The job of a playwright is never an easy one.
Compared to everyone else involved in putting the show on its feet, though, it might be the easiest. After sweating every single word on the page and visualizing the entire play in your head for weeks, months, years — you don’t even have to show up at rehearsals. All the other questions about the production become someone else’s job to answer.
Where do the actors stand? Not your problem.
What do the lights look like? Not your problem.
How do we fit a giant yet necessary prop onto the stage? Not your problem.
Much as I like the relatively carefree lifestyle of a playwright, this year I wanted to try something new:
The lovely folks at the Reading Theater Project, where I’m the literary manager, allowed me to scratch this particular itch with a short piece in the upcoming 5-Minute Fringe Festival, which runs Feb.16-19 at the Yocum Institute for Arts Education in West Lawn, Pa. I’m directing “Seed of Life” by Lancaster playwright David Nice, starring Joel Lesher and Amy Young.
(Pro tip for other directors: If you want to make your job easy, start with hiring great actors. I recommend Joel and Amy.)
At the beginning of the process, all we had was David’s script. How to get it on the stage? It’s a question the three of us thought about, but ultimately it was mine to answer. We started by reading the play aloud, listening for the changes in pitch, the pauses, the different ways to deliver each line. If something felt right, I made a note to keep it in. If it didn’t, we scrapped it and moved on.
(I’m speaking, by the way, of how the lines were delivered, not the lines themselves. NEVER change a script without the author’s OK.)
Then we’d get up on our feet, start exploring the space and figure out where each character would be when they delivered each line: Are they standing? sitting? Lying in the bed? Where is the bathroom going to be?
(Spoiler alert: The play has a bathroom.)
I hate to micromanage, but I found that part of the job of the director is to sweat Every. Single. Detail. Where do the actors stand? What actions do they mime? When does their voice rise or fall? How close should they be to each other, and when do they move apart?
All of this we figured out, by the way, in rehearsal rooms that in no way resembled the actual performance space.
To tell the truth, that part of the process isn’t about micromanaging. It’s part of the fun collaboration with the actors, as we all worked to figure out what works best for the play. My job was to see what worked and what didn’t, then remember that for the next time. Sometimes we used my ideas; often we used what Joel and Amy suggested.
Then there’s the set and the lighting, and the transition, and the sound cues — none of which we could nail down until our first tech rehearsal, on Tuesday night. That was when I realized:
Sometimes you can figure out the answer along the way. But other times you need to know the answer.
At one point Sean Sassaman, the stage manager, asked me a question about the transitions that I hadn’t considered until that moment. But the middle of tech rehearsal is no place for deliberation and looking at all sides. In the space of about two seconds I considered his question and made a decision. No one threw things at me, so I assume it was the right one.
Last night I realized that the tech rehearsal is all about making fast, clear decisions. The meandering, exploratory nature of rehearsal was over.
I also realized that the directing process, like the writing process, is an upside-down triangle: At the beginning, you have every possibility open to you — a blank page. But as you make discoveries and decisions along the way, the possibilities narrow until you reach the point where you’ve stripped away all the unnecessary parts and are left with a clear vision of the story you want to tell.
The tip of that triangle is what the audience sees, and with any luck, it looks effortless.
This is my first experience as a director, so it’s possible I’m wrong about all of it. But the process has been a fun one so far.
If you’re in the Reading, Pa., area, come see the 5-Minute Fringe Festival, a collection of short works including plays, dance, solo works, music and poetry. Tickets are available for all four performances: Thursday, Friday and Saturday at 8 p.m., and Sunday at 2 p.m.