The Role of Director


See what I did there?

Well, it is done. Josh Sohn's Flowers -- a ten-minute comedy about a cab ride, estrangement and obligation -- premiered and closed this weekend past. I should mention that it was all of those things, plus a production I directed, and in a breathtakingly limited amount of time at that. Six rehearsals, for a total of 9.5 hours' rehearsal time. That's just shy of an hour of time per page, and that's supposed to be all the time one absolutely needs, assuming everyone gets off book in their own time, and I'm here to tell you that this standard is horse hockey. High-sticking horse hockey. But a good time was had by all, I think, and it was nice to return to directing with such a definitive deadline and good friends with whom to work.

Josh of course is someone with whom I am in collaboration more and more, but the actors were folks I have known for years and worked with on separate but similarly intensive projects: Nat Cassidy and Richard Grunn. In both cases, I worked with these actors as a fellow actor, so we were all pretty adjusted to my quirks and peccadilloes, I'd say. I hope. You know, it's actually hard to say, because being the director is a somewhat lonely experience. Of course, everyone involved was perfectly friendly and engaging, and I think I was more than encouraging toward nurturing an atmosphere in which we could play and say anything. It's just a different environment for the director. If the director isn't a bit outside, he or she can't really do the job. The whole, brief thing got me thinking about that work in some more specific ways than I have in the past. I mean, part of why I wanted to do it was to dip my toes in the waters of directing again, see how hospitable they felt and whether or not I'd want to go for a swim there again. (My metaphor needs arm floaties, it's getting so distended.)

It seems to me that I used to ask an awful lot of my directors, and I wonder if this is still the case. I never had any of them complain (to my face) along these lines, but in thinking back I've realized I was really looking for a kind of artistic affinity at best, and a sort of grandiose mentorat worst. I suppose it's natural for any actor to seek approval from his or her director, but there are limits and I'm not sure that when I was younger I placed enough priority on exploring my own standards when it came to fulfilling a role. It also seems to me that directing is really not all that different from teaching; or perhaps tutoring may be a closer comparison. That is, if your teaching philosophy is similar to mine, in which it's all about communication and being as prepared to learn from the student as to instruct him or her. If there is a major difference, I believe it's that the director has to apply personal prejudice to the process, simply in the interest of functioning as some kind of leader. Some may disagree, but I think directors should be leaders, in the sense that they should take all of the blame and little of the credit, and give everyone something unified to aim for.

This was not a high-pressure project-- apart from the amount of notice I had upon taking it on -- and I had what turned out to be very realistic expectations for both the process and the venue. Which is to say, the venue met with my expectations, but the actors I was working with exceeded them. (And my contribution? Not sure yet. Need time to process. [But I totally exceeded when it came to a prop we needed, which will have a 'blog post ALL ITS OWN.]) Ten minutes is not a lot of time in which to establish a memorable character and make it both believable and entertaining, but Nat and Rich accomplished all this while scoring laughs and poignant moments. These guys have some very interesting similarities and differences as artists, which played well into their relationship on stage, I thought. [Spoiler alert: that of an estranged father and son.] They're both excellent with comic timing and self-generated work, which I find lends itself to good strong characterization, but Rich has very different rhythms and a more subconscious style, whereas Nat's approach seems more cognizant and edgy. They did great, and allowed me to relax into the process.

Despite all these reasons for calm, I fretted, like a dual-necked guitar. It's just part of the (read: my) process. I had two primary concerns: getting us together on the same page about the story of the action, and not squelching or (perhaps worse) misinterpreting their contributions. Compromise may seem like a simple watchword given both of these concerns, and it is certainly a necessary skill for a director, but there's also a degree of resolve involved. In other words, that somewhat un-exercised muscle of mine in acting, the one for fighting for your interpretation or point of view, had to be a little warmed up by the experience. The actors never, ever fought me on anything; nevertheless, I was in unfamiliar territory in having an obligation to lead. I think I did okay, for my first real appreciation of this task. Directors get perhaps less immediate feedback -- as compared to actors who have a feeling about the job they're doing throughout the performance -- but I feel pretty good about it.

Horse hockey and all.
 
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