Ready to be a Radical

The theme of this year’s Theatre Bay Area conference was “Activate Your World.” After a full, fast-paced day of impassioned debate, exciting connections and joyful reconnections, you bet I’m feeling “activated.” I’ve been buzzing all week, new ideas and old puzzles bouncing around in my brain. I spent most of Tuesday and Wednesday feeling like I was about burst. I left a voicemail on Megan Cohen’s phone that was the stuff of legend, and I think ended with something like “…so, yes, give me a call anytime and we can decide if I’m a crazy person – call me at three in the morning, because I will be up, thinking about stuff. Ok, love you bye.” Megan is threatening to transcribe the voicemail and perform it at the next conference, with a sign around her neck that says “this is how we feel when we go home.” I really, really hope that happens.

I could recap the whole conference, but I won’t. For a few blow-by-blow accounts, check out these posts from the TBA “Chatterbox” and Rob Ready of PianoFight.

What I really want to talk about is my realization that maybe I am a little crazy. That maybe in four years of living deep inside an experimental theater company (which just won the SF Weekly’s award for Best Experimental Theater Company – congratulations, Cutting Ball!), I have forgotten what “normal” theater is. On a day when we were asked by our keynote speaker to challenge our assumptions, I found myself noticing that on the whole – whether we work at companies large or small – when we talk about “creating new work”, we are collectively imagining a playwright alone with a laptop. When we talk about “supporting new work” we are talking about theater companies committing to a relationship with a playwright, often in the form of a commission or commitment to produce the play, before it is written, and accompanied by developmental readings where directors, dramaturgs, and actors sometimes maybe have a hand in shaping the final piece (related post). When we see a breakout session on the agenda called “New Work Models,” we collectively imagine a discussion about partnerships between theater companies and their favorite playwrights.

I was astonished to discover that I was imagining something completely different. More to the point, I was astonished to discover how astonished I was that my assumptions were so far removed from the assumptions of the panelists and the hundred or so people who attended the discussion. I really had no idea that I was a radical.

I had imagined “New Work Models” to be a discussion on the myriad different ways new work is created in the Bay Area and beyond. I assumed we would at least touch on devised work by ensembles, co-writing, adaptation, maybe even new translations, and yes, of course, new plays by playwrights supported by theaters devoted to new work. To my relief, I connected with a few others after the breakout session who were as dismayed as I was by one panelist’s statement that “theater is a playwright’s medium.” So if I’m crazy, at least I’m not the only one.

Towards the end of the day, I had a similar revelation that my brain was on a completely different track than that of my fellow conference-goers. And this revelation surprised me even more, because I was in a room full of directors.

A quick aside, lest you get the idea that I spent the day feeling like a fish out of water, or worse, smugly superior to my “less radical” colleagues. I had a very satisfying, if unsettling, day at the conference. I was so pleased to meet a lot of new and interesting people, shake hands with artists whom I’ve admired from afar, reconnect with collaborators I haven’t seen in a while, and get deep into discussions of our many and varied visions for our local and national theater. It’s always exciting to hear about what is coming up in our community – lots of new work, as it happens, made by playwrights, directors, and actors – and a very exciting new initiative from Theatre Bay Area: an ATLAS program for directors.

So, in the last session of the day, here we are in a room full of directors, having a lively discussion with Dale Albright, TBA’s Director of Field Services and the driving force behind expanding the ATLAS program (currently for actors only) to guide directors along their career paths. He has generously opened up the discussion and planning of this new program to suggestions from the peanut gallery – and there are 20 or so of us directors in the room (15 of whom I’ve never even seen before; clearly a program like this would help to foster a community of emerging directors, as well as help us to refine our individual career plans).

Actors in the ATLAS program all participate in the TBA general auditions and receive feedback on their work from the hundreds of auditors who attend.  But what is a director’s audition? The first idea on the table is that directors could pitch a show to a panel of artistic directors. Even more exciting is the suggestion of borrowing from the grad school interview process and observing directors in a mock first rehearsal – communicating a vision to the cast, presenting designs, and beginning work with the actors. We’re on a roll now. We start tossing around ideas to handle the logistics, to standardize a rubric, and wait a minute – we all need to choose the same play? I’d really like to come out of the program with a pitch I can actually take to artistic directors for real-life consideration. The likelihood that I can do that with an assigned play is almost zero. How is an artistic director going to get a sense of my work if I’m not choosing the play?

We brainstorm solutions to my objection: what if we could choose from, say, four plays? I joke, “Ok, if one of them is Medea. That’s what I want to pitch.” What if we can choose anything from a range of pre-selected playwrights? But even if Euripides makes the list, I’m not sure my problem is solved. (I want to pitch Medea – but not any version that is currently written down.)

Some directors share their experiences of pitching a specific play that they want to direct, while others have more often been asked to direct a play that was already chosen for the season, and still others allied with a playwright and were hired by hanging onto the project’s coattails. I can see how choosing from a small selection of plays/playwrights, or even being assigned a play has real-world applications in these scenarios. I start to wonder if I’d want to be hired as a director in any of those scenarios.

I finally realize that I’m not only going to have to pitch a play, but my entire approach to theater making. It’s not the norm. It’s not what artistic directors are going to expect. It’s not even something that my fellow directors expect. Even for them, “theater is a playwright’s medium.” I’m feeling crazy again, because I won’t grant the premise. I don’t want to start with a play that already exists.

But if I’m crazy, I’m not the only one. I have seen a number of exciting ensemble-generated new plays in the Bay Area this year, and there are more coming up. Another recurring idea throughout the conference was the advice to “find your peers.” So I’ll keep doing that, and keep pursuing new ways to make new work, and maybe if enough of us crazy people are doing that, then I can stop feeling like a crazy person. But in the meantime, I’m ready to be a radical.