Theatrical directing and why I should probably not do it

I’m writing this post entirely because my roommate told me to. You can thank her for this.

I’m taking a directing class for theatre (the decision to do so has since become one of those This-Idea-Is-So-Brilliant-I-Think-I’ll-Go-Through-With-HOLY-IRREVERSIBLE-MISTAKE-BATMAN-WHAT-HAVE-I-DONE-ASDLFKJLSAKFDJ moments). And I am not a director, guys. Sure, I like symbolism and analyzing the absolute shiznit out of things as much as the next English major, but when it comes to “communicating my vision” for a play, I’d much rather do that by writing an overreaching essay. Give me ten pages to expound upon the depth and development of a character, and I probably won’t have a problem.

Unfortunately for me, I can’t exactly write a ten-page paper on a character, hand it off to an actor, and say, “THIS IS MY VISION DO THIS PLEASE OKAY THANKS.” Evidently, directing is about communicating and choosing your words precisely and—as my professor says—being “on the spot.”

And I’m not exactly bad at being on the spot. I mean, I’ll make stuff up if forced. I can mostly BS my way through a required discussion section. The ability to pull an argument out of your ____ is the fundamental skill taught in college. And that’s perfectly fine, it’s a valuable quality. I have no problem with doing it. It’s just if I’m going to make something up, I’d like to at least have a very basic concept of what I’m saying.

Enter Directing Class.

Where I literally have no clue what I’m doing, at all times.

As a playwright, I like being able to pass my work to someone else for interpretation. But as a director, I am the interpreter. I have people relying on my interpretation, and if it is even a little unclear, if it’s not fully realized, if there’s even one little hole in the logic, the whole production can fall apart. It’s up to you to get the performance you want to put on stage out of the actor(s), and that means speaking a highly specific language. Don’t talk about emotions; give them something to play, to do, that reveals the emotion. Don’t command the actor; ask them. And ask the right questions, not ones that might accidentally create conflicting motives in the actor’s mind.

See, I learn things in college.

Since this is a writing blog, I’m going to come at directing from a writer’s perspective. Obviously, directing is a totally separate job. Of course, I know playwrights who like to get all up in that, be in absolute control (much like Hitler), and make their play come to life exactly as they saw it, but that’s a matter of personality and preference. Personally, if I’d just spent weeks/months/years working on a play, I wouldn’t want to see the dang thing again until the performance. I don’t want to know what kind of horrible things are going on in that rehearsal room. I’ve surrendered the text; it’s not my problem anymore.

Back when The King’s Speech first came out, I went to a screening, where the adorable and ever-charming screenwriter David Seidler was in attendance. He said of the writing process: “There comes a point where you have to give up your script. I mean, when you write a script, you see the whole movie playing out in your mind and it’s perfect. Then you have to give up your child to people who will probably molest it. But occasionally, they get it right.”

I totally agree with that philosophy. But now, I’m in the director’s chair, and I have to molest someone else’s script, so to speak. Maybe I find it unnatural because as someone who works constantly with words, I harbor an inherent reverence for finished, polished works of literature of any kind. If you’re a writer, you know what I’m talking about. We know what went into it. We have shed our fair share of blood, sweat, and tears over writing plays/books/short stories. That, I can understand. What I have a hard time understanding is having to take the text and push it to the next level—making it come alive. Literally.

I suppose you could say that the directorial process is somewhat similar to writing in that both a writer and director must have a clear-cut concept of each character—they both hear the dialogue a certain way in their heads, they see the movement of each scene and can understand the psychology behind it. The difference comes in the communication of the concepts. A writer has pen and paper to facilitate this. A director has her voice (and her brain, depending on the person).

So for me, this course is basically turning into Public Speaking 101. Talking to actors while twenty people are sitting behind you, totally judging you. But it’s more than that, as I’ve already said.

What do you guys think? Does directing sound more or less similar to writing? Or is it a different beast altogether?

I can tell you one thing—I now have copious amounts of respect for people who direct plays or films for a living. It takes a special kind of person to want to do this. I applaud you all. Just… don’t make me do it with you.

Samantha Chaffin

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