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

Director No. 17: Bev Newcomb-Madden.

BEVNEWCOMB-MADDEN Most recent directing project: “Consider the Oyster” at the Aurora Fox

Did you know? Bev Newcomb-Madden is the most prolific female director in Colorado theater history, with nearly 300 productions to her credit … and counting.

Your question: Do you come into rehearsal with your ideas locked down, or do you believe that it should happen more organically and collaboratively?

My blocking is not locked down. But I have a good idea of the way I want the scene or scenes to look. I do try to incorporate the designers’ vision of the set.  I’m probably not as organic as younger directors, but I believe in staging to character.  If a particular role would not call for moving a lot, I’d be aware of that and discourage the performer from a lot of unnecessary action.  I do believe in moving forward during rehearsals, as we never have the luxury of time.  So it’s important that blocking not take too much of it. At the same time, a director should like and respect actors and what they have to say.

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

In one sentence, describe your directing philosophy: Show up … be true to the story … and less is usually more.

 

Director No. 16: Philip Sneed.

Philip Charles Sneed

Most recent directing project: “Twelfth Night” at the Colorado Shakespeare Festival and the Arvada Center

Upcoming project: Newly named executive director of the Arvada Center

Your question: As a director, are you ever in it to make friends?

Only to the extent that successful artistic collaborations often become friendships, so it can be important to build a successful personal relationship with colleagues one might want to work with again – i.e., if your working style is such that you cause people to resent you or become angry with you, they may not want to work with you again, and even if they do, the working relationship will likely be strained. Is it a mistake to even try? No it’s not, for the reasons stated.

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

Describe your directing philosophy: “My directing is very actor-centered; as an actor myself, I couldn’t work any other way. But I also believe that one’s approach to a play has to be flexible enough to adjust to the demands of the play and its period/style/form … and also to accommodate the skill level and experience of the actors; the length and structure of the rehearsal period; and physical considerations of the venue and the production’s design. In other words, my approach to a Samuel Beckett play with two actors performed in a 99-seat indoor theater is going to be different than my approach to a Shakespeare play performed with a cast of 25 in an outdoor theater that seats 1,000. I don’t believe in a “one-size-fits-all” approach to any artistic discipline.”

 

Director No. 15: Billie McBride.

mcbride Most recent directing project: “Lilly’s Purple Plastic Purse” for the Denver Children’s Theatre at the Wolf Theatre, running through April 28. Just finished acting as Dorothy Parker in “Pardon Our Dust” for “And Toto Too.”

Upcoming projects: Directing “The Man of La Mancha” for the Wolf Theatre Academy this July, and “Vigil” for the Cherry Creek Theatre, opening Oct. 4. Acting in the Arvada Center’s “Dividing the Estate” (understudy), “Collected Stories” at Miners Alley Playhouse and “Steel Magnolias” at The Barth Hotel.

Your question: Is there any difference between the way you approach directing actors for a primarily children’s audience than an adult audience? What’s the same?

I don’t treat actors any differently. Kids are quite often smarter than adults and less likely to be fooled. I respect children and let my actors know from the beginning of the process that even if they are a mouse, they must be as honest with the performance as they would be in an ‘adult’ play!”

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

In one sentence, describe your directing philosophy: Have a vision, but understand that vision can change when the work on stage begins, because it is, and always must be, a collaboration.

 

Director No. 14: Maurice Lamee, Colorado Mesa University, formerly Creede Rep

lamee Current directing project: “The Glass Menagerie,” Colorado Mesa University, April 17-20

Upcoming directing project: Aspen Writers’ Foundation, opening May 20

Your question: You’re two days from opening. You have a good show, with good actors. But someone in the cast is creating disruption, enough so to perhaps bring the whole thing down. It’s too late to replace the actor. And you have no understudies … What do you do?

I don’t like your question because there’s no good solution. Theater artists must be in humble service to the play. I’ve replaced actors early in the process because I realized I made some horrible miscalculation. It’s embarrassing – humiliating to the director and the actor. If there was a disruption so late in the late process, I would start by blaming myself for letting things get so out of control and not managing the situation better. It’s hard to imagine getting to the situation you describe, but, if faced with one like it, I would replace the actor and get one of the multitude of good actors to step and learn the part as quickly as possible, even if they were reading the part on opening night and we needed to open with an actor reading and get them adequately rehearsed after the show had opened until they were ready to go.”

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

In one sentence, describe your directing philosophy: Serve the play, trusting your instinct for what is authentic, original and compelling.

 

Director No. 13: Larry Hecht.

hecht, larry Most recent directing project: “The Rimers of Eldritch” for the Denver Center Theatre Academy

Upcoming project: Directing “Talley’s Folly” for Sis Tryst Productions. Acting in “A Midsummer Night’s Dream” as Puck this summer for the Colorado Shakespeare Festival.

Your question: Say you are directing a new play. How much prep do you put into it, and starting when? In other words, how much work do you want to have done yourself before you walk into rehearsals? Do you memorize the script, in effect asking no less of yourself than you all of your actors?

Prep time varies by circumstance. Is it a new play? One I’ve seen, directed or been in before? How much rehearsal do we get? Did I cast it? For some plays, I’ve done a year of prep because of the complexity. (I love research.) Others, enough time not to look too foolish to the actors. Familiarity (not memorization) is important. If I’ve done the design work, with a designer or not, I should know the play fairly well. If it’s a difficult language piece, I’ve probably done all the work the actors will have to do (lexicon, dictionaries, thesaurus, etc.). Again, the guideline is, “enough time so you don’t look too foolish to your actors.”

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

In one sentence, describe your directing philosophy: Do no harm!

 

Director No. 12: Deb Flomberg.

Flomberg Most current directing project: “The Best Little Whorehouse in Texas” for Vintage Theatre, running through May 5.

Upcoming project: Assistant director for the regional premiere of Equinox Theatre’s “A Night at Fawlty Towers” opening May 24; then directing the regional premiere of “Evil Dead: The Musical” in August. Both are at the Bug Theatre. “Get ready for a bloody good time!”

Your question: Directors inevitably have to deal with unforeseen life events, but you, as a producer, and Colin Roybal, as a director, just had to face the extraordinary tragedy of a leading actor’s death, Adam Perkes, just days after your opening. Based on that experience, what advice would you give another director who faces a similar circumstance in the future?

Honestly, it was (bleeping) awful. The whole experience was really brutal. I don’t think I could possibly have been more unprepared for that. Thankfully (director) Colin Roybal was there and we held each other up through the worst two weeks of our lives. And you know what? That brutal and painful time was followed by some of the most amazing support and love I’ve ever seen.”

Deb Flomberg’s elaboration on the question:

However, as a director, looking at that type of tragedy, I think my best advice would be the following:

1. Your first responsibility is to your cast and crew. Normally, I would always say that your first responsibility is to your show. But in this case, it’s different. The cast and crew need you. They need your love, your support, your hugs, your dedication. The warmth and support that you can provide as their leader will prove to be a tremendous healing tool for all of you as you work through a tragedy of that nature together.

Don’t make rush decisions. As a director, your first thoughts will probably be to the show. You’ll go into a “repair mode” instantly, and start thinking of solutions. But this type of tragedy is one that affects everyone in such a personal way that you don’t want to rush any decisions. In the case of “Bat Boy” we (Colin and myself) left the decision as to the fate of the show in the hands of the cast. Of course, we gave our opinion – and it was our belief that we needed to continue the run. To heal, to move on, and to pay tribute to our friend and cast member.

2. In the end, the cast voted to continue the show as well. Yes, there were a few people in the cast that voted to close the show because they felt that seeing someone else in that role would be too hard. But once the rehearsals started back up and the performances happened again, it was clear to everyone that this was the right decision. The ability to re-open, to focus on a mutual goal, to rally around an understudy, all of it helped the entire cast to heal – and since we were all together, we healed together.

3. Remember that everyone deals with that type of grief differently and every reaction is 100 percent valid. There will be anger, tears, and laughter. Often within the same few minutes. The cast will need time to express those emotions when (and if) you start rehearsals back up, and it is important that they know that the environment that you’ve created as their director is safe. And that they can express those emotions and know that it’s OK to be mad.

4. Don’t forget to take time for you. This is probably the one piece of advice that I could have used. I was so focused on the cast, crew and supporting the show, and getting information out to the community that I didn’t take much time to feel my own grief. At least, not for the first few days. It wasn’t until a good friend pulled me aside and offered me a safe place to land that I was finally able to start my own grieving process, which I am still dealing with today. As the director or producer of a production that goes through this type of tragedy, it is important that you are there and you lead your team through it. However, do not do that at the sacrifice of your own emotional well-being. Find your confidant. Find your soft place to land.

In one word: What’s the most important personal attribute a good director should have? “So I have two: Compassion and commitment.”

In one sentence, describe your directing philosophy: To create a highly collaborative environment where every person involved feels a personal connection to the story being told while at the same time providing a safe and creative atmosphere where everyone is able to grow as artists.

 

Director No. 11: Steve Wilson.

STEVEWILSON Most recent directing project: Phamaly Theatre Company’s “Little Shop of Horrors”

Upcoming project: Phamaly Theatre Company’s “Fiddler on the Roof,” July 18-Aug. 11 at the Space Theatre, Denver Performing Arts Complex

Your question: On a big group musical project, how do you determine whether and how much input and suggestions to take from the entire cast and creative team? Where do you have to draw the line?

The process of directing a play or musical is inherently collaborative. Harnessing the power of the creative collaboration is the great challenge and opportunity of the profession. A skilled director will coax, encourage, nudge, entice, flatter, amuse, scold and love artists under their care to create an environment of maximum creativity. Always working to minimize fear. Treating each individual artist differently to maximize their ability to reach their utmost artistic potential. Accurately assessing the unique needs of each creative partner is the real art of directing. I also believe that a quality director should be the most prepared, most passionate, most charismatic person in the rehearsal hall. Developing respect is key. It can sometimes happen because of reputation, but most often it must be earned – painstakingly, moment by moment in rehearsal, when sleeves are rolled up and we are talking the basic language of actions and objectives and beats and dramaturgy and character and concept and arc, etc. After all, at a certain point, there is much a director cannot control – the designers will execute their charges in a shop (or at some antique or thrift store). And in performance, the actors are in charge onstage while the technicians manipulate the unseen. If there is no respect, a director’s vision will more easily be undermined by those things outside his or her control.”

Steve Wilson’s elaboration on the question:

From Steve Wilson: “I believe theater is an interpretive art – not a purely imaginative one. We reflect our own experiences through the lens of the play. If I reject the input of other artists, I limit my ability to utilize all my tools. (If you seek complete creative control, paint a picture, do not direct a play!)

“I am always looking for creative input from everyone – actors, production team, designers, technicians, administrators, etc. The level of input can depend on many factors including status or seniority on the team, level of experience, length of relationship and others – though great ideas can sometimes come from unexpected sources. The key is making everyone feel that their creative input will be honored – whether we end up using their ideas or not. The line here is gray and is sometimes crossed by team members for different reasons. Actors can go too far when they are more focused on their great idea and lose the connection to their primary task of concentrating on their specific character journey. Designers cross the line when too keyed in to the design element (or tech toy) and not the simple telling of the story. Some ideas may conflict with the basic conceit of the director’s concept. I have often seen discarded ideas lead to other creative choices that are transformative. Directors do have to, at a certain point, direct – taking all creative elements and focusing them toward a single cohesive concept that informs the overall arc of the play. A great director must be a strong leader while at the same time a trusted creative partner – ideally “inspiring” more than ‘directing.’ ”

Here are a few examples:

“Last year, I was working with an actor new to our company, Trenton Schindele, who was in the ensemble of “Little Shop of Horrors” and played Skip Snip – the creepy agent who gets Seymour to sign up for the Audrey II tour. Trenton really impressed us with a terrific audition, but I hadn’t really worked with him before. In one of the early rehearsals he bravely asked if he could try Skip Snip with a Gilbert Gottfried accent and a slightly effeminate personality. I said sure and it ended up being a brilliant choice – adding depth and variety to a small, stock character. No directing required here. On the same show, Lindsay Palmer came up with the idea for her character (one of our nine Ronettes) to be pregnant. It was a terrific choice that added variety and choreographic fun to the ensemble.

“One of the funniest single lines I can remember was a line that we added to “Joseph and the Amazing Technicolor Dreamcoat,” in which Jeremy Palmer (as Joseph) was standing on our beautifully painted floor map of ancient Egypt directly on the Nile River. Jeremy came up with the idea to add one of the brothers saying to Joseph “You’re in denial.” Joseph stopped, looked down and said “Yes, yes I am.” It worked dramatically, and it was hilarious. I laughed every time.

“Working with the genius of musical director Donna Debreceni, choreographer Debbie Stark and lighting designer Dave Mazzeno has provided countless creative touches that have made all of our shows better.

“I must give some credit to Regan Linton for the inspiration in “The Man of LaMancha” to take Aldonza out of her wheelchair and have her crawl across the stage following the rape scene. It was my experience working with her and watching her grow as an actress that made me start to think about what I could do to challenge her. Without our experience together and our extraordinary mutual respect for each other, I would never have even conceived of the idea much less seen it through to fruition (with lots of tech help and some extraordinary bravery from Regan).”

In one word: What’s the most important personal attribute a good director should have? Empathy (for actors, designers, playwrights, musicians, technicians, volunteers, plays, the theater in general, the world, the human experience, the beautiful complexity that is being alive). 
Also important: communication, flexibility, passion.

In one sentence, describe your directing philosophy: To honor the extraordinary creative energies of all artists contributing to the collaborative theatrical process while at the same time providing inspirational leadership and vision in service of a community of patrons.

 

 

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