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

Director No. 10: Terry Dodd.

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Most recent directing project: “RFK” at the Vintage Theatre, starring James O’Hagan-Murphy, “which was a really lovely experience. When I first read the play last summer, I broke out crying at the end. I still did when I would listen to the play in the little foyer before the entrance to the theater.”

Upcoming project: “Three Viewings” next year at the Byers-Evans House. “Also for hire, by all means!”

Your question: Do you believe that once a play opens, the director should lock it down, bow out and turn it over to the stage manager? Or do you approach it like it is a developing organism? If so, is it then appropriate to continue to give notes (through the stage manager) for the duration of the run?

I think once a show gets past the final dress rehearsal, hopefully everything is set so the actors don’t get thrown with anything new. It is yours to protect the actor and play and vision of that play. Always. I’m a little hands-on sometimes, and like to make sure everything is fine, but always try to go through the stage manager. The show is a living, breathing thing.”

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

In one sentence (or three), describe your directing philosophy: Love the play, cast well, always have something for the ear or eye for the audience, and be the best cheerleader going. Keep the drama onstage. And have fun.

 

Director No. 9: Bernie Cardell.

00011721_H7323853Most recent directing projects: “Sweeney Todd” for Ignite Theater; “The Man Who Came to Dinner” for Spotlight Theater

Upcoming projects: “South Pacific” for Performance Now, opening April 26; “Closer” for Vintage Theater, opening June 28.

Your question: From the outside, why does it seem as if time spent on acting and character development in musicals usually comes in third behind singing and dancing? Is that simply an unavoidable issue of schedule and logistics? Why does acting rank last on the list of a director’s priorities? And at what risk to the show?

It’s an easy pitfall to let acting take third place behind music and choreography when directing a musical, but it is not unavoidable. If you can train your actors to think about character while they are learning choreography and music, then by the time you can get time with them, they’re already primed. I had such a great cast for ‘Sweeney Todd.’ My leads and I sat down the first week of rehearsals to discuss character, and we kept checking in throughout the process. When we were ready to do scene work, it was very effective because the ‘character conversation’ had been going on throughout the process. The trick to directing a musical is organization, and so often the schedule does not stay ‘on schedule.’ So, sometimes you have to do ’email directing,’ and sometimes you have to stay after rehearsal to have a character conversation, and sometimes you do it over drinks. You carve out the time, no matter what. Musicals with great singing and dancing are wonderful. But musicals with great singing, dancing, and vibrant, alive characters are divine.”

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

In one sentence, describe your directing philosophy: There is no greater reflection of the joy of living than being on stage.

 

Director No. 8: Mare Trevathan.

mare Most recent directing project: Workshop reading of Deborah Zoe Laufer’s new play “Informed Consent,” at LOCAL Lab 2013 festival at Chautauqua.

Your question: You’ve invested months of time, intellect, heart and blood into a production. The reviews come out, and they are not what you and your team would have hoped. What, if anything, do you say to your team about the role, impact and value of criticism to help them through their disappointment?

I can’t say reviews don’t matter. The potential box office impact is certainly real. And though, artistically, reviews should be weighed as one person’s opinion, it’s also vital that artists stay available to feedback from the audience. Ideally, we’d not assume an inherent antagonism between critic and artist, but rather a mutual respect and dependence. We’re both in a similar predicament: both striving for a quality product while competing with much more popular mediums for an audience. On stage, that may mean we panic and make hackneyed choices. For critics, that might manifest as barbed sentences, too mean to be constructive. What’s important for theatricians is having the maturity and confidence to take in criticism and process it productively. When working with an experienced team, the issue rarely comes up. Most pros keep the subject of reviews well away from the theater environs. At the bar, it may be another story, but at work it’s, “Keep your head in the game.”

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

In one sentence, describe your directing philosophy: Be nimble and skilled enough to adapt to the needs of the show and team.

Current directing projects:
“SWEAT,” an improvised musical on bikes starring Meridith and Gary Grundei for Off-Center at The Jones, May 17-18. Click here for tickets.

“Choose Your Life,” Kaiser Permanente’s anti-bullying show for 3-6th grade audiences, featuring Damion Hoover, Maggie Tisdale, Regina Fernandez and Michael Morgan.

“Revolutionary Times,” written by Josh Hartwell and starring Jake Walker, Lindsey Pierce and more than 20 puppets designed by Kay Casperson. Featuring the music of Haydn, performed live by a quartet from the Colorado Chamber Players. Touring Colorado schools and libraries. coloradochamberplayers.org

 

Director No. 7: The Buntport Theater ensemble.

BUNTPORT Most recent directing project: “Wake”

Upcoming project: “A Knight to Remember: My Quest to Gallantly Recapture the Past,” a new comedy by Brian Colonna, playing April 12-May 11 (720-946-1388)

Your question: You direct every one of your original shows as a collaborative ensemble. How is that tangibly different from the traditional one-boss process? How do you actually get anything done? And how do you break a tie?

It’s sometimes hard for us to evaluate what we do anymore since it has sort of become second nature — our memories of being directed by one person grow fuzzier each day. At the same time that our process allows everybody enormous freedom and a platform to push one’s artistic agenda, it requires everyone to shed their egos as much as possible. You may get notes from someone who isn’t in the scene (which, of course, feels pretty traditional), but you may also get notes from the person acting across from you. Because a handful of people are giving you notes, you will often get ones that contradict each other. And then your head explodes. There’s a lot of discussion (or, even arguing), which really slows things down, but, in the end, you may feel more confident because each decision was filtered through so many minds (and, in our case, minds that we have grown to trust implicitly). You will always win some and lose some, but, hopefully, you are always proud of the overall result. We sometimes film rehearsals so that we can watch ourselves and get a better sense of the overall picture. When we aren’t doing stop-and-go rehearsals and are trying to run straight through, sometimes individuals can’t take notes on the go. In that case, you raise your hand so that someone watching will write down where we are in the script and you hopefully remember what you wanted to say. In moments of great immaturity, this makes the other people on stage raise their hands in order to give you a counter-note. It can get silly. We often put things to a vote, but the rule is that even if you lose, if you later still passionately believe that you were right, you’re allowed to bring it back up for discussion (though this is pretty rare, at this point). Part of the trick, of course, is that we know each other so well. I think it’s also important to note that since we already have worked and re-worked the script, we are on the same page about the over-arching vision. We wrote it. So our job as directors is made a little easier — we don’t have to come to the table with an interpretation of the script. We have access to the writers if we want to understand what the intention behind a particular moment is. I think the same way that we don’t really think of ourselves as writers, we don’t really think of ourselves as directors. We’re all makers.

In one word: What’s the most important personal attribute a good director should have? We know this is cheating. You can pick one: Volume. Actors. Collaborators. Humor. Vision.

In one sentence, describe your directing philosophy: This may seem like a no-brainer, but only make things you want to make and would want to watch.

Note: The Buntport ensemble is made up of Brian Colonna, Hannah Duggan, Erik Edborg, Erin Rollman, Samantha Schmitz and Evan Weissman.

 

Director No. 6: Rod Lansberry.

rod lansberry 2012 Current directing project: The Arvada Center’s “The Man of La Mancha,” through April 14 (720-898-7200)

Upcoming project: The Arvada Center’s “Camelot,” Sept. 10-29, 2013

Your question: So you take that awkward phone call: “Mr. Lansberry, I have auditioned for the past 10 Arvada Center musicals, and have even been called back four times, but I have not yet been cast. What advice can you give me to break through in the future?” … Is that A) An appropriate or inappropriate phone call for an actor to make? And, B) What, in general terms, might be your response to that caller?

Not a common occurrence but, yes, I have received these calls or personal visits. It really varies on the situation and the way the question is presented. The difficulty many actors don’t understand is the complexity of casting. There are so many factors and people involved in casting decisions. It is rarely one individual’s decision in a large production setting. Very often an actor is perfect for a role but simply doesn’t fit the overall mix of the rest of the casting choices. Casting is like a puzzle: All the pieces have to fit in the right place. OK, so to answer your questions: Appropriate or inappropriate all depends on the tone and manner the question is asked. If it is out of anger or frustration, it is inappropriate. It if it is out of a sincere attempt to understand and improve, then it is appropriate. (In New York, these questions are often made to the casting Director as well.) As to my response? It all depends on if there is any kind of personal or professional relationship involved. I am always honest, but rely on the actor to lead the conversation to assess how much they really want to hear — and if they can handle it. It is definitely a tightrope. More often than not, it is simply a matter of the needs of the show, type, and timing. I always end with explaining that this is only my opinion, and they can ask 100 different directors the same question and get 100 different answers.”

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

In one sentence, describe your directing philosophy: Do everything you can to create a show in which the audience connects with the characters and the show, and doesn’t simply watch.

 

Director No. 5: Christy Montour-Larson.

Montour-Larson Headshot2 2012[1]Most recent directing project: “Time Stands Still” for the Curious Theatre Company, and “The Giver” for the Denver Center Theatre Company

Upcoming project: “A Funny Thing Happened on the Way to the Forum” for the Creede Repertory Theatre

Your question: What should be a director’s primary objective in conducting the opening table read? Why do you think table work is as important for a musical as it is for a play? How much time at the table do you like to spend?

I think beginnings are important. The point of the first day of rehearsal is to stimulate, excite and set the bar for the work ahead. What do I say? For a start: Why I love the play. Why is it important to do this play at this theater at this time? I share with them what I think the play means. Everyone hopes the director will know the play and its roles and will set the parameters for the coming exploration. Therefore, it is comforting to everyone to know their director is warm, human and in charge. At the first read-through, I don’t interrupt. I don’t give adjustments. I do my best to share the confidence I have with them and just let them read the play out loud.

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

In one sentence, describe your directing philosophy: To deliver the story and the play’s message to the audience as clearly, emotionally and evocatively as I can, while ensuring a positive and organized process that honors the playwright and establishes a creative atmosphere that encourages risk and rewards participation.

An elaboration on the purpose and meaning of “table work”:

Table work: What the heck it that?: Table work is a fairly unimaginative term for a very imagination-centered activity. (This process is also known as the “sitting rehearsal” or “table talk.”) It involves sitting around a table with the actors working through the play — like forensic scientists — to mine the given circumstances and relationships, tie moments together, shape journey, ask questions and try out some ideas – all while sipping coffee and nibbling on the occasional cookie. Table work gives the actors an opportunity to explore their scripts and me the opportunity to clarify my vision before the psychological density, noise and froth of later rehearsal makes reflection, risk taking and discovery more difficult.

Musicals and table work: I do some amount of table work for all the stories I direct, even those where people burst into song and break into dance. Table work is a powerful tool to delve into musicals. Some folks find may that unique about my directing style – but I am far from alone in this practice. All good actors care about living truthfully in the imaginary circumstances – whether that world is in a cabaret in 1931 Germany or at the Lomans’ home in 1949 Brooklyn. And audiences know whether or not they believe the relationships between people on stage – whether it is “Hamlet” or “Forever Plaid.” Most musical actors I know deeply appreciate the director who spends time at the table and on the book.

Time at the table: I take as much time as it takes to for all of us to define the world we are about to inhabit. My mentor, Hal Scott, at Mason Gross School of the Arts at Rutgers University would say, “You should not get up on your feet (FYI: begin staging) until you start seeing the actors leaping up on their own without realizing it.” Well, for some shows, that could be never, which makes for a rather strange opening night. However, Hal’s point is that if we can find the play at the table, it makes everything else that follows so much easier. Consider blocking: It is difficult to block scenes without a discussion on the characters’ relationships. On stage, we move in relationship to things but, more important to other people. I have gotten up from the table too soon, but never too late.

On a practical level, I like to work through the script with the actors at least once. Twice is better. Then, I close with an uninterrupted read-through, where I remove the physical table. The longer and more complex the play, the longer the time at the table. Such work might last anywhere from five hours to 50 hours. I like to keep the amount of time organic to the needs of the play in front of me.

For “The Giver” at the Denver Center, the cast ranged in ages spanning four generations. We intermixed ensemble exercises with about 20 hours of table work. (You should have heard the amazing connections make by the 10-year-olds.) For “Red” at the Curious Theatre Company, we spent 20 hours at the table. Yet, at one point during scene work, we went back to the table for an hour or so. (All that Nietzsche philosophy is not easy to unpack!) When I directed “All Shook Up” at the Arvada Center, there was no time for any traditional table work because we had to learn music and stage 23 musical numbers in 11 days. I had to squeeze in 15-minute bits before I staged each scene: “OK – let’s have a quick sit-down, read through the scene and chat about it for a second. Who are you? When are you? What do you want? What gets in the way of what you want? What are going to do to get what you want? Great! Let’s block it!”

I have learned there is no one way to direct all plays. Ultimately, it is about using whatever time we have available to make connections between the play’s meanings and each character’s nature, behavior, scenes and moments.

 

Director No. 4: Rebecca Remaly Weitz.

WEITZMost recent directing project: Boulder Ensemble Theatre Company’s “Shipwrecked! An Entertainment.”

Upcoming project: Working two jobs and being a new mom is keeping me busy. But I hope to get back in the water soon!

Your question: You have the play down. You know your concept and your vision … What is the best way to communicate that to your cast? In other words, do you take pains to spell it out for them, and then invite them to join you in your world … or do you use more subtle methods that plants seeds in their minds in the hope that will eventually lead them where you want them to go?

I invite my cast into the world as soon as possible. Actors are my cohorts in the creation of that world in the same way that the designers are. So getting the cast to buy into the concept and vision of the production, and more important, to take ownership of their contributions to that vision, is vital. I would never just tell a designer what to do; I pitch her my vision, and she in turn sells me her design that contributes to that vision. And there’s negotiation and compromise, and the end result is better for it. I want actors who constantly make suggestions and ask questions, and challenge me. “Morisot Reclining” is a great example. It took everyone — the set designer, projections designer, costume designer and the actors — to create that crazy world of easels, costume pieces and projections in a way that facilitated the telling of such a beautiful story. It could easily have become a hot mess, a bunch of distractions … but we were all invested in it; all contributing; all on the same page. And it worked.

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

In one sentence, describe your directing philosophy: Prepare, prepare, prepare….and then be prepared to swallow your ego when the best idea comes from someone other than yourself.

 

Director No. 3: Ed Baierlein.

ed baierleinMost recent directing project: Germinal Stage-Denver’s “Spoon River Anthology.”

Upcoming project: Germinal Stage-Denver’s “Long Day’s Journey into Night,” May 3-June 9.

Your question: What do you do when you realize too late into the rehearsal process that you have cast the wrong person? Is there ever any going back?

What the hell were you doing before it became “too late” to make a change? You didn’t discover until final dress that the actor was a drunk or had a lisp or was always late or was psychotic or couldn’t learn lines?! It’s never too late to make a change if the situation is thoroughly intolerable. In most cases, however, you live with your casting decision. Your primary job as a director is to help all the actors achieve to the best of their abilities and to make them feel good about their performances, even if a particular performance disappoints you. If you can’t do this, you probably shouldn’t have been directing the play.

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

In one sentence, describe your directing philosophy: To identify specific problems and use a specific vocabulary to suggest specific solutions, thereby encouraging a rehearsal environment that allows productive creative energy and fun.

 

Director No. 2: Ben Dicke.

BEN DICKEMost recent directing project: “Antigone,” for the Ricks Center for Gifted Children. Next: “The Hobbit,” for the Aurora Fox Little Foxes’ Summer Theatre

See him now: As Sancho in the Arvada Center’s “Man of LaMancha,” through April 14

Your question: There’s a wide disparity in experience among your ensemble. What are effective techniques for bridging that gap and bringing the greener actors up to a level that’s closer to your veterans?

Experience can be helpful, so long as it does not get in the way of generosity and of creativity. We all know very experienced actors who “take the stage” — and sometimes so well that they leave no piece of it for the rest of the company. Having spent a large amount of time teaching and directing young actors in educational theater, I’ve learned that awakening the imaginations of actors, from the most experienced to the newest to the trade, is what can make a show truly great. This requires a process that fosters an actor’s trust in her director, her fellow actors and herself. Once trust is formed, all actors — veteran and novice — can shed the tricks of performance and allow their imagination to make the connections to text, to scene partner and to audience. Give an actor a process, and they will give you a fully realized, imaginative life onstage.

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

In one sentence (OK, make it four), describe your directing philosophy: First and foremost, I believe our job as directors is to challenge both theater-goers and theater-makers, both actor and audience. As I look around the landscape of theater in America, I see a huge desire to sell a product rather than foster an aesthetic. This need to sell is always born out of fear, and fear has no place in art. A “poor theater,” one that strips away the masks of commercialism, political posturing and dogma that rule our society, is a necessity — not merely a treatise.

 

Director No. 1: Josh Hartwell.

Most recent directing project: “Ghost-Writer” at Boulder Ensemble Theatre Company

See him now: Acting in “The Other Place,” and then “Bach at Leipzig,” both at Boulder Ensemble Theatre Company

Your personalized question: How important is establishing camaraderie in the rehearsal room, or should you just respect that the process is work, and set about to doing it?

I feel like this is a really cool question for me. Because whatever I lack elsewhere as a director, this is where I feel most confident. The only way I can feel honest and genuine is by establishing the initial relationships (as much as I can), and then getting to the process. Maybe I cheated with my cast this most recent time (“Ghost-Writer”), because I already had really strong connections and history with actors (Jim) Hunt and (Laura) Norman (so much so that I only refer to them by their last names), and felt like my friendship with (Anne) Sandoe was strong from Day 1, and built from there.

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

In one sentence, describe your directing philosophy: Make everybody in the cast, crew and beyond comfortable.

Check back tomorrow for our next featured director.