question: if actors move according to actions, why bother to give them the actions? Why not just let them find them?

Two answers:
  1. Left to their own, the actors’ choices will be inconsistent.
  2. If you give them the actions, then you have control of the structure of the play. You wanted control, didn’t you? There, you have it! Now leave me alone!
Then, moving along the line of ways to stage a play, there’s what I call, perhaps eccentrically, creative blocking.

Of course all blocking is supposed to be creative. (My wife Pat took a college course in Creative Dramatics and was disappointed to find that it wasn’t about making your work in drama creative, but about a specific series of exercises.)

I’m thinking, though, of this particular approach that I call Creative Blocking because it resembles games in creative dramatics.

I first used this approach while directing a production of Is There Life After High School, an excellent musical for which I had no staging ideas at all.

The play basically alternates short scenes with songs, so I divided the actors up, assigned them scenes, told them to put the scenes on their feet in whatever way they wanted, and to bring them back to me in twenty minutes.

Twenty minutes later I looked at the scenes, found that they were all inventive and interesting, adjusted various details to improve the audience’s focus, and pronounced them done. (And gave a sigh of relief.)

The actors never had to struggle with those scenes again. As with semi-directional blocking, the scenes became their property, since they’d developed them.

One thing that directors learn over time, if they stay alert to what happens in rehearsals, is that, like snowflakes, no two productions (even of the same play) are exactly alike. An approach that works with one group of actors, or with one play, or even with one designer or producer, may not work with another.

A great deal of the fun in directing comes from sizing up this particular production and tailoring an approach to the show that will achieve the best results for actors and audience alike.

[Part three, “Actors,” will be posted on 17 April, so come back and give it a look.  (You never know.  You might learn something.)]                                                


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