To New Graduates, Especially the Artists

[Warning: Bad Words, but hey, we’re talking to artists, aren’t we?]

Most graduation speeches are optimistic, painfully so, because graduation is terrifying. You are moving into another stage of your life. The next, precarious stage. That one that doesn’t end until you have kids. And a house. And life insurance. And cable. The order is up to you. I’d go with cable though. You’re going to need a distraction.

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The Many Hats of An Assistant Director

This list was originally compiled as part of a discussion in class in the School of Drama at Carnegie Mellon University. Considering it’s getting to be AD season again soon for the school kids, and lots are out doing just this in the real world, I thought it’d be interesting to put the list back out there. Nota Bene this refers to an Assistant Director in theatre. In the film and television world, ADs are whole different [very interesting] story, but they overlap with Stage Mangers more than Theatrical ADs typically do. (Originally published on the CMU Directors tumblr.)

  • Active Observer – This is your most important job. Be present in the room. Take notes (with permission.) Be able to speak articulately about the process (but only when asked.)
  • Staging Director – Sometimes a director has you take a stab at a scene while s/he works on another, especially if the scale of the show is daunting or the rehearsal period is short
  • Acting Coach – Working on monologues, moments, talking through things with actors (with permission.)
  • Translator – Sometimes it’s English to Spanish, sometimes it’s their English to conventional English 😉
  • Production Assistant / Personal Assistant – Coffee, correspondence, sometimes even babysitting
  • Emotional Supporter – Depending on your relationship, this becomes an important part, but it’s also part of being a good friend and good person
  • Stage Manager / Technical Director  – Can that chair be brought on stage left? Is there enough clearance?
  • Sounding Board / Confidante – Sometimes a director needs to talk something through, and they might not necessarily want your opinion. They just need to talk it through.
  • Wide-Eyed Optimist – Be the person who sees the good in everything: the production, the difficult actor or designer. Be infectious but not obnoxious.
  • King’s Fool – (With permission) Ask the stupid questions. Not pointedly, but ask them. Someone’s got to do it.
  • Sightline Checker / Traffic Cop – Two sets of eyes are better than one.
  • Dramaturg – Research, theory, accountability to the vision.
  • Fixer – in the organized crime sense. Sometimes you get sent out with a task that you’re not told how to do, and you just have to figure it out. You’re the fixer. The family depends on you to take care of things.
  • Liaison – Directors have lots of meetings to go to, and if you prove yourself, you can be a great representative for him or her if there’s a scheduling conflict that requires s/he be somewhere else when the meeting’s happening.
  • Hostage Negotiator – Things should never get to this point, but sometimes they do. This connects to being an optimist. Smoothing over professional disagreements as gently as possible is a skill you are sometimes called on to have. Be very careful with this one. It doesn’t, and shouldn’t, happen often.
  • Wrangler (Children, Animals, Puppets, Actors, etc.) – Some directors don’t like having to deal with kids, animals, or particular special effects. Make their life easier and take care of those issues both artistically and personally. (Again, always wait until you’re asked.)

Most importantly, you need to talk to your director to figure out which roles you’re fulfilling. Expectations will often change after that first conversation, but you need to know the rules of the world before you start helping someone run it! Every assignment, every relationship, every director, and every situation is different!

Like sometimes you directed the best Star Wars movie and you don’t end up a household name.

I love you Irvin Kerschner.

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

 

 

The Alchemy of Acting

I know I’m supposed to be on break, but this quote from James Dean won’t leave me alone.

When an actor plays a scene exactly the way a director orders, it isn’t acting. It’s following instructions. Anyone with the physical qualifications can do that. So the director’s task is just that – to direct, to point the way. Then the actor takes over. And he must be allowed the space, the freedom to express himself in the role. Without that space, an actor is no more than an unthinking robot with a chest-full of push-buttons.

So this semester at CMU has been crazy, and one of the conversations that keeps coming up between me and my colleagues in Theatre Lab (a class where the grad and senior directors, grad playwrights, dramaturgs, and the junior actors get to put on plays like they’re a group of cousins at Grandma’s house. Quick, experimental, and low stakes and safe, if you let it be.) Point is one of the questions that keeps coming up is “Should we treat actors like kittens?”

Now the subtext of that conversation is, how direct can you be with actors? Not only do you tell them when something’s not working, but do you help them make it work? There are many philosophies about this.

Some say don’t say anything about emotions, just tell them where and how to move. Some say explain the situation but leave the acting to the actors. Some say ignore the Stanislavski and give the actors extremely specific directions, let them know the end result you need.

The Wooster Group and some of the directors at CMU do this, what one of them calls “abstracting acting.” When Kate Valk, one of the veterans of the Wooster Group, visited CMU, she told us that Elizabeth LeCompte, the director (in so many words)’s goal was to give the actors so many tasks that they “stop acting and just do.” She might ask them to skip in place while speaking in monotone and counting backwards from 300, then all of a sudden Phedre takes on a whole new light.

That works for the kind of theater that Wooster and some of the directors at CMU do. Usually referred as experimental theater, the theater of “abstract acting” uses non-linear narratives, alienation, and many technical effects to create an experience that stretches audiences’ understanding of what theater is. Wooster has deconstructed many classics of theatrical literature including Chekhov, Miller, Shakespeare, and Gertrude Stein. (Redundant, I know.)

Wooster’s Hamlet broadcast Richard Burton’s iconic Hamlet behind the actors, forcing audiences to confront the legacy of Hamlet they often hold new productions to. (An oversimplification, but it’s hard to analyze a Wooster show quickly.)

But what happens when you do something that’s closer to Stanslavski (though just barely)? Continue reading

Unorthodox Coping Strategies and Understanding: Staging Principles

Hi Lemoners! The blog has been conspicuously silent lately because I am overloading on classes, writing two plays and three short stories, as well as two massive (but very awesome) term papers (expect posts about those soon!). I’m also going through the design process on my senior thesis, A Number, which has been a very interesting learning experience because though I’m generally good at communicating with my team of designers, I’m not communicating the way my advisors want me to.

I’m a very “intellectual” person. I read a lot. I say big words, and I’m also very involved in the emotional lives of the characters in the pieces I direct. I constantly worry about whether the audience empathizes with a character. One of my mentors who I greatly respect kept telling me that I can’t control that, and he’s right. And yet one finds oneself worrying about it.

One of my other mentors, a highly respected Bulgarian director, said something that really helped me: It is very hard to make an audience feel something, and it is worse for an actor to act an emotion. It is much easier to help actors and audiences understand story and character. The emotional resonance of works of art change for one person. It is nigh on impossible to move a whole audience to tears every time. But you can make sure most of them get the story.

The “liking” characters question was only a minor thing compared with my frustration at myself for not being able to compel the design advisors with my “vision.” Perhaps it’s partly my discomfort with the word vision that’s to blame. I’m either not a visual person, or I’ve been told that Im not a visual person for so long that I’ve begun to fulfill it. So I’m being told that I’m intellectualizing, that I’m talking about something that no one’s going to see. And they’re probably right, and that’s really frustrating.

I didn’t dare to show my advisors this image, even though it’s one of the ones that I most respond to, perhaps even my guiding image for the play.

Glenn Ligon's "Study for Frankenstein #1", currently in MoMA

Like a lot of the most important work at MoMA, Glenn Ligon’s work is very conceptual. It is understandable that a print junkie like myself would be especially drawn to it, because he uses text as a vital part of his art. In the above work, he uses a selection of text from Mary Wollstonecraft Godwin Shelley’s Frankenstein:

Sometimes I wished to express my sensations in my own mode but the uncouth and inarticulate sounds which broke from me frightened me into silence again.

and repeats it until it becomes unreadable as a result of a kind of residue that bleeds into the picture.

The irony does not escape me, I promise, and I could go on about how Salter’s problem in A Number is that he keeps repeating the same patterns, how language has limitations in trying to express the complexity of identity, but this painting also relates to me on a much deeper personal level. Benjamin Franklin, or Albert Einstein once said that insanity is doing the same thing over and over and expecting different results. I am definitely slightly insane. In general, we are creatures of habit, and it is hard to change a bad behavior immediately.

But there is always a part of the adjustment process where you get super, super frustrated that someone isn’t getting it, that you aren’t getting it. There are two possible reactions to this on the self esteem spectrum. One, you say “You don’t understand my genius.” or you say “Wow. I kind of suck, don’t I?” Guess which one the depressed bookish girl picked.

So when I’m feeling helpless and frustrated, there’s very few things that can make me feel better. One of them is definitely this:

I can quote Sassy Gay Friend in close to its entirety, especially the Ophelia episode because it can be so helpful sometimes. For example, in this case:

Ophelia so bad for yourself move away from the water!

So instead of drowning yourself, you’re going to write a sad poem in your journal and MOVE ON.

So let’s do that. Know that we can always learn, and that’s what school is for. Resolve to do better, write a sad poem in your journal, and MOVE ON.

P.S. This is the best your hair has ever looked. I can’t believe you were going to get it wet.

I’m So Over Apathy

It takes courage to say what you like. Maybe more than it takes to say you don’t like something. Saying “I don’t like that.” puts you at risk of being called negative, but when you like something that’s unpopular you are at risk of having bad taste, of being seen as complacent. Just look at the language that’s tied to both ideas.

People who tend to dislike things can be seen as negative, snobbish, a wet blanket. On the positive side we say they have discerning taste. They’re a critic, a skeptic. There’s a perception of higher intelligence. On the other side we have terms like easily pleased, Pollyanna, positive, optimist. There is an undercurrent of condescension to this term, a feeling of simplicity. When did we decide that intelligence was tied to negativity, that positive people are somehow missing something?

Kelli O’Hara can explain it better:

In Nellie’s case, her optimism is also a stand-in for naivete, and she can’t seem to find the bright side of finding out that her true love has two biracial children. Apparently privileged white women leave their optimism outside the plantation gate.

In Lemony Snicket’s A Series of Unfortunate Events he says

“Optimist” is a word which here refers to a person…who thinks pleasant thoughts about nearly everything. For instance, if an optimist had his left arm chewed off by an alligator, he might say, in a pleasant and hopeful voice, “Well, this isn’t too bad. I don’t have my arm anymore, but at least nobody will ever ask me if I am right-handed or left-handed”, but most of us would say something more along the lines of “Aaaaah! My arm! My arm!”

So maybe optimism doesn’t always require intelligence, but it certainly requires courage. As a director, one of your most important skills is to inspire your team, to make them feel like you’re on the right track. I don’t know if you can somehow run out of positivity. One of my fellow directors hasn’t run out of it yet, and she’s still producing absolutely beautiful work. Though she is certainly an optimist, she’s by no means unintelligent, and she can critique performances more articulately than many of the more negative directors I know.

I wonder sometimes if we forget that seeing the good doesn’t mean not seeing the bad. In one of the Fourth Doctor episodes of Doctor Who, K-9 defines optimism as

Optimism: belief that everything will work out well. Irrational, bordering on insane.

Though Doctor Who characters’ optimism may seem irrational, but much like in Shakespeare in Love, it usually turns out quite well in the long run.

See what I mean by turning out well?

Quite well indeed.

Ultimately optimism comes from believing the best in people, truly caring about them. It’s hard to do that all the time. It’s tiring, and ultimately it’s depressing.

This is the continuation of the conversation with K-9 in “The Armageddon Factor”:

The Doctor: Oh do shut up K-9! Listen Romana: Whenever you go into a new situation, you must always believe the best until you find out exactly what the situation’s all about. Then believe the worst.

Romana: Ah. But what happens if it turns out to not be the worst after all?

Doctor: Don’t be ridiculous. It always is. Isn’t it, K-9?

K-9: Master?

Seems like even two Time Lords and a tin dog can’t reconcile optimism in the real world, but it’s certainly what keeps all of them going.

Fountain of wisdom.

The Casting Couch and Where Does Chauvinism Come From?

So my lovely friend Elize’s blog seems to have infected me lately. Over at Female Gazing she celebrates our need to objectify and subverts Laura Mulvey’s observation of the “male gaze” in media with a gaze of her own.

Here’s an excerpt from a lovely post in which she explicates the concept:

Objectification of women will never end.  Women are beautiful and sexy.  We have soft curvy bodies which attract attention.  I don’t want to ask men to stop looking at me and my sisters.  I want to ask them to do it respectfully, remembering that I have as many opinions and feelings as they do.

I consider it my job, nay! my duty to gaze at men.  To make them ever so slightly uncomfortable, to turn my head when they jog past.  To hug one whenever I feel like it.  To have friends who are male and tell them what I think and feel without fear of being considered too girly, vain, or sensitive.

So please don’t feel threatened (for as a woman I’m taught that the last thing a man wants is a woman who is threatening) and join me.  Enjoy bodies (consensually!)  Gaze respectfully.  Gaze with love and responsibility.  Honor people’s feelings, his, hers, your own.

(If you like that also check out my favorite post so far, about one of my favorite guilty pleasures, the remake of Universal Pictures’ The Mummy starring Brendan Fraser.)

The blog is filled with pictures of gorgeous men (and women) who know they’re sexy and don’t apologize, and Elize helps you feel that way too. It’s a great mission but when I’m in one of my over sharing hormonal places it can be a little dangerous.

How you ask? Well, directing requires a certain level a maturity and sensitivity because you’re in a position of power. The clichés about the casting couch exist because they are based in fact. (Contemporary fact, if Megan Fox is to be believed.) That is a really depressing thing. And it goes both ways. As women become more powerful in Hollywood they develop the same power that was exploited by the cigar chewing male producers we see in the movies. Exploitation goes all kinds of ways: straight, queer, male, female, everything in between and outside. It is the person in power’s responsibility to not exploit, not the potential victim’s responsibility to speak up, which is why people in positions of power have to be very careful.

I go to the Carnegie Mellon School of Drama. It is filled with gorgeous, gorgeous, talented people. Like the way TV is filled with really, really ridiculously good-looking people who never have to go to work or take a bathroom break. And you know how when you’re watching TV you find yourself saying things that you wouldn’t say if the person was in the room?

For example:

Yes, darling, they're still there. But you should check again in five seconds, just to make sure.

Oh, just makeout already.

Continue reading

Sometimes You Have to Shoot the Storyteller in the Neck: A Staging Principle

As I prep for Alcestis, one refrain keeps appearing in my mind from all the shows I’ve seen as part of the Tepper program.

Sometimes you have to take the initiative                                                              Sometimes your whole family dies of cholera                                              Sometimes you have to make your own story                                              Sometimes you have to shoot the storyteller in the neck!

This profound (I’m saying that with no irony. Just wait.) bit of lyrics is part of a song called “Life Sucks (Reprise)” from the “emo-rock” musical Bloody Bloody Andrew Jackson. (You can listen to the song and three others, here.) This irreverent show comes from the relatively new and very awesome company Les Freres Corbusier, the creators of A Very Merry Unauthorized Scientology Pageant, which is as awesome and hilarious as it sounds and Heddatron, the story of a woman who is kidnapped by robots and forced to perform Ibsen’s Hedda Gabler over and over again. Strindberg and Ibsen himself show up too.

Bloody Bloody highlights the nature of the early 19th century American character by telling the story of our seventh president, Andrew Jackson. The reason for the emo-rock? The American character just happens to be a very sensitive, rebellious teenager, manifested by Jackson himself, played by the very talented Benjamin Walker, a.k.a. Meryl Streep’s son-in-law, a.k.a. rock and roll sex on a stick.

Was I saying something? No. You go ahead, Mr. Walker....Tight. Pants. Oh dear.

In all seriousness, the machismo rock star image of Jackson is a big part of the show, because it hides a devastating vulnerability and childlike naiveté. Continue reading

Theatricality, Projections, Originality, and Gertie, or a Director Crisis of Faith: Sam Buntrock

It makes me a bit of a peon in some people’s eyes, I’m sure, but two pieces of theater actually took my breath away and made me want to be a director, and they’re both musicals. The first was the Roundabout Theatre’s production of Nine (ignore the film, it’s an embarrassment.) and the revival of Sunday in the Park with George, directed by Sam Buntrock and produced by the British Menier Chocolate Factory. What sets them apart for me is their effective and nuanced use of theatricality. It’s pretty easy to emotionally affect me, but very difficult to get me to buy theatricality, to be taken in.

It occurs to me I should probably define theatricality if I’m going to keep throwing it around. One of its definitions in The American Heritage Dictionary is “affectedly dramatic.” I think that’s probably the best one. Theatricality refers to phenomena that you can look at or hear and you only feel it belongs on the stage. Theatricality is dramatic lighting, visual or auditory metaphor. Think of it as heightened visual (or auditory) language. (Gotta represent my great sound designers out there.) It is not truth as we know it. It is greater than our reality, but hopefully illuminates something about it we never saw before. The danger is it often seems so gimmicky, both self-conscious and self reverential. At least for me personally, it is very hard to lose yourself in heavily theatrical works because it requires really effective world building. The theatricality has to be necessary and logical in its own strange way. Continue reading