Direct And To The Point: Always Be Storytelling

As the director, you are responsible for guiding the audience through your story. That includes anything and everything about their experience that you can possibly be involved with. If you can be involved in with the discussions around marketing, do it. That’s likely to be the very first point of contact your audience has with your show. If you can effect the atmosphere in the lobby or the house – with music, displays, decorations – do it. This is all part of your canvas. But at the very least, you must be an active participant in shaping everything happening on stage from “lights up” through to “end of play”.

That seems like overly obvious statement, but many of the shows I go to see don’t do this. Sure, the director has been involved with how the actors say their lines and where they move when, but they’ve abdicated their responsibility with regard to other elements. Every element of the production process is an opportunity for you to hone and clarify your story. The lighting design, the sound design, the costume design, the scenic design, the songs, the choreography (both for dance and fights) all need to contribute to the story you telling. This is not about being a dictation or a micro-manager. This is about leading the experience.

Always Be Storytelling

I have worked on musicals where the director did not direct any of the songs, saying that “was the music director’s job”. My guess is that this director felt like he didn’t know anything about music and therefore wasn’t qualified to weigh in on the process. I would argue that it doesn’t matter what he knows about music, that his job is to have a constant eye on what story is being told. What does the text of the lyrics say? What emotional state is evoked by the music? Structurally, why is there a song at this point in the show? How is this moment supposed to inform the audience about the character that’s singing it or what’s going on in the story? Those are the questions that need to be answered in order to continue telling the story. The notes and the rhythms are for the music director to worry about. The storytelling is for the director to worry about. For the record, I am all for the music director weighing in on the storytelling. I know lots of brilliant music directors who bring tremendous perspective to the table. What I’m saying is that a director is shirking their responsibility if they skip over something because they don’t feel comfortable with the details of it.

The same goes for choreography. If the choreography is not serving the story – regardless of how fabulous it is – you’ve got to work with your choreographer about changing it. It’s great that your ensemble can do triple pirouettes and kick themselves in the head. If they’re supposed to be working class laborers or dorky high school kids the physical vocabularies of those characters need to be maintained in the choreography. Meaning, it’s unrealistic to me, from a storytelling perspective, that they would suddenly transform into superstar, Rockette-style dancers. Not only should the choreography fit within the reality of your world, you should be fully exploiting it to reveal and distinguish who these characters are. Is the character rigid and uptight or loose and cool? What they communicate through their movement should be as clear as (and aligned with) what they say with their lines and lyrics. If it’s fight choreography, what kind of a fighter are they? Do they rely on their speed? Or their strength? Or their smarts? Is this their first fight or their ten thousandth? There’s so much more we can communicate than just “they were happy, so they danced” or “they fought and this side won”.

Malcolm Gladwell, in Tools of the Titans, had a wonderful reflection about his father. He noted that one of his father’s greatest strengths was that he had no intellectual insecurity whatsoever, and so he always felt completely comfortable asking these questions that other people might shy away from for fear of looking ignorant. I think in the arts, where quality can be hugely subjective, it’s easy to get caught up in worrying about what people think of you. Instead, find security in knowing that you are well versed in storytelling, expand your perception of the canvas that’s available to you, and embrace your questions. And Always Be Closing Storytelling.

Thoughts? Comments ? Questions? Post them below. The more, the merrier.

Playing with the Playground

The Playground Experiment

Tonight from 7-9pm at Think Coffee (248 Mercer) I have the pleasure of reading some pages from a new play by Mike Lesser as part of Volume 42 with The Playground Experiment. It’s free, but space is limited. Check out all the details here.

Direct And To The Point: Slice and Dice

If there’s ever any issue around time (eg. being part of a larger evening and needing to fit within a certain amount of time, trying to run without an intermission, just being too darn long, etc.) do your cuts before you get into the room.

I didn’t think I would need to remind myself of this, but I recently made this exact mistake. It fell into the category of “I thought it wouldn’t be an issue, so I didn’t worry about it.” Admittedly, you can’t worry about everything. There are only so many hours in the day. But this particular instance wasn’t about a lack of time. It was laziness (and perhaps false security).

Script cuts are not something I feel comfortable doing on the fly. They can be emotional for the playwright, who worked very hard to make the lines sound just so, as well as the actors, who are working hard to memorize and shape them. When working on a new piece, my ideal scenario is that I think through the cuts by myself, then discuss with the playwright, then let the actors know what the new landscape is (and allow them to petition for anything that they feel strongly about). For an established script, any cuts should be done before the actors ever see the production version of the script.

scissors

It’s my responsibility to be smart about what I think should be cut and why. It’s also my responsibility to avoid wasting our time in the room (if at all possible) while I suss that out. And ultimately, it’s my responsibility to make the piece work within all of its confines. Limits are limits. You’re welcome to be creative within those limits. But if you refuse to accept reality, it’s only going to come back and bite you in the end. Nobody wins a Tony for the potential of their idea. They win a Tony for how their idea is executed.

Make the cuts that should get you where you need to be. Then take a second pass and make the cuts that will get you well beyond where you need to be. If you can make it work with the more severe version, go with that. This applies to any cuts you need to make regarding time or money. Cut early and cut hard. It’s significantly easier to add things back. And once you’ve tried the lean route you’ll have a better sense of what would be most beneficial to add back in.

Only taking action will get you the information you need. If you make the cuts, you’ll learn whether they are too much. You’ll learn what’s crucial to this story. You’ll learn what’s crucial to this production. Giving yourself the opportunity to think through those choices beforehand will help you make a decision about a direction to take. (Alternatively, being forced to make a choice in the moment forces you into guessing. Sometimes you make the right guess, but that’s definitely not the lane I like to travel in.)

I will repeat. If there’s a possibility that time might be an issue, plan your cuts. If there’s a possibility that you might not be able to afford the production that you’re hoping for, plan your cuts. Maybe you won’t need them. But if you do need them, you won’t be guessing. You’ll have a plan. Part of your job as the capital of the ship, is to anticipate and plan for what could go wrong. And time and money are reliably sparse in this business.

Thoughts? Questions? Comments? Post them below. The more, the merrier.

Remember the Ladies

I recently had the pleasure of voicing Abigail Adams in a new piece by the formidable Jessica Ann Carp. It’s a beautiful piece and I was honored to be involved. You can listen to the finished version here.

Hail to the Shotz!

Hail to the Shotz

Still trying to process what happened on election night? Join me TONIGHT at 7:00pm or 8:30pm down at the Kraine Theater for 6 short plays that are chewing on that very question. For this event, I had the pleasure of directing the talented David Jenkins in a poignant little piece by the brilliant Michael Sadler. Should be a great night at the theater. Tickets can be purchased here.

Direct And To The Point: Better Angels Of Our Nature

Last week I saw a production of a new musical. It had a female director and a team of young writers, half of which were also female. I could not have been more disappointed. If you were to look purely at the main story arc, this show could have been written in 1950. As people who are creating and shaping cultural narratives, we need to take that responsibility seriously. One of the reasons I started directing was that I wanted to see women portrayed in a more three dimensional way on stage. I wanted to see more women represented on stage and I wanted to see them do something other than be a mother or a love interest. The world I experienced was much richer than the world I was continually seeing reflected back at me. In a previous post I talked about how theater can be valuable with regard to helping people their navigate emotional landscape in a healthier way. Another huge way that theater (and the other mediums for telling stories) can be hugely influential to the world around us is with regard to what they normalize. We’ve made tremendous progress since the 50’s but that progress needs to be reflected in the stories we tell. One of the ways we can help move that progress along to an even greater degree is by shifting the narrative. Here are some things that this production could have done differently in order to be more interesting and serve as a better model for what normal could (should) be.

change-quote-socrates

Women Shaming Women
Girl and boy break up. Girl is having a hard time getting over the break up and checks out boy’s Facebook page. She sees him smiling in a photo with another girl. Girl responds by calling the other girl “a slut”. I understand that girl is having an emotional outburst. I understand that her response is a laugh line. It’s not necessary (what we need know is that he’s moved on and she hasn’t) and it’s detrimental. Write a better joke. If anything she should be yelling at her ex-boyfriend for moving on. The new girl he’s with is not at fault for anything. Women shaming other women – for the way that they dress, for how sexual they are or aren’t – is something that just has to go. There’s enough pressure from fashion and media around how a woman should look and behave. It shouldn’t be reinforced in new works of theater. If her reaction has to go in that direction (and I maintain that it doesn’t since it doesn’t relate to her story line at all) I would rather that she called her “a bitch”. At least that word does not carry the same shaming connotations.

Beta Female
The Girl does exactly what she’s supposed to do and waits for her ship to come in. She bends over backward to please everyone around her. Finally, she lands a man. The Boy has been living the high life down on Wall St, but is fired after a corporate faux pas. He ultimately learns to follow his heart and do something meaningful. These characters are certainly still present in the modern world, but they are the low hanging fruit. They are the default, factory-setting positions for these characters. Unless there’s something super unique about them or their worldview, it’s really difficult to make them interesting. If, at the very least, you just switch the genders (making her a career driven alpha female and him a people pleasing artist) you’re at least starting from a more interesting place. Additionally, the world needs more stories with powerful women and sensitive men. We are saturated with the reverse and it does not serve us as a society. We would do well do get to a point were a high powered executive is just as likely to be imagined female as male. Where the stay at home parent is just as likely to be portrayed male as female. If there are fewer societal stigmas separating genders, it allows everyone to find the lifestyle that best suits their skill set. Which in turn yields people who are happier and more fulfilled. Everybody wins!..But only if we shift the narrative around what’s “normal”.

Woman As Conquest
Boy is at a bar with some of his co-workers. His co-workers decide that he needs to “score” with a Girl and set about trying to help him “win” her. The co-workers know nothing about the Girl they think he should pursue. Boy also knows nothing about this Girl. (i.e. it’s not a scenario where he’s really gotten to know her and has just been too shy to ask her on a date). She has been seen and it is decided that she should be the evening’s prize. Then follows a whole song and dance number about how to get her to go out with him. At the end of which she is cornered into engaging with him. This narrative (in addition to being about as boring as they come) in the larger context of our society is harmful for both genders. It reduces women to being viewed as objects and reduces a man’s masculinity to his ability to “win” her. We would never believe a friendship or even a business partnership that was based on such a flimsy premise. We would expect the two parties to discover that they had something in common and something to gain from engaging with each other. But we would also expect both parties to opt in. You win the lottery, you win a game, you a court battle. You don’t win another human being. With regard to this particular scene and song in the production, it felt like this resulted because the writers felt like they needed a song featuring the Boy’s Friend. Which is completely valid. But in that case make it about how to appropriately and respectfully ask a girl out. Or how to put your best foot forward. Or how to build a relationship that lasts. Or any number of other relevant topics. There are numerous ways this concept could have been avoided and the effort needs to be made to do so. It’s one that is overdue for extinction.

Consent
Boy and Girl meet at a bar. Which then progresses to a date – they leave the bar (and their friends) to go out for hot dogs. At the end of said date, he kisses her. Why not instead have her kiss him. That at least makes her an active partner in their courtship. Best of all would be before anyone kisses anyone (that they only just MET a few hours before), they say, “May I kiss you?” and wait for the response. The issue of consent is a huge cultural shift that is long overdue. This adjustment costs us nothing with regard to the story. It doesn’t change the plot at all – what we need to understand is that they like each other, which we still get. It might add a line of dialogue, but it doesn’t even have to be a stopping point. They don’t have to have a whole conversation about consent. It’s probably better for the overall flow of this piece if they don’t. It’s just a tiny blip that says “asking for someone’s consent before you engage with their body is a normal thing to do.” We need to allow the idea that characters can engage with each other as active and willing participants to be romantic. And steer clear of glamorizing the notion that it’s somehow more meaningful if one character pushes themselves on another.

I don’t think any of these examples were decisions that were made in an attempt to perpetuate these older, not-so-helpful narratives. I think they weren’t decisions at all. I think they were defaults. The point is that if you are not conscious about what your work is saying, your work could be saying things that you wouldn’t intend to say.

Be aware – it is the first part of the process. Think from your highest intelligence – there are so many other solutions that can be found once we recognize we’re not going in the right direction. Take responsibility for what you create – the world is listening.

Thoughts? Questions? Comments? Post them below. The more, the merrier.

Voicing Abigail

Last week I had the pleasure of voicing the character of Abigail Adams as part of a song cycle written and composed by Jessica Ann Carp. Being in the recording booth is always a good time, but it’s even more fun when you get such to play with such great material. Can’t wait to hear the final product!

Recording Remember the Ladies

Direct And To The Point: Finding The Funny

This post is the juncture of having just seen my first production of She Stoops to Conquer and having just read The Brain That Changes Itself.

First the production. The production I was good, but I walked away thinking it could have gone much further. Comedy is difficult to pull off successfully. Some comedies have additional meaning layer on top of the funny business. This script is purely in search of the laugh. That’s not to say that the characters don’t need to be grounded in truth. They absolutely do. The moment a character becomes aware of or comments on their part within the whole, is the moment that they stop being funny. The characters have to be singularly focused on their pursuit, so that we as the audience can laugh at what they are ignorant of and revel in the moment that it is revealed to them. In a comedy like She Stoops, a whole slew of outrageous events occur and it is the productions job to make it seems as though they were completely accidental – to make the artificial seem like a natural happenstance. The same must be done for each mini-moment of comedy added to the performances. The key is to stuff as many of these moments as you can sustain into the production. And in order to do that, it helps to have some comedians on hand.

There is a difference between a comedian and someone who can be funny. A comedian is someone who is wired to continually look for (and play) the joke. For a comedian, finding the funny is a lifestyle. It’s the filter that they view everything through. They talk about being in situations where they knew a joke wouldn’t be well received, but they just couldn’t resist telling it because the humor was there for the taking and they just couldn’t resist. The performers in this production had the ability to be funny but it hadn’t been run through the filter of enough comedians.

We talk about people as either being funny or not, a view which is not accurate or particularly helpful. Certainly some people are more skilled at it than others, but it’s a skill just like any other. And the only way you get better at a skill is by practicing it. The Brain That Changes Itself details how the things that we think quite literally shape and change the way that our neurons fire. If we are continually looking for the comedy around you, your brain will become better at finding it. Most of the people we regard as funny don’t lead lives that are significantly funnier than anyone else’s. Instead they are better at noticing the incongruities and absurdities that surround us. They have worked at honing these observations their entire life. So, if we want to create a production that is as funny as it possibly can be, and we’re not thoroughly versed comedians ourselves, we have to do every thing we can to compensate. The most fundamental of which being the way we view the world.

Groucho Glasses

In order to up our comedy game, we need to eat, sleep, and breathe comedy. Watch comedy, read comedy, listen to comedy. When you’re waiting in line at the grocery store, think about what the funniest thing (or assortment of things) you could purchase would be. When you’re waiting for the elevator, think about who the funniest person to be on the other side of those doors could be. What if you went to your production meetings wearing Groucho glasses? The comedy doesn’t need to be in the style of piece. It just needs to have you continually looking to exercise the funny circuits in your brain (and the brains of everyone involved). A coach who I really enjoy recommends writing the thing that you want to keep at the forefront of you mind on a rubber band and then wearing that rubber band on your wrist until you can train your brain to drift in that direction on its own. Try that. If you’re a post-it fan, try that. The point is to do anything you can to sharpen your eye for comedy.

With regard to the rehearsal process, obviously if we can cast actor-comedians, that’s helpful. But short of that, we can recruit the cast to be thinking in the same direction that we are and be on the lookout for moments where jokes can be added – not just when they’re onstage, but at any point. Invite your stage manager, your designers, and anyone sitting in rehearsal to look for missed comedic opportunities. Every suggestion might not make the final cut, but the more you’ve fully explored the options, the better. You know the shenanigans that sometimes make their way into the last leg of a run – things like “work the word ‘banana’ into your dialogue” or “insert the Usain Bolt ‘Lightning Bolt’ gesture into one of your scenes”, or other idiotic challenges? What if those were intentionally added to the rehearsal process so that the stumble through of Act One also involved passing a balloon animal around onstage as inconspicuously as possible?

Obviously, everyone has to be on their game in order to do this. You have to make sure that safety comes first. Everyone has to know their lines and blocking. You have to be able to be able to wrangle and structure the fun-times so that work is still being done and it doesn’t just devolve into everybody goofing off. And you have to be able to edit out the bits that aren’t working. But in a piece like She Stoops where the amount of fun that the cast is having only increases the amount of fun audience in having, fostering an environment where everyone can play fully and completely can reap great rewards. And having more options to play only adds more fuel to the fire.

Thoughts? Questions? Comments? Post them below. The more, the merrier.

Direct And To The Point: What Is The Value Of Theater?

Last week I was up in Maine work-shopping a new play. Among the artists I was with, the presidential debates and the state of our nation were a frequent subject of discussion. A lot of questions came up. How can you engage people with different opinions in meaningful conversation? How do you change people’s minds? How do you create impactful work? I don’t pretend to have answers to those questions, but I think it’s worth thinking about.

opposition

Many of today’s issues are incredibly complex. They are issues that can barely be sufficiently understood in two and a half hours, let alone solved. Experts in these fields may spend their entire life studying them and still not know definitively how to solve them. So when we, as theater artists, try to tackle these issues head-on, I don’t think we’re having the effect we might desire. There is the argument is that these plays can generate change by starting the conversation. But my experience with this – purely as an audience member – is that, when I discuss these issues – where both sides have valid arguments, where the system is failing in multiple ways, where the thing that we thought would fix it has made it worse – I tend to spend some time batting ideas back and forth…and finally drop it after resolving that I don’t know how to fix it. Which means that the needle hasn’t moved much and the problem remains just as frustrating and unfixed as it ever was. And I think my response is a common one. Meaning the impact of a script about issues is questionable.

Furthermore, if we want to effect change, we have to avoid depicting characters who represent the opposing side as villains. The fastest way to a dead-end is to start off by saying “you (and everyone like you) are the problem”. If we start off like that, the only people who might continue to listen to us are the people who were already in agreement with that viewpoint in the first place. At which point we’re not changing any minds or starting any conversations. We’re just stirring the pot and pinning it on a scapegoat. I genuinely understand the appeal of this – ranting is easy and it’s so satisfying in the moment. But there is a difference between being right (or even justified) and being effective. If the objective is to be able to bridge the gap and make legitimate progress, we have to speak in a manner that doesn’t put the other side on the offensive and we have to genuinely listen to their perspective.

Where I think theater can be very effective is with regard to emotionally educating people. Whether we’ll ever reach the point where we can consistently respond in a way that’s in keeping with our best intentions is anyone’s guess. But right now, we’re not there and art can be a powerful tool with regard to navigating emotional territory. The basic tenets of theater revolve around resolving conflict. The pieces of theater I have been most effected by are the ones that effect me emotionally. Persuasion is a long game. You don’t change people’s minds in one massive assault of reason. Most of the time facts will never change people’s opinions. Opinions are emotional. Decisions are emotional. You have to allay to you opponent’s emotional concerns if you want to win them over. This subtle, gradual shift isn’t the kind of sweeping reform that makes headlines. This is the quiet trickle of water that with consistent effort eventually creates the path it desires.

We get just over two hours to connect with our audience and make an impression. Unlike TV and film, which can be rewatched over and over, most audience members will only see any given production once. Just because we can’t force the world to immediately become what we would have it be, doesn’t mean we can’t take action to help it become what we wish it were. Rather than preaching about what’s wrong or who’s at fault, what if we used out time to model the responses we would like to see more of in the world? Can we be an example of how to override your fears? How to be more tolerant? More compassionate? Can we remind people of their humanity? Remind them that there is strength in vulnerability? Can we teach people to be at peace with themselves? We may not know how to fix the fix huge issues of our day. But if we can improve the conversations in our communities, that will not be for nothing.

Thoughts? Comments? Questions? Post them below. The more, the merrier.

At the Barn!

Barn Arts

This week I have the pleasure of being out at The Barn Arts Collective in Bass Harbor, ME to work on Tim J. Lord’s play, Fault & Fold. It’s brisk and beautiful here in Maine and working on this play is going to be a treat. Woohoo!