Anatomy of a theater director: A daily Q&A with Colorado’s creative minds

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By John Moore
May 3, 2013

My return to directing (“Always … Patsy Cline,” which closed April 27 at the PACE Center), had me revisiting a story idea I always wanted to do for The Denver Post, but never got around to: The anatomy of the theater director. So I am doing it now, while shamelessly cribbing off all the wonderful advice I am getting.

I asked some of the most prolific and respected directors in town one individual, tailored question about the craft, process and problem-solving of directing for the live theater. And two quick follow-ups for the entire panel.

Each day, I added a new director to this report. I didn’t get everyone I wanted but am so grateful for those that I did. I hope you enjoy this insight into one of the most important but seldom-discussed aspects of the creative process.

There is now a new addendum to this series to share with you. Think of Day 40 as a post-mortem on our “Anatomy of a Theater Director” series. It features a testy journalist named John Moore interviewing a churlish theater director named John Moore.

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Director No. 39: Kent Thompson.

KentThompson Most recent directing project: Denver Center Theatre Company’s “Other Desert Cities”

Upcoming directing project: World premiere of “Just Like Us,” opening Oct. 10 at the Denver Center Theatre Company.

Your question: What are one or two valuable lessons you have learned about directing over the course of your career that you wish you could go back and whisper into the ear of the young Kent Thompson who was directing his first few shows out of the gate?

I would tell young Kent: ‘Every actor works a different way. As does every designer, playwright, etc. Articulacy and persuasion are just as important as directing’ — which a lot of people underestimate in thinking that it’s telling actors what to do. The hardest part of directing most shows is ‘bringing the ship into port.’ Forcing yourself to zoom back from the intimate, imaginative and deeply personal process of rehearsal (and all your brilliant ideas!) so you can see the show anew during dress and previews. Then finding the courage to change things that are not working — even if it unsettles everyone and is risky.”

In one word: What’s the most important personal attribute a good director should have? Vision. Curiosity.

In one sentence, describe your directing philosophy: Know why you must direct this particular play now; inspire everyone else with your vision; describe how we will get there; then persuade everyone to collaborate, contribute, and improve the vision.
Director No. 38: Chip Walton.

chipwaltonportrait Most recent directing project: “God of Carnage,” running through June 8 at Curious Theatre (303-623-0524).

Your question: Say you just don’t like the way an actor is delivering a key line. Does a good director tell the actor exactly how you want the line delivered, so he/she knows exactly what you mean … or should the director give him/her something to think about in the hope that they will arrive at your way of thinking over time?

A good director never gives a line-reading, but always tries to help the actor get to where they think they need to be, including line delivery. I’m a big believer in technique -— so I tend to give a lot of notes about inflection, emphasis, playing through the end of lines, etc. — because I think the delivery of a line can be instrumental in how an audience receives it. This requires actors with a certain amount of training and technique, but with those tools in place, these questions of “line readings” become much easier to address. For example, I am currently working on ‘God of Carnage,’ and the last few lines of the play are very tricky, both in terms of tone and message. As we have worked on it, we have talked very little about ’emotion,’ and a lot about words like ‘feeble,’ or ‘slower,’ or ‘feathered.’ Given that we have such a strong company of actors who share a very common vocabulary, this is very common to how we work here at Curious.”

In one word: What’s the most important personal attribute a good director should have? Vision.

In one sentence, describe your directing philosophy: My directing philosophy is to arrive at the rehearsal room with a strong vision, leave plenty of room for good collaborative ideas from others, and never be afraid to embrace questions, rather than always feeling like you need answers.

 

 

Director No. 37: Geoff Kent.

geoff Most recent directing project: “You Can’t Take it With You,” for TheatreWorks in Colorado Springs

Upcoming projects: “A Midsummer Night’s Dream,” opening June 7 at the Colorado Shakespeare Festival
 in Boulder, and “Metamorphoses,” opening Aug. 16 at the Aurora Fox

Your question: “According to the Institute of Outdoor Drama, overall paid attendance at outdoor Shakespeare festivals is down more than 60 percent since 1994. So how should a director approach directing a Shakespeare play in 2013 in a way that will be true to the text, but also capture the imaginations of an audience that is drifting away?”

Tough question. We’ve been running the bard across the theater boards for more than 450 years. I think we have all heard the adage that his stories are timeless and resonate today. And I wholeheartedly agree. But cracking him open to today’s audiences is still a mean feat. I suppose on one hand, we can liven it up with technology: Ariel as a hologram projected on mist; epic scenic transformations, the ‘Macbeth’ witches chanting via Tweets. Hell, even the Royal Shakespeare Company is currently collaborating with Google for an online, interactive ‘Midsummer’ experience.

Framing the play in a setting that illuminates the themes to a modern audience helps to erase the feeling that it is outdated and stuffy. I once staged ‘Macbeth’ in the Wild West. You might set ‘The Tempest’ on the moon, or ‘The Comedy of Errors’ … with pirates! This summer, we are certainly aiming for a ‘ “Downton Abbey” meets “A Midsummer Night’s Dream” ‘ atmosphere. And next fall, I will be acting in a ‘Taming of the Shrew’ that is being billed as ‘ “Showboat” meets “Maverick” meets “Gone with the Wind.” ‘ Gimmicks, maybe. … But sexy gimmicks.

However, when the rubber hits the road with Shakespeare, it is still all about the language. And if a director and the cast can crack it open, and speak the speech clearly so that you don’t need footnotes or a cheat-sheet to follow it, the plays stand on their own merit. They still make an audience bust a gut … or weep openly.”

In one word: What’s the most important personal attribute a good director should have? Passion.

In one sentence, describe your directing philosophy: To create an atmosphere in the rehearsal room where any idea can be fearlessly pursued.

 

 

Director No. 36: Robert Kramer.

kramer Most recent directing project: “Race,” the inaugural show at the new space for the Edge Theater

Upcoming projects: “Collected Stories,” with Billie McBride and Devon James; “Wonder of the World” and “It’s A Wonderful Life: The Radio Play,” all at Miners Alley Playhouse

Your question: Once rehearsals begin, what are the time-sucking traps that directors should be on the lookout for that can distract you from using your valuable time in the best possible way?

Time management is vitally important; not just because there is a limited amount of it in the rehearsal process, but also so your actors feel valued. The most popular thing a director with a big cast can do is make an incredibly specific schedule that calls actors only at the times they are needed, and then STICK TO IT! I also never run cue-to-cues with actors and always separate out the time spent with designers so that they can have my full attention and feel valued as well. In the actual process, the most dangerous derailing element is also a valuable one — conversations with actors. If you dismiss these during rehearsal, it can alienate an actor. and cause them to both share and collaborate less. But the flip-side is just as costly. So I tend to allow for a certain amount and then budget time after every rehearsal for extended talking time with actors. Then the impetus to triage these concerns falls on the actor — if it is truly important, they will stay and chat. If not, it typically was a minor or momentary issue they can work out on their own.”

In one word: What’s the most important personal attribute a good director should have? Vision.

In one sentence, describe your directing philosophy: My job as a director is to show everyone at their best: The actor, the playwright, everyone.

 

 

Director No. 35: Warren Sherrill.

WARREN Most recent project: Acted in “The Seafarer” for Ashton Entertainment at the Aurora Fox.

Upcoming project: The Paragon Theatre co-founder will direct “Dust Storm” for Theatre Esprit Asia, opening May 30 at the Vintage Theatre in Aurora (303-856-7830).

Your question: Directing has moved past the rehearsal room and into your actors’ e-mail boxes. Now that technology has made communicating with your cast and crew so much easier, some directors use every second in the rehearsal room for work, and then later send out long, specific overnight notes via e-mail. I’m not so sure this is the best way to be communicating the finer points of your production. There’s no dialogue, just a directive to “change this,” or “try something else.” It seems much could be misinterpreted in the absence of tone or direct response. Do you ascribe to “notes by e-mail,” or do you prefer direct dialogue, even if that cuts into your rehearsal time?

There’s no doubt about it: E-mail has certainly changed the way we do theater. I think those of us who have day jobs can relate to the fact that e-mail has taken over a large part of everyday communication. Time-saving? Definitely. Effective? Meh.

The way I like to use e-mail when directing a show is for communication that really isn’t dialogue driven … most of this happens with the tech crew, not with the actors. Communications that can happen without having to call a special production meeting but need to be addressed, such as lists, basic “how to’s” or instructions, answers, or even questions that require a simple answer. This is where e-mail helps in the birth of a production — and I always make sure to include the WHOLE team in every email, as this ultimately saves a lot of back-tracking during crucial production meetings.

With actors, I do my absolute best not to e-mail directing notes. There will always be the little e-mail here and there, such as, “Don’t forget to take that suitcase off after scene 2” — things that can be addressed simply and quickly. To me, face-to-face communication AND DIALOGUE with your actors is the key to a good production … especially during the last few rehearsals. There is no time for misinterpretations. I want opinions, I want feedback and ideas … and from everyone involved in the show. It makes it much more of a team effort and creates the mutual sense of “ownership” that is so crucial in the end.

As for time concerns? My theory always has been that you should give yourself enough time to end on time. If rehearsal is scheduled from 7 to 10 p.m … then finish at 10 p.m. … with notes. It can be done. No excuses.”

In one word: What’s the most important personal attribute a good director should have? Honesty.

In one sentence, describe your directing philosophy: My attitude is that director should eventually become an invisible character on the stage. … Only the actors and crew can see him, and that character can make or break the show.

 

Editor’s note: The following entries offer two perspectives on the same (volatile) topic.

Director No. 34: Scott RC Levy.

Scott Most recent directing project: “Other Desert Cities” for the Colorado Springs Fine Arts Center

Upcoming project: Making my Colorado acting debut as “Man in Chair” in “The Drowsy Chaperone” here at the Colorado Springs Fine Arts Center, ooening May 9.

Your question: Acting is an inherently vulnerable endeavor. What do you do if, in the normal course of rehearsing, your actor has some kind of a breakdown. Your show hangs in the balance. How do you salvage things, and quickly?

If my work as a director brings out an “emotional breakdown” from an actor, then the actor has more serious problems that need to be dealt with, and I probably shouldn’t have hired them in the first place. I would probably tell them to suck it up — and immediately try to find a replacement. We don’t have time to deal with that nonsense, nor is it my job to serve as the actor’s babysitter.

But yes, sometimes the work is emotionally raw and honest — and sometimes what appears to be a meltdown is actually a breakthrough of some sort. If there were a situation in which an individual actor were exhibiting signs that made the piece need to be salvaged, I would simply have a private conversation with the actor to get to the root of the issue, give them some time to regroup, and then move on. Especially in a drama, what I try to remind actors is that if and when they are successful at having an emotional release, when we rehearse or perform the scene next, they can not go back and look for that same emotion, because chances are they won’t be able to access it again, as it won’t be of the moment and on the breath.

For actors, use your emotion. If you speak the words on the emotion and breathe on the emotion (instead of trying to exhale breath and throw away the emotion before speaking), then your emotion will transform into something else. It’s basic human nature. We don’t stay in one emotion for very long.”

In one word: What’s the most important personal attribute a good director should have? Chutzpah.

In one sentence, describe your directing philosophy: Honor the collaboration; create a fun and trust-filled room (rehearsal and performance); tell the story that has been written with thought and feeling; and never forget the audience.

 

 

Director No. 33: Jennifer McCray Rincon.

rincon Most recent directing projects: I am working on building up Visionbox, an actors’ studio and production Company in the Santa Fe Drive the arts district. Projects in development are: The American Chekhov Project; an adaptation of Chekhov’s “Three Sisters”; and Crisis Actors, a new company developing training videos and live re-enactments of emergencies in schools in Colorado.

Your question: Acting is an inherently vulnerable endeavor. What do you do if, in the normal course of rehearsing, your actor has some kind of a breakdown. Your show hangs in the balance. How do you salvage things, and quickly?

So if an actor has a meltdown, I suppose I would try to remind them that personalization is about the life of the character, and that their ability to walk in someone else’s shoes is the real truth in acting. Not what is going on in their own experience. And that by putting attention on the other character on stage, their work will be more intuitively true and free. Self is paradoxically our worst enemy onstage. All attention goes on to the others, other character’s on stage. It is not about you.”

In one word: What’s the most important personal attribute a good director should have? Humility.

In one sentence, describe your directing philosophy: The director is responsible first and foremost for the spine of the play. This is Harold Clurman: the spine is the human need that propels the play. Everything comes from that. The other characters’ journey or spine or superobjectives must connect to the spine of the play. This is the directors’ responsibility to define and organize. Also as Elia Kazan has said, the director translates the psychology of the play into behavior on stage. Nikos Psacharopoulos, my first teacher who convinced me to direct instead of act, always focused on the behavior of the play.

 

 

Director No. 32: Nick Sugar.

sugar2 Most recent directing projects: “Forever Plaid” for the Town Hall Arts Center, and “Noises Off” for Starkey Theatrix at the Lone Tree Arts Center

Upcoming projects: “Hair,” opening May 17 at the Town Hall Arts Center; “Minimum Wage,” opening June 21 at the Avenue Theater.

Your questions: As a director, what are some of the most common, deal-breaker mistakes you often observe actors make at an audition? As an actor, what is the most annoying thing you have observed a director do at an audition?

First question, common actor mistakes:

Perception is key. An actor needs to learn how they are perceived at an audition, as well as onstage. Several times a very talented actor will audition with the wrong material. Perhaps a song choice that is not appropriate for the style of show they are auditioning for, or auditioning for a character they would not be right for. As a director, it makes me question how they perceive themselves, and if we see don’t see eye-to-eye on a character, it could make the process of creating that character a challenge for both of us. An actor really captures my attention when I know they have researched the show, the character and the music style that I am looking for, ALL in 24 to 36 bars of music! Also, if an actor is truly not willing to accept any role in the production, they should not say they are willing. Honesty is always appreciated. An actor-and-director relationship begins at the audition process. Honesty saves a lot of time in the casting process, and it is something I remember from one audition to the next.”

Second question, common director mistakes:

The audition process is very challenging for all! I try not to focus on the director’s energy at an audition. You can’t know what is going on in his or her head. I practice the same thing I tell my students: It’s your time to do what you love. If you truly love it, and have spent a lot of time and money studying this craft, then just come into an audition as if you are walking on stage for a performance: Prepared, confident and professional. It’s your three minutes … Own it!”

In one word: What’s the most important personal attribute a good director should have? Trust. I need to trust the people I cast. I need them to trust my vision.

In one sentence, describe your directing philosophy: Tell the story!

 

Director No. 31: Brian Freeland.

freeland Most recent directing project: The LIDA Project’s “Red Hot Patriot: The Kick-Ass Wit of Molly Ivins.”

Upcoming directing project: “The Hairy Ape,” opening May 10 at the LIDA Project work | space,
2701 Lawrence St., 720-221-3821 or LIDA’s home page.

Your question: What are the most important attributes in a director who is creating a devised, original piece of theater along with an ensemble over a longer period of time than normal?

Being a director of devised work is more akin to drawing the short straw on a taser test. You are placed in the almost impossible task of pushing an ensemble to create theatrical work in new and often incredibly risky ways, while always providing a stable, grounded, environment to create. In the void of a formal theater structure, the role of director in devised work is equal parts playwright, dramaturge, audience, producer and critic. There is no “answer” to devised work, no previous performance, no “right way.” Being able to remove the fear is the most important attribute.

Working with an ensemble on devised work over a sustained period of time only can make the language of the work stronger. From a director’s eye, the ensemble only shows its strengths, proclivities, bad habits, etc., over time. It is only from creating a long and sustained body of work that an ensemble can truly work together and a director of such work can get at the true core.”

In one word: What’s the most important personal attribute a good director should have? Devotion.

In one sentence, describe your directing philosophy: Artists can never expect growth from an audience if they have not made a dedication to their own growth.

 

Director No. 30: Anthony Powell.

Anthony Powell 0910 B&W Most recent directing project: For the last few years, I’ve been operating in full-tilt “Jack-of-all-Trades” mode with Stories on Stage, which is a joy.

Upcoming project: In August, I’ll begin directing “Death of a Salesman” for the Denver Center Theatre Company. The offer came not too long ago like a bolt out of the blue, and needless to say, I am one unbelievably grateful puppy.

Your question: It’s tech week: The hours are long. The work is tedious. You’re being asked to make major decisions every 10 seconds. Everyone wants a piece of you. You seem to be doing everything except what you really want to be doing, which is working with the actors on the play. From mindset to what food you pack … What is your tech week survival strategy?

I’ve always been a bit of a weirdo among my peers because I actually love techs. They’re a hoot. You get a whole slew of cool new toys to play with (like sets and lights and sound); members of the artistic team who haven’t been in the rehearsal hall on a daily basis are suddenly running around all the time, infusing the show with their vision and energy and excitement; and — best of all — as director, you get to take a little vacation from the play and the actors and concentrate on other things for a while. Even more importantly, the actors get to take a little vacation from YOU. Techs can be goofy fun and a refreshing time for everybody.

Which is not to say that I don’t experience those idiotic tech moments when one starts thinking like Captain Queeg, obsessing about strawberries and duplicate keys, and wondering why everyone is trying to “RUIN MY PLAY?!?” That kind of ego-driven nuttiness is a function of not getting enough rest, and my only solution for it is to take some deep breaths and remember that this isn’t my play, it’s the team’s play, and that now might be a good time to concentrate on helping other people instead of worrying about oneself.

Besides, rolling those silver ball-bearings around in my hand all the time has a way of freaking people out.

Whenever I start heading down to Crazytown during techs, I try (… TRY!) to recall something my mentor Donovan Marley was always fond of saying: “The best idea in the room is the best idea in the room is the best idea in the room, whether it happens to be your idea — or someone else’s.”

In one word: What’s the most important personal attribute a good director should have? Openness.

In one sentence, describe your directing philosophy: Whenever possible, say, “Yes, let’s try that,” to members of your team — instead of, “No, that won’t work,” because when you can hazard saying “yes” on a fairly regular basis, the good ideas begin to flow, and the less effective ones commence falling out of orbit under their own weight.

 

Director No. 29: A. Lee Massaro.

ALM Most recent directing project: “On an Average Day,” at Curious Theatre

Upcoming directing project: “Dividing the Estate,” opening Tuesday at the Arvada Center

Your question: What’s one practice or method or exercise or advice or anecdote you ever personally observed from a director you learned from, and it affected you so greatly, you incorporated it into the way you have directed ever since?

I assisted the wonderful director James Nicola when I first came to town 20 years ago. (Is that possible?) I remember an actor getting emotional and dropping his head. James asked the actor to look up instead so that the audience could see “the symphony in his eyes.” I find actors have a tendency to focus downward and go “internal” when we most need to experience that symphony, so I often quote this advice. It’s a simple thing, but it often makes the difference between the audience merely watching the action — and being moved by it.”

In one word: What’s the most important personal attribute a good director should have? Humility.

In one sentence, describe your directing philosophy: I like to collaborate with great people, and strike a balance between rigor and play in the pursuit of truthful moments.

 

 

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