Define "a Life"...

... still searching for a clear definition of that thing people keep telling me I need to get...

Location: Springfield, PA

Thursday, July 24, 2008

Just who are the big kids, anyway?

Maybe I'm just a smug, arrogant bastard with nothing but attitude to support my opinions. I mean, that's wholly possible and I'm not about to deny that it is. But the fact is that it bugs the Hell out of me when I see (never mind have to watch) someone doing things the wrong way.

Well, to be honest, it doesn't always bug me. There are times it quite amuses me. If it has to do with theatre, though, it's almost certain that it won't be one of those times.

Some context: During the soft weeks at my full-time job, I picked up a side-gig at Playpenn, this great little mini-festival of new plays in Philly. They're workshopped for a few rehearsals, then presented as staged readings. I'm serving as technical director for the Playground, one of the two spaces Playpenn uses at the Adrienne Theatre. As these are supposed to be staged readings, one would expect them to involve minimal tech. That has not always been the case; hence this post.

The basics are already done: lights were hung and focused before we began working in the space; it's a predetermined repertory plot shared by all the shows in my space, with a maximum of two refocusable specials, so focus was pretty much a one-shot deal. Enough spare instruments were available to allow me to actually hang all the specials as individual units, so rather than re-focus from show to show, I just jump on a stepladder and re-circuit to the appropriate instrument. At this point, a day or two from performance, there are only a few sound cues. For the most part, I've been sitting in on rehearsals, waiting to answer questions or respond to needs, and getting to know the shows.

On the readings which involve an appropriately basic amount of tech, I don't have much to do. Mostly I sit and watch the rehearsal process, which is a bit unusual since the text is still in flux. In one case, I've found that engaging and educational. Watching the different ways the three actors in the show adjust to day-to-day changes in the script is interesting; they're three distinct ways. And it's educational to see how the playwright adjusts in response to things revealed in seeing the show on its feet, even in this spare book-in-hand performance.

And then there are the shows that are fighting the reality of their being staged readings. Rather, I ought to say, the shows whose directors are fighting or just plain ignoring the realities of the fact that they're staged readings. Granted, some of the plays, those whose narrative involves a lot of physicality, are not themselves particularly amenable to the stylized limits of book-in-hand performance. Those plays challenge the director to make decisions about what to attempt to convey in limited performed physicality, what gets read by an offstage narrator, and what just gets skipped. Those can be tough decisions, and it's frustrating to watch a director who lacks the conviction to commit to their choices, or the guts to choose in the first place.

You end up with a reading that takes place on a bare stage cluttered with an assortment of "necessary" props and orphan scenic elements; actors wear pieces suggestive of costumes; the occasional light or sound cue floats in painfully evident isolation, a statement without a vocabulary. Nothing is consistent throughout. The poor actors are stuck mixing mime and literal props, juggling the latter with loose leaf scripts in binders or flopping pages held together with a binder ring or two. The end result feels -- to me, at least -- a bit half-assed. Worse, it gives the impression of being distrustful of the audience's imagination. I think I'd prefer a straight-up no-frills reading: actors on stools or chairs, sitting behind music stands with the script, performing with essential narration read aloud. It shows trust; trust in the audience; trust in the words.

And I think an absence of trust is an aspect of the sort of situation that frustrates me most. This isn't limited to a staged reading situation. I have to sit through it all the time in rehearsals for full productions. And it drives me nuts. Simply and harshly put, it's this: watching "directors" who can't direct Direct.

On a purely pragmatic level, it's an offensive lack of consideration for any sort of time management. When this gets really bad, you can tell by watching the actors; they disengage whenever they're not directly involved; it would be unreasonably and pointlessly tiring to maintain a constant attentive presence. The stage manager looks at her watch, flips ahead through pages, looks at the time again, and sighs. The tech folks thank God for wi-fi, go online and post on their blogs. And when the director is finally informed of how little time remains in the rehearsal, he gushes distress, despair and confusion that we didn't get to all the scenes he'd meant to work on.

But what frustrates me most of all is the fact that almost all the time they're wasting is actually wasted. They work the same bits over and over and over again, without any real progress, often without any clear sense of what they're working toward. Most of the time they don't outright set a goal, and when they do they never trust the actors to find their way to it on their own. Sometimes they're able to elucidate the perceived problem they want to solve, which can makes things even more maddening for me when it's obvious that the stuff they're doing does not at all address the problem as they've expressed it. They might actually be seeing a real problem, but haven't a sense of its causes or a clue how to move towards a solution. And that is, I think, because they don't know how the thing they're tinkering with works. 

These are, almost consistently, directors with what Huck Finn might describe as "a terrible lot of book-learnin'." Their understanding of theatre is entirely academic. Everything is in abstract. They don't act, have never acted, and don't really know or understand acting. They're not writers, or at least not playwrights, themselves. They don't know or understand any of the technical aspects of stagecraft (but nevertheless have definite opinions, regardless of the fact that they usually haven't the vocabulary to communicate then, and try to concern themselves with tech to an extent so inappropriate that it would be embarrassing if they had any sense of their own ineptitude). The truth is, they know nothing except How To Direct. Which means, frankly, they know nothing. Their attempts at actual stagecraft are like a literary critic trying to fix a broken printing press. They may have a sense of what they want to see in the end product, but they've no idea how it gets there or where it comes from. And they are willfully oblivious to the limits of their knowledge, as well as to the possibility of anyone else's possessing any. They never -- never -- simply ask for something and trust that you know your job well enough to make it happen. They rarely are trusting enough to risk putting a problem on the table and being open to other people's takes on it or ideas about solutions. The one How To Direct thing they don't know how to do is direct. It's as though they've a wholly isolated definition of the job. They seem unaware of and resistant to the idea that what a director does is direct -- make sure that everyone involved is headed in the same direction. A good director doesn't control; he directs; he keeps a group of people with divers talents unified. You don't tell the herd how to walk, you just keep them together and moving in the same direction. When a really good director is on his game, the destination doesn't even need to be clearly defined -- you discover it when you get there.

But that's not the case with these book-learnin' Directors. They talk about process, but they don't trust it. They act like architects when what they need to be is gardeners. Lacking an understanding of how things operate, they start fiddling with things that may have no relation to the thing they want to change. They keep flipping the tape cassette over, pressing play, fast-forwarding, pressing rewind, flipping the cassette again, trying to get the thing to play Mozart when all's that recorded on the tape is Queen's Greatest Hits.

I like Queen. I like Mozart. But no amount of tinkering with the one is going to get you the other. And watching someone try with ignorant determination to make that happen is just plain painful.


Blogger  Jolie said...

Would it be an accurate guess that none of these book learnin' directors read your blog? I did wonder why you had a blog post in the middle of the day on a Thursday.

9:37 PM  
Blogger Eric Aitala said...

Believe it or not, I have been in 'parallel' situations with people who Know How to Program Computers...

They've taken many classes, written lots of code, perhaps even gotten a BS in CompSci. But put them in a real world IT department and they become useless..

They've never had to deal with real, production IT hardware or written code which actually has to be used by non-IT personnel or dealt with real world problems. Its all been theoretic stuff which rarely seems to be useful.

'Sure your bubble sort is really nice but the pink and green application interface is making our users' stomachs churn. And you misspelled the Boss' name on the Org Chart. '


12:02 AM  

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