The Outside Eye

For the last five weeks, I’ve been working with The Collaboratory to devise a new physical theatre piece based on Federico García Lorca’s poem-play, Yerma. We’ve been experimenting as much with our process as with the piece itself, reinventing how we work together virtually every time we walk into the rehearsal room.

The Collaboratory (Emlyn Guiney, Maria Leigh, Erin Maxon) have a deeply-shared aesthetic and solid working vocabulary, born of a year’s worth of training, reading, theatre-going, and devising together. With The Collaboratory and our adventurous cast (Hannah Gaff, Marilet Martinez, Liz Wand), I have been stretching my own aesthetic and practices to embrace The Collaboratory’s dynamic physical performance style and a new creation process, and to further explore what it means to be a director of collaborative new work.

One of our process experiments was setting up some early rehearsals with just the ensemble, sans director. As difficult as that was for me, to try to catch up the next day and respond to what the ensemble had generated in my absence, it gave the cast an opportunity to try out ideas without the pressure of a director’s judgment in the room and also fostered an atmosphere of each actor taking responsibility for and having agency over her character choices.

Lily Janiak picked up on this atmosphere when she visited our rehearsal last week for an SF Weekly feature:

“In rehearsal, director Tasker functions less as the decider and more as an outside eye, letting the ensemble know how their ideas look and offering some guidance but ceding ultimate power to the collective.”

I’ve had many discussions with other directors and collaborators about power, ego, and vision. Often we talk about power and decision-making in two extremes: dictatorship vs democracy. Neither analogy is particularly useful to me; I’m not Tsar Director and I’m not President of the Rehearsal Republic either. We’re neither voting on character choices nor enforcing design decisions with martial law. Yes, there are times, even in the most collaborative process when the director decides “you stand there and do that.” And of course, there are times in the most hierarchical process when the director actively solicits contributions from writers, actors, designers. No matter what process I’ve adopted for any particular piece, “the best idea in the room wins,” whether it comes from my own brain or someone else’s, or if – best of all – at the end of the day, we can’t remember whose idea it was.

The truth is, no director wants to make every decision that goes into a performance. I need the brain and gut inside each of my actors to make impulsive choices that feed the artist and inform the piece. If I were to “direct” by insisting on controlling every decision, we’d have about five minutes of theatre to show you this weekend, and I might as well have spent the last month rehearsing a solo marionette show. (Which is not to say that puppet theatre can’t be completely enthralling –  it just doesn’t take into account the artistic impulses of the puppets.) But if the ensemble is collectively making artistic decisions – if I’m ceding my ultimate power – how do I earn the title “director?”

rehearsal texts exploding in my living room before being shaped into a script.

For Dirty Laundry, while the ensemble focused on developing individual characters, backstories, and relationships, I took on the big picture of how the action moves along, what storylines are highlighted, and the emotional arc of the piece. With input from the ensemble, I compiled the lines that resonated for each character into a performance text that laid out exactly what words we would say and in what order. I’m counting on the cast to tell me and show me what it feels like “inside” the piece, while I pay attention to what it looks like “outside” the piece. Together, we brainstormed and refined a “dramatic question,” Anne Bogart’s term for the central idea of a devised work. Measuring all our choices against the rubric of “does this action/line/movement support our exploration of the dramatic question?” provides an ego-less way to focus our choices and force us to choose the material that thematically belongs in in the piece. It also gives us more concrete and repeatable rules for creating and honing new material than if the focusing criterion was “whatever the director wants.”

Because here’s the truth: if I knew exactly “what I wanted” before I stepped into the rehearsal room, the whole thing would be very boring. For me, rehearsal is about finding what’s interesting and inspiring about the piece, supporting my collaborators as they dig into the challenges of their roles, responding impulsively to what lights me up, and telling the truth about what I’m seeing, hearing, and feeling onstage. The exact location on the spectra of vision, power, and collective decision-making varies from project to project; wherever we ultimately landed with Dirty Laundry, I know it kept me on my toes.