Finding My Place as a Director

Getting Out of the Way of the Work

In 2015, Haven Theatre Company in Chicago, IL launched a program called the Director's Haven, giving three directors at the earliest stages of their careers space to showcase their vision for the Chicago community. The program continued with its second cohort in the fall of 2016. Here, each of these artists to share their observations, experiences, and perspectives from their vantage points as directors at the very start of their professional journeys.—Josh Sobel, Artistic Director of Haven Theatre

It was the night before my Director's Haven interview, and I was sitting with a friend of mine in a bar. I had just finished explaining my proposal to him—a potentially rewritten mounting of Ionesco's The Chairs—and I asked him what he thought. He gave a generally positive answer, but I told him, “You know, I'm actually not sure why I'm doing this. I like this idea but it feels totally irrelevant, and it seems stupid to try something new by slightly changing an old play.”

The next day at the interview, when asked about what show I would want to work on if chosen, I talked at length about a show that didn't fit the the program at all and halfheartedly pitched my version of The Chairs.

I was not selected for the Director's Haven.

A day before an interview is a great time for a crisis of faith.

To create vital work moving forward, I need to collaborate with artists who are non-white and non-male. By making sure that their experiences are rooted in the work that we create together, I can make theatre that resonates with audiences, making full use of my skills and perspective without being about my identity.

But when Josh called me two months later, told me that someone had dropped out, and asked me if I wanted to be involved, I told him yes. And I said yes when he asked if I knew the play I wanted to do. Later that night, I wrote a proposal for what would become Love in a Maze, the original show that I co-wrote, mounted for the Director's Haven, and then rewrote and mounted again at Rhinofest three months later.

In those two months I had to sort out exactly what I where that crisis had come from, and it wasn't as simple as not being able to write original work, or needing to pick a different idea. It was something that I've only been able to articulate in the last few weeks, and is something I'm sure I'll continue to confront for the rest of my career. I've narrowed it down thusly: How do I, as a director and an artist, create art using my full self that isn't about me? How do I create something that uses all of my skill but none of my self? How do I create something that is of me without being about me? How do I get out of the way of the work?

While I don't have the answer, it's been useful to talk about—and maybe it'll be useful to read about—the ways in which I've tried to sort this out through focusing my work towards adaptation and collaboration.

four actors on stage
Love in a Maze, featuring Claire Floriano, Maria Jacobson, Maddy Low, Nick Freed. Photo by Austin D. Oie Photography.

Frankly, my own life experience isn't particularly interesting. The last thing we need is more plays about young white men who grew up in the suburbs and are trying to be artists. So if the stories that need to be told aren't ones that I'm best-equipped to generate, but I still want to work on plays that I'm creating, where can I look?

Through finding texts and rewriting and reshaping them, I feel like I'm striking a balance between being the creator of ideas and their steward. While I didn't come up with these stories—in the case of Love in a Maze, the original text was written in 1725—I am deciding to tell them now, and by translating them into a different form and adding my twenty-first century perspective, maybe I'm both putting myself in the work and getting out of the way. As an adaptor I'm more than a translator and less than a writer, and I can create work that is fully of me artistically with nothing about me biographically.

actress on stage in a wig and costume
Love in a Maze , featuring Maddy Low, Sarah Stockdale, Claire Floriano, Bridgette Hammond. Photo by Grace Pisula.

I used to think that when a director approached a text, it was their responsibility to come up with all of the ideas. That the director needed to have all of the answers, and needed to enter the first rehearsal more or less knowing everything that was going to happen on the stage at any given moment. I remember once in high school even writing out all of the blocking for a play, diagramming out the movements of characters around a dining room like a coach writing out football plays.

This was stupid.

After the second round of Love in a Maze, I was sitting in a bar talking with one of the collaborators (seems all my epiphanies come after conversations in bars) and she told me that I was the nicest director she'd ever worked with. I took the compliment, but interally I panicked—what had I done to make her think I was nice? Should I give more notes? Be less positive in the room?

This was also stupid.

The first instance wasn't stupid because what I came up with was bad, or the way I notated it was wrong, but because I was putting myself between the actors and their work. I've learned that as a director I'm often most useful in the rehearsal room as an editor and adaptor of actors' ideas and instincts.

The second instance was stupid in a similar way. It's been a conscious choice to be an encouraging presence in the room. If I know that I need the actors' impulses as much as they need my guidance, I want my actors to feel that their work is respected, I want them to feel comfortable, and I want them to feel confident in what they create.

I'm getting out of the way of the plays I create so that they aren't about me, they're about the characters and necessarily the actors. The more I can create an environment where the performers feel like they can immerse themselves in the work, bring their experiences to the table, and take ownership over what they're creating, the more I can find the balance I'm looking for.

Perhaps most importantly, being outside of a collegiate bubble for three years has helped me to see the kinds of stories that are important—most of which are not rooted in my white, male, privileged experience. To create vital work moving forward, I need to collaborate with artists who are non-white and non-male. By making sure that their experiences are rooted in the work that we create together, I can make theatre that resonates with audiences, making full use of my skills and perspective without being about my identity.

I'm working hard to be the ultimate collaborator. The more I can devote myself to and get out of the way of the actors I work with, the designers I collaborate with, and the plays I create, adapt, and stage, the more I'll be creating something useful for myself, everyone involved, and everyone who may come out to see it.

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Thoughts from the curator

Three emerging directors speak on their experience as part of the Director's Haven program in Chicago.

Directors Haven

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This is something I struggle with as a director also - how to create a vision with everyone else so that it becomes more than what I, or any one other singular person, could create on their own. The first few rehearsals are the most unnerving as that seems to be the time when everyone wants a simple answer and I only know what it is I want to explore in depth with the actors.

In terms of your blocking comment, I find that each piece dictates how much or how little I actually block. Recently, I had 4 weeks to rehearse a "meta" ensemble piece that required constant participation of the entire cast. Due to my heavy dance background, I approached it like choreography and came to rehearsal with everything blocked out but with the caveat that the actors could change the blocking at will and for a reason. Since the show required a tight movement flow, I wanted them all to begin working in the same environment and then to take that template to build, destroy, and create the play from a common place. It worked beautifully..... but those first few rehearsals had all my Meisner actors hating me and my blocking.... Blocking is not the scourge that actors think it is - it is also our responsibility as directors to make sure the picture being created has depth and interesting creative flow. It is only a scourge when it is done poorly and without regard to the living breathing actors who must make the characters live in that blocking. It is an art form quickly dying in the theatre and too often I see shows that it is quite obvious the actors have blocked it from their characters view and the director has not shaped it to the play's objectives.

Thanks for the interesting article and a look at your process as a director.

Right? It's a tricky thing. I just finished the rehearsal process for a show where the actors only needed (or wanted) light guidance on the spirit and staging of the piece, and were equally happy to follow the director's rough plan for a scene or just jump in and follow their instincts. I find those first few rehearsals invigorating because of how much they can vary based on the needs of the group -- it can be one reading at the table versus hours of rehearsal spent at the table reading through and picking apart a text or idea.

That sounds like it was probably a fascinating process to work through, and the way you approached it sounds like the way I'm trying to hone my approach. If I create a structure early on both for the physical language and style of the piece, the hope is that the actors can build on that skeleton. The part that I think is most important (and it seems like you do too) is that the director is still staying on the outside, sculpting it to make sure it works for the audience as well. I share your frustration in seeing a piece of theatre or performance and feeling what's happening on stage without feeling like I can share in it because it hasn't been shaped for the viewing of an audience...if that makes sense. It's making sure both that the actors are living freely and organically in the piece and that it's curated and shaped to specifically communicate for the audience experience; that you're doing it for both yourself and others. I strongly believe that the staging of a show is important and needs specific thought and coaching, even if the actors are generating a lot of the content and even if 'blocking' is a dirty word.

I've tried to figure out what "good direction" looks like from an audience perspective, and I've landed on this: if I can look at a piece and the seams don't show, that's good direction. And I think this ties in to what you're saying as well - the director's responsibility is, ultimately, to make sure that all of the performances and other elements fit within the same world, and that world (even if it isn't explicitly described) is open and intelligible to the audience.

Thank you too for sharing your experience and thoughts!

To piggy back onto what Michael is saying, I would also encourage you to seek out different communities and see what happens when you commit to communities outside of your own identity. Just go to events, plays, concerts, and keep going, and make friends, and break the cycle of our very white world.

I am trying to do that more and more, and in that way, collaborations come together as you find people you are drawn to and who are drawn to you, and ask you to work with them on their work and vice versa.

As a last offering, I'll say that Judith (Malina) used to tell everyone "if you don't know what you are trying to say, don't get on the stage, let folks that have something to say get up there until you can figure it out."

As a straight white guy from the suburbs myself, I generally only want to work on theatre projects that are in some way useful to a community...and not if it simply help the theatre community or someone's career etc...if that's helpful at all in terms of answering these important questions.

Hi Zach,I appreciated much of what you shared, and your process of discovering what works for you to find personal creative balance definitely has its benefits and fruits. As someone who directs and acts I appreciated your perspective on the importance of respecting actor's discovery process and how to best support that without being a control freak. As a writer myself, I recognize how the actions you've already taken support you, and also want to encourage you to allow your voice as a writer to venture into the creative process outside the domains of adaptation and collaboration.

Re: "Perhaps most importantly, being outside of a collegiate bubble for three years has helped me to see the kinds of stories that are important—most of which are not rooted in my white, male, privileged experience. To create vital work moving forward, I need to collaborate with artists who are non-white and non-male." You mentioned earlier how your own life experience was not particularly interesting. If you're doing what you're doing, then my bet is that despite your assessment of your life being 'uninteresting' it has been anything but. That's like saying 'white, male,privileged experience' has absolutely nothing to offer in terms of insight to the human condition. Henrik Ibsen and Anton Chekhov come to mind. By all means work with all sorts of creatives in your field, genders, nationalities, races, religious affiliation, that you are drawn to work with. But please don't close yourself off from possible enriching collaboration just because someone may be male, white and come from an entitled background. That's just another form of prejudice.

Lastly, identity is a very complex phenomena. It has roots in personal biography of course that includes genetic, generational, social, cultural, religious, and racial dynamics. I think part of the honorable challenge of someone whose purpose is to offer creative expressions through art, a blessing and a curse, is to be willing to navigate deeply through these domains to discover their own truth and voice for expressing that truth. May your navigation bring you to rich treasure to share with others. May you discover and trust your voice. It can enrich the lives of others.

Thank you for your thoughtful and in-depth response!

I definitely do believe that my white, male, privileged experience has provided insight into the human condition - and you're right that I wouldn't be doing the work that I am if I didn't believe that.

Re: "another form of prejudice," I do want to clarify that I don't mean I need to work with only one type of collaborator...or avoid one type of collaborator.

Just because someone's background is different from mine, it doesn't necessarily mean that they're the right voice in the room - or vice versa. I've worked and had long discussions with people whose privilege or background is similar to mine, but who have starkly different ideas, observations, and artistic tendencies.

This has been my experience: it is easier to find collaborators who are like me than it is to find those who are unlike me. If I want to enrich my work by finding those with different backgrounds and voices (which I do), I need to make a conscious effort to do so. Especially seeing how segregated many theatre companies still are, I've realized that finding diversity in my collaborators needs to be part of my mission statement, needs to be an active pursuit.

As far as my own voice goes, I do have to continue to discover it. And for now, it's found a home by snaking its way through the words and ideas of others while still existing in the background, holding the work together.