How Do We Make It? Directors and the New Theater Landscape
Theatre is an intrinsically collaborative form in which work is often made in siloed divisions of labor. The word “collaboration” seems to have lost all meaning even as it pops up on grant applications, mission statements, résumés, and in the mouths of hip administrators. Yet it has always been true that in the theatre we make meaning together as a group. We make meaning as a production team, as an ensemble of performers, and as an audience. The theatre requires dialogue both written and spoken, observed, and shown. A performance is a sum of its parts, it is an articulation of the vision and desire and curiosity of a large group of people. In essence that’s what we want to talk about, making meaning together, and how we might shift our practices to invoke this core idea.
The Bleak Situation and Redefining Risk
We’ve all heard playwrights, directors, and actors complain about a new work getting stuck in development hell. Reading after reading yields yet another reading. In each of these cases the written text of the play is being transmitted to you over the top of a music stand without any marker or artifact of the many other aspects of theatre (light, sound, object, gesture, space) that will ultimately form the performance text and create it’s own dialogue with the written word. We’ve also heard and experienced the plight of playwrights and directors working through development processes together only to have their work or their partnership changed by an institution as a condition to taking a chance on a new play. As a result, playwrights labor to make their plays “director-proof” after enduring a series of under-rehearsed and disheartening readings to ensure that their work isn’t compromised.
We’ve all been alerted to the issues of declining attendance, the increasing age of our audience, and the dilemma of attracting a younger audience to the theatre. Administrators and artistic directors across the board are looking around for new ideas to fill their houses and some of them are increasingly pinning their hopes for a younger, “fresher” audience on new plays. These new play programming efforts often hinge on the hiring of directors, designers, and actors that are “known quantities” in order to minimize the risk of an “untested” script. Often theatres agree to take one “risky” choice in programming a new work and then make fifty safe choices to frame that choice.
Why Do We Make It This Way?
We want to shift the question and ask: not what is the new play, but how do we make it?
We are both new work directors. We’re folks who seek out new projects to develop, and we cherish the experience of building that new work with a playwright. We are two folks committed to new American plays. But we want to look at our assumptions regarding the way a play is made and reconsider our traditional models of programming. At a time where many theatres define risk as the moment they offer a job to emerging or early career artists, we see many institutionalized ways a company will take this leap of faith with a written text, but not with a director who can be largely responsible for authoring the performance text.
Defining the Director’s Role
Last summer, we ran a week-long workshop for directors as part of the National New Play Network (NNPN) MFA Playwrights Workshop hosted by the Kennedy Center and one of the American theatre’s patron saints, Gregg Henry. The topic was collaborating with playwrights and developing new plays. As we began getting to know our workshop directors, we found time and time again that these directors were waiting for an invitation to begin their work. This waiting game ran the spectrum between assuming any vision they might have for the work depended on the playwright’s blessing, to feeling they couldn’t go out into the world and make their own thing for fear of never finding a home for the work or a company that would support their vision.
When we ask these directors about their vision as artists: the way they will work, the ideas they have, they tell us it depends on the script.
We work with young directors all the time who tell us that the job of a new play theatre director is “to be a midwife, a conduit, or a facilitator.” They tell us the play (the written text) is a baby and they don’t want to hurt the baby, they want to encourage it to grow and to cultivate its development, but they’re afraid that as it grows they might teach it the wrong set of ethics or values. When we ask these directors about their vision as artists: the way they will work, the ideas they have, they tell us it depends on the script. And of course it does, like any collaborative form, but the work of a director or of any artist is not to wait calmly for the instructions, but rather to create, support, and be supported by the other visions in the room. Words like “conduit” and “midwife” define the director as a person or thing that helps to bring something into being or assists its development. The way our directors were talking, we got the feeling that the role of a director is someone who gets out of the way of the art. This paradigm assumes there is an ultimate answer you can unlock on the page, and that you just need to be smart enough to excavate it and lucky enough to get it into three dimensional space without destroying it. Locating yourself as a facilitator/midwife means that there is a text in the room with one possible interpretation that a director must interpret in the right way or fail at the job. It means the play is yours to fuck up. We disagree with this idea. If there is only one interpretation of a play then the role of a director is superfluous.
Trusting Your Collaborators
Rather than rely on a production model where the script has all the answers, what if we assumed the script was a powerful tool among many powerful tools? What if we believed that the most important work was about how a group of people, including the playwright, interpreted the words on the page to create the performance text, rather than the playwright's words being the sole arbiter of quality, and then interpretation as a secondary, less important aspect. That the text is there to make strong proposals to the other artists in the room? What if we believed that the most important work was about how a group of people, including the playwright, interpreted the words on the page to create the performance text?
In our workshops we try to get down to what makes up the functioning mechanics of a highly effective, highly collaborative rehearsal room. What we inevitably see is a group of people from the actor to the playwright to the lighting designer who walk into the room with a strong vision for the work. Having a strong vision does not make you an art tyrant, but having a strong vision requires that you also have the flexibility and interest in absorbing similar strong or even opposing visions from your collaborators. This is all about showing up with ideas and proposals that are steeped in your understanding of the work and inviting a similar set of ideas and proposals to live in your collaborator. The best idea is usually in the room and not in your notebook. The best idea is the alchemy of multiple points of interpretation and understanding, which can only exist in the room with other artists.
In a highly effective, highly collaborative room dozens upon dozens upon dozens of choices and proposals from all sides of the collaboration will fall away, while others will become stronger and more deeply grounded in the work. All of this is only possible because each artist is brave enough and confident enough to make a statement of meaning about the work and then able to listen to the ways those statements are transformed by the other equally brave statements in the room. If we train artists to believe they should hang back and protect their vision from the room, then we’ve forgotten the heart of collaboration. The theatre is a perfect space for the collision of ideas in search of a cohesive shared vision.
This eco-system becomes less and less possible when a director puts themselves “in service,” which we see as another way to talk about working as a mid-wife/facilitator. If you work “in service” of the text, the play becomes an exercise in limitation instead of illumination. Most readings are thrown together in a few hours where the director and actors are hastily rehearsed right up to the edge of performance. There’s often very little time to accomplish much of anything aside from a read through, and this process allows for only the broadest and most basic choices that must “serve” the text. The actors and directors are doing their best to ensure that the script sounds correct (rather than explore potential meanings), they simply don’t have the space or time to consider anything else.
We propose a model that aligns with the values of workshops mentioned above, where the development process is longer, and the team is working to craft an interpretation that is meaningful to the people in that particular room. It’s a model built around the premise that there is not one interpretation of a play, but hundreds, and that everyone (the actors, designers, directors, and playwrights) is responsible for creating an interpretation that is unique to the circumstance of their particular audience. In this way, the process of a rehearsal is about creating consensus and finding ways to authentically get everyone onboard by igniting creativity in each collaborator. If there is any way that a director could be a facilitator, it is here; not to find the one “true” interpretation of a play, but instead to investigate the expression of twenty-plus interpretations of the playwright’s words and cohere those ideas into something that is comprehensible, dynamic, and theatrically vivid.
Multiple Drafts, Multiple Possibilities
Some folks say put the play in the center of the room. We say put the play in the center of yourself and respect that it lives in the center of each of your collaborators as well. Allow the possibility that your interpretation, your proposal for the performance text will yield if not an answer suitable for the final draft of the show, a totally valuable experiment in the search for that final draft, one that will inspire similar proposals from your collaborators. Instead of fearing that you’ll “get the play wrong,” start from a place of adventure, a place of possibility, let the work on the page inspire your creativity instead of minimizing it.
Here’s why this is important:
Good plays are ones that support multiple interpretations. We keep coming back to the Greeks, Molière, Shakespeare because they’re plays that speak to us in different ways, in different situations throughout time. If we try to “director-proof” a play to insure only one interpretation, it shuts down a play’s ability to support a multiplicity of meaning. If we make the play too finite, it can only exist for one group of people at one point in history (and that is of course fine, if that’s what you’re after), but if we want plays that expand the form and invite in new audiences, then we need plays that are built for interpretation. We need collaborators and theatrs that support this very theatre-centric practice of making meaning together.
If we are teaching playwrights to “director-proof” their plays by minimizing the possibility of interpretation, then collaborative teams can never do their best work. If directors are only given two hours to rehearse a reading, then the game is to simply execute the terms laid out on the page. If institutions hire new plays, but not new directors, we are short-circuiting the development of fresh and innovative voices.
Rather than taking one risk on a playwright, take a risk on the team, give them time and space and let them create something bigger than themselves.
A more holistic model of playmaking asks the industry to trust in all collaborators and a multiplicity of interpretations. Rather than taking one risk on a playwright, take a risk on the team, give them time and space and let them create something bigger than themselves. We need to stop thinking that new plays will be the salvation of our declining attendance issues, and instead recognize that it is not only the work that’s being made, but also the way that we’re making work that is the problem.
A Proposal for the Future
What if you commissioned groups of artists, as well as playwrights? What if you gave these developmental teams the space to build a new work and included this commission in your season? What if the brick and mortar buildings of the regional theatre housed collaborative efforts by established companies and opened their resources to emerging artists working together to launch new plays? Rather than placing all the pressure on a single new play or a lone playwright to bring in audiences, theatres might instead commission groups of collaborators (playwright, director, designers, actors, others) to make work, and put those people at the center of the creative process. Let’s privilege the drafts and the drafting process of all the artists in the room, let’s continue to ask; “How will we make it?”