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.
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.
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.