Directors Lab West: Day 1

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, folks. More tomorrow!