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.

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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

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

Feminist Director Crisis of Faith: Elia Kazan

So I’m at home in Scranton for a little more than two weeks before returning to the city to direct Alcestis. Before I left I picked up a book at the Strand (another very famous New York landmark) called Kazan on Directing. Published just this year, it’s a collection of Elia Kazan‘s notes and journals. Kazan is one of the first American auteurs, in terms of both film and stage. He was a founding member of The Actors Studio and was an instrumental force in our nation’s two attempts at forming a national theater. (It wasn’t his fault they failed, America’s just pretty bad at funding the arts in general, and it didn’t help that a lot of America’s best theatre artists had Communist ties, sending certain American congressmen into hissy fits.)

Kazan also directed one of my favorite films of all time, East of Eden, the first film James Dean starred in. Dean is amazing in it, and the storytelling is just breathtaking. (Steinbeck and Kazan add up to a very twisted kind of Biblical Americana.)

Expressionism + Method Acting + Steinbeck = Awesome

After seeing East of Eden, I saw A Streetcar Named Desire, the film adaptation of Kazan’s acclaimed stage production (written by a troubled Southern gentleman named Tennessee Williams). I’ve talked about the ineffable charisma of this film before, but I will reiterate that it’s one of the most interesting studies in gender relations and cultural studies on celluloid. It both mourns and indicts genteel and blue collar Southern culture, setting up the two representations of these cultures (Blanche and Stanley, respectively) on a path to destruction.

Cultures collide. In the most disturbing and sexy way possible.

At least that’s what I saw in the film. I saw two equal forces fighting for the love of one woman: Stella. A woman who started out like Blanche, delicate, unprepared for the real world, and fell in with Stanley, a man she happily compares to an animal, because he gives her permission to be an animal sometimes too, to like sex, to be a sexual being. The battle for Stella is the fight between primitivism and ingrained chauvinism. Blanche found a way to empower herself through the chauvinism of the culture she grew up by cultivating a personality that needed to be taken care of, that made men feel secure in her dependence on them. Stanley and Stella have a troubled relationship but it is much more equal than any relationship Blanche wants to have.

Okay, that said, now this is what Kazan himself said about the piece:

Blanche is an outdated creature, approaching extinction, like the dinosaur. She is about to be pushed off the edge of the world. On the other hand, she is a heightened version, an artistic intensification, of all women. That is what makes the play universal. Blanche’s special relation to all women is that she is at that critical point where the one thing above all else that she is dependent on–her physical attractiveness, what men find appealing about her–is beginning to fade. Blanche is like all women, dependent on a man, looking for someone to hang on to: only more so! [Bold stands in for Kazan’s italics.]

Continue reading

Wanting a Bit of a New York Recess: On PLAYGROUND!

So being in New York is amazing, but it means missing the Playground Festival at Carnegie Mellon, and that makes me profoundly sad.

The Playground Festival has been an institution at Carnegie Mellon for seven years now. The main principle is that sometimes when you’re really busy learning how to make theatre, you don’t have a lot of time to just make theatre. Playground changed that, lending resources out to student productions, installations, readings, performance art, and (in recent years) the errant film.

By no means is the Festival perfect. There are three main production spaces and ticketing is always an issue in terms of both space within the theaters and the long lines that crop up at the beginning of every new ticketing session. As the Festival grows in popularity, more proposals get sent in which sort of inevitably means more proposals get rejected. Usually we all heal by the time Playground Week actually starts. (Or we become distracted by our own huge projects. Thank you Cass and Olivia for bringing me on to Dr. Horrible!)

Even with some of the hurt feelings, Playground is a wonderful opportunity for both students from other departments and other schools and citizens of greater Pittsburgh to figure out exactly what goes on in the School of Drama once you leave the infamous “watering hole” of a lobby. Continue reading

Circle Mirror Transformation

On Annie Baker’s Circle Mirror Transformation at Playwrights Horizons (Peter Jay Sharp Theater)

“The way human beings speak is so heartbreaking to me–we never sound the way we want to sound. […] Speaking is a kind of misery,” says Annie Baker in an interview with Playwrights Horizons Literary Manager Adam Greenfield. This idea of the misspoken is what anchors Ms. Baker’s plays in the painfully real. Awkwardness, wrong choices, and the temptation to say just one more thing propel the five characters through their six week drama class, peppered with authentic theater exercises, some of which are actually improvised onstage (most notably the eponymous “Circle Mirror Transformation.”)

It is very difficult to suggest that Circle Mirror Transformation has a plot so much as it has a journey. The twists are often predictable, but seeing them coming makes them all the more painful. Baker’s characters feel close to you. Failed actress Theresa describes middle aged Marty and James as the kind of couple that makes everyone happy they’re together. Yet as we watch Theresa tell James just that, something switches on in James so that when his secret that gets read aloud as part of an exercise, to the detriment of all, it comes as not so much a surprise as a painful betrayal that we were unable to prevent.

Baker’s characters continue on even when it’s not a very good idea, but not before a silence tailored carefully by director Sam Gold. The audience feels the buildup of teenage Lauren (Tracee Chimo)’s frustration with the class before any dialogue speaks to it thanks to this careful approach to the emotional life of the characters.

Chimo’s Lauren is one of the many highlights of the show. Her closed off body language and undulating speech make her stand out in an already very impressive and nuanced cast. (Her colorful and painfully authentic teenage wardrobe, designed by David Zinn, helps separate her as well.)

Zinn’s work on this play is remarkable in terms of its immersion. He creates a studio in a community center that slightly plays with perspective to accommodate a wall mirror on stage left. The wall is angled so the mirror never reflects the audience. It is an enclosed space for these characters, so when Lauren leans on the mirror and examines herself, we find ourselves wondering exactly what she sees. The prop selection is also spot-on from the exercise ball sent rolling across the room when the characters exit after a particularly painful class to the copy of Twilight that Lauren pulls out on her break.

Circle Mirror Transformation is a study of organisms in their natural habitat. There are no wholly “theatrical” elements of design here, save for the ending, and withholding the theatricality pays off beautifully. Lauren and Schultz participate in an exercise where they are supposed to have met each other ten years after the conclusion of the class. The dialogue begins as an exercise, but slowly becomes a bittersweet prediction, indicated to be true by the delicate simplicity of Mark Barton’s lighting taking us out of the world that Zinn has created to an era that is yet to come.

The general lesson theater artists can learn from Circle Mirror Transformation is that it does not take the magical realism of Sarah Ruhl to reach transcendence or the raw emotional violence of Mamet and Shepard to feel authenticity. Sometimes real, excruciating silence is golden.

The show’s been extended again to the end of January, so, needless to say, you’re gonna want to go to there.

Theatre Row and the Power of the Preset

I’m currently studying in New York City through a program called the Tepper Semester, run by Syracuse University. The program’s offices are housed in Theatre Row Studios. The directors were lucky enough to get a tour of the whole building from the wonderful house manager (who is worth talking to any time you can catch him when he’s not working on solving the daily logic puzzle of performances, companies, and audiences in six different performance spaces in the same building.) He knows so much about the building, the companies, and the history of Theatre Row. (And he’s not too shabby on general theater history either!)

Theatre Row has a very interesting past in that the physical building was actually made up of brownstone tenements when it was developed into an off-Broadway theater. (Though the building actually houses only one off-Broadway theater and five off-off houses, Theater Row itself has the off-Broadway designation.) In some of theaters you can actually see the original walls of the tenement, including filled in windows and fireplaces.

The Acorn, Theatre Row’s largest theater is the official home of the New Group, and will soon be hosting Sam Shepard’s A Lie of the Mind, directed by Ethan Hawke and starring Keith Carradine (of Dexter and Dollhouse fame for those of us not old enough to recognize him as a member of the famous Carradine family.) Mr. Hawke is also assisted on the show by my friend Sam. It promises to be awesome, so you should really want to go to there!

Speaking of Wanting to Go to There, let’s talk about the preset, shall we? The preset is a term for what the audience sees when they first enter the theater to sit down, the set as it is without actors or production lighting. As directors, we don’t have a lot of time to think about the preset. It’s hopefully something that we and the set designer have agreed upon and that doesn’t drive the stage manager crazy to set up every night. Some directors even change the preset in front of the audience right before curtain to another preset. (This can be very redundant when not done right.)

A good preset is like a good poster. It sums up the feel of your show, not the show itself. It sets a precedent that both gives the audience something to look forward to and allows you to exceed it. During our tour of Theatre Row, we were taken into the Clurman Theater, on the lower level, and we came upon the best preset I’ve seen in a long time.

Five or six neatly ordered piles of stuff lie on the stage, most prominently a stack of books stage left and a pristine white toilet at center. It is the preset for Michael Aranov’s one man show Manigma. I don’t know about you, but I’m interested. Good presets: a staging principle.