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: Play The Cards You Have

I’m a big fan of Malcolm Gladwell, and specifically his book David and Goliath. David and Goliath is a case study about playing the cards you’re dealt to the best advantage possible. It explores the possibility that the thing everyone else views as your weakness may in fact be the root of your competitive edge. I love this concept on many levels, but I think it’s a great thing to remember in the realm of directing.

There will always be limitations and things you don’t have – not enough time, not enough money, no say over who gets cast in certain roles. Very rarely will we ever have carte blanche. And I think that’s a great thing. Embracing our limitations can really help us get clear on what is most important in our story and get creative with how we accomplish that. Dream your dreams about who you would cast or what kind of crazy effects and costumes you would have in your ideal world. Then take a step back and look at the essence of that ideal. Get creative with how you can manifest that essence. Talk to you team in terms of those essences.

Playing Cards

If your ideal set would be a magnificent castle, what is the importance of that castle? Is it to convey the cold, stark environment of being surrounded by stone? If so, can you convey that in a stripped down space and a desolate color choice? Or maybe a looming throne made of cinder blocks? Or maybe even harsh florescent lighting? Is it to convey the grandeur of being a royal? Could that be conveyed through some choice costuming and one really luxurious element, like an enormous stained glass window?

If your ideal leading lady is sexy, what are the ways the woman who’s in that role is sexy? And how can that integrate with the character? On some people, it’s their intelligence that makes them sexy. On others, it’s their sense of humor. On still other people, it’s their drive. Comedians talk about how the material that one comedian can kill with can fall completely flat with someone else. Both comedians are funny, but they’re only funny in their own style of humor.

If your show calls for a big dance number and you don’t have a single dancer in your cast, choreograph to the level that your cast can do. There are dance moves that look easy which are actually very hard and dance moves that look hard that are actually pretty easy. The best ones will always be the ones your dances can do. And a lot can be done to make arm movements and moving within certain patterns look impressive. If George Balanchine can choreograph for elephants, surely something can be done for those that happen to have two left feet.

Look at what you have at your disposal and work from there. As artists, we’re always looking to see how we can tell our stories in new and compelling ways.We’re always asking what unique interpretation we can bring to the mix. What you can’t do (or what you don’t have) is a great way to force yourself to think of other solutions. The core of creativity is being able to generate an array of strategies and perspectives. Any time we become fixated on solving the question in only one way, we’re selling ourselves short. Knowing what is essential in order for the pieces of your story to click, and being able to talk to your team in those terms will help everyone have a clear picture of the end goal is and help you get there in a way that’s unique to your production.

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

Direct and to the Point: Into The Woods

This post stems from The Public’s most recent production (remounted from a previous production at Regents Park) of Into The Woods. I’ve seen one other production of the show. And unlike some of the other theater lovers of my generation, I have not listened to the soundtrack ad nauseum. All of which is to say that I consider myself only casually familiar with the show.

Into The Woods LogoOverall, I think one of the challenges with this show is getting it to congeal. This is a show with millions of characters and almost as many plot lines. As such, hard to get all those characters to be in the same world and all those┬áplots to relate to each other. I find the theme of parent/child relationships to be a huge component of this show. By not double casting any of the parents or children, and therefore having each child’s respective ghost parent be present on stage toward the end (if I remember correctly, during No One Is Alone) this production did a great job of highlighting that. The other major theme for me (at least in how I’m currently thinking about the show) is one of violence and when/how/if it’s usage is justified.

Specifically, my thoughts on this production are as follows…

– A Little Boy for a Narrator.

One of the notable distinctions of this production was the use of a little boy to be the story’s narrator. I really enjoyed this. It was a conceptual twist that really served the story well. I think anytime you can make a shift like that and have it completely integrate and inform the story, it becomes really exciting for people who are aware of previous versions. (Without detracting from the story, for anyone who might be seeing it for the first┬átime.)

– Sexy Little Red.

In this production, the choice was made to have Little Red and the Wolf’s encounter be a sexual one. For me, in the specific context of this production, this interaction was a bit too graphic to fit within the conceit of being part of a little boy’s imagination. While I recognize that there are sexual innuendos scattered throughout the text of this show, I think they need to not be the focus. I think they need to stay implicit because making them explicit gives them, for my taste, too much importance. I wonder if instead, that Little Red and the Wolf’s relationship is one that could revolve around violence.

– And About That Wolf.

In a world where Giants are actually giants and witches are actually witches with spells and powers and whatnot, I think the Wolf should be a wolf. In this production the Wolf was merely a man in pursuit of Little Red. It didn’t bother me initially, but increasingly I think that there should be an effort to render him as a wolf. Though the story may be allegorical, the world, in actuality, is magical.

– Giants in the Sky.

I LOVE when theater is theatrical. I love when you can invite an audience to use their imagination to complete then picture. The use of puppetry elements to create the Giant in this production was absolutely magical.

– Witchery.

I think it’s crucial that we as an audience feel something for the Witch. Of all the parents we see in this story, she is the one who has done everything the way she should with regard to raising her child – and it still blows up in her face. And she owns up to that. That should be heart wrenching. And I think if you allow for that depth of pain, then you earn the bitterness for her final number.

– Getting the Glass Slippers.

Cinderella’s storyline goes something like this: I want it, I get it, it’s not really what I wanted at all. But the thing is, if you’ve fought really hard to get what you want, you’re supposed to want it once you get it. That means two things with regard to this piece. The first is that there’s a greater pay off to be had if Cinders works really hard to get what she wants. This probably means that contacting her dead mother could be a much bigger deal. It’s one thing to pray to your dead mother. It’s a whole other thing for your dead mother to respond and be able to help you in some way. I’ll grant that the world of the play is a magical one, but a miracle should still be miraculous. The second thing is that she needs to try really hard to like what she gets once she gets it.

– Mr. and Mrs Baker.

If there is a central plot line for Into The Woods, it belongs to the Baker and His Wife. As such, we need to care about them. For me, that means I need to believe in their relationship at the start of the play. If a relationship is fundamentally broken, it deserves to dissolve – there’s no sense fighting if there’s really nothing worth saving. If a relationship is fundamentally solid but is struggling to figure out a problem, that’s when I’m rooting for them to make to the other side. This is admittedly difficult to establish since they are arguing when we first meet them. However, some of the research that’s out there (if you haven’t already, check out Malcolm Gladwell’s book Blink) would seem to indicate that it’s not that people in healthy relationships don’t fight, it’s just that they fight ways that don’t destroy their relationship. So I think the key might be making a real effort to try to have them both be arguing for the relationship instead of against each other. It’s a subtle distinction, but I think that’s where the answer is.

– Her Fault.

The Baker’s Wife gets into something of an ethical quagmire when she cheats on her husband with the Prince. Potentially, it’s her blind idolatry for his royal highness coupled with the stumbling blocks she and her husband are experiencing in their own relationship that get her into the situation. But it’s how she gets out of that determines whether the audience will hate her. It’s worth noting that at this point in the show her husband has gone out of his way to give her the one thing she desires, and therefore our loyalties are likely to be with him. Additionally, the Prince has just told her their interaction was nothing but a one time fling. And then she has to decide what she’s going to do next in a direct address to the audience. I think choosing to return to her husband (not defaulting back to) is important. The lyric “just remembering you had an ‘and’ when you’re back to ‘or’ makes the ‘or’ mean more than it did before” needs to be true. It’s the “ah ha” moment that song has been building to. What she has with her husband has to be more precious than it ever has been previously as a direct result of her indiscretion with the Prince. There’s not a lot of space in the song for that discovery, but I think that’s the one thing that can redeem her to the audience.

– His Fault.

This thought actually came from reading an interview with Dennis O’Hare about his experience playing the Baker. O’Hare mentions that the hardest thing for him to understand about the Baker was how quickly the Baker gives up his son. And he’s right. It’s definitely a point worth shifting through. Every parent tries to do what they believe is best for their child. Sometimes when a parent believes that they are unfit to raise (or unworthy of) their child, the best choice they can think of becomes abdicating their role as parent to someone else. It’s presumably a choice that is riddled with guilt and shame. But it should be a choice. And it should be a choice that the audience gets to see.

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