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?