Director of "A Funny Thing..."
Directing "Forum" at The Pentacle Theatre was an exercise in discipline, as directing always is---this time, the main thing I had to discipline was my laughter! It's wonderful to enjoy rehearsals so much--but there IS the hard work of mounting a production that has to be done inbetween the constant burts of hilarity!
Rehearsing with my extremely talented cast had me rolling on the floor in stitches so much, that it was mostly a matter of belly laughing our way to opening night.
For me personally, the extra energy all the good natured interaction with the "Forum" company was very needed to get me over the difficult situation of only having a little over two months to prepare for the show. I am accustomed to having a year in which to prepare for a production.
"HAiR," directly before "Forum," had been a year long project that was totally engrossing, and it culminated in a career high mark for me.
In the course of that year, I had the opportunity to confer for hours with James Rado, surviving co-author of HAiR, as well as with Michel Butler, the show's producer on Broadway. For a child of the '60's, it would be hard to conjure a more potent experience!
It was an amazing trip, putting together a unique version of HAiR such as we had at The Pentacle. That experience ended in October of 2000. November--December with all its holidays, then auditions for "Forum" in January. I simply didn't have the kind of time I normally do for a big project like this. I had to modify the way in which I usually work.
Gathering around me superb technical help, brilliant collaborators on the show's design (Tony Zandol and Louise Larsen), and a superb cast (link to their names on this site's home page)---that provided my salvation from panic!
Now that the smoke is finally clearing from the incredibly successful run of "Forum," I have some thoughts to share about doing this show, and thoughts to add to the general subject of doing community theatre.
Q: "Forum" and "HAiR"--two extremely different shows. How can the same person really do both?
A: They are both theatre.
I'm convinced that the prime thing about our HAiR which made it work was that we approached it as THEATRE, not as an excuse for a bunch of people to party out of control on stage, which is what some productions of HAiR seem to be.
That same respect for HAiR as THEATRE is also what made some HAiR fans suspicious of what we were doing---but it's the only way I can approach any directing project.
"Forum" is brilliant farce. Sondheim, Gelbart, and Shevelove worked for a very long time to perfect it, and they succeeded in producing THE single most funny musical comedy ever conceived.
I can see that most people who saw the production felt it was one helluva good evening's entertainment, but I wonder how many really understood that a well done farce is just as worthy of being considered "art" as a profound work by an Arthur Miller or Tennesee Williams?
To me, all scripts that are worth doing, are art, are theatre, and the constantly engrossing thing about directing them is that when they are approached as if they are new works, the work of mounting productions is the single most important thing I can imagine doing in life.
Picturing a production as a blank canvas--that's the first step. Letting the mind absorb as much as possible about a show, through research which branches in all possibly related directions---that is the second step, and puts the head in a frame of mind to start the brainstorming process.
DESIGNING---the set, the costumes, the staging--those steps cannot be neglected. But the trick is to remain flexible in ALL areas throughout the entire process, maybe even up untl opening night.
The part of preplanning that can get a director in trouble faster than anything, is doing too much preconceptualizing of HOW a character "should" be performed.
There will certainly always be approaches to a character that are more effective than others, but the collaboration with the actor is THE most crucial aspect of rehearsals. The input a particular actor will bring to a role cannot be predicted, and must be encouraged and nurtured as much as possible in rehearsal.
I write down fairly detailed blocking before the rehearsal process begins, using a chess board to check that the emotional through line of each scene is being physically portrayed as effecitvely as possible--IN THEORY---but what I make great efforts to have my casts understand, is that the blocking given to them is meant to be a MAP which will guide them to the indescribable understanding I have of the script---the concept I will try to express in words, but which I know is ultimately something they must discover in their own way as we work together.
The blocking is not a straight jacket to their creativity--it is the key to them having Freedom to improvise and brainstorm their way to characterizations I could never have predicted totally on my own.
Having that framework of my staging I think is the perfect example of how we can experience true freedom only on the basis of having some structure.
Similarly, to preconceive the way a character "should" look is a trap too often fallen in to by directors.
There are many characters in every show which don't require exact physical characteristics. For a director to realize that a tall person, a short person, a slender person, a chubby person--that they ALL could possibly play a role is imperative to him really SEEing the actors who audition, and realizing that to compartmentalize a role into a physical type is only restricting instead of expanding the attainable possibilities of a script.
Bottom line: Pre-plan, design, research, do everything possible to become MASter of the material--but for art's sake, let the rest of your show's company be equal collaborators once the show becomes the group effort which it does in rehearsal.
The hours I spend on producing my "orchestra" easily amount to ten times more than what a band of musicians would be willing to dedicate to a production. But that isn't the issue--the issue is providing the cast and the audience with a solid, professional sounding musical performance that supports and drives the production--unfortunately unlike the sloppy results often gotten from under-rehearsed overly-confidant musicians who don't grasp the kind of excellence one has to aim for when one claims to be offering an entertainment to the public.
The downside of synthesizers filling in for an orchestra are: ---The excitement of seeing and hearing a live orchestra is lost ---The audience takes the music more for granted than when they see musicians ---The ego of the synthesist has to be very willing to have his work mostly ignored---For example, in "Forum," the Overture and Entre'acte, both which took weeks for me to perfect--they played and the audience was patient enough while they played, but it was extremely rare for any one of them to muster more than a few polite claps when they ended. Mostly, those musical pieces were met with silence, since the audience was merely waiting for the show to begin. Whereas, if they had seen musicians working to perform that music, the audience would have been moved to applaud and thank them for the performance. Thinking of applauding the work of a synthesist, though his job is more time consuming and complex than what any visible musician will do in a musical---that just doesn't occur to an audience.
But the upside by far outweighs the downside. The most important thing achieved by using good, well produced synthesizer performances, is that the cast will have a totally dependable orchestra to sing to. No more unpredictable tempos, out of tune instruments, missing musicians,----and the score as written by the composer and his arranger, will be more accurately presented.
The whole question of using synthesizers remains to be settled in a satisfactory way. Publishers point to the International Copyright Law as prohibiting their use--and yet they condone the use of synths in the vast majority of theatres across the country. It's yet another example of technology challenging the status quo.
Synths are the only salvation for many small theatre companies wanting to produce musicals. Publishers and the law will eventually have to catch up with reality.
Forget about trying to "please" your director.
Work with the director, try to understand his/her vision in non-verbal emotional terms---but understand that you are a collaborator in the creation of the thing--the play, which IS "the thing," and work to "please" only yourself in terms of wanting to communicate with the audience for whom you are performing, and who are your equals.
The patrons who support this theatre (The Pentacle) and all community theatres across the country, are for whom a production is done.
I find them coming to the theatre with their expectations too low---too willing to think of the experience as "amateur" and therefore automatically not something to be taken all that seriously. To make them sit up and realize they ARE seeing work of high calibre--that is what I hope to do.
That is easier said than done however.
People can often not really see what's right in front of their eyes. One can hopefully do Something which will make the audience wake up and realize they CAN take the experience of the play in as something as worthy of their attention as a professional production.
Without compromising the artistic integrity of a play, I believe it is an imperative that all directors in amateur theatre REFUSE to compromise on their productions with the excuse that "it's only amateur theatre."
This means cracking the whip on actors who may arrive expecting the experience to be casual and not one that strives for excellence--This means prodding technical staff beyond the compromises they may be too willing to make, also with the excuse of it being amateur theatre.
ANYthing and EVerything that can be done to thwart the expectation that it is amateur and therefore slipshod---a director must make that his prime directive, regardless of how unpopular that may make him with the people not willing to invest themselves to the degree needed.
The person responsible for the assembling of a collaborative piece of art on a stage in front of an audience, who always remembers that beyond his own conceptualizing--he is primarily the EDITOR of ideas. Listening to the input of actors and the technical staff and knowing what to say "yes" to is one of a director's most crucial talents.
Most productions have some actors who haven't learned that the rehearsal process has the goal of creating a REPEATABLE performance. They will flucuate wildly, will ignore memorization deadlines, will "phone in" some rehearsals---all in the mistaken notion that it is THEM and their wonderful personalities which will magically see them through opening night and beyond.
The actor blessed with enough talent to actually pull off effective performances night after night without proper use of the rehearsal period, is the one who hasn't realized how unfair it is to his fellow actors who are kept in the dark as to what they'll actually be doing until an audience is watching. And that kind of actor also has no understanding of what collaborating with a director means.
Every theatre has such "stars"--and all I can say, is that as charming as they may be at times, God save me from ever having to work with them more than once!