Lessons learned from past work: recitatif


Some things you just can’t reach, no matter how hard you try.

In my theater work I often find myself in the middle of a process saying “Damn! This happened last time. I wish I’d remembered to – ” or in the midst of making a choice and saying “I will never ever put myself in this position again!” It’s such a frustrating moment to realize that we are replaying the past in the present. And unlike works of art whose products can be held or seen, theater is so intangible, so transitory, that I often crave ways to hold onto these lessons from one project to the next.

Lately, I’ve adopted a “Lessons Learned” concept for myself as a way to try and hold onto these experiences, take forward the meaning and leave behind the unnecessary. I’ve started keeping a document at the end of each process of all the things I wished I’d done differently, suggestions for improvement, or stuff just to keep in mind.  My notes can range from very functional details (“Remember that this grant’s work samples ALWAYS take twice as long to prep as you think they do.”) to thoughts about collaborators (“They’ll never go for the flashiest choice. It’s a strength and a weakness.”) to big artistic process stuff (“Tech is an artistic exploration as well. Give it the same kind of time to make mistakes”).

These notes are mostly functional in nature – things that I can easily identify and change for next time. What I tend not to record are some of the really big shock waves in a process that have changed me and my outlook on art but also on life. Some of these things I didn’t even totally realize until I sat down to write this. Since the holidays are a time of thinking about the people we surround ourselves with, the ones who affect and change us, the people who shape us into the selves we become, I thought it might be interesting to look at one work that taught me many lessons, some hard, some that I’m still processing.

recitatif was the first piece I ever presented in the Live Arts Festival. It was about two friends, one African American and one Italian American, who meet as children in Philadelphia. The story follows them as they grow and eventually part ways in college. It is about the ways in which they are both outwardly similar and also how hard it is to be different. It is about trying to understand another person’s perspective both with and without the lens of race.

Elements I remember: curly hair, jump rope rhymes, gospel music, opera, overlapping text, religion, the color red, lines, pulling, falling, dreams, and memories.

It was a collaboration between myself and two close college friends. It was written as a largely autobiographical piece from the perspective of the two actresses that performed it. It was their stories (mostly, sort of) and I was in charge of shaping them. We had worked together, deeply and passionately, before. We had the best of intentions to tackle a very difficult issue. We very rarely agreed on anything. We spent almost a full year creating it and presented it three times. After it was over I never spoke to one of those collaborators again.

It wasn’t just the play, by the way.  It was a lot of messy complicated personality and lifestyle dynamics stuff too.

But the play was a big part of it. It’s one I think back on and dissect with some unease and with much longing. For a way to have had things turn out differently, mostly, but simultaneously feeling like I can’t see changing any of the choices I made.


This is the one I still talk to, just in case you were wondering.

I think I am glad I worked on this play. It was very hard. And it made me sad for a long time. But it also showed me that vulnerability in a leader is tolerable and that it is not the same as weakness.

So, without further ado, Lesson I Learned from recitatif:

–       It showed me that I love doing creative work early in the morning. Because we had such conflicting schedules and were young and still be open to crazy proposals we went through a phase where we began rehearsals at 7 am. I would do that again in a heartbeat.

–       It taught me how to listen. Even when you don’t want to. Even when all you want to do is defend yourself.

–       It made me believe a lot less in the potential of art to change one’s most deeply held beliefs.

–       It made me a less confident director. Which isn’t necessarily a bad thing. It’s meant that I question my choices a lot more.

–       It make me realize that in a group of three someone will always be the odd man out and it will probably be you at some point.

–       It taught me you can feel like you know someone very well, learn more about them, and end up feeling like you know them very little.

–       It taught me you should never live in the same house with your co-creators.

–       It made me question what a director is really good for.

–       It instilled a sense that there are some topics about which my opinion is never going to matter, things in which it is simply my job to listen.

–       It made me question if you can ever work with personal stories in a useful way.

–       It made me realize that who is in your audience is matters a lot. And that you need to think about that from the moment you start making something.

–       It taught me that sometimes getting what you want is different than someone understanding why you’re right.

–       It taught me that there are some experiences you can try and sympathize with but that you will never actually understand. Even if you want to. Even if it would be good for you.

–       It taught me that I love actors and I want to be a director that empowers and respects them.

–       It taught me that you are responsible for your choices even if you don’t understand them or all the impacts they may have.

–       It taught me that deep emotions on the inside of a scene are great, but they don’t always translate into meaning for anyone else. And the more you can’t conceive letting go of them, the less likely they are to be useful to the experience of art by another.

–       It taught me that sometimes actors are not doing it for you or the audience.

–       It made me learn that you cannot let yourself gang up against a fellow creator.

–       It undercut my ability to take an absolute position on anything.

–       It made me learn that losing a collaborator can be as heartbreaking as losing a lover and just as bitter.

–        Above all it taught me what it means to listen and actually try to respect a difference of opinion. It taught me how difficult that is, and how much work it takes to do.


PS – Again thanks to JJ Tiziou (www.jjtiziou.net) for the photos.

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