Instead of a Vision: Listening and Dialogue as the Work of a Theatre Director
The laser focus on a director’s vision is problematic. It sets the director up as a prophet rather than a leader. It focuses on a destination, an imagined end goal, and not on the journey. It is individualistic instead of collective. Insidiously, it suggests that the director’s efficacy can be determined by how well they manage to get a team to adhere to their will.
In the collaborative art of theatre, directors cannot achieve a vision alone. If a director’s primary task is to have their personal vision realized, they end up in a situation of necessitated manipulation of others. This manipulation is sometimes enacted kindly and respectfully and sometimes abusively, depending on the disposition of the director and the realities of the particular production—or even the realities of a director’s personal life or emotional capacity at the time. When a director’s vision is centered, abuse is not just possible, but more easily defended as the necessary means of creating good art. This is not healthy leadership.
I do not wish to suggest that every director who has ever spoken of a vision for a production is abusive or non-collaborative. The world and the theatre are complex and subjective. What I mean to point out is some of the insidious implications of commonly used language and ways of thinking about directing. Our attitudes toward and expectations of the director must change and language is a powerful tool to aid that transformation.
Directing is not only the art of choosing an artistic destination. It is also the art of safely guiding collaborators and audiences along an artistic journey, responsive to the realities of each moment of travel. In the theatre, an end goal, a vision, is relatively easy to form—and this can be done in isolation. But an ethical process of achieving a goal is neither simple nor possible to achieve alone. Directors are responsible for the art that ends up onstage but also, as leaders, for the well-being of those creating it. Overemphasizing a director’s vision distracts from this core truth and the possibilities it offers.
When a director’s vision is centered, abuse is not just possible, but more easily defended as the necessary means of creating good art. This is not healthy leadership.
From Vision to Listening and Onward to Dialogue
If we need a metaphor of the senses to describe the work of a director, vision is not it. What if the role of a director was conceived primarily as one of listening rather than visioning? What if the director’s focus was on listening to the play being staged, listening to the artists with whom they are collaborating, listening to the broader culture into which the play is intervening, listening to audiences as they engage with the performance, and, yes, listening to themselves and their own unique understanding of the material?
A great vision for a production of Hamlet might be understood solely in relation to the text: What cool new thing can be done with this canonical work? What might a director do to or impose upon the text? A great listening of Hamlet would involve receptivity to what the text offers, certainly, but also receptivity to what is in contemporary culture that makes Hamlet an important story in a particular time and place. It would also invite the question of whether or not it is, in fact, important. Listening opens up the frame of reference from an internally focused, novelty-seeking theatre to a reflexively situated theatre able to engage in broad cultural dialogue.
What if we take the focus on listening one step farther? Can listening be the starting point for something even more crucial to theatre: dialogue? Even in silent theatre, dialogue is present: dialogue between performer and audience, artistic dialogue within a creative team, the cultural dialogue of which all public acts are a part, and a reflexive dialogue within the director and between the director and the play they are directing. In Pedagogy of the Oppressed, liberatory thinker Paulo Friere teaches that true dialogue requires “a horizontal relationship of which mutual trust between dialoguers is the logical consequence” and that “at the point of encounter there are neither utter ignoramuses nor perfect sages; there are only people who are attempting, together, to learn more than they now know.” Friere’s understanding of dialogue lays the foundation for the collaboration necessary to make theatre.
But what about leadership? As an artist and a leader, a director must have a voice and something to say with it. Good dialogue cannot consist of listening alone but must involve considered response and, at some point, instigation. Directors must listen to themselves and their unique understanding of, relationship with, and connection to a piece if they are to bring themselves into meaningful dialogue with their collaborators and with audiences. This listening to self, however, is not the same as imposing a vision onto something (a playscript, a creative team, an audience). A vision is absolute, messianic, aggrandizing of the director-as-prophet, and leaves little room for dialogue.
Directors cannot lead if they have nothing to offer, nothing to say. By centering listening in place of vision, however, the creative process can become one in which no voice is held above another and many voices can come together in true dialogue. True dialogue enables true collaboration; it is antithetical to the grandstanding of a singular vision. Indeed, as Friere reminds us, “self-sufficiency is incompatible with dialogue.” In theatre perhaps more than anywhere else artists cannot do it alone; we must not pretend that we do, that we could, or that we ever have.
More transfolks in a transphobic space or racialized artists in a racist space is not the progress we should be striving for.
If the theatre field wishes to move beyond diversity and inclusion to the more profound equity—and, even better, justice—then who is in the room is important, but so too is how they are allowed to be in the room. More transfolks in a transphobic space or racialized artists in a racist space is not the progress we should be striving for. Even in consciously compassionate spaces and spaces led by directors from historically marginalized identities, a focus on a singular voice or singular vision does not allow for the productive exchange of multiple viewpoints that characterizes true collaboration. The so-called diversity of a creative team in a space dominated by a singular voice—no matter how well-meaning that voice may be—cannot fully benefit from the breadth of experience, insight, and perspective that is present.
Much abuse has been tolerated on the grounds that it is for some greater good—for example, the good of achieving the all-important artistic vision. Refocusing the work of a director on listening makes this justification impossible. When harm inevitably occurs (for listening and dialogue do not create utopias), a director committed to listening over vision will be better placed to identify and address that harm—including harm they themselves have caused. This foregrounds a director’s responsibility for ethically guiding a team of people.
Listening necessitates a deep appreciation of what a particular team brings to the work. Each team of collaborators is different and a leader is responsible for and to them. It is the unique artistic offerings brought by each member of a creative team—not just the director—that give each production its distinctive character. This should be celebrated.
Listening can also take the pressure off of a director to know, intuit, and/or foresee everything in a process. This is an absolutely unreasonable expectation of anyone—yet somehow an expectation often placed upon directors. A listening, dialoguing director is one with a whole team of collaborators with whom to identify and address the inevitable issues—artistic and otherwise—that arise whenever people come together to create. A visionary director, however, must have all the answers or they have failed. In the theatre, should we not strive to be more than the sum of our parts?
There is an all-too-common attitude that suggests collaborative, empowering, or reflexive directing practices are all well and good in “community work” or in a school setting (if even there) but once in the “real world” they are no longer applicable—or perhaps they are a nice but wholly impractical luxury. Once “real” or “professional” art is being made, then the power structures and working methods that have been inherited are often presented as inescapable. This represents a failure of imagination, a deep investment in the individualistic director-as-visionary model, and/or a fear of deviating from known models and ways of working.
As artists, we must have the courage to explore what we do not yet know and even what we are not yet sure is possible. Importantly, this is as true in the rehearsal hall as it is on the stage. Our artistic aims must be brave, but so too must our ambitions for how we achieve those aims in ethical ways.
A shift in focus from enacting a vision to listening and dialogue will, at the very least, attune directors to the forces at work and affect the tone of leadership, altering what is considered acceptable.
Contrary to some criticisms, the only alternative to a strongly vision-centered process is not a collective creation in which all collaborators engage in a power-vacuum free-for-all. Specific roles—including that of director—are not inherently antithetical to collaborative working. A director can still be responsible for outlining a creative process, making final decisions, and coordinating and leading collaborators if that is what the process requires. There is a difference, however, between the delegation of responsibilities and the oppressive wielding of power. Just as roles are not inherently oppressive, power is not inherently a bad thing. At the very least, power is inescapable.
As intimacy director Chelsea Pace points out in her recent book Staging Sex, there is power “in the room” and power “of the room”—that is to say: power exercised by individuals and power exercised by more collective, often harder-to-identify forces at work within a process. Each process will contain different expressions of these dynamics and will require different checks and balances to address them. In all cases, an active understanding of and response to these forces is necessary. A shift in focus from enacting a vision to listening and dialogue will, at the very least, attune directors to the forces at work and affect the tone of leadership, altering what is considered acceptable. It has the potential to do so much more, however, including opening up onstage artistic possibilities we could not otherwise have imagined.
Moving Forward, Listening Intently
So what does all this mean in practice? It means experimenting with new ways of working and embracing ones long extant that have not been given their due (see the list of resources at the end of this article for suggestions—and please offer your own in the comments to help our knowledge commons grow). As artists, we must also develop and constantly refine our own techniques for fostering dialogue. Each of us is unique. Each process is unique. Listening demands our active attention and ongoing commitment.
Directors have much to unlearn, but so too do all others in the theatre. Actors and designers must re-evaluate their creative relationships. Audiences must change how they think and talk about the director’s work. Theatre educators must revamp curriculums. Professional organizations and institutions must rework their contracts and policies, which have been built in a context of director-as-visionary. We cannot expect directors to change if broader expectations of them do not evolve in tandem.
In her article “Why Should a Playwright Direct Her Own Plays?” Canadian playwright Judith Thompson frames expectations of the director in terms of patriarchy and colonialism, articulating how:
most actors seem to have been habituated to expect a traditionally male kind of authority figure, a bearded man who knows the play better than any of them, who has the answers to all their questions and who, preferably, speaks with a British accent. They want a conqueror, someone who will take their natural resources and build a splendid fruitful machine... and I feel most uncomfortable wearing Columbus’s clothing.
I hope we are all uncomfortable in Columbus’s clothing, whether we are putting it on or having it put upon us.
Understanding the primary duty of a director to be listening rather than visioning does not negate the fundamentally important work of directors in contemporary theatre. Directors can still be artistic leaders who work to shape a theatrical experience for an audience. Focusing on listening does, however, expand the possibilities of how that can and should look and feel. Importantly, it expands these possibilities in the direction of equity, openness, relationality, and collaboration.
Some of these works are referenced directly in the article above while some are not. Some are clearly about directing and others less so. All, however, are works that have influenced my thinking. Unfortunately, some of these are published in academic journals, which are behind paywalls. These may be accessible only via a library or educational institution. I have included as many as possible that are publicly available.
Alvis’s work is not on directing, per se, but is a great read for thinking through allyship, Indigenization, and the theatre on Turtle Island.
Brewer, on acting faculty at Yale School of Drama and developer of Conscientious Theatre Training, explores realities in American theatre and argues for a results-focused anti-racist theatre in place of equity, diversity, and inclusion initiatives.
Led by Parasram, Carter, Parsa, Randoja, and Verdecchia discuss how they approach directing in the context of difference.
Davis, writing from his position as a trans man, offers some possibilities for what a queer directing practice might entail.
In this classic of liberatory thinking published in 1968, the great Brazilian educator and philosopher critiques the oppressive “banking model of education” and argues for a radically reformed relationship between teachers and students. I believe these relationship revisions are highly applicable to the ways directors should interact with their collaborators.
Golosky, a Métis artist, writes about power dynamics in rehearsal halls, problematizing the notion of so-called “safe” spaces and calling instead for rigorous pursuit of equitable spaces.
Harvey, a Nation member of the Syilx and Tsilhqot'in with ancestral ties to the Dakelh, Secwepemc, and Ktunaxa, uses her blog and social media to address a huge range of topics from her position as an “Indigenous cultural evolutionist.” She is a playwright, director, performer, and theorist who writes from all of these positions and about Indigenous ways of being and knowing more broadly. She’s also hilarious.
The first book to explore the emerging practice of intimacy direction, Staging Sex offers both exercises and ways of thinking about rehearsal processes that center consent and safety.
Based on her master’s research, Redfield offers trauma-responsive ways to structure rehearsal processes focusing on the four Rs: realizing, recognizing, responding, and resisting.
Judith Thompson’s “Why Should a Playwright Direct Her Own Plays” in Women on the Canadian Stage: The Legacy of Hrotsvit
Thompson writes about what she has learned directing her own plays as well as horror stories that point out many issues with how directing is often conceived.
Watkins offers thoughts on what a feminist directing practice might look like, pointing out possibilities, considerations, and potential limitations based on her experiences.
Note: I owe special thanks to Elizabeth Hobbs whose directing practice so inspires my own. It is in intense conversation with her that so many of these ideas were challenged, refined, and ultimately took shape.