So I took the plunge. I didn't just dip my toes in — Nooo — I dove head first, right into the deep end. That's right, I stepped out from behind my sampler and computer and donned a director's cap — not once, but twice.
At the invitation of Children's Theatre Company artistic director Peter Brosius, January 2004 found me in a very cold Minneapolis directing Kevin Kling's Lilly's Purple Plastic Purse for the CTC mainstage. As I type these very words, I've just returned from making my Actors Theatre of Louisville directing debut with Jordan Harrison's fantastic new play Kid Simple for the 2004 Humana Festival.
Why on earth would I, after spending the last 14 years of my career as a sound designer, want to jump into the often deep and dark waters of directing?
First and foremost, as a designer I approach my work in a dramaturgical way, much the same as an actor onstage. Like an actor, I also deal with actions and motivations in a scene; I just use different tools. After all, those of us in the theatre are storytellers regardless of the medium we use, right?
Jumping into the challenge of directing actually felt very natural. I'm a sound designer who wants and needs to create the complexity of a soundscape in the rehearsal hall. As a result, I've had the privilege to clock many hours of rehearsals with fantastic directors over the years — Jon Jory, Marcus Stern, Tina Landau, Phelim McDurmot, Jo Bonney, Brian Kulick, Robert Woodruff, and Marc Masterson — not to mention my last ten years with Anne Bogart and the SITI company. After spending that many years in a room crafting a play with those directors, and a decade working with the extraordinary actors in the SITI company, how could I not have some of it rub off on me? My sound design career has made for a very sneaky MFA in directing.
I entered into this with the notion of becoming a better sound designer — which I'd like to think I've accomplished — but directing was an itch I just had to scratch. I've been known to stage quite a few scenes in rehearsals, and those urges in rehearsal were starting to become more frequent. I'm sure many directors who have worked with me over the last three years will be greatly relieved to hear that I have finally directed in hopes of getting it out of my system.
Since I view the entire play as a piece of music, the rehearsals were more conducted than staged. Because I'm so aurally aware, however, I found that as I staged and rehearsed the play I couldn't completely jettison the sound designer in me. I had many conversations with Kid Simple costume designer Lorraine Venberg about the right click of Carla's shoes and spent valuable rehearsal time rustling a variety of paper to find the one that sounded just right.
In retrospect, how Kid Simple sound designer Bray Poor put up with my detailed notes about reverb times and fade times is beyond me. He's been my associate and right-hand man for the last few years so I guess he's used to it. He's probably the only sound designer crazy enough to walk into rehearsal with me and take the reins of what proved to be the largest sound design I've ever been a part of.
Kid Simple, subtitled a Radio Play in the Flesh, is a show I've often told the playwright could not have been done technically two years ago. Our production had more cues than a pool hall. On top of working on the sound design every day in rehearsal, many a “day off” were spent mixing down cues. To give you an idea of the scope, Kid Simple is a one-act, one-hour-and-40 minute show that, along with Bray's sound design, also had a live Foley operator on stage.
Kid Simple was quite complex from a sound designer's standpoint since the aural world of the play, as envisioned by Jordan Harrison, is integral. Prep work on the sound design began three to four months before rehearsals. Before I arrived in Louisville there would be numerous meetings with Bray to share thoughts on the sound design and listen to sketches of cues.
In Louisville, I rehearsed the first week without a designer but, as Bray continued to work in NYC, I would get an upload of cues to my Mac iDisc server. Once Bray's work was downloaded into my iBook, I continued staging while my directing assistant Emily Wright would incorporate the cues into rehearsal until Bray's arrival.
To say it took a village to bring Jordan's sound world to the ears of the audience is an understatement. One Monday afternoon found all four of us — sound engineer Matt Hubbs, Emily, Bray, and myself — in the rehearsal hall hunched over our Macs most of the day, pushing Digital Performer as far as we knew how.
When I directed Lilly's in Minneapolis, I also designed the sound. But unlike ATL, CTC did not provide an assistant director to help me out despite the double duty I was pulling. At least in tech I was fortunate to be able to hand the show over to CTC resident sound designer Chris Heagle, who was a lifesaver. Lesson learned in Min-neapolis? While I could both direct and design the sound, it meant absolutely no days off and getting considerably less sleep.
After a SITI company rehearsal one day, I remember asking Anne Bogart what she felt her primary job as a director was, to which she replied, “To create a situation in which something can happen.”
It's a lesson I've taken to heart. Anne has always sat like a sentinel over her rehearsals, providing focus and offering suggestions as the show is being created by the actors. Despite all the years with her (some 23 collaborations now), I was surprised that my process was entirely different. Certain similarities aesthetically, yes, but the way in which we create an energy in the room is vastly different. For me as a director, making a play is a visceral experience.
While conducting the rehearsals, I found myself directing the rhythm of the text, finding the music in it, and setting the body to allow it to be heard better. Simple as that. Looking back there was never much talk of the emotional life of a scene as we worked.
The whole directorial challenge for me was about patience and making concise decisions based on what was happening in the room. As a sound designer my medium is a reactive one — responding musically to what I'm given. I found it to be exactly the same as a director.
I've been taught over the years, the most important thing you can do in a rehearsal hall is to be present at all times. As a director, you must direct the production of the play, set the rules, and define with the other designers the whole of the event. But let the actors direct their roles, and then respond to what they give you and shape from there. It's always awkward as a designer to work with directors who seem to come in the first day of rehearsal with the show already staged in their head (and sometimes even scored!), leaving the only job for designers and actors to attempt is to decode that preconceived show and play it back for the director and the audience.
One of the unexpected gifts from this new directorial perspective is a profound appreciation for a production team and what they can mean to a director.
The nature of being a designer is that you get to work on more productions in a year than a director can in the same amount of time. Also, while you are dealing with the minutiae of a play, a crack design team is constantly thinking about the entire theatrical event and sees pieces of the puzzle that you might not see.
Directing can be an incredibly lonely job. I distinctly remember a moment during a break in the tech for Lilly's in Minneapolis, standing alone at the edge of an actorles stage struggling to solve a particular staging moment in hopes of making the most of D.M. Wood's beautiful new lighting cue. As I turned around, I could see the entire design team huddled in the darkness around the glow of a little light, and I had never felt more alone in a theatre in my life.
As I turned back to gaze at the empty stage and continue to play out in my head various exit and entrance strategies, a part of me yearned for that feeling of teamwork going on in the darkness behind me. But here I was, the director, peering at an empty stage praying an idea would come to solve the problem at hand, walking the tightrope alone. The designer in me gave the director a bit of solace because at the next tech road block that we hit, I would be flanked by the design team with a plan already in place to solve the problem, which made that tightrope walk feel a bit shorter.
What I found most beneficial, coming from a design background, was having a shorthand with both design teams. In technical rehearsals, the acting company would constantly tease me that they'd never worked with a director that spouted more initials and technical jargon in their lives.
I hope that as a director who understands everyone's job in the shadows, I was able to provide a bit of relief to the stage management team and crew for Kid Simple. I was not going to be one of those directors shouting the endless tech war cry of “WHAT ARE WE HOLDING FOR?” because I know very well how long it actually takes to reset a trap, or program a moving light, or scroll back through the endless SFX cues in the computer.
Tech is always a difficult time for actors, but the most important goal for me as the director and a designer was to give the show back to the company as soon as I possibly could. It was up to me to make sure the aesthetic foundation of the play was solid so they could do the magic that they do: to tread the boards, give of themselves, and tell a story so that, if we all listen, we might learn something.
Fortunately, both Lilly's and Kid Simple opened to rave reviews, and while I continue to recover from the experience, I can't help but ask, would I jump into the directorial waters again? We'll see. In diving into the dark water of directing, I was surprised that the water was neither as cold as I expected nor as deep. But that first time you hit the water, it's a jolt.