Every director is acquainted with the feeling of dismay when rehearsals turn into previews and an audience becomes part of the mix. Suddenly there is simply nowhere to leave your jacket or bag. Everyone else has a home base - the stage manager and the actors have the benefit of their dressing rooms and stations. The director wanders around aimlessly trying to figure out where to leave her belongings. This sense of displacement is spiritual as well as it is practical. I began to complain at various theaters to whoever would listen about the problem of displacement that all directors experience in previews until opening night. Finally Sue White, then the Production Manager at New York Theatre Workshop where I was working, hammered a nail into the wall of the box office and wrote underneath, "Director's Hook." The practical problem was solved. The spiritual one was not.
Ultimately, the job of a theater director is to make her or himself useless. If the director is still necessary after a show opens, then he or she has not properly handed the show over to the actors. In rehearsal the director is the actor's first audience. I like to think of the director as litmus paper. The actors test moments against the litmus sensibilities of the director. But at a certain point the director should move away and allow the audience to take over as the target of the actors' efforts. This adjustment can be painful and awkward but it is necessary. The intimate relationship between director and actors engendered in rehearsal comes to an end and the director must get out of the way.
I met a Russian actress once who said, "The job of the actor, is to direct the role." I found this simple trope profound and revolutionary. In our present theater environment, too many actors expect the directors to direct their roles and too many directors assume that their job is to direct an actor's role. But ultimately, if you consider the totality, the director's job is not to direct the actor's role; rather the director's job is to direct the PLAY. The actors should consciously and intuitively direct their own role while the director is occupied with directing the play.
It may be true that the art of editing in film and television has insidiously invaded the arena of the theater. In the hands of a film director and editor, the actor's performance is ripped apart and re-arranged into what feels rhythmically and semiotically satisfying. In film and television an actor is only responsible to the bits and pieces of their "part." On the other hand, in the theater, the audience needs to empathically grab the coattails of the actors and ride them throughout the play. But through misunderstanding and inherited assumptions accumulated by a confusion about the difference between film and theater, actors have largely relinquished their responsibility and power in live theater by leaving it to the director to assemble their performances. And audiences are robbed of potential intensity by the actors' capitulations.
Directing as a profession did not happen until relatively recently. In ancient Greece, the playwright was responsible for training the chorus, writing the music and staging his own plays. In medieval Europe, large-scale religious dramas and mystery plays required a pageant master to co-ordinate processions, crowd scenes and elaborate effects. Later, from the Renaissance through the 19th century, "actor-managers" chose repertory for a company, cast plays and oversaw the designs and production. But the idea of a director as a necessary artistic component of the process did not occur until the early twentieth century.
I have devoted my life to directing which I consider an art form. What makes directing art? The Dictionary Britannica defines art as "the use of skill and imagination in the creation of aesthetic objects, environments, or experiences that can be shared with others." Directing requires the conscious and unconscious undergoing and forging and arranging that intentionally stimulates and affects the emotions, the intellect and the senses of an audience. Directing requires skill and taste and intuition. In this sense, directing as we know of it today is definitely an art form.
Whether a new play, an opera, a classic play or a devised work, first and foremost the director is responsible to imagining a world in which a play might flourish. The director should develop some hunches, admit to the many necessary unknowns and then propose some clear guidelines in which actors, designers and other creative collaborators can find their way. The director sets the sights for the creative team, describing the parameters. A director is a strategist and a juggler.
My grandfather, Admiral Raymond Spruance, became Commander in Chief of the US Pacific Fleet during the Second World War and was generally credited as the brains behind the success of the Battle of Midway, considered the turning point of the war in the Pacific, as well as the Battle of the Philippine Sea. A calm and scholarly man who did not draw attention to himself, he was notorious not only for his brilliance as a strategist, but also for his habit of falling asleep in the midst of crucial battles. Invariably would come a knock at his cabin door. "Admiral, a submarine has been hit by Japanese torpedoes." My grandfather would retort, "Why did you wake me up? We have been through this. We have a plan and everyone knows perfectly well what to do."
I often think of this story in relation to directing. An actor does not stop the show in the middle to ask the director what to do next. The planning, the strategy, the philosophy has been worked out in rehearsal.
And yet a director can be useful after a play opens, especially with some distance, some time taken away from the show to return with fresh eyes and new perspectives. Even knowing that the director is in the house gives the actors a special heightened sense of being seen by a professional. The core community is complete again and the circular nature of feedback can resume.
Is it possible to teach directing? I run the graduate directing program at Columbia University and should be able to answer this question. But teaching directors is a tricky enterprise. Ultimately it is only in the crisis of their own rehearsals that a director figures out how to negotiate the constant juggling, listening and action necessary to construct a journey in space and time in which actors and audiences can share company. Assistant directing may be detrimental to a director's development because they can mistake someone else's crisis for their own. Each director must ultimately locate the landscape of his or her very own crisis. Certainly I enjoy the congress with the young directors and I am proud of how they negotiate the world after they graduate. But sometimes I think that the only thing that I can help them to develop is a point of view. At Columbia I require that each director develop the ability to have an experience, whether a run-through of a scene or a production, a conversation, or a ride on the subway, and emerge with observations and a point of view about what they experienced.