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.
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.