Direct And To The Point: Inspiration #2, Sam Mendes

This bit of inspiration comes to us by way of Vanity Fair Magazine. The original article can be found here. Or you can read the full text below. Enjoy!

Sam Mendes“At its spring gala, the Roundabout Theatre Company honored Sam Mendes, prolific director of theater—his King Lear and Charlie and the Chocolate Factory are both currently playing in London—and films, including Skyfall and American Beauty.

The event, at the Hammerstein Ballroom in Manhattan, included speeches and performances from Helen Mirren, Jeremy Irons, Liam Neeson, and Alan Cumming, who did a number from Cabaret, which Mendes is bringing to Broadway this season. Some Mendes collaborators weighed in via video, including one clip in which Judi Dench and Daniel Craig joined in singing “Cabaret.”

After reviewing his career highlights, in depth, the British Academy Award winner said, “One of the things I love about Americans is you do massive ego trips incredibly well. Blimey. I don’t think I’ve ever seen so many photographs of myself. I didn’t even know they existed.” Mendes also noted that while tributes are wonderful, they are backward looking, and then decided to share what he’s learned along the way. “If there are any directors out there in the audience, or anyone who’s interested in directing, I’ve written 25 steps towards becoming a happier director. These are them:

  1. Always choose good collaborators. It seems so obvious, but the best collaborators are the ones who disagree with you. It means they’re passionate, they have opinions, and they’ll only ever say yes if they mean it.
  2. Try to learn how to make the familiar strange, and the strange familiar. Direct Shakespeare like it’s a new play, and treat every new play as if it’s Shakespeare.
  3. If you have the chance, please work with Dame Judi Dench.
  4. Learn to say, “I don’t know the answer.” It could be the beginning of a very good day’s rehearsal.
  5. Go to the ancient amphitheater at Epidaurus, in Greece. It makes you realize what you are a part of, and it will change the way you look at the world. If you’re an artist, you will feel central, and you will never feel peripheral again.
  6. Avoid, please, all metaphors of plays or films as “pinnacles” or “peaks”; treat with absolute scorn the word “definitive”; and if anyone uses the word “masterpiece,” they don’t know what they’re doing. The pursuit of perfection is a mug’s game.
  7. If you are doing a play or a film, you have to have a secret way in if you are directing it. Sometimes it’s big things. American Beauty, for me, was about my adolescence. Road to Perdition was about my childhood. Skyfall was about middle-age and mortality. Sometimes it’s small things. Maybe it’s just a simple idea. What if we do the whole thing in the nightclub, for example. But it’s not enough just to admire a script, you have to have a way in that is yours, and yours alone.
  8. Confidence is essential, but ego is not.
  9. Theater is the writer’s medium and the actor’s medium; the director comes a distant third. If you want a proper ego trip, direct movies.
  10. Buy a good set of blinkers. Do not read reviews. It’s enough to know whether they’re good or they’re bad. When I started, artists vastly outnumbered commentators, and now, there are a thousand published public opinions for every work of art. However strong you are, confidence is essential to what you do, and confidence is a fragile thing. Protect it. As T.S. Eliot says, teach us to care, and not to care.
  11. Run a theater. A play is temporary, a building is permanent. So try to create something that stays behind and will be used and loved by others.
  12. You are never too old to learn something new, as I was reminded when I learned to ski with my 10-year-old son. He, of course, did it in about 10 minutes, and I spent four days slaloming up and down, looking like a complete tit. But, don’t be scared of feeling like a complete tit. It’s an essential part of the learning process.
  13. There is no right and wrong, there is only interesting, and less interesting.
  14. Paintings, novels, poetry, music are all superior art forms. But theater and film can steal from all of them.
  15. There are no such things as “previews” on Broadway.
  16. Peter Brook said, “The journey is the destination.” Do not think of product, or, god forbid, audience response. Think only of discovery and process. One of my favorite quotes from Hamlet—Polonius: “By indirections find the directions out.”
  17. Learn when to shut up. I’m still working on this one.
  18. When you have a cast of 20, this means you have 20 other imaginations in the room with you. Use them.
  19. Please remember the Oscars are a TV show.
  20. Get on with it. Robert Frost said, “Tell everything a little faster.” He wasn’t wrong.
  21. The second production of a musical is always better than the first.
  22. Learn to accept the blame for everything. If the script was poor, you didn’t work hard enough with the writer. If the actors failed, you failed them. If the sets, the lighting, the poster, the costumes are wrong, you gave them the thumbs-up. So build up your shoulders, they need to be broad.
  23. On screen, your hero can blow away 500 bad guys, but if he smokes one fucking cigarette, you’re in deep shit.
  24. Always have an alternative career planned out. Mine is a cricket commentator. You will never do this career, but it might help you get to sleep at night.
  25. Never, ever, ever forget how lucky you are to do something that you love.”

Direct And To The Point: Pippin

This post is inspired by the current Broadway production, directed by Diane Paulus. It is certainly excellent revival, as evidenced by the four Tony awards it received. It utilizes much of (or at least harkens back to) the original Fosse choreography and adds to that a whole slew of acrobatics and circus tricks in order to fully immerse the audience in this 3 ring circus – spectacle of all spectacles.

PippinMy previous experience with Pippin was playing Berthe in college (like you do) under the direction of Louise Quick (who, among other things, was part of the original company for the original Broadway production of Pippin and assisted Bob Fosse on several projects) – so I was familiar with the show but had not revisited it for a number of years.

My thoughts are as follows…

– Too much or not enough?

My continual question with this show is whether it packs more punch if it’s super glam or if it’s tragically decrepit. I feel like I’m more familiar with the glam (or spectacle) version, which I think is certainly in keeping with the story. The leading player and his company are putting on a show filled with magic and illusion. But I wonder if there’s milage to be had if the reality is that it’s a complete wasteland and the players really having to work to make the show seem glamorous. I wonder about setting it somewhere atrocious (the thought that comes to mind is a concentration camp, or a prison, or something of that sort) and how that could punch up the stakes. I feel like the message of this show is that life is generally pretty awful. It has moments of beauty, but over all it’s painful. And yet in spite of that pain, it’s still worth living and connecting with each other. I think the more clearly unglamorous reality can be, the more poignant that becomes.

– Dancing with the devil.

I LOVE the idea of a female Leading Player. That being said I would love to see more power and danger in that character regardless of whether they are male or female. The Leading Player clearly calls the shots. She’s the one who’s orchestrating Pippin’s journey. He’s the one who has to decide to move on from portion to the next, but she’s the one who’s directing him. I think the closest we get to seeing the Leading Player as this puppet master is in how the Leading Player interacts with Catherine. I would love to see more of that with the other players as well. Catherine seems to be the only player that the Leading player has to put in her place, which makes sense. Catherine is our human anchor in the show. She’s one of the players, but of the players, she’s the one who hasn’t completely conformed to the tribe. So it makes sense that she’s the one the Leading Player has to reprimand, but I would love to see other players also be controlled by the Leading Player. The Leading Player rules by fear and manipulation. In that kind of dictatorship, you have to be constantly exerting your domination over the tribe. If all we see of the other players is how happy they are to be under The Leading Player’s charge, I think it greatly lessens how dangerous she is. The Leading Player is peddling a “happy escape” in the form of suicide, but I think it’s valuable to see the cost of that escape manifested in the other players through out. I also think it’s interesting if the Leading Player is potentially losing her grip on the tribe. I think that could potentially add to the urgency of converting Pippin. Obviously, it’s important for the Leading Player to capture Pippin (otherwise, why spend all this time and effort chasing after him) but if the Leading Player’s position is secure within the tribe, it doesn’t seem like that big a deal if Pippin gets away.

– An Emotional Journey?

I’m learning that one of the things I really want from my theatrical experiences is to have an emotional, empathetic response to the story that’s presented. I have yet to feel something with regard to watching Pippin. Which I find strange. Granted, Pippin is sort of brat. He has everything and he’s still not happy. It’s kind of hard to feel bad for him. At the same time, it’s a very human thing to be discontented with our lot in life, regardless of how good it may be. So I feel like there’s the potential for us to feel something for Pippin, but, as I say, I’ve yet to experience that. There is a part of me that wonders if the script and score are structured in a way that undercuts an emotional response, that wonders if the show is designed to be a bit Bretchian and keep an emotional connection at bay. I don’t know the answer to this, but if and when I direct this, I would love to try to find more of emotional current to it.

– Enjoy the Good Times.

Carrying the notion of goosing this story’s emotional impact forward, I think it’s important to see Pippin really fall in love with the domestic life he has with Catherine and Theo. That picture of having a home and finally belonging somewhere should be the most beautiful moment in the show. After all, this is why Pippin forgoes ending his life. Pippin flees this when it gets difficult, but in order for this to really be a loss, (and for him to realize that it’s worth struggling through the difficult parts) he needs to be fully in love with it.

– Love Song.

I think it’s important for Love Song to be honest and open and real. This is where we see Catherine in love with Pippin and Pippin equally in love with her. Not puppy love, but real love. And where previous scenes with Catherine may feel more like “performance” as per the Leading Player’s insistence, this scene should be completely true. It should also be something that each of them needs desperately, especially Catherine, who as a widow, enters into this very much as a adult. This is a situation where she was going through the motions of doing what she was ordered to do and ended up becoming emotionally invested in the result.

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