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Queering the Room

Some Beginning Notions for a Queer Directing Practice

This week on HowlRound we have several articles from transgender theatre artists that highlight diverse stories of a trans community of practicing artists working to create visibility in the theatre and the world.

What does it mean to build a work inside a queer container? What does it mean to queer a rehearsal room or queer a directing practice? I am interested in the experiment of talking about directing from the perspective of my trans identity and seeing what happens when I do. I am certain it informs the way I work, but I’ve never tried to define how.

I am a trans person in the American theatre. Sometimes I joke that I think there are maybe eight to ten of us in the field and we all seem to know each other. But the point is I am a queer body in a predominantly straight space and it’s part of my job to navigate issues of gender and identity alongside the work I do in rehearsal.

I went through a phase in which I outed myself right away to a new group of collaborators. I’d say, “Hello, my name is Will Davis and I use he and him pronouns. If this is confusing to you feel free to grab me at a break and we can check in.”

I went through a phase where I said, “Hello, my name is Will Davis. I use he and him pronouns so take a crack at that and, if you have trouble, just go ahead and try again.”

These days I am experimenting with not outing myself as trans at all. I say, “Hello, I am Will Davis and I’m directing this show.”

I’ve had a lot of practice walking into a room of people who have never known a trans person before, and a lot of practice with the moment where what Will Davis looks like on paper and what Will Davis looks like standing in the doorway come crashing together. I have practice owning myself in a room that may not have the language or context to see me as I see myself. And so the internal compass that makes it possible to maintain my sense of Will Davis when no one on the outside can see it is constantly getting a workout—that same compass is also very useful for making theatre.

Part of queering the rehearsal requires that I get interested in the taste and style of my collaborators. It feels like my job to find unique ways that the material can be transmitted through the artist instead of projected onto them, and my aim is to build a rehearsal room where there is a rigorous invitation to show up inside the work.

The four ideas I want to explore in this piece fall under the larger umbrella of building the culture of a rehearsal room. By culture, I am talking about the values and aesthetics and modes of our working relationships with each other and the material. Though I begin each process differently, I carry a handful of practices with me, show to show, to design a unique working frame for what we’re going to accomplish in that room. As directors, we use our own curiosity, taste, style, and artistic impulses to build the particular mode of inquiry for the work. So, in service of building culture with a queered center, here are four core values of my directing process I carry with me:

1. Make work from the center of your desire.

The idea of working from the center of your desire has been a big part of my coming out. The very idea that there was a center to find was a radical thought for me for a long time. In my life and in my art, I’d lived a long time at the periphery, waiting for the gravitational pull of someone else’s desire or someone else’s vision to pull me into action. As I have come to own my identity and pieced together the core values of what it means for me to be a queer person redefining my relationship to gender, I’ve been able to inch closer and closer to center, and to building a home for my artistic vision.

A great friend of mine once said: our work should look like the people who make it. I often think of that when I stand in a room of new collaborators. In one way, how can the piece not look like the people who make it? But in another way, rehearsal is a unique invitation to lift up the particular alchemy of the bodies and minds assembled to build the work. We should encourage the visions of the artists we work with and make space for their impulses with the work. Part of queering the rehearsal requires that I get interested in the taste and style of my collaborators. It feels like my job to find unique ways that the material can be transmitted through the artist instead of projected onto them, and my aim is to build a rehearsal room where there is a rigorous invitation to show up inside the work.

2. The best idea in the room does not need to be yours.

When I talk about directing, I talk about inviting the expertise in the room. We often forget that one of the unique principals of coming together to make theatre is that we are coming together. We’re placing our individual visions in the same space. To my mind, that means we ought to let those visions sharpen each other and make us all better.

My job is to frame rehearsal with very, very good ideas so that perhaps the best idea might come from a collaborator inside the process. The greatest success to me is when I put a good idea in the room and an actor’s eyes light up and they say, “I know!” and then make a choice that refines it into a better idea.

This feels like part of a queer aesthetic because it is an integral part of turning a generative hierarchy on its side—a very queer thing to me. Just because I am on the outside watching does not mean I am always right. I want to cultivate agency and ownership in the performers I work with. They should feel invited to generate material and treated like authentic collaborators. This ups the potential for disagreement, which I think is exciting and valuable. I’m interested in open collaborative relationships and how our varied perspectives can help to sharpen our decision-making.

I am not at all interested in the “right” choice in rehearsal. How could there be such a thing? Instead, I am interested in making a series of choices and seeing where that leads. If you grow up knowing that there are “right” and “wrong” ways to be and somewhere inside you it is alarmingly apparent that you are an example of the “wrong” thing, then the moment you can let go of that “right” and “wrong” binary is the moment you are free. I want to stay curious about how we might best activate the narrative vision, and that means I’m interested in other people’s ideas.

Actors and director in rehearsal
Director Will Davis (center) leading a rehearsal of Evita at the Olney Theatre Center. Photo courtesy of Olney Theatre Center.

3. Invite being seen.

This phrase, “invite being seen,” is borrowed from the great choreographer Deborah Hay and was first described to me by my mentor Kirk Lynn. To me, the phrase is about practicing presence. It describes an invitation to generate your performance from where you are and invite people to join you there. The best performances are the ones where I am seeing both the character and the actor in action. I’m interested in the moments where both ways of being onstage are activated and I’m invited to live with the performer in that complex moment of identity.

When I talk to actors during a moment in rehearsal when they’re not feeling successful, I sometimes say, “I picked you because you were you. I want the you in you to perform this role.” This feels totally tied into my experience as a queer person moving through the world. The space between who we are and how we perform identity is now a joyful and playful space for me. There was a time when it was harrowing, and I felt helpless trying to navigate the huge chasm between the internal unknown and what I thought was a required external performance of who I was.

It seems to me that it is more interesting to be many things at once. My life has been enriched by the concept that I can get up in the morning and put my gender on. I can choose how I want to perform my gender and my identity as my internal concept of myself shifts. I want to invite the same practice in performance, open up the space for the actor to be more than one thing and attempt to be present for their selves and for the performance in the same moment.

4. Let a thing be wrong as long as possible; cultivate a fierce love for imperfect things. The greatest skill a director has is the tolerance for “I don’t know.”

The number of times I’ve said to myself, You can’t just sit here and not make decisions, you have to get up and walk straight into “I don’t know” is the number of times I have seen my life revolutionized.

The great thing about walking into the unknown is that you have little to no control of the outcome. That’s where tolerance comes in, and I have found in my life and in rehearsal that tolerance is the most important value. If I try not to react with fear when I don’t know what you are doing, but instead tolerate that it won’t go well for a while, I have found that eventually something happens that feels good.

It can be the smallest thing—a cross up left, a line landing right, the beat it took to make the decision to speak—and then suddenly you’re in business. Something tells you, Okay, that seems useful, let’s follow that, let’s make a series of decisions based on that little detail and through those decisions we’ll arrive at a plan.

As I have learned to do with myself, I sit in rehearsal and fiercely love what isn’t working. I try to find the joy in it. It’s an exciting moment.

This method of working through the unknown and working with a bit of grace with the imperfect is the only way I have managed to arrive at a sense of self in my life. I’ve had to learn to listen to the impulse inside me that says, Just cross the threshold, I have no idea why or what will happen but just do it and we’ll sort it out on the other side. That was true when I changed my name, it was true when I started making physical changes to my body, and it is true today.

Working with “I don’t know” is all about having a conversation with your limit. It is not a soft or easy place, or a space of giving up. “I don’t know” is a call to arms. It says we’ve taken this idea to its limit, and now we have to get in there and grapple with “I don’t know” until the next move becomes clear. It’s a place for quickening and a space for new visions and creativity.

As I have learned to do with myself, I sit in rehearsal and fiercely love what isn’t working. I try to find the joy in it. It’s an exciting moment. Here we are sitting in what feels like a disaster, so let’s ask: “What is useful here? Is there something to salvage? Is this the information we need to totally abandon this moment or this concept?” It can be an incredible thing to “break” the play and see what it looks like in pieces. We don’t need to be precious; we just need to keep working.

Perhaps this is just what I think good directing is, but it seems to correlate with ideas I encounter in queer spaces. On a basic level, I’m talking about dismantling a binary between the director and the actor, approaching the creative process with a more holistic, come-as-you-are attitude, and activating a less hierarchical frame for good ideas.

Because I spend more of my hours on the planet in rehearsal than I do anywhere else, I am curious about how to operate and animate my values in the work and in the process. It seems to me that trying to talk about a queered rehearsal room results in talking about good collaboration, or at the very least inviting collaborative dialogue. It also seems to be about inviting authentic expression, showing up inside the work, asking others to do the same, and letting the creative process complicate as a result.

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A series from trans theatre artists that highlight diverse stories of a trans community of practicing artists working to create visibility in the theatre and the world.

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Just saw Men On Boats. I've never been happier at the theater! I got curious about the genius who directed it and found this essay. This is especially useful for devisers. I'm about to start a 2-month Moment Work devising process with high school students, which has to culminate in a SHOW, so I'm vacillating between "trust the process" and FEAR of not having a result. This gave me courage not to feel trapped into needing to know and have all the good ideas.

It was great meeting you last night at "Kill Floor"! Here's the link to the article Emma and I were referring to: http://howlround.com/though...

P.S. Great essay! I like and take to heart all of your points, including the first ("Making Work from the Center of Your Desire") as it took me until almost age forty to finally admit to myself (and defend to others) that the only way I could be happy was to devote my life to writing -- NOT to the (more financially lucrative) work that relatives and friends had always expected and (essentially) demanded of me.

This is so lovely. I am reading this as a mother wishing to queer my home space. You have provided me with many good ideas and ways of thinking of my home as a collaborative space. Thanks!

Thank you Will for this beautiful description of your process. Lucky are those who get to cross that threshold with you, and those, like me, who have witnessed the results of your work together. Your four values should be inscribed on the doors of rehearsal halls everywhere.

Beautiful. Love your attention to "the space between who we are and how we perform identity." I think the devising process benefits from a directing perspective like yours; I have found that creators tend to work from themselves, their experience of the world, and isn't that a marvelous thing?