Young Voices, Young Work

What is it to direct a play? Is it archaeology: digging and digging until you find the truth of a script? Is it sculpture: shaping performance and design until it conforms to the images in your head? Is it clairvoyance: sitting in every seat, trying on the perspective of every person who will pass through the theater doors?

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It’s probably all of those things. And for young directors (like myself), it can feel difficult to assert that you know how to do those things. That you have the experience necessary. That you have the eye for what’s “right.”

Because that’s what a director is. A set of eyes. A set of eyes and ears who is sensitive enough to listen to every collaborator’s offer yet stern enough to cut away the dross.

But there’s a particular collaborator with whom I’m especially gentle (perhaps to a fault): the playwright.

I’ll admit it: new work is intimidating. A playwright looks into the world, declares something important, carries that important thing in their heart for a week, a month, a year, and then hands it to you.

“Take care of it,” they say, nervously watching you nervously swaddle a nervous newborn in your arms. Then they hand you the diaper bag with the toys, the bottles, and the wipes (the dramaturgy, the research, and the maybe-that-moment-could-be-this-ways). “Take care of it,” they reiterate.

Some playwrights don’t do any of that. Nerves of steel or silly putty, they fling the newborn idea at you, toss their hands in their air, and say, “Have fun!” No directions, no guidelines. Just the directive for Fun.

And what of young playwrights? Their newborn is no less precious, but the idea of playwright-director mentorship goes out the window. There’s no “She’s done this before—I’ll defer to her.” They need you just as much as you need them. They need your eyes. They need your hunger. They need your work.

Sidebar on the word “young”: Let’s acknowledge that in the arts this word means many things to many people. It can, in turn, be used to describe college students, people who were recently college students, or folks who embarked on a particular theatrical career within the past five to ten years. It’s important to note that these categories of “young” are not mutually exclusive, nor are they inherently positive or negative.

So the work begins. Archaelogy. Sculpture. Clairvoyance. Questions arise. “Why this line then?” “Does the episodic structure reinforce the theme?” “Why does Act One end like that?” “Am I even asking the right questions?” (Always a valid concern.)

Answers take shape. Budgets—rarely above sea level for new work by new playwright—force a series of design and casting decisions. Calendars dictate how and when those decisions will get made. Meanwhile, you do your best to keep checking in on the play as it sleeps in the other room, unaware that the team you assembled is planning its entire life cycle.

As a director embarking on two new plays this year, I find myself dreading the delicate dance between questioning and answering. I read every beat on every page wondering if I should consult the playwright or just start problem-solving. Should I lean on this invaluable artistic resource, ask a million new questions and give a bunch of line edits (all the while noting the imposter syndrome voice needling away with “Who am I to give edits?”)? Do they just need me to take this one and run with it?

I read every beat on every page wondering if I should consult the playwright or just start problem-solving.

Or is there room in the middle? A halfway house between solving and searching. During rehearsals for a reading I directed this past spring, I asked the playwright, “So he’s really doing X in that moment, huh?” And the playwright responded, “Huh...I never thought of it like that. I always thought it was more like Y.”

Whatever that distance is—the gap between my X and the playwrights Y— is where the art lies. Charting that gap, illuminating it, and guiding actors through it: that’s your job. And it’s impossible not to doubt yourself.

It’s impossible not to question your own taste. It’s impossible not to wonder if your aesthetic is truly the right match for this playwright—if you’re the right midwife for the new parent.

But you are the midwife. And the parent needs an ally. And the actors need a sherpa. And the designers need a cartographer. And the audience needs a surrogate.

There’s probably no surefire way to work a new play written by a young playwright. There’s only whatever way causes your best work. And all the doubts, all the insecurities must disappear as you strive to help your collaborators create their best work.

As Frank Hauser once wrote of directing, “You are always performing.” No matter how young you are.

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I love the idea of directing as a halfway house between solving and searching - that's where my work lies, I think. I also think it depends on where you are in the process. I come into rehearsal with a billion questions, and sometimes I answer them but mostly people smarter than I answer them, and nearer the end of the process I have fewer questions and look for more answers to challenges. But that's what I love about working with playwrights on new work - sometimes they know the answers (and then there it is! the definitive answer! sort of!) and sometimes they wonder the same things you do, and sometimes they wonder entirely different things at different times and open up a new part of the play... it's a fun balance, and nice to see it written about!

On a side note - directing as performing sounds vaguely terrifying. I think I will not think of it like that, otherwise I'll never direct again...