01 March 2017

Evaluating A Director

by Kirk Woodward

[Kirk Woodward has been a major contributor to Rick On Theater since its inception in March 2009—which isn’t surprising because Kirk suggested to me that I start the blog in the first place and, being an IT guy in his day job, helped me find the host site.  A playwright, director, actor, composer, lyricist, and teacher, he’s written on many topics for ROT, including non-theater subjects.  He’s written about directing in several of his posts, starting with “Kirk Woodward’s King Lear Journal” (which gets a mention below), posted on 4 June 2010.  Later contributions on this subject are “Directing Twelfth Night for Children,” 16 and 19 December 2010, and “Reflections On Directing,” 11, 14, 17, and 20 April 2013.  Of course, Kirk’s knowledge of directing has come into play in many of his other pieces for ROT, but now he’s coming back to the blog with a slightly different perspective on the craft: how to assess a prospective director for potential employment.  “Evaluating a Director” is based on Kirk’s recent experience applying for a directing position with a theater company in the New Jersey suburb where he lives.  The process was an unusual experience—Kirk described it for me when it started and I agreed that I hadn’t ever heard of one like it—but (as with most of Kirk’s experiences, I’ve discovered) he found it instructive.  So here my friend shares with ROTters what he gleaned from the evaluation process he went through; I know you’ll find it revealing as well as interesting.  ~Rick]

A recent experience has given me an interesting opportunity for thinking about what a director does and how a director does it, and to change my own mind about an aspect of it. The following is a journal, tracing my thoughts, such as they are, or my stream of consciousness, about the experience as it went along.

(12 December 2016)

I recently applied to direct a play (not yet chosen) for the St. James Players of Montclair, New Jersey (www.stjamesplayers.org), a community-based theater in my area that performs one Shakespeare production a year – that’s their whole season. I sent them a cover letter and my resume.

I received a cordial reply thanking me for my application, suggesting a date for an interview, and mentioning that part of the interview would involve my staging a short scene in front of the board of directors, with a cast including members of that same board.

This surprised me; I’ve never before staged a sample scene as part of a directing job interview. I told my correspondent that the date and the procedure were fine. To be honest, I saw no reason to worry about it. At first glance the request seems fine.

If you were interviewing someone for a job as, say, a church pianist, you wouldn’t be satisfied with looking over resumes; you’d ask the applicants to play something for you. If you were interviewing portrait painters, you’d at least like to see their portfolios. If you were interviewing wedding bands, you’d at least want to hear some recordings, and maybe hear them play a song or two live.

My application to direct had been forwarded to the group by one of its members whom I had recently directed elsewhere. Hopefully he didn’t think I was too bad as a director; at least he apparently didn’t blackball me. Many times a theater will choose a director based on a recommendation, or perhaps on a production that several people saw. In desperate situations they may even select a director based solely on a resume. Interviews are a standard practice. (I first met my wife Pat when she interviewed me for a directing job!)

Still, though, surely a better procedure is to watch a director direct? Seems logical. But that request did start me wondering what such a procedure could actually demonstrate.

One obvious answer is that watching a director work with people may answer the question: is this applicant someone you could endure for an entire production?

It seems unlikely that an applicant could disguise an abrasive personality for an entire working session. (And after all, for a chance at an unpaid and strenuous directing task, who would try?)

An aside on auditioning – the fact is that the “thumbs up, thumbs down” of many – I would guess nearly all – interviews is decided, not even in the first few minutes, but in the first few seconds of an interview. I have never talked on the subject with a director who didn’t confirm that her or his mind was made up about each actor within a very few moments of the first encounter with the actor.

I see no reason why the same shouldn’t be true about interviewing directors. My guess is that the board of the St. James Players will have decided whether they’re willing to consider me for the job before I’ve finished walking through the door. That’s how it works, and if you are skeptical, audition a group of actors (or directors!) for a play and see for yourself.

How is this possible, this practically instantaneous reaction and evaluation? The answer appears to be that, consciously or unconsciously, the interviewer has in mind a desired result – an image, a picture, a conception of what the interviewee ideally will be like - before the interviews start. Match that image, and you’re in, or at least further in. Fail to match it, and you’re out.

Actors often don’t realize that it’s almost impossible for them to “win” or “lose” a role because of talent or skill. Of course someone may make a favorable impression and then cancel it out, for example by turning out to be crazy. (I have seen that happen.)

Or the reverse may occasionally happen, with a bad first impression followed by something overwhelmingly fine that changes the interviewer’s mind. The casting director and teacher Michael Shurtleff, in his invaluable book Audition (1979), says that Robert De Niro, the outstanding actor, could hardly bring himself to speak in initial interviews because of shyness. Obviously he had the talent to overcome this obstacle, but most of us don’t.

Both situations are rare, however. Usually first impressions rule. Auditioners and interviewers have ideas of what they want to see, whether those ideas are conscious or subconscious.

Back, now, to the upcoming interview. A complication in the present case, of course, is that the decision on me and my fellow directors will be made, not by an individual (as far as I know) but by a board of directors. That complicates matters but probably not too much; generally the board ought to be able to determine, essentially, whether they like me or not.

What beyond that? What does the board hope to see from me as a director, and what can I show them?

I’m told that I’ll be sent the scene I’m supposed to stage in advance, which I think is appropriate. A director is supposed to prepare before rehearsals (leaving the question of “prepare what?” unspecified for a moment).

If you ask a director to prepare and she or he doesn’t, you’ve learned something problematic about that director . . . or have you? We will return to that issue.

I haven’t been sent the scene yet and don’t know what it will be, or how long I’ll have to work on it. My feeling is that it won’t matter much whether I get it a month in advance or the night before. For better or worse, I should be able to do the work on it that I need to in whatever time is available.

Will it be a scene from one of the plays the theater has already staged? These include:

A Midsummer Night’s Dream
The Tempest
Twelfth Night
The Merry Wives of Windsor
The Taming of the Shrew
Macbeth

I’m pretty sure the scene will be from a play by Shakespeare, since the theater does only his plays. This has both advantages and disadvantages, which is where we start getting into more specifics about this process.

An obvious advantage, if the play does turn out to be by Shakespeare, is that I’ve read various articles and essays about all of his plays; I’ve read most of the plays themselves; I’m substantially familiar with many of them; and I’ve directed a half dozen already. That’s on the advantage side.

The disadvantage side – possibly – is that directing Shakespeare’s plays has its own specific problems, many of them problems of language. As a result I would never begin staging a scene in one of his plays without first having the cast do it in “paraphrase” – putting  the text in their own words – at least once, and possibly several times, and then using that paraphrase work as a basis for staging the scene.

A number of times I have seen actors speak Shakespearian verse in confident tones that masked their complete incomprehension of it. (I give an example of this in my report in this blog on directing some of King Lear [see “Kirk Woodward’s King Lear Journal,” 4 June 2010].) I don’t want to direct on the assumption that everyone already knows what all the lines mean.

To sum up, questions about the interview scene I’ll be directing include:

1.     What expectations does the board have about what I’m going to do?
2.     Does the board have a fixed idea about how a director ought to work?
3.     Should I approach the scene as though I’m really directing it, or as though I’m giving a demonstration of the way I direct? Should I possibly narrate my process as I go along (for example, “At this point I’d have the actors use paraphrase on the scene”), or is this a “real time enactment” in which I really try to bring the scene along to a particular point?
4.     In that case, what point am I supposed to bring the scene to? So it’s ready for the next rehearsal? Ready to perform before an audience? Or something else?
5.     Is the board’s real desire to see how I stage the scene – in other words, how I arrange the movement of the actors? Is that what they’re looking for?
6.     How much time do I have in which to direct this mini-scene? Will the next interviewee be outside, waiting impatiently if I take too long? Is the board watching to see if I can direct quickly? Is speed of the essence in their minds?
7.     Do the actors (some or all of whom are board members) know the scene already, or are they starting from scratch? Do they have it memorized? How familiar are they with it? Is it a scene they’ve already performed, perhaps from their most recent production?
8.     For that matter, are the board members in the scene actually actors?

I will probably come up with other questions, and I doubt that I’ll actually ask most of these before the interview, but I think these do show that the idea of directing interview scenes is not as simple as it may appear at first glance.

My hope would be that the board would want to see a “snapshot” of my directing – to watch how I handle a specific moment in the directing process, whatever that moment might be. I suspect that such a “snapshot” would tell the board about as much as they can learn from the interview beyond what my resume and recommendations tell them.

Their request has made me realize how much directing is a cumulative process. It’s not a matter of doing “A,” it’s a matter of helping a cast move from “A” to “Z” in a solid way by opening night.

To take one example, I mentioned the possibility above that the board might be looking at how I stage the scene – how I “block,” that is, physically arrange, the actors. I have no problem with that – I certainly don’t always think my blocking is brilliant, but I’m glad to do my best.

But the director doesn’t direct a play in the abstract. There’s always some kind of set and setting, whether it’s an elaborate system of levels on a stage or a couch in a living room. Blocking that works in one location probably will not work in another.

What’s more, while some directors may block their plays and never change their blocking again, that’s not my procedure. If necessary I’ll change my blocking up to, and once in a while during, the last week of rehearsals.

As rehearsals go on I may see a better way of staging something. As the actors and I get to know each other and the play better, we may mutually find that there are ways of doing things that fit their abilities and personalities better. I would be foolish not to want to take advantage of that.

So a director is not necessarily a magician who says a magic word and – poof! – there’s a completely staged play. I’m not.

Every director works differently, anyway. Some directors are brutal tyrants with their actors – and sometimes those tactics result in brilliant productions. On the other hand, some directors want to work with their actors, not over them. (I believe and hope I’m one of those.)

There are even good directors who don’t prepare much. That might seem unlikely, but take the example of the legendary Broadway director George Abbott (1887-1995). As William Goldman reports in his splendid book about Broadway, The Season (1969):

Abbott is known in the business for not doing a great deal of homework. Once, when a new scene was about to be blocked, he called to the stage manager, “Where are the doors?” That was really all he wanted to know. “I do less than anybody, I think,” he said. “I shock everybody with how little I do to prepare. I could make designs of actors’ crossings, but if I did, I wouldn’t use them, so I don’t bother. Blocking’s unimportant anyway; just so you get things to look natural.”

Goldman’s entire chapter about Abbott in The Season, incidentally (it’s called “How Are Things in the Teacher’s Room Tonight?”), is one that any director would get something out of.  [Kirk discussed this book on ROT: see “William Goldman’s The Season,” 30 April 2013.]

I’d say that there are more and less effective ways of doing things as a director, but not “right” ones and “wrong” ones. The only “proof of the pudding” is the final result, the play as it’s ultimately performed.

Even then a director may not achieve every intention. Harold Clurman (1901-1980), in his classic book On Directing (1972), says that he felt good when he achieved sixty per cent of what he hoped to achieve, and he was no slouch as a director, either.

Does the board know any of this? What are they looking for? We’ll see what happens.

It’s terribly tempting to adopt a persona for the interview. One friend suggested I wear a scarf, a coat hung on my shoulders like a cape, and a beret, and bring my own director’s chair. Another said, “I'm not sure if you should try ‘Louder, faster, funnier,’ or, ‘Could you make it more like rainwater?’”

(21 December 2016)

Since the theater apparently hasn’t decided on a play for next year, it occurs to me that I ought to suggest a few I’d be interested in directing. To be honest, I’d direct anything they asked me to, and in fact I’d prefer that they choose the play themselves.

The reason for this is that I don’t know what their company is aiming for. Do they intend, eventually, to stage every play Shakespeare wrote? Or do they feel their audience insists on lighter and/or more familiar fare? They ought to know their audiences better than anyone else.

They did stage Macbeth, which is a tragedy; but it’s an accessible one, while others offer additional well known difficulties. And are they interested in the history plays at all?

Needing something to say, I suppose my suggestions would be (not in order of preference):

As You Like It (I’ve directed it before, but it never runs dry)
Two Gentlemen of Verona (not a great play, but fun)
The Comedy of Errors (same)
The Merchant of Venice (major interpretive issues and a tricky fifth act; breathtakingly topical)
The Winter’s Tale (glorious; a huge undertaking)
Much Ado about Nothing
All’s Well That Ends Well
Love’s Labour’s Lost (conceivably)

If for a change they’re looking for a history play, I’d suggest doing a combination of Henry IV Part I, Henry IV Part II, and Henry V – several of these exist. And I have a Shakespeare compilation of my own that I may throw in the pot if the opportunity arises.

(16 January 2017)

Hi Kirk – just wanted to confirm that we are planning to meet with you for the director interview this Saturday, January 21 from 9-10:15a at St. James Church.  I will be sending a final email with additional details beforehand, just wanted to make sure you had it confirmed on your calendar.  Look forward to meeting then!”

(19 January 2017)

“Dear Director Candidate:

“The Board . . . looks forward to meeting you this Saturday!  Please enter the church from the rear.  There is a parking lot behind the church, and you are welcome to park in any spot reserved for the church.  We will post signs for you to follow once you come into the building.

“After introductions, we will spend the first 30 minutes asking some questions we have prepared in an effort to get to know you.  You will then have 30 minutes to prepare/coach and run the scene below from Hamlet with two of our members (male and female with different levels of acting experience). 

“As they say. . . the floor is yours!  So feel free to exercise creative freedom and showcase your directing talent.  After the activity, we will leave 15 minutes for you to ask any questions you wish of the board.  See you then and please let me know if you have any questions beforehand.”

The scene is Hamlet, Act 5, Scene 1, the scene with the two “clown gravediggers.”

I will say that communication from the group has been exemplary.

I woke up Thursday night/Friday morning about 2 AM, thought about the scene and about possible questions they might ask me until 4, got up, printed out copies of the scene (just in case they might not have their own, although they almost certainly will) and my resume, and sketched out the blocking of the scene, which ran about 4 minutes when I read it out loud.

(21 January 2017)

The big day. I got to the church early, then couldn’t find a parking place and ran the risk of running over several people coming from or going to church activities. The first person I met was the one who’d sent the email messages. By the time everyone arrived there were eight board members present, in a smallish room with a space, clearly the acting area, between a board table and a circle of comfortable chairs and sofas, which is where we sat.

The atmosphere was friendly, even hearty. They had divided up the task of asking nine questions; some more questions emerged in the conversation, after one member gave a background on the group, saying that their purposes were to benefit the company members, the audience, and, by bringing people into the building, the church.

QUESTION: You saw our production of Macbeth. What did you think of it?
ANSWER: I thought it was GREAT!!!

I had tried to think in advance of as many questions as possible that they might ask me (like the one above), and what my replies might be (also above). This turned out to have been a good idea, since I was able to answer, fairly coherently, questions such as my ideas about directing Shakespeare (approach it as you would a musical; as much as possible, make the scenes continuous, eliminating pauses for scene changes; the emphasis in lines of iambic pentameter often comes at the end of a line) and my directing style (create a secure atmosphere, give goals for each rehearsal, expect a difficult rehearsal when new elements, such as lights or line memorization targets, are introduced).

Some of the group’s questions clearly reflected their own plans going forward. Did I need big sets, and would I consider staging the play in various alternative spaces? (All things being equal, no to big sets; I’ve directed in many alternative spaces – Midsummer in the round, As You Like It outdoors – and enjoyed it.) Suppose the board wanted to work with the director, as opposed to choosing the director and then disappearing? (Fine with me.) How would you work with people who had little or no stage experience? (Supportively, I hope.) What play(s) might you want to direct? (Maybe Much Ado About Nothing . . . but the theater ought to select the play based on what they know about their audience.) Would you be willing to work with us in selecting a play? (Absolutely.)

Finally it was time for me to direct two actors (one was a board member, one was not) in the scene from Hamlet. We got off on the right foot when I offered pencils if either of the actors needed them – “You brought PENCILS?” one board member said in amazement. Before we started the exercise I talked a bit about what would have happened in real life up to this point in a production – we’d have had a number of read-throughs, at first sitting down and then gradually standing and moving around, and we’d have done a great deal of work paraphrasing the lines, to make sure everyone knew what they were saying and to give a realistic foundation to the scenes.

Then I tried to ignore the board completely, facing the actors instead of them, and working as much as possible the way we would if we were putting a scene on its feet. I will say that I did not feel I did a brilliant job. “Blocking” rehearsals aren’t much fun under any conditions, and doing them with people watching is even less fun. Still, I figured the board ought to see the real thing, so we plowed on, I tried to work roughly the way I ordinarily work, and we did get through the material, even the song at the end of the scene. It was not a particularly smooth half hour. I can comfort myself by saying that blocking rehearsals seldom are.

Only afterward did I start to think of alternate ways I might have handled the demonstration. After all, we directors had been encouraged to “exercise creative freedom and showcase your directing talent.” Should I have shaped the scene with exercises, begun with an improvisation, perhaps guided the actors through a visualization? Maybe next time.  Those ideas, and others, are probably not what I’ll be doing as we’re blocking the actual show, should that moment come. Or maybe we will do those things. I reserve the right to choose my strategies. In any event, for better or for worse, for this “audition” I made the choice to work in a pretty conventional way.

In retrospect, what do I feel about the board’s request that each director stage a scene as part of the interview? As I’ve already indicated, I was initially skeptical. I thought of a couple of analogies. If the board were trying to select a psychologist to be on the church staff, would they say to each candidate, “As part of the interview, we’d like you to do half an hour of therapy on a board member, in front of the rest of the board”? Chances are that the psychologist would not be thrilled, and more than likely would have to turn down the request on ethical grounds anyway. And directors are in their own way psychologists – or they had better be.

Or if the board were interviewing artists for the job of painting a portrait of the minister in oils, would they say, “We’d like you to do a painting in front of the board first”? The artists would almost certainly say, “That’s not how my process works. I create a painting over a period of time. All you’ll get to see today is a bit of pencil sketching.” Directors, like many portrait painters, work over a period of time, or, again, they had better. The show doesn’t open today. It opens weeks or months from now, and not until then can it be judged. This is why the audience is seldom invited to rehearsals.

Despite all that, looking back at my interview today I can see I’ve fundamentally changed my mind about the idea of directing auditions, for a simple reason. I know that as an interviewee, I did a good job today. I talked charmingly and knowledgably about directing and theater. I showed that I was reasonably likeable and reasonably smart. (All right, let’s assume that I did those things. I tried to.) But does that mean I can direct, or does it just mean I can talk? How do I – how does any director – deal with actors when they’re actually face to face with the director?

I think that’s a legitimate question to ask, and odd though the board’s request strikes me and everyone I know who’s heard about it, it seems to me that that there are more plusses than minuses in the idea. In addition to hearing my answers to questions, the board saw a reasonable if not exhaustive sample of me at work. Ultimately, if it turns out they don’t like the sample, it shouldn’t make any difference to them how well I talked. Hire me for a workshop, maybe. But hire a director for the show who demonstrates that she or he works well at a practical level.

It may even be that the limitations of the sample – restricted time, borrowed actors, searching eyes – may actually compel a more accurate estimate of a director’s real skill, or lack of it. And I have to say that most of the questions I listed above about the process resolved themselves without fuss. Here are my questions again, with comments on how they worked out:

1.     What expectations does the board have about what I’m going to do? How much does that matter? I could have provided anything specific they asked, if I’d had to.
2.     Does the board have a fixed idea about how a director ought to work? Again, should I care? Either I’ll be a good fit for them or I won’t.
3.     Should I approach the scene as though I’m really directing it, or as though I’m giving a demonstration of the way I direct? Should I possibly narrate my process as I go along (for example, “At this point I’d have the actors use paraphrase on the scene”), or is this a “real time enactment” in which I really try to bring the scene along to a particular point? I decided to narrate the process, and they were fine with that.
4.     In that case, what point am I supposed to bring the scene to? So it’s ready for the next rehearsal? Ready to perform before an audience? Or something else? Not a realistic question, since as it turns out, I only had half an hour, and you can only do so much in that time frame.
5.     Is the board’s real desire to see how I stage the scene – in other words, how I arrange the movement of the actors? Is that what they’re looking for? Once more, what’s the problem? If they don’t want to see the scene staged, what DO they want? They’re adults; they can tell me.
6.     How much time do I have in which to direct this mini-scene? I was given this answer – one half hour – in advance. Will the next interviewee be outside, waiting impatiently if I take too long? The next interviewee WAS outside, probably relieved that I’d taken as long as I did. Is the board watching to see if I can direct quickly? Is speed of the essence in their minds? If so, then so. It’s an audition. Let it be.
7.     Do the actors (some or all of whom are board members) know the scene already, or are they starting from scratch? Do they have it memorized? How familiar are they with it? Is it a scene they’ve already performed, perhaps from their most recent production? This question strikes me as logical, but in practice it didn’t matter, because we were starting the scene at such an early stage of work. One production seldom resembles another much. If they had the scene memorized, they didn’t show it.
8.     For that matter, are the board members in the scene actually actors? One was; one possibly either was not or was pretending not to be, perhaps to see how I’d deal with someone who hadn’t acted much.

(22 January 2017)

Waiting time. It occurs to me that I didn’t ask when they’d notify candidates, and they didn’t say. I’d think they’d have to tell us this month, because they indicated they’d like to select a play in February.

I don’t think I’ll be too upset if I don’t get the job. It is, after all, a great deal of work. The final question I was asked yesterday was, “Considering that this job involves lots of time and effort for no pay, why on earth do you want it?” All I could think to say was, “Because I love directing and I love Shakespeare.” After my wife Pat, a wonderful director, choreographer, performer, and teacher, died four and a half years ago, I lost my interest in directing. Little by little, it appears, I’ve gotten it back.

There doesn’t seem to be any harm in thinking ahead to what I might say if I did by any chance get the job. The following ideas evolved out of comments during the interview:

·         The board wants to have at least one assistant director – read “trainee” – work on the show. I told them I’d started directing in that way (on a production of King Lear, an experience about which I’ve written in this blog) and would gladly support such a program. It strikes me that we should choose the AD (or AD’s) early so they can participate in the meetings that will precede the rehearsal period.
·         As soon as the play is selected, I’d like to wander around the church with the board and identify the different kinds of spaces in which the play might be performed – the sanctuary, obviously, but also other possibilities.
·         I wonder if the board would like a series of pre-audition workshops on Shakespearian verse. This would have the dual advantages of handling some of the language work early, and of letting me familiarize myself with many in the acting pool ahead of the auditions.

(24 January 2017)

I wrote thanking the board for the opportunity to interview with them, and received this reply:

“Thanks for your kind note Kirk!  We had a pretty full day of excellent candidates Saturday. We very much enjoyed meeting you as well.

“The board is still deliberating and giving time to follow up with a few internal folks who applied, but we hope to circle back by next week.

“Thanks again and look forward to being in touch again soon.”

Does not sound terribly positive, but you never can tell.

(31 January 2017)

Hi Kirk – hope all is well with you on this snowy day!  Sorry for the delay in getting back to you, but we all needed to run after our day of interviews, and were not able to meet/deliberate until this week.  

“I would very much appreciate the chance to speak with you by phone in the next day or so about next steps.  I am available today after 5p, tomorrow/Wednesday from 9:30-11:30a or after 7p.  Please let me know what works for you.  Look forward to connecting soon!”

(2 February 2017)

So I did get the job – we’ll be doing As You Like It – and in the process learned a great deal from the experience. As Sherlock Holmes says in “The Red Circle” from His Last Bow, “Education never ends, Watson. It is a series of lessons, with the greatest for the last.” Directing is a fascinating activity. It calls on us to continue to work on doing it better. Hats off to the St. James players!

[Rehearsals for Kirk’s As You Like It will begin on 30 April and the show will run the first two weekends in September.  Performances are at St. James Episcopal Church, 581 Valley Road, Upper Montclair, New Jersey; telephone: (973) 744-0270.

[For other posts on ROT by Kirk Woodward, which are now too many to list here, I suggest using the blog’s own search engine (in the upper left-hand corner of the site) and simply search for “Kirk Woodward,” or use the “Labels” below and click on Kirk’s name.  His contributions have covered many aspects of theater, including playwriting and reviewing, as well as music, pop culture, and some fascinating personal and family memories.  (There are about 65 posts—including several multi-part pieces—to choose from!)]


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