Don and myself collaborated recently at WNEP's RAW as director and playwright respectively. We began blogging about our process. Here is Part 2 of our continuing dialogue about the experience...
DV: With newer playwrights, why do their work if you can't do it as written? When meeting with the playwright do you ever consider that your approach to the play in question has any fallibility or do you perceive that exchange to be more about political power balance within the upcoming production? Do you entertain doubts (your own, the playwrights)? Is there anything other than instinct that comes into play if you do entertain the doubt about your concept for a new work?
Don: When it comes to new works, I operate exactly the same way as I do "classic" works - does the play work in the venue I have set up, with the specific cast I have, under the limitations of the budget, etc.? Playwrights mostly write plays without a venue in mind or specific budget in place - I wouldn't have it any other way. Write that scene where monkeys fly out of the protagonist's ass - I'll figure out how to make it work onstage - that's my job.
If you write in the stage directions exactly how it is to be done, then I take that seriously and make the attempt to stage it that way. If it doesn't work, I fix it - also my job. If, for instance, you come to me and ask me to direct "The Meatlocker," the first thing I do is read the script and sit down with you. I clarify what I think the central themes are, what you think the central themes are and discuss the length. I believe firmly that if the piece is over 90 minutes in length, there will be an intermission. If you don't have one and "Meatlocker" is 2 hours long, I give you the option to either cut thirty minutes out or give me an intermission point.
Second, I make it clear that while your input on casting is welcome, final casting is mine to make. I also make it clear that you are to never give notes of any kind to the actors - you have a note, you give it to me and I choose whether or not the actor needs it or even if I agree. This isn't so much about political power as it is about getting a singular focus on the stage - too many cooks makes the soup taste like confusion. If there is a big disagreement during the run, I win. If you wanted to direct it yourself, you would. Given that you asked to direct it, you gave up the opportunity to make directorial choices. It's really not complicated at all.
I always question my own fallibility when it comes to directing a show. I believe that a good director directs for him/herself - to individual taste. A great director directs to his/her own specific likes and dislikes and just happens to like and dislike enough of the same things as a paying audience. A bad director directs to please the audience regardless of his/her own personal tastes. Instinct and experience are the guiding factors in conceptual decisions when it comes to directing and constantly doubting those things leads to mushy work.
DV: Without giving me specific names, can you talk about a previous experience where there were political balance issues between you and a playwright? Were you empowered as the director of the piece, or as the producer? Two different things. So, for instance...If you are a guest director working for a company where you are not the founder, how does that change things?
Don: As a producer, I have no creative power. I'm there to make sure the vision of the director is financed and marketed. I will, as a producer, watch a preview and tell the director when it feels slow or that it was too long by ten minutes but it isn't my job to tell them "how" to fix these problems just that I noticed them. Only once in over 90 original productions I've produced have I stepped in and told a playwright to change something or I would pull the show and that was by request of a less than aggressive director. As a director, there are only a few specific examples of creative tug of war going on between myself and a playwright. One show I directed (as a director for hire) involved a 32-minute monologue in the middle of the show. It was very repetitive and I felt it could work if the monologue was broken up and bounced between another dialogue scene with two other characters. The playwright was adamant that the monologue be performed as written. I asked him to do a re-write incorporating my concept and, in the meantime, I would work with the actor on the monologue as a whole. He reluctantly agreed and when he brought it in, I had the actor do the monologue for him as best as he could. The playwright was shocked that 32-minutes seemed so long and that it must be the actor, not his piece. Having earlier made it clear that these sorts of decisions were ultimately mine to make, I told him I was going to use the re-write. I did and in the end I was very happy because, in my opinion, the show flowed better. Simply put, there is a difference between the written word and the performed piece and the director's job is to know that difference.
DV: Not all Playwrights are oblivious to these differences though.
Don: Aside from "Indeterminacy," have you ever had anyone else direct one of your pieces? If so, how'd that go? If not, what has prevented you from pursuing that?
DV : Not often. I've come on board with pre-existing projects as solely a writer (Armageddon Radio Hour comes to mind)... Also projects in NYC (HERE's LivingRoom Series and The Flea Theater). While in NYC, I was working with an alum from my Alma mater who wasn't satisfied with his own writing and wanted me to provide him with new material.
I've investigated attempting to get others to direct my work. There are a lot of considerations though. And, it can be difficult for one like myself used to directing my own work. I don't feel at all dependent upon another director to realize the work. After nearly a decade of directing my own writing to Chicago audiences with a fair degree of acclaim, why should I? The answer has to be either A) curiosity at seeing what another director would make of one of my scripts (this has as of the past few years become more interesting to me)... B) In the theater world today, wider exposure dictates most often that the playwright not direct (i.e. the compartmentalization of theater)....or C) An attempt at reaping some sort, be it big or small, financial gain from my playwriting (i.e. applying and praying for that circumstantial lottery ticket called "no more dayjob").
Like many, first I was an actor. Once I was given an opportunity to direct, then that bug bite into me. I never needed to act again. I became a director with all kinds of designs on directing the work of my favorite playwrights (at the time Mac Wellman, Susan Lori Parks, Erik Ehn, Maria Irene Fornes, etc). I moved to NYC and discovered these playwrights were directing their own work (like Fornes) or had a long line of folks with more experience and better network (Wellman). Nobody had any need for a know-it-all from Florida State. Mac Wellman was more than happy to talk to me when I was a director in Tallahassee, FL... but when I moved to NYC, he was not got to give me his next new play to put up at a tiny loft space with no elevator just outside the financial district when he could do the new piece at the Kitchen in Chelsea with long time collaborators he had come to know and trust. If I wanted to do something creative and new, I was going to have to write it myself. So I became a playwright. I did this so that I could continue to direct. So this meant that I had to direct the pieces. They were even written that way... storyboards with little or no dialogue, pages of language with no stage directions at all. I was trying to find a style, a voice, a look, an aesthetic... And the work that had inspired me was mostly the formalist experiential artistic -isms of the twentieth century. Auteurism was my Blue Plate Special.
Of course as I got older, the firestorm of reality burned off alot of those notions. I'm still enamoured of auteurism but only when it is either tied to story or encompassing truly exceptional image/aural landscapes. However, with the passage of time and more experience, I found I was moving closer towards the middle when it came to an approach... between total avantism and something more aligned with an audience's vernacular. I started to think "Well maybe someone else can direct this piece...or that piece." I was less focused on the "vision" more so on the "story"... and that changes your priorities for performance. However for me, even if i was getting paid...I would have the final say regarding a premiere production.
And as producer, I don't see my role to be solely as enabler for the director. I see a responsibility to the story and show...and If it is my story... I guess the only reason I am comfortable with the label playwright is because for me...compartmentalization of theater has been contrary to my experience. If I or anyone is going to be allowed to enter the canon...(that is right...I said allowed) I am fully aware that I am going to have to get over these issues I have with compartmentalization. If not, my best hope is to achieve a model of production similar to say Richard Foreman in NYC or possibly Greg Allen here in Chicago.
Indeterminacy was an exercise for a writer's group. And it was three pages long. And I wasn't the producer. Under different circumstances...I might not have been nearly as flexible. If this had been a one or two act that I written and was putting up any amount of money to produce, I might have been less open to certain cuts, etc.etc. I have to say there are a lot of terrible directors out there. (Yes there are alot of great and caring ones too...but...) What makes a bad director terrible differs. I don't think it lies solely or even primarily with as you put it... whom the director is attempting to appease.
The hardest thing about finding a director for your work is you really cant tell if someone is good until you've seen some of the work as well as gotten a chance to see and discuss how the director manages through production. This idea I'm reading that in what you said earlier that it is the directors job to "make it work"...I can agree with, but sometimes the problem is not with the script...sometimes it really is the director who f'ed up a perfectly good piece.
You said "Playwrights mostly write plays without a venue in mind or specific budget in place - I wouldn't have it any other way. Write that scene where monkeys fly out of the protagonist's ass - I'll figure out how to make it work onstage - that's my job. If you write in the stage directions exactly how it is to be done, then I take that seriously and make the attempt to stage it that way. If it doesn't work, I fix it - also my job."
So let me ask a leading question that might show a playwrights' hand...Do you consider (or think alot of directors consider) the playwrights to be the dreamers where as the directors are the doers..?
Is that a baited question or what?!!! Next Week - Part 3 of Don and my discussion about directing, playwriting, and process
Don and DV try to talk about Process Part 1
First Draft of Indeterminacy
A Raw Evening