I know that often I write about art in a general way, one that relates to most of the people working in my field, and when possible to the arts as a whole.
Today I’m not gonna do that.
Today I want to talk about being a director. And for me that can feel awfully lonely.
A few days back I was giving a colleague a ride home from an Arcadia University gig out in the burbs. Both of us have been hired by said school to direct student productions (different ones, in case that’s not obvious) for the college. And on this day when we both happened to be heading home at the same time of night we ended up in a car together chatting about the experience.
After the expected pleasant inquiries about rehearsals and how things are going, we sat in a still silence for a little bit. We chatted about upcoming works on the horizon and exchanged a few war stories about the theater scene. It was a perfectly nice way to spend 45 minutes headed home. It was the kind of conversation I have with other directors a lot.
A few days later we ended up in the car again. This time, catching up rather quicker on the status of rehearsals we were left without some of the pat topics that usually pop up. And somehow we started talking about what it feels like to be in charge.
It’s funny, it doesn’t occur to me often that this is a specific facet of the way that I work compared to the other artists I work with. It doesn’t occur to me that often, through repetition and familiarity, that many artists don’t walk into a process with that mindset. I know that when I walk in the room, I’m expected to have a plan of what we’re going to do. I know that I am the only one of my kind there to carry out the role. And I never see anyone else do what I do and therefore I have only myself to compare with.
There is a very basic power differential. The caveat, of course is that there are lots of people that try and create a sense of communal responsibility and I am whole-heartedly one of them, but it is there. And that sense of responsibility is exciting and distancing. It means you are always a few steps ahead of the rest of the room. A simple illustration: it is hard to imagine a rehearsal in which a performer or designer walked in and stated the plan of the day or one in which the director could show up and look at the others in the room with an expectation of what they are about to do. I don’t think this has to be good or bad. But it definitely is. And unless you’re a company without a director there is likely a negotiation that’s been worked out either ahead of time or during the process in which that power is defined and bounded.
However, I’m getting off topic. That isn’t really what I want to chat about. I think there are interesting questions about what might happen if we tried to change this dynamic. It might show us why that structure is so necessary or it might open up new and exciting potential. But for me, who for better or worse, is working in this way almost any time I work, it makes me realize how lonely I feel so often.
I’ve heard a lot of directors say that every time they begin a show they ask themselves, “How do you make a play again?” I thought this might be particular to devisers so it was surprising and kind of heartening to hear that those who dwell mostly in the scripted experienced the same terror. It was interesting to hear that she too re-reads her old notes from shows past to figure out how that person from the past navigated the journey from nothing to something. And I was happy and sad to see that she too spends a lot of time feeling lonely in a process.
I wonder if that sense of “how did I do this before?” is something to do with the fact that you don’t share your process in the same way. So much of what we do is before and after the rest of the room arrives and leaves. And even with documentation, it can be hard to track all the discoveries and thoughts that by necessity are shared between actors and designers and stage managers with the people they work with. One reason I so often try and go back to my old books of notes is to sense the person who was able to do this thing before and catch some of her strength.
Another strange thing about being a director, that I think may be unique to the role: you never watch others like you work. There’s only one of you in a process. Designers and actors get to see other designers and actors. They see people like themselves develop their craft. And for better or worse they have to do this a lot. And there are times when I get jealous that in doing so they get to watch and experience other directors too. That they probably know more about the particulars of other directors than I do. I sometimes ask them “What did that other person do?” not because I have some desire to copy but because I genuinely just want to know.
My sense of myself in the work is kind of like an island. I know what my terrain looks like. I know how I traverse it. And when people who’ve been elsewhere come to visit me, they can share stories of their experiences, but I know that I really have no concrete sense of what’s going on in those other locales. And while many of the directors I know get the chance to observe early in their career, there is not the built in continuation of this practice as time goes on.
When I first started in school and was just out of it, I saw a lot of other directors directing. I was in other people’s rehearsals a lot. And it provoked thoughts in me about how they solved the problems in front of them. It made me think about my process and question what I would do in the same scenario. And some of my favorites were those that were quite different from my own sense of artistic aesthetic, not because I wanted to do what they did, but because it made me really need to define why I wanted to do it my way instead. In fact, I once had a director say to me as a fledgling AD, “I love the thoughts you send in your notes. I will use none of them because they aren’t the play I’m making, but I love them.”
I learned to be a director in a room full of directors. And since becoming one, it’s been a very long time since I saw another one in the wild.
I’d like to.
I wish I had the opportunity. To watch. To listen. To observe a bit.
To travel to another island simply to try and understand the way it works in contrast to your own.