All summer I’ve asked actors to share their feelings about their most memorable Plan-B role on this blog. Earlier this summer I (finally) completed my MFA in Directing at the University of Idaho (something I started back in 1998 at Utah State University). One of my assignments was to share my theatrical aesthetic. So, in the spirit of what I asked 9 actors to do, I thought I’d share this with you. Warning: it’s, um, wordy and lengthy and, at times, a bit of a rant.
I grew up along the Arizona/New Mexico border, 80 miles north of Mexico. We lived 10 miles from the nearest town – Duncan, Arizona: population 700. My upbringing was about as rural and remote as one’s can be, with absolutely no exposure to theatre.
At the age of 15, I represented my high school at a weeklong youth leadership retreat in Washington, D.C. We met with congressmen, toured the landmarks of the city and even ate lunch at the Saudi Arabian embassy which, to this day, still doesn’t make sense to me. We also saw CATS at the National Theatre. (I know, I know. But keep in mind it was 1986 and the phenomenon was still fresh.) Having never seen a professional theatre production, I was hooked. By the end of the performance, somehow I knew I wanted to be involved in the theatre. And I didn’t even know what that meant.
I (mostly) shelved the idea until I graduated. But occasionally I would draw little diagrams of a small theatre with 101 seats so that I could call it Theatre 101. I didn’t have any idea what that meant – I didn’t understand anything about theatre. I graduated from high school a year early and, at the age of 17, spent the first semester of college figuring the whole thing out. By my second semester I’d stumbled into my first role in a play, which also happened to be a new play (I played John the Beloved in MAN OF KERIOTH, a play written and directed by Khigh Dheigh, best known as Wofat on HAWAII 5-0). Years later, early in our relationship, my partner Kirt and I would lie in bed and dream up theatre companies.
I have worked full time in the theatre since 1999, beginning with two seasons with Egyptian Theatre Company in Park City. I am now in my 12th season as Producing Director of Plan-B Theatre Company. In many ways my career has already exceeded my expectations – I sometimes wake up flabbergasted that my job is to develop and produce new plays.
I eat, sleep and breathe theatre. Sometimes to my detriment. For better or worse, Plan-B is, in many ways, my identity. I don’t have to hypothesize, “If I ran a theatre company, I’d do X.” I am in the unique position of being able to put my aesthetic into practice. I do “X” every day. I am fully aware how fortunate I am to be able to make a living in the theatre. So I feel a great responsibility to honor those who support my work and the work of Plan-B by creating the best work possible.
All the choices I make as a director are based on one simple idea: Theatre should create conversation. It should be the beginning of an experience, not the end of one.
I fully subscribe to Peter Brook’s ideal that the theatre is a holy place – one that deserves respect, even reverence. That is not to say the work cannot be irreverent or disrespectful – but the space itself and the process of filling that space must be given proper due.
The connection between the audience and the production in a darkened theatre matters most to me. This intangible yet palpable connection can only emerge if those onstage, those who have placed them there, those who’ve designed the onstage world and the members of the audience are able to give themselves over to one another.
This is not an endorsement for pandering to or indulging the audience. Rather, it is a declaration that when ego is left out of the equation and all those involved are focused on the power of shared experience, theatre is at its best.
I do not advocate presenting work to the audience. I do, however, advocate inviting them to fully participate in the theatrical experience – not necessarily call and response and certainly not what we think of most often as audience participation: more energetic, intellectual, emotional. So…I strive with each production to create an inviting onstage world. If the work is done properly to make everything onstage appear effortless, the audience may actually be able to truly lose itself within that world. Participation.
I encourage every company of actors I work with to avoid reading reviews until the production has closed. At Plan-B, it is company policy. There is nothing more damaging to a production than an actor anticipating a moment that has been singled out – good or bad.
I never work on a piece I don’t fully believe in. I am not a playwright so I have to believe – and respect – that everything I need is in the text. That’s not to say that I love everything equally from the onset. I can, however, say that I have never directed a production I didn’t love. How else can I lead my team and cast to their best work if I don’t believe that the piece can give them the opportunity for just that?
I look for the balance between skill and personality when casting. No matter how skilled an actor may be, if he/she is difficult to work with and/or unable to see his/her place within the whole of the play and how to support the other actors, I cannot work with that actor.
I look for the balance between ‘getting the play’ and being able to bring it to life. Intellectual understanding and emotional connection don’t always translate to a compelling, onstage presence. All three are vital.
Above all, I look for the actor who understands that their work is simply a part of the whole. In my experience, the actor for whom active listening is second nature is the actor who can do the best work.
I find I need at least 6 months with a script – preferably a year – to get it right. That doesn’t mean I work on it exclusively or even consistently during that time. It simply means I have read it multiple times, have a sense of it and can let it bounce around in my brain for good long while. Until I see it. That way I can truly guide both the design team and cast into a cohesive, grounded interpretation of the play. Because, after all, the play’s the thing – without it, the theatre is nothing.
I firmly believe that rehearsal is not a place to learn the play. Rather, it is the place to ensure that the work the actors and I have done individually – outside of rehearsal – coalesces into a unified whole. We don’t search for answers – we explore how the answers we’ve armed ourselves with do or don’t fit together. Rehearsal is about the marriage of ideas, not their initial discovery. The real work only takes place when everyone brings something to the table.
My focus is always on the ensemble, the whole. The individual journey, the individual performance, the individual choice – each only matters in the context of the whole.
I believe actors should make use of personal experiences, feelings, points-of-view and attitudes to create rich, compelling performances. With a couple of caveats:
Acting is not real life.
Theatre is not real life.
Therefore the actor must always be in control.
I believe in simple productions focused on language and ideas.
I believe that all theatre must contain the Aristotelian elements of theme, plot, character, spectacle and language. But beyond that, playwrights have the right – and obligation – to make their own rules. And the rest of us are obligated to learn and follow them.
I believe that too many people believe artistry and craft are the same thing. I believe that too many people forget that culture – and thus the theatre – only survives if both it and its audience are continuously cultivated.
A DYING ART
The theatre has been characterized as a dying art form since the regional theatre movement began 40+ years ago. Truthfully, I believe some theatre should die. Most theatre I see is crap – a bad imitation of itself. Museum theatre. Rarely do I feel passion coming at me from the stage. That’s not only heartbreaking, it pisses me off. It’s offensive. That kind of theatre should die. Passionless, derivative, museum theatre should die.
Sometime since the advent of the regional theatre movement the word ‘community’ became an anathema when linked to ‘theatre.’ Sometimes rightfully so – but not always. It is possible to link ‘community’ and ‘theatre’ in relation to professional theatre. A particular power – and I believe the future of the art form – rests in community-based, professional theatre.
I fully embrace Jerzy Grotowksi’s ideal that the size and scale of production and audience do not determine the quality of the work. Small can be great. And as illuminated by the book “Outrageous Fortune: The Life and Times of the New American Play,” small theatres – budgets of less that $250,000, average seating capacity of 100 or less – are where the overwhelming majority of new play development is taking place in this country. And small theatres tend to be more rooted in their communities.
In place of dead, passionless, derivative, museum theatre I want theatre that overwhelms me with its passion, vision and vitality. I want more theatre that is so specific that it feels as though it’s speaking directly to me. I want more theatre that generates long conversations about more than production elements.
I want more theatre worthy of being staged and shared in a holy space.
Too many people running theaters in this country are scared of truly committing to the work of playwrights, not just specific plays. Without a commitment to playwrights, the great plays cannot come. The museum wins. And they are possible. But the playwright has to have a place of safety in order to develop as a writer, to be able to see his/her plays in production, not just in a reading or workshop. Not enough theaters do a good enough job providing this safe space.
Of course, companies need to remain afloat so that there are stages on which these plays can be seen. We cannot ignore the business side of theatre. So we must artfully run it. We cannot let business dictate art.
It’s not enough to produce theatre, to reinterpret what’s been previously staged. It’s important to actually create it. Otherwise the museum wins.
We in the theatre must give people reason to leave their electronics-laden homes. We must embrace the future without forgetting the past. We must continually assess our vitality. How do we do that? By developing a stronger sense of community as artists. By approaching each production with zeal and passion. By honoring – and not underestimating – the audience. By taking risks. And we must work together to ensure our survival.
Please click here for information on Plan-B’s 2011/12 season, featuring three world premieres by Utah playwrights!