I just checked my LinkedIn profile to be sure and yes, I am a performer. Which is not what it should say. It should say, “actor.” How long I've been an actor is up for argument. When I was finally able to call myself an actor is not. I remember the very moment, getting there was difficult and not the subject of this piece. This month's Fourth Saturday is about me being something else.
Now I just revealed that under occupation I write “actor”—thespian, player, meat puppet. Actors are unique and I don't mean that in the flattering sense. It is our nature to please and to piss off. To seek attention and then scream, “leave me alone, you're suffocating me!” To beg the director for notes on how to better bring our character to life and then do whatever we want using whatever blocking will pull the most focus off the guest actor we determined weeks ago is completely devoid of talent.
Oh dear, I see I've used some terms that may be foreign to those of you whom we in the world of theatre derisively call “civilians.” Allow me to clear a few things up.
Blocking—The movement used by actors on stage to help tell the story most effectively.
Pulling focus—What happens when an actor does things on stage that divert the attention of the audience away from where it should be.
These terms and others have come to the fore recently because I am no longer an actor—well at least for the next five weeks I'm not. I am a director.
Director—The very term is opposite to what I've done all my life. React, accept, connect…usually defeat; these are the verbs that have been my guideposts.
Direct? To direct is to take charge, to steer the ship, to lead the troops. I'm a non-com, a deck hand, a follower. But direct I must—ten actors, two acts, one set. This asks me to tap into a skill set that I rarely use, because I don't have that skill set. I need things like organization, time-management, pre-planning. A director must be able to look ahead, anticipate problems and correct them before they happen. Actors procrastinate, cause problems, and then pretend they never happened.
But all is not lost. Despite my best laid plans to snatch defeat from the jaws of victory, I may succeed anyway. First, I picked good material. The play I'm directing is Why Marry?, by Jesse Lynch Williams, playing March 1-9, 2013 at Fresno City College. In 1918 it won the first Pulitzer Prize ever awarded for drama.
Second, I'm not alone. I have people, talented people in the way of actors, designers, technicians, and assistants, who will be doing a lot of the heavy lifting. All that's required of me is to make a decision and for that I've wisely invested twenty-five cents in a quarter that I will flip as needed. And one of those assistants is a person called a stage manager. My stage manager goes by the name Caitlyn. She's smart and friendly and has this binder with all sorts of useful information like...the script, phone numbers of people I might need to contact, and lists of things like props and costumes. And, I can send her an email which she will then distribute to the entire cast and crew via some technology that eludes me.
Finally, I may actually have some qualities that are well suited to this enterprise. Having spent most of my time in theatre on the stage as opposed to looking at it, I have a good sense of what actors want to hear, need to hear, and should never hear from a director. The never hear part is easy—actors should never hear anything that makes them play it safe. If an actor is inclined to play it safe he should consider a career in political arts. I have experienced that feeling of just wanting to get through rehearsal without getting humiliated...again.
What they want to hear is that they're doing great work. Sometimes an actor's work is so routinely good that you never feel the need to give her direction and then she starts to think something is wrong.
It's the what they need to hear that's tricky. I know I want performances that are more dynamic than the ones I've seen thus far. But how to communicate that in a way that conveys the message yet doesn't sound like criticism—ah, there's the rub.
Speak the speech I pray you as I pronounced it to you, trippingly on the tongue; but if you mouth it as many of your players do, I had as lief the town-crier spoke my lines. Nor do not saw the air too much with your hand thus...For anything so o'erdone is from the purpose of playing, whose end both at the first and now, was and is, to hold as 'twere, the mirror up to nature; to show virtue her own feature, scorn her own image, and the very age and body of the time his form and pressure. –Hamlet, Act 3, Scene 2That might do the trick.
Copyright © 2013 by James Knudsen