My own relationship to and understanding of directing has never been a stationary thing, but rather, something that shifts and evolves as I work and find new things to learn. As part of these shifts, my teaching of directing also changes. That said, there are a number of places from which I generally like to start, and that I use as touchstones (for myself and for others) within a changing landscape.
First and foremost, I use bodies in space. While written and mental preparation are important, there’s nothing better than actually trying something. I think that doing is one of the best way for new directors to learn. In one of my undergraduate directing classes we practiced blocking scenes on paper before doing any three-dimensional scene work. This instilled in me an idea that there was a right and a wrong way to block a scene. In the end, I chose an arbitrary movement sequence because I got so stuck trying to find the correct answer. I believe that directors—students and professionals alike—should work in four dimensions (depth, width, height, and time) as much as possible. They should also work with people (individual, difficult, beautiful people!) so that that variable can be a part of their learning from the beginning.
I also believe that investigating one’s personal connection to a piece, whether it’s a two-minute scene or a 2-evening opera, is vital. I ask students the same thing I ask myself, constantly, as a director: “Why are you drawn to this piece?”
If it’s a piece that you’ve chosen (or written, or devised), why did you pick it; what caught your attention? If it’s a piece that’s been assigned to you, what can you find in it? Get specific, dig deep, and be as truthful as you can. And, if you can’t put your finger on a connection, keep asking the question and, in the meantime, investigate the absence of a connection and ask if/why/how that’s important.
Your connection to a piece doesn’t have to be grand or noble or heady (although, of course, it can be). It also doesn’t have to be based on narrative (assuming there is one). Did the rhythm of a certain line stick in your head, or in another part of your body? Did an image flash into your mind’s eye as you read a particular stage direction? Did you feel something in your gut when you heard a certain character say something appalling/beautiful/confounding?
I believe that investigating what draws you, the director, to a piece will lead to the information you need to stage it. A rhythm, a sensation, a sensibility, a metaphor, an image, all of these can be the germ for a production concept or roadmap of some kind. Zeroing in on what pulls you to a piece will provide the specificity necessary to let the work grow large.
I have a dear director friend who doesn’t like to go to the theatre because, in terms of quality, heart, and substance, it so often depresses him. While I understand his point of view, I think that going to the theatre—really, to any kind of live performance—is an important part of a director’s education. Seeing work, talking about it, and staring to unpack why some things work and some things don’t, is a fantastic way to learn about directing.
If you see a show and it bores you to death, can you identify why? Was the text uninteresting or inaudible? Was the staging too still or too busy? Was the pace too slow or too fast? If you see a show and it blows your mind, why? Did a use of repetition draw you in? Was the physicality of the actors unusual or engaging? Was the imagery on stage arresting?
Directors are total thieves. We see things we like and we snag them, rework them, and use them in our own pieces. Learning from others by analyzing what we like (or don’t) and determining how it was achieved is an amazing process, and one that I fully encourage in students.
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