In the Beginning…
The first production of which I have any real memory occurred when I was a student and was asked, for some reason which I do not recall, to direct a scene from Ibsen’s Rosmersholm. And even of this I have only a few memories, but they are important and looking back I can see the links between then and now.
I chose to direct the scene ‘in the Round’, that is on a stage with the audience on all sides. I probably did this out of deference to Stephen Joseph whose ideas on theatre I found dazzling – and who remains a source of inspiration. But also, having acted in the Round myself, I knew what a liberating effect it could have. Moreover, in Theatre in the Round the audience tends to be be closer to the actors than in (say) proscenium arch theatre. This has always been exciting to me. To be close to, but not directly implicated in the action on stage, is like being close to a bonfire – I love it.
At the same time, this confession explains why I have a deep distaste for those productions which seek to break the bond of imagination and passion which joins the actor (and hence the playwright) with his audience: a bond which is so important that it more or less defines theatre. Brecht, incidentally, verfremdungseffect notwithstanding, never actually breaches this bond, but rather manipulates it. However this is another story, and a long one, and an interesting one, and I look forward to writing about it in the future.
So this first production was ‘in the Round’… and I can remember having a window hung above the audience through which the primary light was directed, but not at so shallow and angle as to blind the audience. I can remember too, walking round the stage trying to balance the picture… and then suddenly realizing that this is entirely the wrong way to think about it. There is no picture – that is more proscenium arch thinking – but there is a dynamic between the actors and which remains true from any viewpoint. If you can get that right then the staging problems more or less solve themselves.
Imagine! The actor is emphatic, leans forward , one hand resting on the table which separates him from the other actor, his other hand reaching out, pleading. The audience behind him reads the body-language, and then looks to see the response. That is how it works. It is a kind of trading of energy between actors. And this is true of all forms of theatre. Of course, Theatre in the Round has no backdrop, no cyclorama and, as I mentioned, the audience is often breathingly close and can be seen clearly by the actors; so in some ways it presents a different and more daunting challenge.
I am not saying that Theatre in the Round is preferable to or better than Proscenium arch Theatre, that would be a sterile polemic, but it does have different scenic conventions and hence different ways of revealing the actor’s art. I would encourage anyone starting out on directing to explore Theatre in the Round, if for no other reason than that is provides a steep – and hence pleasurable – learning curve.
In every production one learns something about one’s self. Prior to this productions I had really no knowledge of directing beyond what I had seen or experienced when acting. But the moment of truth is inescapable when you stand with the script in one hand and the actors staring at you with expectation. What do you do? In my case I had tried to plan what I thought should happen and I explained that to the actors.
That is not the way to do it.
Within five minutes of starting, it was obvious that my brilliant plan was not working, could not work: it had been created in the abstract. So I said to the actors something like, “Well we have a table and some chairs and a window… so why not just say the lines and let’s see what happens.” Brilliant eh?
And this they did. And lo and behold, within minutes something was happening. And I suddenly found myself stepping into the action, not so as to stop the imaginative flow, but to guide it. The emotions of the play became palpable to me, and that is one of the rare privileges of directing. The wonderful thing is that this can, and perhaps should, always happen with every theatre production one directs. That is the true reward of directing.
From that day to this, I do little preparation other than to organize the text if necessary, make decisions with the designer and plan the rehearsal schedule. Auditions I find extremely difficult and I always wish someone else would do that job for me … but of course they can’t. From a practical point of view I work out the exits and entrances – not that these become fixed but they help get things started – and I have a good knowledge of the stage space. Perhaps most important is the first read-through with the actors, clumsy and ill prepared though it may be. That will be the first time you have heard the text come alive – so listen closely.
Thereafter, I trust to the actors and my own intuition. The process is very practical. We do our thinking and our learning on the stage. That is where we create the reality of the production; where we experiment, where we solve our problems and where form emerges from what might, at first, look like chaos.
Note that I do not say this is the way to direct – I have no deep theory – but I do believe there is a danger in too much planning. A large part of directing is in the discovering, and in knowing what to keep and what to reject. Trust the process…. oh, and get the best technical crew you can. Finally though, you must find your own way!
In saying these things I am not being modishly anti-intellectual. Far from it. But I do know the sequence. You first learn with the intelligence of the heart: and once you have learned, you explain with the intelligence of the mind. If an actor asks me a question such as why I want him to do something or say a line in a certain way, I always want to be able to explain clearly in terms of the total production. I never want to disappear into fuzzy generalizations. … anyway, I am starting to run ahead of myself, for there is much I want to say later on about imagination and the practicalities of the theatre. To return to Rosmersholm…
My last memory of this production is somewhat embarrassing. It has its effects on me to this day. At the opening performance – we only did a few btw – I was in the audience, very nervous and not wanting to meet anyone’s eyes. The play began and about half way through the scene something went slightly wrong. It was nothing serious – but before I could stop myself, I called out “Hold on.” just as I had many times in rehearsal. The actors looked shocked, the audience looked round wondering if this was some new and tricksy interpretation of Ibsen’s play. I tried to sink into my seat.
But that is the price one pays for being so involved in the imaginative creation of the play. Since that day to this, I have never sat in the audience on an opening night. I can’t. I know that if I go backstage once the play has started I will only get in everyone’s way. I prefer to sit or stand where no one can watch me, where I can mouth the lines to myself, have a drink if needs be close to hand, and just let the emotions flow through me. I can tell from the actors’ voices whether the production is going well or not, and I love to catch glimpses of the audience. This is a private time. This is when I bid the production farewell. This is when I give it away. It is no longer mine, though of course I keep an eye on it from time to time, and I have found that good actors like to know that one still has one’s hand on the tiller. Poor actors get scared. After the first night, I can sit in the auditorium and watch with a measure of detachment and equanimity, even if things go wrong.
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