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.

Direct And To The Point: So, What Do You Do?

There is value in defining for yourself what role you want to play in the grand scheme of a production. Research has shown that a large part of job satisfaction stems from finding meaning in what you do. So, for example, a janitor who sees himself as contributing to the overall function of an organization he believes in is significantly happier in his job than the janitor who’s just taking out the trash and collecting a paycheck. The default job description may meet the minimum requirements, but if we want attract the right people and projects to our world and get the most out of our experience, taking the time to craft a more deliberate intention (even if it’s just for yourself) is a great starting point.

My job as a director boils down to four things.

Establish what the story is.
It bears repeating that the story is not the plot. The plot is strictly the events that happen. The story is how we interpret those events. I decide on a version of the story that I’m interested in telling. If it’s a new piece or something where the playwright is accessible, I then broaden the conversation to include them. How does my interpretation jive with what they intended? What did I read on the page that they didn’t know was there? What did they intend that I missed? If you can find common ground from the outset, you’ll save yourself all kinds of headaches later on. There’s nothing worse than having a playwright come in to watch a final run-through and disagree with the way everything is being done. Next that circle of conversation extends to my designers, and then my actors. This order of operations is purely based on the order in which these players typically come on board. The objective is simply to have a clear direction for the story that everyone understands and can work towards.

Have an answer.
Every production presents challenges. It could be anything from making something magically appear at a certain moment to not having any backstage space to making a character likable enough so that we continue to listen to what he has to say. My job is to scout those sticky spots out early and figure out some kind of solution – a solution that could implement all by myself if I had to. It may not be the right solution. It may not even be a good solution. But that way I know that there is some sort of solution. If nothing else, it’s a starting point. And sometimes even bad ideas can develop into good ideas. What you cannot afford to do is say, “this is going to be a problem – I’m going to hope someone else will fix it” and look the other way. If you are the captain of the ship, you must take complete responsibility for the ship.

possibility

Harvest the crop of answers.
In the way that it’s my job to have a solution. It’s also my job to create an environment where everyone else is also coming up with solutions and where those solutions are being voiced. Designers and technicians, since they tend to have rather defined areas that they are responsible for, tend to be excellent at coming up with solutions. I often wish actors were better at it, especially with regard to thinking up solutions outside of the rehearsal room. Yes, wonderful things can happen in the room in the spur of the moment. But research seems to indicate that even better things (more ideas with more variance) result when people think about solutions separately and then come together to share them. Especially, if you (like me) tend to be more introverted. So if we’re clear about where we’re trying to get to and what we’re up against, my job is to make sure everyone is held accountable for being part of the solution.

Edit down the options.
Once there’s a good mix of options on the table, my job is to start trying them out and decide what works – what’s sustainable for the course of the run, what’s practical, what gets us closest to what we need. Don’t get stuck waiting for the perfect answer. Just pick a lane and try it. If the option you thought would be brilliant turns out to be wrong, try the one you thought would never work. You have to be willing to try the wrong option in order to discover the right one.

When I write it all out like that, it seems like piece of cake. Obviously, it all becomes much more complicated in the execution. But in terms of broad strokes to aspire to, I like it.

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

Direct And To The Point: Taming Of The Shrew

The post is inspired by the all-female production of The Taming of the Shrew, directed by Phyllida Lloyd, which was just recently at the Delacorte. I was not planning on doing a post about this show, given that it’s not a play that I particularly love. But ignoring it seemed foolish. Shakespeare only wrote so many plays and this play is far more likely to be produced many of his histories. And if someone offered me the chance to direct it, I would be thrilled…and then I would be like “oh crap, how do I make this a story that I can stomach watching.” So in the interest of thinking along those lines, here we go.

I’ve said it before and I’ll probably say every time I see it. I love seeing all these ladies playing roles they never get to play. I absolutely love it. In this production, the ladies who were playing male roles were costumed as men. In Ms. Lloyd’s all-female production of Henry V which I wrote about previously, the women were not actually costumed to look like men. Instead a masculine quality was suggested through their physicality. I prefer just making use of the physicality because it allows them the best of both worlds – being able to remain women, but take on characteristics that are traditionally viewed as male such as authority, aggression, bravado, etc. But, on the other hand, having them costumed as men, as they were in this production, did eliminate the friction around the question of what does gender mean when a play written for two distinct genders that’s now being performed by only one.

Taming of the Shrew

The Times did a feature article inspired by this production, asking whether or not we should continue to bother with producing this play. For it they interviewed Ms. Lloyd, Julie Taymor and Tina Packer (from Shakespeare & Company). Thoughts on the play seem to range from “it’s important to tell because of the present day misogyny that continues to exist” to “this is a love story between an atypical woman and her equal.” I agree with both of those view points to a degree. This production, by using the framing devise of a beauty pageant, suggests that life for women is one unending Miss America contest, which is valid but not exactly a story that I’m excited to tell. I do think this is a story about keeping up appearances. Every character except Kate is trying to convince us (and the people around them) that they are the picture of propriety. I’m interested in Kate learning (more appropriately, being forced to learn) how to play the game…so that she can undermine it. I’m more interested in saying “you have to be playing the game in order to change the game.” Which I think could be difficult to chisel out of this piece, but might be possible.

Kate.
Whenever I’ve heard people talk about casting an actress for Kate, they talk about casting an actress who is strong and feisty. Which is the right answer. First and foremost we have to believe that Kate is a spitfire. But to some degree I wonder why any actress exhibiting those qualities would want to play Kate. For this production it felt like Kate spent the first third of the show spunky and spirited but the remaining two-thirds begging and pleading. Which is a valid rendering of what’s in the text. But if you’re trying to adjust what’s in the text for a contemporary audience I think you want to do whatever you can to keep the last two-thirds of her story from being pitiful. That spark shouldn’t be extinguished (or tamed), but rather should be channeled into different outlets. Without that spark, she ceases to be the woman that Petruchio actually loves.

Petruchio.
Petruchio has to be different from any of the other men in this world. While he agrees to woo Kate primarily because of her dowry, I think he falls truly and unexpectedly in love with her because of her spirit. Petruchio is not interested in declawing the Tiger and rendering it harmless. If you declaw the Tiger then anyone can wield control over it. If you befriend the Tiger, then it maintains its power and you are in the unique position to be able to influence it. That is the more impressive feat. And in this world, where virtually all of the other men are strutting around trying to prove how impressive they are (in order to win Bianca’s hand), Petruchio can distinguish himself to Kate in their first scene by his sincerity. Granted the moments where he can do that are fleeting, but I think it can be done. Kate is the outcast of her society and the way to infiltrate an outcast is to say “I see who you really are, I understand you and I value you”. (This akin to the “you have never been satisfied” moment between Angelica and Alexander in Hamilton.) If Petruchio can communicate to Kate that he respects her and views them as equals, that’s something she can neither ignore nor run away from. Where Kate and Petruchio differ is that he is a master at playing the societal game, and he uses that knowledge to cheat the system. This is what he must teach Kate. In this production, Petruchio seemed to disregard societal norms entirely which I don’t think ultimately serves their relationship nor Kate’s arc (at least not in the way I’m interested in telling it). in my ideal world, the message that he communicates to Kate is “I get this world and I get you and I’m the bridge that’s going to enable you to say ‘buzz off’ the way you’ve always wanted to.” It’s admittedly a tall order based on what’s in the text, but I think it might be possible.

The Taming.
In order for this play to be palatable to me, I’m looking for three main things with regard to the “taming” of Kate.

  1. I need to believe that Kate and Petruchio are legitimately the perfect match for each other. For my money, their first scene together is when this has to happen. I’ve mentioned that Petruchio needs to be different from all of the other men in this play. Likewise, Kate needs to respond to him differently than she does to everyone else. Not that she doesn’t revert to tactics that she’s successfully used before (she does), but he gets under her skin (and into her brain) the way no one else is able to. And we need to see that difference. Additionally, any time either of them gets a rise out of the other, is a point for whoever stayed calm and a demerit for whoever got angry. To get angry is to admit that you’re losing ground. If you’re winning an argument, you’re not angry, you’re delighted. So, both sides want to avoid that as much as they can.
  2. I need the actual taming to seem as equitable and as necessary as it can be. Which is tricky. It can be helped if we see that Petruchio is suffering the ailments he’s inflicting on Kate as much as she is (i.e. neither one of them are able to sleep or eat and it’s miserable for both of them). Additionally, the distinction between behavior in public vs. behavior in private needs to be well established. In public, Kate needs to behave in a manner that suits her society. In private, when it is just her and Petruchio, she can be herself. I would love to try to establish that Petruchio only insists that she comply with his every command when they are in public – when there is at least one other character present on stage. This feels like a bit of a stretch, but the theme of keeping up appearances that is present, it might be possible to goose that. If this abusive behavior can be put in that context I think it can seem like less of something that Petruchio asserting his dominance and more about Kate learning how she has to play the game. I was struck in this production by the way that the “kiss me, Kate” moment occurred in private. As such, that moment has the potential to be about Petruchio asking for her affection in a really vulnerable way. And it’s a moment where Kate can discover (and reveal) that she actually is attracted to this person, contributing to this private standards vs. public standards, especially if this is only the second time that we’ve seen them be alone together (the first being the “bonny Kate” scene) and it is the first moment of real intimacy that we see between the two of them. In this production I wasn’t sure if Kate and Petruchio had slept together after the wedding ceremony, and that is a big deal. The societal expectation is that they would (and I think it’s important that we see Kate expect that), but if that were to happen at that point in their relationship, in light of how Petruchio just kidnapped her from her own wedding and is about to deprive her of food and sleep, it becomes too violent an act to get past if we want to establish the possibility of a genuine relationship between the two of them. It’s better for the story of their relationship, that we don’t think they have slept together until we can believe that Kate is a willing participant.
  3. I need some kind of interpretation of that final speech that allows me to believe Kate has not become a Stepford Wife. In this production, the groveling way in which Kate delivers this speech ends up winning her the beauty pageant which she has unknowingly been part of this whole time, which shocks her back to her senses and prompts her to reject everything she has previously said. I think that’s a valid interpretation (and gives its own spin to the Induction), but it’s not the one that I find most interesting. I’m more interested in treating the story as reality and trying to find a solution to how Kate and Petruchio can exist together afterward. Certainly, there are things that can help this last speech. It helps that in this moment Kate gets to throw Bianca and the Widow under the bus for their churlish behavior. Additionally, it’s also reasonable to say behaving like a jerk (even if it’s justified) only serves to make life miserable for everyone (yourself included). And if we’ve done what we can to establish a solid and loving relationship (or at least the foundation for one) between Kate and Petruchio, there is merit to saying “this is a partnership and in a partnership each party has certain responsibilities”. That being said I would likely look to trim some of the language about women being soft and husbands being demi-gods.

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

Direct And To The Point: What You Know

Earlier this month I was in London and had the pleasure of seeing In The Heights, directed by Luke Sheppard and playing at King’s Cross Theatre. I left with a mixture of feelings. On the one hand, it was a tremendously fun, vibrant, and heartfelt production – which is exactly how that show should feel. There were some choices that I didn’t think really served the story telling, but that’s to be expected. You’re never going to like all the choices all of the time. However, I felt the show lacked an authentic New York feel. This feels like an unfair comment to make. It’s being performed in London, for a London audience, by a primarily British cast – all of that impacts the final product. And only if you’re very familiar with New York would you notice that this show didn’t have that feel.

New York and London

Advice that we frequently hear for writers is “write what you know.” Which is not to say that you can’t write a story that happened long ago and far away. But it is to say that if you’re a 20-something white man who’s grown up in Connecticut, you might not have the best perspective on what it’s like to be an African American woman living in Alabama in the 1960’s. That particular writer would need to do a significant amount of research into what her world was like in order to get his interpretation of her life to be close to what her actual experience was. If he doesn’t do his homework incredibly well, he runs the risk of it ringing false to anyone who is closer to that experience than he is. On the flip side, for the writer who’s personal experiences are closer to that woman’s world, it can less about doing research and more about telling a story about someone you’re well acquainted with.

As an actor, it’s crucial to have some aspect of the character’s emotional being that you can relate to from the core of your being. So that you can say, “I may not understand every choice this character makes, but I get this driving force behind there actions.” From there, the core energy behind the character can be completely honest and you can “act” all the other details that layer in on top of it. It’s still valuable to do your research – the research helps you avoid making choices that are completely wrong – but an emotional tie-in (and being true to the text) opens up the spectrum of other choices that might be possible (and unique to your production).

Directing, being at the intersection of the text and the performance, has to be somewhere in the middle. I was listening to a podcast with Lisa Kron and she had a great comment about the difference between the story and the plot. The plot of Fun Home is a Lesbian graphic novelist who’s remembering what it was like growing up in a Funeral Home run by her closeted gay father who eventually killed himself. This is not something that’s terribly relatable. But the story of Fun Home, that of a child who is reflecting on the humanity and fallibility of her father, is enormously relatable. You have to be able to connect to the emotional story that you’re telling and you have to also understand the universe where the plot is unfolding.

So with regard to the production of In The Heights? I think the emotional connection was solid, which is a huge accomplishment. This show lives or dies according to the amount of heart and soul that is visible on stage each night. And this production had that in spades. But the universe where the plot unfolds could have been better established (better researched?) by the creative team. On the general level, this place didn’t feel like New York. New York is a urgent, gritty and dense. New York is like a hungry dog in pursuit of its next meal. The pressure of that environment, scraping by for every nickle and dime in a city that’s constantly trying to pull them away from you as fast as you can make them, is part of what Usnavi is trying to escape from. This production didn’t feel like it had that edginess to fight against.

On the more detailed level, there were a few props that weren’t quite accurate. On such prop were the sheets of paper. In the US, we use paper that’s 8.5×11 inches. In the UK, they use A4 – it’s not as wide and slightly longer. You can get a ream of either size fairly easily through your preferred office supplies retailer. It’s a small, but specific prop which sticks out like a sore thumb if you know what you’re looking at. One that wouldn’t have occurred to me if I was in a similar situation. I could easily see myself assuming that I knew what contemporary London was like, owing to the fact that I live in New York. I left thinking about what kind of research I would need to do (that might not occur to me to do) if I were to direct a similar story set in London.

All of which is to say, find your emotional connection. And then do your research. And keep doing your research. Even when you think you don’t need to. TV and Movies are a great way to do research for tone and feel, especially if they’ve been shot on location. Assume you are going to have blindspots. Assume there will be questions that you don’t know you need to ask. If there are large areas where your personal experience and the details of the story overlap, make a point to see where those paths diverge. If at all possible, drag someone who’s closer to the story into your rehearsal process (even if it’s just a friend doing you a personal favor, even if they’re not in involved in theater in the least). The devil is in the details.

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

Direct And To The Point: Taking The Leap to Kill Off Your Darlings

As a director it is your job to have a vision for the piece – to have an idea about what you want to communicate and how to get there. This is the phase where everything is a possibility for you. After that it’s your job to actually get everyone there, safely and within the allotted restrictions of time and budget. Often this means a lot of thinking, planning, and dreaming well before any of the physical components are in place.

However, once those physical realities start taking shape, you will need to kill off some of your dreamy darlings, and the faster the better. Because until you move on, no one else can either. It’s only once we move on that we can start figuring out what will work. Too often we waste time clinging to one magical vision that we have about the way we think a moment should go or the way we think a set or costume should look like. Sometimes those ideas get dragged all the way to opening night, never quite achieving what they were meant to. Prompting the response we weren’t willing to see, that it wasn’t the right choice for our production. The story of the Emperor’s New Clothes is not that the Emperor was fooled, but rather that the Emperor was too afraid to see what was in front of him.

In any given process, what are the things that we can’t fix? What are the things that we can’t change? (This is kind one step beyond the notion of playing the cards you have.) Is there a structural pillar in the middle of your playing space? Figure out a way that you can incorporate it. Find the possibility. Can it become a tree trunk? Or the post of a front porch? Or a telephone pole? Or a place to hang props? How completely can you integrate what you can’t change into the world of your? What if your options for lighting are spartan (at best) and you were longing for something to rival last year’s Super Bowl? Time to shift directions. Rob Lowe in his book Love Life talks about how it’s always the one line in the script that he hates, that he doesn’t initially know how to deliver truthfully, that eventually unlocks the whole character for him. While you’re focused on what you can’t do, someone else is figuring out how to work with the exact same thing. The unique challenges that you face will point you in the direction of solution that is unique to your production.

The Catch

We are in the business of blending reality and fiction. Taking fictional characters and making them relatable. Taking true events and crafting them into compelling narratives. When we ignore our physical realities, we can’t possibly a fictional world that allows our audience to suspend their disbelief. When we build those realities into our narrative, suddenly everything makes sense. Accept what you can change and exploit it to the best of your ability.

Creativity is born out of limits. There are a multitude of ways to tell any given story. If there weren’t, scripts would only ever be produced once with one cast . There’s an anecdote I heard at some point where some famous innovator basically said, “what do I care if someone ‘steals’ one of my ideas, I have millions of ideas and I make more every day.” (I cannot for the life of me remember who it was about. Maybe it was about Disney? Tesla? Edison? Someone prolific. Google has not turned up anything to help me pinpoint it. Which ) Regardless, it’s great reminder.

Musicians spend years drilling scales, dancers spend years at the barre – honing their technique, so that when it comes time to perform they can forget all of that minutia and trust in their instrument. You must do the work of dreaming and planning, so that you can let it all go and trust that new dreams will come. There are no short cuts. But unless you leap, there’s also no reward.

Questions? Questions? Comments? Post them below. The more the merrier!

Direct And To The Point: Specifically Sexy

In any given system, the better the input, the better the output. You ask the right questions, you get the right answers. You give the right note, (in theory) the better the actor is able to implement it. Now granted, when you’re trying to communicate something you may think you’ve described it with absolute clarity but your recipient may have no idea what you’re talking about, so a dialogue between both parties is clutch for ensuring that the message you think you’ve sent is actually the message that’s been received. This whole process works better if we are specific with our language.

One particular concept which might feel specific but is actually incredibly vague is the word “sexy”. This includes any note like “do you have anything sexier?” (with regard to audition material), “she needs to be more appealing”, “can you seduce him more?”. (This is just one example. The word “funny” is another. I’m sure there are many. But for this post I’m going to focus on “sexy”.)

zoolander

There’s no one set way to be sexy. If there were, we would all just do that and everyone would sexy to everyone all the time. Which sounds kind of fun until you realize that this would mean your husband/wife now finds that person you can’t stand equally as attractive as you. Suffice it to say, sexy comes in many different forms. When the feedback that goes into the system is solely “be sexier”, it often results in attempting to do our best imitation of someone widely considered to be sexy. Maybe we speak a little lower or we make our voice a little breathier. Maybe we twirl our hair, or make more eye contact, or smile more. But those are general attempts, rather than a specific embodiment.

I would argue that people are not sexy. People exhibit certain qualities which we as the viewer (or the scene partner) then find enticing. If you’ve read Robert Greene’s The Art of Seduction (not as steamy as it sounds, but very interesting food for thought), this is largely what he’s talking about. Sexy is the result, but not the cause. It results because of other characteristics. Perhaps the character is sexy because of their confidence, or their innocence, or their intelligence, or some kind of impressive skill. They can be sexy because they’re the life of the party or they can be sexy because they’re dark and brooding and just out of reach. So when we’re looking to arrive at a desired destination (sexy), we need to provide directions on how to get there. We can tell someone “bring me my pogostick” and let them hunt for it or we can say “bring me my pogostick – it’s at the back of the closet by the front door”. How to find the pogostick is crucial information. If we can articulate how a character is sexy, then achieving that becomes significantly easier.

I would also argue that sexy is a defined relationship, similar to a chemical reaction, where are parties are in agreement with regard to what the triggers are. If you pour vinegar on baking soda, there will be a reaction. You’ll see the foam bubble up instantly. If you pour vinegar on powered sugar (something that looks a lot like baking soda), all you’ll get is a really gross mess. But that doesn’t mean something was wrong with the powered sugar (or the vinegar). It just means we haven’t paired up the right chemicals to create a reaction. So, if we’re not getting the desired “sexy” effect, perhaps it’s not because the actor (male or female) is doing it wrong but because we haven’t agreed on what the make up of “sexy” should be within the given world. It has to be equal parts what-one-character-is-doing and how-the-other-character-is-responding. Both parties have to be on the same page with regard to what sexy means specifically. We want to create a situation, which is true to the text and suited to the actors, that tells the story of two characters being drawn to each other.

If you’re getting general output, refine your input. God is in the details.

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

Direct And To The Point: I’ve Got The Power

A clear understanding of the dynamics of power are a huge asset in storytelling. After all, it’s the dissonance between two forces (and the power they hold) that creates dramatic tension. Yet often these power dynamics aren’t as clear as they could be. With theater being a collaborative art form and America being a culture which values the idea that all citizens have an equal voice, I think power is not something we spend a great deal of time focusing on. Or at least it’s not something that is acceptable to openly discuss in specific terms. But being conscious of it can really sharpen the conflicts in our story.

When we talk about power, it’s important to also talk about status. Status is often a result of your lot in life, whereas power is your a ability to effect it. Status tends to be quantifiable – your rank withing the military, your title within the company, your net worth. Status can certainly effect the power you have, but it is not the only determining factor. Sometimes power and status align, and sometimes they don’t. Which is to say, the king can be young, strong, smart, and conniving (having both a kingly status and the power to genuinely rule the kingdom)…or he can be a complete idiot who just happened to be born to the right people at the right time (having only the title, but otherwise being a puppet for those around him). If status is the cards you’re dealt, power is the way you play them to your advantage.

One summer I worked as an actor at a Renaissance Festival. As part of our rehearsal process each of the characters were ranked according to status. Whenever you encountered someone of a higher status you had to bow or curtsy. The greater the difference between your status and the other character the deeper your bow was supposed to be, such that when the beggars encountered the queen they would lay prostrate on the ground. It was fascinating to have such a visceral experience of status. Suddenly, for the interactions you witnessed, you had an immediate visual picture of who was supposed to be top dog, just by the way the characters greeted each other. And for the interactions you were part of, you had an immediate context for where you fit within the world.

I've Got The Power

Status gets interesting at the point where it intersects with power. Power can come in many forms – money, information, social connections, sex, physical strength. Humor can be power. Intelligence can be power. Anything that attracts or repels is power. It can come in the form of friendship (“Hey, we’ve been buddies for a long time. Would you help me out with this?”) or it can come in the form of a threat (“You better do this, or else.”). Anything a character can use to affect the action of another character is power. When you are aware of all the different ways a character can have power, it provides you with a wealth of tactics to pursue your objectives.

One type of person who is likely to be particularly attuned to the different tactics for acquiring influence, whether intentionally or unconsciously, is the Alpha. I think of Alphas as being the natural leader of a group. These are the people who emerge as the dominate voice in an otherwise equal peer group. They tend to lead the tone for the group for better or for worse. They are the true head of the snake, so to speak. Obviously, this “Alpha quality” is something of a sliding scale. There are varying degrees of sophistication and effectiveness and it is relative to context. If you cast someone who does not naturally relate to the world in this way, in a role that calls for it, you will need to pay special attention to developing that dynamic.

The Alpha doesn’t yell to make their point. They don’t have to. Yelling is a symptom of having to struggle to be heard. Similarly, they don’t have to move. Their world moves around them. While they might have the ability to physically intimidate others, they know that in the long run they are better off having a range of options with which to control those around them. With physical strength, it is only a matter of time before someone bigger, faster, or stronger comes along. The book Nurture Shock devotes a chapter to discussing how the most socially savvy children, the ones who have the biggest circle of friends, tend to exhibit the highest amounts of social bullying. Their ability to understand the psyche of their peers initially helps them make friends and subsequently allows them to manipulate those relationships as they see fit.

While power certainly isn’t the only was to look at a story arch, it can be a really great tool to explore as part of a rehearsal process, especially if the arguments ever feel “one-note”.

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

Direct And To The Point: A Nice Personality

There are certain actors who I regard as “plug and play”. They are very serviceable. They give a lovely, dependable performance. But I’m never surprised by their choices and I never find their performances to be terribly personal. It’s this kind of performance that feels like it could be duplicated by any number of other performers without adding or subtracting to the final product.

Then there are the performers who seem to mesh who they are with who the character is resulting in a blend that is in keeping with the story but unique to who they are as a human being. These are the performances where we can’t imagine anyone else in the role. These are the auditions after which no one else is even in the running.

toothpaste-personality-test

There is a universal component to our emotional experiences which allows us to relate to what happens to a character. But it’s the specificity of that experience which helps us really believe that the character is having this experience. Love is an experience we all know, but we each experience love specifically. We fall in love with the way someone smells, or the funny way they laugh, or the way they pronounce the word “tortilla”. We hate specifically, becoming riled by the way our nemesis breathes, the way they shuffle their feet when they walk, their choice of syntax. Personality is a short cut to specificity. Integrating some of our own weird little quirks into the mix with the character we develop (as long as they don’t contradict the givens of the script) helps flesh out everything that the playwright couldn’t squeeze on the page. This mesh between character-as-written and actor is what creates a layered, three-dimensional performance.

A lack of personalization can obviously happen in any piece, but I think some works are more prone to it than others. When there’s a preconceived notion of how the piece should be done – based on previous productions, or even just general concepts relating to the time period of the piece – it can become a shortcut to playing a generalization rather than forming our own vision of the piece. Classical work often suffers from this. People form a notion of how classical work should sound or move without first answering for themselves how they would specifically respond to these circumstances. Similarly when something is well known you can fall into unconsciously repeating the choices of previous productions, instead of forging the path for ourselves. For example, with something like The Last Five Years, which for a decade had only one recorded version, it’s easy slip into imitating Sherie Rene Scott or Norbert Leo Butz because the interpretation that they arrived at (by really personalizing their roles) is so rich.

The other place where I think it can be difficult to find personalization is in broad comedy. In things like farce and slapstick where the physical comedy is such a key component, the specificity of that physical routine becomes choreography. It’s not dance choreography per se, but each movement has distinct requirements of which body parts should be where and a tempo at which it unfolds. The trick is to get the choreography to feel honest and true to the characters. And while this is specific and detailed work requiring impressive technical skill, I don’t think it stems from who the actor is as a person. Assuming the show has been well choreographed by both the director and the actor and goes on to be well executed by the actors, the physicality does the work. Which is fascinating given that verbal based comedy can be almost entirely tied to personality, where jokes that kill for one comedian fall totally flat for someone else. Broad comedy is one of the few types of theater where we’re not looking for the characters to be three dimensional where as stand-up demands a more personal product.

The range of roles an actor can be called on to play are almost infinite. When we look at the types of performances for which actors get Tony nominations (in theory, reflecting the performances the theater industry considers impressive), they tend to fall into two categories: roles that are technically impressive (e.g. the actor plays a zillion characters) or emotionally impressive (e.g. the actor develops a vision of the role that is rich, layered and unique). Certain roles allow for more personality than others. Certain roles demand more technical skill than others. Both of these are essential. To the extent that it’s possible, I want as much personality as possible.

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

Direct And To The Point: Relevant

I’ve been thinking a lot about Les Mis recently.

I read an article a few years ago about one of the conflicts in the middle east (I don’t remember which conflict) and the fact that many Americans couldn’t understand why the local populations would fight against the American soldiers who came to free them. The author’s point was that the luxury of morality (and fighting for the “good guy”) is hard to maintain when your family is starving. In those circumstances, you fight for whoever will give you a bag of rice.

I should specify; I’ve been thinking about how Les Mis has always seemed like a pretty story rather than something with present day relevance, despite the fact that the overarching concept of Les Mis – a country in the middle of a revolution and the lives it affects – strikes me as incredibly timely. The theme of societal conditions making it easier or harder for a person to do the right thing, is one that I imagine will always be relevant. But, for me, rooting the story in Paris during the French Revolution somehow distances me from that. I keep wondering what it would be like to stage a production of Les Mis in the present (or close to it) and in the Middle East.

Les Miserables and The Middle East

This is not something I’ve thought very far down the road with. At the moment, it’s just a fleeting question that won’t leave me alone. I’m not exactly sure how well a shift of the setting would intersect with the script and score. I don’t imagine Schönberg and Boublil were seeking to make any particular social comment in adapting the novel into the musical. But I do feel safe saying that Victor Hugo was most definitely wrestling with many of the social issue of his day. So, in that sense I feel like it becomes of an interesting question; what if your concept strays from the intention of the adapters but is closer in spirit to original source material?

Then there is the consideration of sides. Within the context of the show, the establishment (the law, represented by Javert) is the villain and students are, if not the hero per se, certainly the good guys trying to win liberty and equality for the people. If you were to set it in the recent Middle East, you would have to pick a side as the oppressive establishment and another as the visionary revolutionists. A move which couldn’t help but be seen as a political statement – something which I would want to avoid, given my ignorance as to the subtly and complexity of the situation. Making a statement you intend to make is one thing. Making a statement purely out of ignorance is another and should be avoided when possible. And even if you could somehow avoid naming names in that regard, there is still the issue of a flag. The barricade and its accompanying flag are significant visual aspects of the story. Removing the flag from that image would significantly reduce the emotional impact of that moment of the show. And making a completely fictional flag, or something “vaguely Middle Eastern” seems like an option that could quickly become offensive.

My next thought was perhaps you could do it in a neutral time and place, a la the recent Broadway production of A View From The Bridge, and let the audience draw it’s own parallels. It doesn’t exactly solve the flag issue, but perhaps something could be established purely with colors, much like the way sports fans rally around their team’s colors. The more distant a story seems – the harder it is for the characters to seem like they overlap with your world in some way whether it’s that their struggles are your struggles, their words sound like the way you speak, or their clothes look like things you wear – the harder it becomes for the story to feel immediate. Perhaps by adopting a more neutral design palate, you could allow the audience to feel closer to the story, by virtue of the set and costume not highlighting the fact that these events took place hundreds of years ago.

When I watch a show, one of the primary things I want from a show is an emotional connection, ideally an empathetic, emotional connection. Any time I hear someone say they don’t like musical theater (or Shakespeare), I always take that as an indication that haven’t seen a production that allowed them to relate to the characters in a meaningful way. So, as a director, I’m always looking for points where an empathetic connection can be strengthened, ways to highlight the relevance of the story being told. Sometimes that comes in the form of adding something, sometimes it come in the form of stripping something down. I’m not sure if this concept would be at all effective. But I’m curious.

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