Men, Women, Auteurs, and Collaboration: or How I Learned to Stop Worrying and Be a “Woman Director”

My favorite designers usually end up setting up a challenge for me. On Bad Hamlet, Meg Cunningham gave me three doors. On A Number, Isabella Scannone kept me from using props. These are the best things that could have happened to me. The rules were liberating, exciting. It made us think about why we wanted the props in the first place. That limitation came from Isa, not me, but it helped everyone focus their work. Does it matter who writes the rules as long as we as a team get to play the game?

There’s a lot of talk at CMU about the director’s “vision,” about making it clear and compelling, about having the most and the most impressive ideas. For a long time I wondered why I wasn’t comfortable with that, and then I realized that, in many ways, that idea of singular auteurism can be counter to collaboration. When you’re too busy trying to have the good idea, you end up ignoring the best ones.

It is said that the worst thing someone can say about a director is that “he doesn’t know what he wants.” I use “he” here because in some ways this refers to a very “male” style of directing. (I know that’s a problematic construction. We’ll address that. I promise.) CMU brings in a lot of producers and usually one of the directors asks them what they want from a director. They always say “leadership,” “vision.” But what does “vision” actually mean?

Does vision mean that every idea has to come from the director? Or that the director always has to be the inspiration for the idea? Because I think it’s pretty hard to make that happen every time. Can one really claim a vision as solely theirs when a lot of directing involves saying “Oooooh. Do that again”?

If we had gone with my original vision for A Number, the set would have been naturalistic, filled with books, and candles, and technology, borrowing a bit too heavily from Blade Runner. Instead it was this:

Credit: Josh Smith (Scenic Design Isabella Scannone, Lighting Design Josh Smith)

Better, I think. Because in a world with very little objects, the objects in it become important. A photograph left on a disc’s surface, highlighted by light.


Credit: Heather Kresge Photography


Because there are so few, the objects can transform. A jacket becomes a dead body thrown at a father’s feet.


Denver Milord as Bernard 1 in A Number. Credit: Heather Kresge Photography


A tie becomes a noose and a chair with a coat on it becomes a monument.


Alex Rice as Salter in A Number. Credit: Heather Kresge Photography


Some of those images were my idea, but Josh lit them and Alex and Denver filled them. Isabella decided what the chairs looked like and found cool places for them to sit. Cass Malloy decided what the coat looked like. Chris Rummel created an aural environment that made this abstract world visceral. Tegan McDuffie and Nicole Luna made sure it made sense. And Heather Kresge captured it in gorgeous still images. It wasn’t my vision. It was our vision.

Maybe it makes some directors feel better to imagine it’s all them. To think that they’re the kernel of every idea, but odds are they’re not, even if they’re visionaries or auteurs. We can’t trace these kernels back to people or sentences, or fever dreams in the middle of the night. We pick up things where we can, and at some point, the profession is going to have to learn to acknowledge that though it’s easier to credit the auteur, they’re nightmares to work with. Maybe I should have had a “stronger hand” with my designers, or been more authoritative or demanding of my actors, less “female.” Personally I’d rather follow the crumbs (or blueprints) they leave for me. It’s a lot easier to move a caravan when you don’t have to drag people, or make them forget they have collars on. You never know where we might pick up and go together.


Alex Rice as Salter in A Number. Credit: Heather Kresge Photography



1 thought on “Men, Women, Auteurs, and Collaboration: or How I Learned to Stop Worrying and Be a “Woman Director”

  1. Response/thoughts from a stage manager:

    Theatre is collaboration, this is a basic truth. It is impossible to have a successful production with only one person; if nothing else you need two: audience and performer. Even with the most self-centered, egotistical directors, the design team is usually heard in some fashion or another. In the end, it is often hard to point out who can take credit for a specific element, it evolved in conversations and happy accidents.

    That being said, when you have a truly excellent design team, you can run into too many good ideas. This is where I think the director’s vision comes in. It is important to have one person with a singular idea, story, purpose to tell the story of the play with. Otherwise, you audience is confused, and any meaning the play had is lost, or is buried under conflicting ideas. Again, this singular idea will probably be influenced in the design process, and may adjust yet again in rehearsals.

    The most successful directors I’ve worked with are the ones that work well with actors, allowing them to contribute to their characters and the story. True, the director should come in with ideas as to objectives, blocking, etc, but as an good stage manager knows, this will change. That’s what rehearsal is for, to find and tell the story.

    I also don’t think that being willing to hear outside ideas can really be classified as “feminine” I’ve worked with pig-headed directors both male and female. Same for the opposite.

    And to be clear, I don’t mean to imply that you are taking any of these stances in your post. These are just my thoughts on the topic. I’m happy to see you blogging again :). And my advice? Tell the world to suck it, and be your own director. Have a vision, and have it include other people, and then share it with the world. Because what is theatre if it is not a shared experience?

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