I’m often asked the question of how is it to be both a writer and a director, and would I recommend that playwrights direct their own work. I usually start by making sure that it is understood that I am not a playwright who directs his own work, but rather I am a playwright/director who sometimes directs his own work. Separating those two things for me is like separating my being black from being gay. It is really a matter of how I live and work and how I view my life and my work. It is all art to me; an artistic expression and examination.
I have always written and directed. I learned very early to be comfortable being alone. I come from a very large extended family and yet I enjoyed being by myself with a good book, be it by Stephen King or Jackie Collins or Charles Dickens. I loved sprawling stories and mysteries, and very early on I would make up plays and songs and dances. I would teach these entertainments to my younger cousins and often we would perform them for family members. I cannot remember anyone in my family ever taking me to a play, so I find it odd that I now earn my living in the arts.
In many ways, being a writer/director in the theater is breaking a major rule. But it’s simply who I am.
When I was eleven, I wrote the sixth grade class play—an adaptation of Snow White and the Seven Dwarfs titled, Ebony and the Seven Kool Kats. I didn’t recognize this as any sort of political reexamination of the fairy tale, and the fact of the matter is, that there was only one white person in my entire sixth grade class, so naturally, I thought of the play as being about black people. I also didn’t recognize my choice of having the evil queen sing Diana Ross’s song, “Mirror Mirror,” as anything to do with my being an obviously gay child. Of course a black evil queen would sing that particular Diana Ross song. Duh.
This is all to say that from a very early age, I was someone who broke the rules. And in many ways, being a writer/director in the theater is breaking a major rule. But it’s simply who I am. In general, I do not believe it’s a good practice to have playwrights direct their own work. But I think it’s perfectly fine to have playwright/directors direct their own work. It happens all the time in film, but for some reason it is not looked upon too kindly in the theater. This view, for me, at least, comes down to how people view power. Many people believe that the rehearsal hall is set up with the director being the power in the room, and in many cases, the playwright is relegated to a fly on the wall of her own play. Many directors feel like they are in the room to show the playwright what they have written and what they need to rewrite; to add perspective that the playwright does not have. Having been on both sides of that power dynamic, I don’t really allow power to come into the room. To me what happens in the room is really about honest collaboration.
In general, I do not believe it’s a good practice to have playwrights direct their own work. But I think it’s perfectly fine to have playwright/directors direct their own work.
I start off most of my rehearsals when I’m directing someone else’s work by telling the playwright in front of everybody that I am expecting her to have a strong voice in the room. I tell her that it will be no one’s fault but her own if I fuck up her play. And I will gladly proceed to fuck up her play if she does not stand up and speak up. I have seen many plays fucked up by directors. So having the perspective of also being a playwright, I give the playwrights I work with a wide open space in the room to speak their minds and express their uncertainties about what is happening to their creation. I am not there to have all the answers or to give the play a perspective that the playwright doesn’t have. As a director I want to help the room to find the perspective. I believe that everyone in the room is a part of the brain/trust of the play. Everyone in the room is trying to find the play. The playwright is our guide. She holds the map. Sometimes she might not know where we’re going, but I expect her to tell the room when she knows we are going down the wrong path or when she knows we are absolutely lost.
There is an odd thrill for me when I am lost while working on a play. It is the thrill of finding our way out; our way to the audience. This can be very scary to some playwrights because I think a lot of playwrights are taught that if the room feels lost, then something is wrong. So, therefore, it is up to me as the director to assure the playwright and the rest of the room that all will be okay. Breathe. Drink some water. And let’s keep going. It is at this point of feeling lost inside the process that we begin to discover the play. Where we find the perspective from which to present the journey of the play to an audience. I don’t want it to be a clean and clear line from beginning to end for the audience. I want it to be an experience. I often use the metaphor of getting on a bus. When one gets on the bus one doesn’t have the right to tell the bus driver to slow down or speed up or take this route or drop me off at my door step. This bus will be going the same route every night. And when you get on this particular bus you must take this particular journey or you can get off at the next stop. But you must give up control. Give up power. What being a writer/director has taught me is that honest collaboration in the theater is about giving something up and enjoying the ride.
Now, when I’m both the writer and the director, I am able to get the room lost more quickly and easier. I deliberately take us down paths that I don’t know how to get out of and expect everyone to trust and honor the idea of discovery. I ask the room to take my hand and leap off the cliffs of their imaginations. Telling everyone that, “I won’t be limited by your imagination and I expect you not to be limited by mine.” Knowing everything about everything completely disallows the need for an imagination. So writing and directing your own work can sometimes activate the imagination rather than stifle it as many in the theater believe. There are playwrights who want to direct their own work, just like there are directors who want to write a play, and many times I think folks in theater think of writer/directors as just that. For me it is not about what I want... instead it is about who I am. I am a director. I am a playwright. It has taken me many years of hard work to come to appreciate what each of those professions require and to experience them both independently and combined. At times it really gets under my skin when those two abilities are somehow frowned upon and called into question as a matter of ego. Everyone must have a strong and healthy ego in the theater. We are criticized publicly and routinely, so why on earth anyone would think we should not have an ego is beyond me. I tell my students that they had better have a really firm ego if they are going to go into this profession where you are rejected more often than accepted. And it is doubly so if you are planning to do more than just one thing, because your rejections will come from each of your areas of artistic expression.
Finally, it is always a thrill and relief to just simply be the playwright in the room. I make it a habit to step in and out of the journey of the room. Especially in the middle of the process when you’ve given out the guide to the map/play, it’s always nice for me to just take a day off. Go be in the real world. Give up control. Then come back and see what amazing discoveries have been found. Directors have to be in rehearsals every day. They are in the middle of it all. All the time. After having been in my writing room by myself for months creating a piece of art, the joy is in allowing the rehearsal room to find the little bits of truth and madness that I’ve dropped along the way. They will hopefully find a hidden passage that I didn’t even know was there. For me, the map, the play is not destination. The journey. Is indeed. The destination.