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.

Direct And To The Point: 5 Seconds Of Caring

When I was a kid, my mother had this phrase – “Five seconds of caring!” – which was constantly being deployed around our house. What it referred to was the fact that it only took “five seconds” to put away the shoes that were left by the door or wipe down the counter where we’d left crumbs from our sandwich. The moral of the story being that it only took a moment to give a damn.

Give a damnI’m in rehearsal for a show at the moment. It’s a big project with lots of moving pieces and our director isn’t able to be in the room with us at all times. For one run in particular, we were left in the hands of our stage manager. I’m involved in a large fight sequence with wooden staffs that are about 5 feet long and just over an inch thick. During the fight, my opponent accidentally landed a strong blow to my fingers. Her staff should have hit my staff, but somehow, my fingers got in the way. There was no blood but it was a severe enough hit for us to have to stop and regroup. I know someone asked it I was ok (I think it was my opponent), to which I replied, “We’ll find out”. We finished the fight and the remainder of the scene that followed it. Following that, I was released from rehearsal. Since my character is killed in the fight, and our director was not in the room, there wouldn’t be notes and there was no reason for me to stay.

I left rehearsal feeling less than thrilled, to put it mildly. I expected that our stage manager would check in with me to make sure everything was fine, but there was only, “Great. Cotton, you’re released. Moving on to the next scene.” Granted, I’m an adult and no bones were broken and no blood was spilled. But I was hit in a rehearsal with enough force to leave purple bruises on my fingers. The fight choreographer did follow me out into the hall to make sure I was ok and ask if I thought we needed to rework anything to make it safer, which I sincerely appreciated. But the person in charge did not take five seconds to investigate the extent of the injury that happened in their rehearsal.

I don’t mean to imply that our stage manager wasn’t sufficiently doing her job. I honestly think it was just a moment where she made the assumption that everything was fine. But the keystone of people feeling cared for is that tiny bit of extra concern. And when things are really starting to get hectic, it’s easy for that to get pushed aside. Not caring is the default of caring, much like chaos is the fault of order.

When you are the one who’s actually in charge, when you are the one left in charge, when you somehow get stuck being the face of an organization, it’s your job to care. Set the tone. Set the expectation. How you lead will greatly impact those in your charge. Patients sue doctors not because they have actually received inferior medical care, but because they feel they have been slighted. Military personnel when asked why they risked life and limb to save a fellow soldier in battle often respond, “they would have done the same for me”. ┬áIf we want a team of people to give us their everything, they have to know we really care about them. Not just when it’s easy or convenient, but at every turn.

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