What a week! Dare I say I spent the last seven days pioneering a new way of making theatre? I love living in the future!
Directors Lisa Szolovits, Wolfgang Wachalovsky and I met at Directors Lab West in May 2012. Having known each other a grand total of four days, we began to make plans to collaborate on a piece together, brainstorming around themes, stories, and new forms that would allow three directors to collaborate. This could have been a summer camp romance, a strong connection in a special, intense environment, followed by half-hearted promises to keep in touch. But since May, we met at least monthly via Google+ Hangout to keep talking about how we might make some theatre together. We researched residency programs and applied for a couple of small grants (which we didn’t get). We considered multiple scenarios for how to create a laboratory to test our ideas. We recruited some fantastically adventurous actors. And this week, we transformed our apartments into ad-hoc scenic designs, our laptops and iPhones into movie cameras, and the Internet into the new “Empty Space,” just waiting for someone to walk across it while someone else is watching to engage an act of theatre. (Peter Brook)
This week’s experiment sprang from questions about how three directors can collaborate on one piece; often directors are the only one of their kind in the rehearsal room, or else we’re working alongside other directors in a festival of short works, together but separate, under the curative eye of an artistic director. So one goal of the experiment was to see how we three could work together. We initially envisioned bringing Lisa and her team out from New York, and meeting up in the Bay Area with Wolfgang’s Oakland collaborators and my San Francisco ensemble, renting a theatre space and training together to develop an Exquisite Corpse methodology inspired by victorian parlor games in which players draw the head, body, and feet of a monster without being able to see what the others have drawn. Parisian Surrealists in the 1930s adopted different versions of the game using both images and language; their first word game yielded the phrase “the exquisite corpse will drink the young wine” (in French). Fast forward to May 2012, at the Directors Lab, where we wondered, what would it be like to devise a piece of theatre, only being able to see a few moments of what the others have created?
A lack of material and financial resources made us consider how we could keep working virtually, in our own cities, without springing for plane tickets or taking too much time off from our day jobs. We’ve been meeting online; why can’t we rehearse online? Why can’t we perform online? The experiment morphed to focus on the possibilities of live performance via Google+ Hangout, and within that frame, thinking about ways we could connect three pieces to feel like one whole. With such an ambitious form, we decided to make the content a fixed, known quantity; maybe working from the same source material would mean that the three pieces had the same “dramatic DNA.” We chose an episode of Doctor Who, and each of us claimed the beginning, middle, or end to translate onto our laptop screens in any way we wanted. Deliberately leaving style and tools to the discretion of each director, we ended up with three vastly different pieces to present at our mid-week showing. We shared techniques and called out strong images that could begin to tie the pieces together across our vastly different interpretations of the source material. Back in our individual ensembles, we rehearsed a second iteration of each piece, incorporating ideas from the pieces we’d seen at the first showing. To end the lab, we shared again, each piece making even more ambitious attempts to push the technology and find out what we can do.
We learned a lot this week about what Google+ Hangout can do, how to use different cameras and angles, black-and-white effects, strong POV choices, music and sound, chat functions, and even silly hats on Google Effects. We pulled together anything lying around that seemed useful, just like kids putting on a play in our back yards. Only now instead of grabbing a broom handle to stand in for a sword and pretending a treehouse was a castle, we grabbed an iPhone to stand in for a video camera and pretended my bathroom was a prison cell. We made some props. We put down spike marks on my kitchen floor where the laptop needed to be set up, and marked out where the actors could stand and still be in frame. I downloaded an app that made my webcam broadcast in black and white, and set up a laptop on the highest shelf of a cupboard, to look like a security camera feed. New tools plus old-school resourcefulness became a pretty powerful combination.
What’s next? There’s more to learn about how these pieces connect, and how our ensembles can connect within one larger work. There’s more to learn about how to interact with audiences over this medium. There’s definitely more to learn about glitch-reduction! Lisa and Wolfgang and I are regrouping this week to talk about a second laboratory and how to proceed with making a piece of theatre in this new form. In the meantime, I’m walking around totally jazzed about the possibilities and new techniques to be discovered and refined.
(and oh yeah, I start rehearsals for The Helen Project a week from tonight.)
A huge round of applause for my collaborators: directors Lisa Szolovits and Wolfgang Wachalovsky; actors Misti Rae Boettiger, Siobhan Marie Doherty, Adam Sussman in San Francisco; Maria Paz Alegre, Max Reuben, and Elly Smokler in New York; and Stephanie DeMott in Oakland. And a special thank you to our first-ever audience members Rebecca Longworth and Marilee Talkington, who tuned in on Sunday to our glitches and wild stabs in the digital darkness.
Better to be ignorant, to go into the future as into
a long tunnel, without ball of yarn or clear direction,
to tiptoe forward like any fool or saint or hero,
jumpy, full of second thoughts, and bravely unprepared.
–Theseus within the Labyrinth by Stephen Dobyns
My brain is broken. For the last two or three days, my mouth has repeatedly stopped in the middle of my sentences, like a wind-up toy that has run out of spring force. My notebook is about full, and I’m covered in bruises, so it must be time to go home. I’ll miss the intensity and the amazing people I’ve connected with here. But I am certainly looking forward to a nap.
Our final day at the Lab began with a workshop on Spring Awakening, the text we had all prepared before we arrived. It had been sort of tangential up to that final workshop, a common ground for talking about themes and character and big ideas. And in fact, though I read two translations earlier this month, and carried them both around all week, I never needed to pull out the script in a Lab session. The group as a whole has been quite focused on new work and collaborative creation, so when we split into groups to devise a 5-minute piece yesterday morning, the exact text of the original play was not something any group used. In other sessions earlier in the week, we had split into groups and were given 5-10 minutes to generate material – so an hour to work on our final day felt like a luxurious eternity. We were actually able to arrive at a central idea together, with some inventive staging and audience placement, character, story, and even a little tech. Of course, we were still improvising in the final performance – which has got me wondering about the nature of devised work, time constraints, and performance/production. In my own ensemble work so far, we tend to set everything in stone the week before performances so that we know what we’re doing on opening night. Some companies continue to work in major flux until opening night, or even after opening night, and I know that it’s a scary way to work for most people. There is never enough time; work is never finished, but abandoned. I am very interested in exploring the looseness we found in our devising yesterday – I’d like to find a way to foster that safety to improvise and flexibility to continually refine, even in front of a public audience. Time to do some more research on companies who do this kind of work and say hello.
More research is also needed on… graduate school. Oh, what a can of worms. About a year ago, I got some great advice about going for an MFA: “if the idea of being in an academic environment excites you, then you should go.” So I thought, great! That was easy! I really don’t want to write papers ever again, so I’m off the hook. But this week, I have had an amazing time learning and listening and sharing and furiously taking notes and debating and considering and wondering and stretching and connecting with other directors…
I’ve also recently come across the idea that if it were not for the state of health care in this country, I might not be working a full-time job with benefits. I might be able to have a flexible schedule and piece together theater work with other work when necessary. I might be able to focus entirely on being an artist. You know where I can get healthcare? England. You know where some really amazing collaborative theater is happening? England. You know where a lot of my family lives? England. So more research is needed on MFA or MA programs in London, and more soul-searching is needed, too. I have a lot to think about in terms of my family here, as well as the theatrical connections and momentum I have built in the last five years… but it’s blowing my mind a little to seriously consider the idea that my British passport and I can head on over across the pond any time. Actually, it’s blowing my mind a lot.
So there you go. Mission accomplished, Directors Lab West! My brain is broken and my mind is blown. To the future!
Looking back on my Day 5 post on endurance, I have to laugh. Back then, I thought I was pretty tired. Ah, youth.
Day 7 began with a bang; Indy Convergence visited us to give a crash course in their process of bringing artists together to explore and share ideas. They run a 2-week residency program in which each artist brings a project to work on and teams up with other participants with similar interests to get started. There are some great personal accounts on their “flash blog” on the home page. One thing you can’t tell from the website is how kind, generous, and open these lovely people are, and yet, with each artist driving the project she or he is passionate about, they do achieve rigor in the safe space (related post). It feels different in a 2-hour workshop, of course, because we’re being guided through exercises rather than doing “our own work.” But one thing that can be achieved in that short time is creating a free-to-fail mindset. Cindy Marie Jenkins, one of the steering committee members of DLW and a recent participant in Indy Convergence told us, “I never ever feel like I’m in my comfort zone, but I always feel safe.” When we broke into groups, I ended up performing in a piece of physical theater, and I didn’t even realize until later that I hadn’t felt self-conscious at all.
In the afternoon, we introduced ourselves to our fellow lab participants. It sounds weird, I know, because we’ve been here a week and we know each other’s names by now. But interestingly, the fact that we all knew each other a little bit made it a much more digestible, personal, and honest. I tried not to repeat things that I had said at the bar, and I was able to focus on my fellow lab participants without taking furious notes or trying desperately to memorize their names. With each of us allowed 3 minutes to talk, it took nearly 3 hours to go around the circle, which is tiring in a different way than unexpectedly ending up in a physical theater piece.
What will probably stick with me most about Day 7 is the performance of Crescent City: A Hyperopera, the debut production of a new opera company called The Industry. It was wild, inventive, imaginative, challenging, exhausting, controversial, gritty, physical, beautiful, jagged, perplexing… but as I’ve said before, I’m not writing reviews here. The performance takes place in a warehouse, filled with 6 installations by visual artists which make up the various locations for the story. The audience sits in a 3/4 thrust around these installations… and also on a high platform on the 4th side of the warehouse, and also on beanbags in the installation of a drag queen’s performance space, and also some of us got to be “pedestrians” and walk around the 3/4 thrust as we pleased. (This walking and standing for 2 1/2 hours is part of why the piece is exhausting. But to be fair, I was already exhausted.) Live video feed onto four screens in the space solved the issue of not being able to see into an installation that was across the room or blocked by other scenic elements, as well as providing a place for supertitles. By the end, I had figured out that if I couldn’t see, I could move.
Oh, rules! They were being broken everywhere last night. For example, one piece of advice from a founding artistic director this week was something along the lines of “Don’t try to knock it out of the park with your first show. Stick to something you know how to do.” Director Yuval Sharon said in the talkback yesterday that for Crescent City, “the road map was to figure out that there wasn’t one; the road map only goes day by day.” So you could do what you know, or, well, you could do a hyperopera.
After our break-neck day on Wednesday, I was so glad to leave my car in one spot from 9:45AM to after midnight. There was a lot less running around in the Thursday Lab sessions, too: we began the day with a round table discussion; saw some site-specific theater in parked cars after lunch (The Car Plays); heard about social media and the press from a very frank and entertaining panel; had a luxuriously long 2-hour dinner break (in which there was time both to eat and to give a Twitter tutorial); and then saw The Children, a new play inspired by Medea at the Theatre @ Boston Court, followed by a talkback with the director and the literary manager, which was finished with plenty of time to hit the bar and continue conversations from the day, then fall into bed around 1AM. So that’s what I mean by a quieter day at Directors Lab West.
One of the great things about spending so much time with these lovely, passionate people and all our ideas is that we’re figuring things out very quickly. In yesterday’s post, I made a glib promise to let you know when I’d figured out the secret to collaboration… Well, are you ready?
Okay, actually, dial down those expectations for a minute while I say, of course I haven’t uncovered the secret to collaborative work, because there isn’t one, and because every collaborative process is different for a different group of artists. But out of our roundtable discussion yesterday morning, I jotted down some interesting and insightful thoughts from the collective Lab Brain, and started making some of my own connections. Here are the highlights:
- One: “Instead of “demand,” “seduce” your collaborators.” Two: ”Instead of “seduce,” “inspire.” Me: there are a lot of action words we can use here, like “invite,” and “encourage,” and I absolutely do believe that we should be kind and gentle with each other. That has always been very important to my process. But…
- What is the balance between creating a safe space for exploration and creating a rigorous environment for our work? How to we energize the safe space; how do we challenge each other without shutting down the collaborative energy?
- “Directors must dare to fail first, to set an example of risk and freedom.”
- Directing collaboratively is “upholding something with an open hand.” Ask yourself what do you think you need to control, and try to let that go. It won’t always be the right thing; experiment.
- “Say ‘I don’t know’ as much as possible; for a play to make sense to the people onstage, actors must be seduced into creating the logic of the world.”
- “Democracy without knowledge doesn’t work.” Devising fails when each person doesn’t bring their skills, know what they’re doing, do their job well. A director in devised work provides a central idea for actors to build their own worlds onto. Everyone has to do their research.
- Maybe it’s about finding the people who also come at things 1,000% and can match my intensity. Maybe it’s OK that I am “too intense” for some.
It’s hard to believe that we have just today and tomorrow left of the Lab! Coming up today, we’ve got a couple of hours with Indy Convergence this morning, a picnic lunch in the courtyard of the Playhouse, a 3-hour mystery session entitled “Who the hell are you?”, a couple of hours with Michael John Garces of Cornerstone Theatre, and Crescent City: A Hyperopera this evening. As I have all week, I’m not letting myself think more than one day ahead. Being present for what is happening right now is about all I can handle. So bring it on, Friday!
This morning I am thinking about endurance. On day one, we were told “it’s a marathon, not a sprint.” Having never run a marathon, this phrase means (to me) something along the lines of “chill the hell out, Amy” or even feels like a pat on the head. I know, it’s supposed to mean “pace yourself.” But that’s not a thing I like to do – or really know how to do, if I’m honest.
On day five of the Lab, my body probably thinks I am running a marathon. Especially yesterday, when we ran from session to session with barely enough time to get there and not enough time to eat. Couple stress and hunger with exhaustion and frustration at the ratio of studio time to lecture time, and you’ve got 30 cranky directors. Now put them all in a car on the 110 South in traffic… So yesterday was about keeping my energy up in a lot of different ways.
There were some really thrilling moments in the first session of the day, “Insta-Plays” with Jen Bloom, an interdisciplinary director here in Los Angeles. We broke out into small groups and created compositions on themes, in 3 minutes or less. Anne Bogart calls this “exquisite pressure” and as one of my co-conspirators pointed out, the compressed time limit doesn’t allow you to second-guess yourself. I also noticed my own tendency to jump in full force and expect that everyone will meet me at a high level of concentration, energy, and… is “confidence” the word? Maybe “openness?” It’s something I’ve been thinking a lot about lately in relation to ensemble work, how to bring my full self to the work without that force overwhelming my collaborators, how to gently demand that we all bring our full selves to the work and meet at a higher level. (I’ll let you know if I figure that out.)
Another great insight from this session, in relation to originality and borrowing from other artists: “Don’t reinvent the wheel. Use it to roll something. That’s smart, that’s not stealing.” – Daniel Stein.
From Insta-Plays, we booked it to Hollywood to chat with the founders of Troupe Vertigo, a circus group that uses story to contextualize the remarkable technical skill of circus performance. As one lab participant put it “Juggling 14 balls, whatever. Juggling 14 babies, that’s something.” I hope I’ll have a chance to see a Troupe Vertigo performance soon – San Francisco is a great place for circus, so I will just have to keep my eyes peeled.
After Troupe Vertigo, we sped back to the Pasadena Playhouse for a session on the Michael Checkov technique. I’m not sure I buy the thing as a whole – to be fair, it can’t be fully communicated in two hours, and by the time we got to this session, I was getting loopy, exhausted to the point of deciding getting coffee was way more important than being on time. I did pick up a great focus exercise for ensemble work, that combines the physical coordination of throwing and catching a ball with intense eye contact with a partner. I’ll have to try it in rehearsal to know if I like it as a tool, or if my partner and I were just really good at it. (We were really, really good at it, and that is pretty satisfying.)
We ended the day by running back to LA and grabbing the fastest dinner in history before seeing Sondheim’s Follies at Center Theatre Group. It was a perfect production; though of the show itself, I have to say that the first act is a little slow for me. I’m less interested than I used to be in shiny dance numbers. It’s hard to believe that less than 10 years ago, I was sure that what I wanted to do with my life was act and sing in Broadway musicals. Thank goodness I went for a BA instead of a BFA, with the flexibility to try a ton of different things and discover what else is out there. But as musicals go, this is a pretty great one. I do love the wryness of the mature characters, their buried longing for the past and “the road you didn’t take,” juxtaposed with their young counterparts’ longing for the future and impossibly hopeful ideals. There’s a heartbreaking tension in that juxtaposition. And of course, I love the complexity of Sondheim’s music and lyrics. But anyway, this post is not a review. Follies doesn’t need a review on my blog – they have a wheelbarrow full of Tony Awards.
After the show, for the first night since we arrived in Pasadena, I did not lead the charge to go talk about theater over a beer. One of the best things about the Lab is the conversations we’re having among the participating directors, and the relationships we’re building with our peers. But last night, I decided to pace myself for the marathon instead of sprinting to the bar.
Today’s a new day, and I’m ready for the next lap. Ready, steady, GO.
Day 4 of Directors Lab, for me, was all about embracing my own intensity. After the Theatre Bay Area conference last week (I think it was last week – I’m not really sure what day it is anymore), I was “feeling like a crazy person.” After four days of the Lab with 36 of my peers and some incredible guest artists, I’m coming around to the idea that “feeling like a crazy person” might just be the only way I’ll know that I’m doing it right. Ah! Two big reliefs in one revelation: 1) that it’s OK to feel crazy and 2) oh my goodness, can you believe it, there is a way to know that I’m doing it right!
Yesterday began with Anastasia Coon’s movement workshop, an eclectic mix of exercises ranging from running from an “enemy” and getting close to a “beloved” (an exercise we’ve actually done three times now at the lab, but Anastasia was the first to endow it with emotional stakes) to neutral mask work. Oh man, mask work! I have only ever put a mask on one other time, in Eli Simon’s clowning class at UCI. Both times I was astonished by the immediate and powerful emotional response, and the inventive physicality the mask can produce (when you can’t use your face, you use your body). I’m seriously considering getting a set of masks for training and rehearsal to explore more. Let’s see how long it takes me to work that expense into a grant request…
Later in the afternoon, we visited A Noise Within at their beautiful, brand new theater. The building is incredible, sleek and modern, outfitted with a spacious and inviting lobby, rehearsal rooms, administrative offices and library all with a lovely picture-window views of the hills, a costume and scenic shop, kitchen and dressing rooms, as well as the theater itself, a 280-seat thrust stage. We had two and a half inspiring hours with the artistic directors of A Noise Within, husband-and-wife team Julia Rodrigues-Elliott and Geoff Elliott. Our session with them was entitled “What Doesn’t Kill You,” after Geoff’s assertion that “what doesn’t kill you just didn’t kill you.” A few fantastic nuggets from our conversation:
- “Starting a theater is real estate.” You’re always figuring out where you are going to be. A Noise Within started out in a Masonic Temple and recently completed a $13.5 million building in time for their 20th season.
- “We didn’t mean to do this.” This sentiment is one that I have heard echoed throughout the Lab, and elsewhere in my conversations with people who have started their own theaters. As someone who has set out to create her own company, I wonder if my experience will be easier/faster/better because of my deliberate intention, or if “whoops, I started a theater” is an essential element for success!
- “Everything is hard. You might as well do something you want to do, that you think will make a difference. You’re probably going to knock your brains out either way. Being a banker is hard, too.”
- On repertory acting company: “You want both the energy of new people challenging the status quo, but there are things that happen with an ensemble of people who trust each other that could never happen in a 5-week rehearsal period.” And “any longterm relationship is hard work. You have to continually reinvest in those relationships.”
- On audiences: “When they have opinions on the type of toilet paper we should have in our new bathrooms, you could get upset – or you could realize how great it is that they feel like the theater is their home.” With a repertory company, some of whom worked the box office in the earlier days, the audience has a long-term relationship with the actors. They have seen them onstage again and again.
- On growth: “It’s easy to get into a desperate mentality and make bad decisions. You have to step back and invest in the long-term infrastructure.” As in Hamlet, “readiness is all.” “It’s all about hard work, and then faith.” (There’s that idea again, faith.)
I’m not sure that my journey will lead me to a $13.5 million dollar brand new facility. Who knows what the next 15 years will bring for me and for Inkblot Ensemble. The possibilities are endless – and all possible. I have faith. I have drive. I have vision and taste and compassion and leadership. I embrace my intensity. I am high on the future.
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 2-4 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.)
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.
Here I am in Pasadena, already off to a racing start at Directors Lab West. This whole setup is just how I like it: 12 hour days of intense discussion, critical thinking, and passionate affirmation of the joy of theater. And of course, we’re seeing 7 plays in our 8 days here. I haven’t even met everyone yet, but I have noticed something about my own self, with great satisfaction: I am finding this onslaught of new people and ideas completely exhilarating.
Not long ago, I would have been intimidated by locking myself in a room with 36 other directors for a week and a half. I never would have emailed 20 strangers to see if anyone wanted to share a hotel room – but my roommate Willow is great, and just as low-maintenance as I am. I doubt I would have offered to carpool from San Francisco to LA with someone I’ve never met – but it was a super way to chug along I-5; Wolfgang and I shook hands when I picked him up in the morning, and hugged when we parted in the evening, 400 miles later.
So I’m feeling pretty proud of myself for bursting my bubble and being ready for anything.
But, the Lab so far! With our 12-hour days, there isn’t much time to get my thoughts in order, so for tonight, I think I’ll just give you a sampling of notes and quotes. I hope I’ll have a little more brain power for synthesis and connections in the coming days. But bullet points is the best I can do at 1:45AM.
- The motto of the lab: “I am the future of the American Theatre.”
- “The best thing you can do is find a bar.” (meaning, go have conversations with your peers. and also, have a cocktail. Two excellent notions.)
SESSION ONE: A welcome from Pasadena Playhouse artistic director Sheldon Epps
- Epps always leaves a “surprise production” slot in the season brochure. This TBA production generates excitement around the mystery of what the show will be, allows the theater to be flexible enough to jump on a last-minute opportunity or respond to what’s happening right now, instead of a year from now, and engenders subscribers’ trust in the taste of the theater’s leadership. I am totally going to steal this idea when I am an artistic director.
- “If you’re going to fail, fail boldly.”
- Epps likens season programming to serving a multi-course gourmet meal. The whole thing has to be to the artistic director’s taste, but you’re preparing the meal with the hope that the audience is going to be pleased… most of the time. Sometimes you’re saying, “you’ve never had Armenian food, and I think you should try it.”
- “National importance is only achieved by doing new work. This is the only way to affect the field.”
- I left the session with a deep appreciation of Epps’ generosity as an artist, collaborator, and host. He’s an articulate, intelligent man with “an eclectic pallate”, great respect for his audience and artists, and a tenacious integrity.
SESSION TWO: “We don’t need no playwright” – a panel on devised work with Guillermo Aviles-Rodriguez of Watts Village Theater Company, Leilani Chan of TeAda Productions, and Matt Almos of Burglars of Hamm.
- We touched on some of the many ways to create new work with an ensemble, including the “four-headed playwright” that I’m quite familiar with, a divide and conquer approach in which 9 collaborators each are responsible for writing a scene and then sewing the scenes together, a Metro play in which several different theater companies create a short, site-specific piece with certain unifying themes or limitations (like each incorporating a certain line of text to create resonances throughout), and using interviews to tell the stories of a scattered, nationwide refugee community.
- We often talk about pushing the art form, but we have to be careful not to do so aggressively. How much can we “challenge our audiences” before we’re antagonizing them?
- “It’s easy to try it.” There’s no need to talk everything to death – you try it, and you know when it works or it doesn’t. Don’t let anything become precious.
- There are so many ways to make non-playwright-centric theater, and they are so different, we are really doing ourselves a disservice by lumping them all together into something we call “devised work.” In a room full of directors who are doing devised work, we can’t define it in a way that works for everybody. It exists uniquely for each company or ensemble. On the one hand, that’s tricky – if we can’t even talk about it together, how are we going to talk about it with traditional theater audiences. On the other hand, it’s a relief to know that my struggle to articulate the way I make work is a battle that my fellow devisers are also fighting.
SESSION THREE: “Dancing from the heart” with choreographer Vincent Patterson
- “The choreographer is not a threat to the director, but an ally who can do something you can’t. Be knowledgeable about your project, comfortable in your role, and not afraid of the people you’ve brought in to support your work.”
- “On Broadway, we’ve lost the magic of simplicity. We throw so much at the audience that they sit at the back of their seats, instead of asking them to think, to seduce them to the edge of their seats.”
- “We just want you to create something that the world has never seen before.” – Madonna and Michael Jackson giving Patterson permission to be bold.
…and those are the highlights, ladies and gentlemen. More tomorrow!