September 2, 2014

Inside the Mind of a Director

When my daughter was five and in a day school on Sanibel Island, all the children were asked to say their names and tell the class what their fathers did for a living. "My name is Sam," said the lisping four-and-a-half year old. "My father’s a doctor. He makes people better." Next came the red-headed Miranda, "My father sells real estate. He makes lots of money!" Then came my daughter, "My name is Julia. My father is a director. He plays!" Not far from the truth. For the past 30 years my provocation and avocation has been rolled into one. I am a theater director. I have been blessed and privileged to spend my life in this subtle, ancient, sacred art.

Being a director is like serving as a general contractor on a building project. The script is my blueprint. The set, lighting and costume designers are the equivalents of electrician, plumber and roofing subcontractors. Everything goes past the director’s discerning eye. On the play that I am about to open, The Rainmaker at the Florida Repertory Theatre, this would include seven actors and four designers, plus a legion of others: stage managers, prop masters, carpenters, seamstresses, scenic artists, et al. I will shortly describe some of the moves I make—large and small—that create the shape and feel of this Rainmaker.

But, first, let me describe the principles I work by in honoring every play I direct. Rule No. 1: The play is the thing. It is my goal always to fulfill the playwright’s intent while making the play resonate with my audience. I study, read and reread the script, for it’s the director’s job to interpret the play. Like a conductor of an orchestra, I must pace the piece. Through staging, I am to put the audience’s focus where it needs to be. In rehearsals, I must get the group of artists to work as a cohesive whole. I must negotiate my way with dozens of collaborators. Rule No. 98: The theater is a collaboration where the strongest man wins. The director’s job is to be that man, plus mother, friend, nurturer, disciplinarian and whatever else is needed. It is my mission to guide, prod and seduce my colleagues to do what must be done to make a play honest and compelling.

Game show personality Charles Nelson Reilly, besides winning two Tony Awards as an actor, is also a very talented director. Charles was once in rehearsals for a new play when a beautiful, but not very talented actress was bumbling her lines, lost her place in the script and said, "Where should we go back to?" Replied Riley: "Casting!"

A well-cast play is obviously a big step to an excellent production. When faced with an actor who has been miscast, a director, after trying all he knows to get a performance out of that actor, must replace him for the good of the play. I know one artistic director who, when faced with the horrible task of firing an actor, would bring the actor into his office and break the news. He’d then tell the actor, "So you can save face, we will tell everyone that your grandmother just died, and you must leave immediately to attend the funeral." I once told that story to a cast and, from then on throughout rehearsals, heard them frequently and good-naturedly ribbing each other with "So how’s your grandmother feeling?!"

Once you have the casting right, you’ve got to take that group and mold a production that is beautifully staged, smartly paced and, most importantly, properly interpreted. I believe that the best work most often happens when you have actors working together over a good period of time. At Florida Rep, it is not uncommon to have an actor in rehearsal who has done 20, 30, even 40 productions with me. When you find actors who are talented, versatile, sensitive, resourceful, open and daring, why wouldn’t you want to cast them again and again? After enough shows together you also learn to communicate with a special shorthand and understanding. It’s like watching the distinctive ballet of a shortstop and second-baseman turning a double play in baseball.

Rule No. 88: Great roles require great natures to interpret them. The famous director Sir Tyrone Guthrie once gave a lecture in which he talked about casting. He said in his upper-crust British accent, "You want to cast so-and-so as Lady MacBeth, because so-and-so is the only one you feel can give you the quality you need for what you want to accomplish. But, so-and-so is also a raging alcoholic and has just gone through an ugly divorce!" He paused, "So, do you cast so-and-so and deal with her problems or do you cast someone else?" Another long pause, "No, you cast so-and-so, and you deal with her problems." You must seek out the best talent; it’s worth a little aggravation.

Many of today’s directors have been inspired by the writings of Harold Clurman. Clurman, a renowned critic, essayist, director and co-founder of the famous Group Theatre in the 1930s, wrote On Directing, the bible of all books on the subject. In it, Clurman talks about each play having a spine that drives a production and is its unifying force. The spine is the starting point for everyone’s collective creativity. It is the director’s job to determine the spine before any work begins.

In my production of The Rainmaker, the spine is "drought." The play is a romantic comedy about a ranching family suffering through a drought in the early part of the 20th century. Drought is both the central metaphor of the piece and its spine. If the play is properly directed, this spine will affect the actors’ choices and their understanding of the play.

Our heroine, Lizzie, is the daughter of the family. Her father and brothers all fear she’ll never find a man and will end up living life alone. Her drought is that she believes she’s unattractive and unworthy of love. Her youngest brother, Jimmy, believes he’s unintelligent, having been put down his whole life by his domineering older brother, Noah, whose drought is that he can’t believe in anything. The fast-talking con man Starbuck, who promises the family rain for $100, deep down knows he is a liar and a fake, which is his drought. And so on with the other characters. In rehearsals, it is the director’s job to articulate to the actors the spine of the play and help each actor put it into action.

When you see this Rainmaker, watch the actors carefully for revealing clues to their characters’ development. Notice how Lizzie will always be fiddling with the buttons of her blouse to make sure they are closed high and tight, hiding her sexuality that she so lacks confidence in. Look how her expression will change from defiance as she battles the sexually charged Starbuck in the living room to one of loneliness and pain as she passes into the kitchen, with no one noticing except the audience. After she has found love towards the end of the play, Lizzie’s body will appear physically like a flower in bloom as opposed to the wilted one at the beginning of the play.

Lizzie’s younger brother, Jimmy, has a similar arc. At the start, a breakfast scene, watch his posture; head down, shoulder curled, slumped in his chair, all of which reveals his low self-esteem. When rain comes for Jimmy (metaphorically) at the end of the play and he realizes the power to take control of his life is in his own hands all along, watch his final entrance, cigar in the corner of his mouth, the gait of his step now wide and confident. See him not walk, but swagger up to his brother, Noah, laughing instead of withdrawing at his older brother’s tongue lashing. Rule No. 322: Directing consists of turning psychology into behavior.

Designers must also connect with the spine, but interpret it in their own way. I have directed The Rainmaker twice before—in 1977 and 1992. In my 1992 production, the set designer chose to use a skeleton set, which meant no solid walls on the set, just a framework against the sky. This allowed the audience to see the cloudless, dry horizon, caused by, you got it, the drought. The costume designer insisted the actors were sprayed with water before their entrances, so the characters were literally perspiring in 110-degree heat. The music I used in 1992 is the same concept for this new production: a single fiddle playing Americana music. It is a lonely, longing sound, which connects beautifully with our heroine’s yearning for love.

In the first week of my four-week rehearsal, all the actors sit around a table and slowly go through the script discussing all details. When we finally get up from the table, my staging of the play goes very swiftly, because everyone now knows what their characters want and where they are heading.

In my 1992 production of The Rainmaker, at the end of the first day of rehearsals, I gave each actor an assignment. They were to go home and bring back a true story from their own life in which they experienced drought. They did not have to reveal anything about themselves they would feel uncomfortable doing.

Rule No. 23: Create a safe environment for your actors. As an example, I told the cast about a time in my life when I had a drought. I was 10 years old and going to a very large public school in New York City. In these schools, four- or five-hundred students were in every grade. Classes in each grade were given numbers, 6-1, 6-2, 6-3, through 6-13. If you were in 6-1, you were in the smartest class and if you were in 6-13 you were borderline mentally challenged. I had been in class 1-3, then 2-3, 3-3, through 5-3. My class was smart. I had been with the same group for several years. Then on the last day of fifth grade, I saw next year I would be in 6-4 not 6-3. To this day, I remember the tears swelling up in my eyes and the helpless loneliness I felt when my teacher, Mrs. O’Connell, said she could not help me. It was a drought, and painful indeed.

The next day, all seven actors told their stories. The actress playing Lizzie told of her parents’ ugly divorce and the time after it when her mother put her on a flight alone at age 11 to Europe to meet her father, who was now living in Amsterdam. Signals got crossed and her father was not in sight and would not arrive for two days. Interpol got involved, and this now 30-year-old actress wept openly for feelings of abandonment. And so the stories continued. Through this exercise, the cast came to understand the feeling of drought was universal. They also now looked at each other differently. Besides empathy for their characters, they had empathy for each other. It’s this kind of feeling and insight that a director’s trying to feed into the actors’ performances.

In every production, even if it is of the same play, directors face different challenges. In my 1977 college production, the actors playing Lizzie and Starbuck developed a real dislike for each other. This worked well in the first half of the play when the characters were antagonistic. In the second half, however, there were two love scenes, which, in spite of my every effort, were simply not working. Two days before opening, I decided that desperate measures were needed. So I brought them together in a room. They had openly spoken to me about their dislike of each other but never dared speak to each other about it. So I told Richie (Starbuck) all the horrible things Sharon (Lizzie) had said about him. To Sharon I did the same. First they denied it, then came the first insult, then another, then came an all-out shouting match. Somewhere in the middle, Richie screamed, "I am talking about the play!" He punched his fist into a wall for dramatic effect. Eventually, screams turned to tears, apologies came, and I immediately re-assembled the cast and did a complete run-through. Miracle of miracles. It was great! The tense scenes were tense and the love scenes were tender. I went home thinking, "Robert my boy, you are a genius!" The next day, the day before we were to open, Richie came into rehearsals with a hard plaster cast from his knuckles to his elbow. He had broken his hand. Genius undone!

In the end, a director must balance the craft (the contractor) with the art (the conductor). But in my 30 years and more than 100 professional productions, perhaps the most important thing I’ve learned, a rule I have never, ever broken since is Rule No. 91: Never let your leading man punch a wall!