Directors Lab West: Day 2

I’m trying something new today with the blog: going to bed at night and getting up early to write. So that’s why this post is happening at 8AM and not 2AM. I’m also hoping that my brain has had a chance for synthesis while I was sleeping, and I can do a bit more than bullet-point reporting. Here goes!

I’m really appreciating the range of performances we’ve seen so far. On Saturday night, it was The Heiress at Pasadena Playhouse, then on Sunday afternoon, we visited Cornerstone Theater at the LATC for Cafe Vida, followed by Expulsion by Heidi Duckler Dance Theatre. We’ve barely had time to eat, let alone read the program before any of these performances started, so I’ve been having the unusual (for me) experience of going in blind as an audience member. All I knew about The Heiress was that it’s based on a Henry James novel and has a famous guy in the cast. All I knew about Cafe Vida was that it was a Cornerstone production, created with, by, and for a specific community using story circles and engaging first-time actors from that community, as well as professional actors, director and playwright. All I knew about Expulsion was that it was a free public performance in a vacant lot.

We had our first round-table discussion after Cafe Vida, and despite not being able to hear each other well in the busy LATC outdoor courtyard, this group of amiable, passionate directors began to argue for the first time. Now, now, unclench yourself, it’s okay to argue. We were responding to the rawness of Cafe Vida, the broadly drawn characters, a few soapbox speeches, and one delightfully “live theater” moment when a cockroach wandered across the stage and was stomped by the protagonist. (A fellow director later commented, “when that cockroach came onstage, I immediately thought, oh, someone is going to kill it and then we’re all going to clap.” Which is exactly what happened. There is nothing new under the sun…)

As a director, I strive for a sleek elegance in my work, in design and performance; it took me about an hour to adjust to the broad, unpolished rawness of the production. But after I did, there was still plenty of the show left to enjoy, and by the end I was moved to tears. There is so much to appreciate about Cornerstone’s work: the stories they tell are rarely, if ever, given a spotlight; they engage their community in the most visceral ways; their audience looks like a utopian dream – people from all walks of life coming together for two hours in a packed house on Sunday afternoon. The work is authentic, moving, and undeniably important. It is very different from what we have come to expect from “professional theatre” – a term that deserves more scrutiny, but I’m not going to go down that particular rabbit hole this morning.

Yesterday, we met artistic director Guillermo Aviles-Rodriguez of Watts Village Theater Company, whose Meet Me at Metro is a 2 to 4 hour site specific piece in which performers from various ensemble theaters guide audiences from stop to stop through the underground LA Metro transit system. His mission is to “make theater a verb, instead of a noun,” meaning that theater is an action, not a building. I am remembering a moment from the end of my Drama 120 Theatre History class at UC Irvine. Professor Cliff Faulkner (a delightful, inspiring fireball and one of my all-time favorite people) asked us “Do you want to create theater that is flashy and entertaining, or do you want to create theater that comforts people, or do you want to create theater that moves and challenges people, or do you want to create theater that causes a riot?” Cliff, this class was 6 or 7 years ago, so please forgive me for rewriting your lines based on my impression of them, rather than an actual memory of the words. This last part, I do remember verbatim: “The answer, of course, is YES.” Theater can do all these things and more – what do you want it to do?

So during our roundtable, in the midst of critiquing the acting style and lighting design, I wondered aloud to the group “What does theater do? If it is having a profound affect on the community of artists creating it, and the community from which the story has been revealed (a community that may not have ever been to theater before), do I, as a theater artist, or even as a “mainstream” audience member acclimated to “professional” theatre, need to have as deep an experience as the first-time actors onstage? Who is this piece of theater for? Obviously this piece is doing something much more important than entertaining me for a few hours.”

But, a good point from a colleague: “I don’t like the idea of qualifiers for art. Does the fact that these people have never done theater before excuse the roughness of the production? When the piece is presented in a theater space and I paid for a ticket, does the fact that it’s important have any bearing on whether or not it was good?” A fair question, and one that I’ve been asking myself in relation to the gender (dis)parity discussion happening in the American theater today. (But that’s another rabbit hole we’re not going to fall into right now.)

Picasso’s Woman Playing Mandolin

Remembering back to another course at UC Irvine, Bill Rauch (the founder of Cornerstone Theatre and now artistic director of the Oregon Shakespeare Festival) used to begin critique of our scene work in Directing 170 with the question, “What did you intend?” I think we have to judge a piece of theater by what it was trying to do, not by what we would have done as artists, not by the style of theater that we prefer, not by the stories we want to hear. Can we measure success by how fully the artists achieved their objectives, without passing judgment on the validity of those objectives? Would we judge a Picasso painting by how realistically it portrays a woman playing a mandolin? Of course not – and those who did in 1910 look like idiots now. We can simply acknowledge that a piece wasn’t to our own aesthetic taste, appreciate what we can of it, and make our own theater that is to our aesthetic taste. And thank goodness that we each have our own taste – how flat and barren would the field be, if we were all doing the same work with the same intentions, style, and process!

Now that we’re had our first argument, and survived, I’m looking forward to more rigorous and respectful debate like our conversation yesterday. In fact, I had a beer last night with two of the people whose views and visions differ most widely from mine, and I am so grateful that we can have an amiable but challenging discussion, each articulating our ideas more clearly and questioning each other’s and our own assumptions. I don’t know that we’ll change each other’s minds, but that’s not our intention – and therefore not a criterion for success.


I’ll write again tomorrow, but in the meantime, you can check out another perspective on the Directors Lab West on the blog of my delightful coconspirator Wolfgang Wachalovsky. Directors Lab West itself is blogging about the lab, too – if you follow them on Twitter, you’ll be among the first to know when they post.