I’ve never been a professional in the world of theater arts. Plenty of ancillary experience via amateur investments of time …yielding a comparable level of skill.
In other words, I’m a dabbler, not a master.
Not even an apprentice. The closest I’ve come to above-amateur theater involvement (with people who know what they’re doing) is painting a floor at the Warehouse Theatre in Greenville a couple years ago. Or that time my friend/actor John stepped in to fill a role abandoned by one of my actors a few days before we opened And Then There Were None. I believe John himself represented more theater experience than the entire cast, crew, and director (me) collectively. (Thus, my most stressful directing gig.)
But my dabbling took me fairly deep, way further than my lack of training warranted. Deep enough to walk the boards in Hamlet (photos to prove it), delve into Beatrice’s lines in Much Ado About Nothing (photos for that too) while directing the faculty and student cast (what was I thinking?), and develop creative settings for the three very different worlds contained within A Midsummer Night’s Dream — twice. Not to mention countless hours of teaching Shakespeare to (un)willing adolescents (always a pleasure).
Who has two thumbs and can sell a group of 6th graders on Hamlet? This chick.
Tartuffe taught me that unrhymed iambic pentameter beats couplets any day (yay for the RSC translation of Moliere to rescue us from 2 hours of sing-song!). Moliere’s biting satire of religious hypocrisy also taught me that no matter how many times you explain it, not everyone will appreciate why the dirty, ugly, crass, and mean characters in literature are absolutely necessary to telling a proper story. That’s how bad we humans are, really. So don’t tell me you‘re too good to play one of those people. You are one of those people.
I loved adapting short stories for the stage. C.S. Lewis’s Narnia fables lent themselves well to some delightful scenes, as did Greek mythology and Edgar Allan Poe. I really loved it when my students had the chance to do their own adaptations for in-house class performances. Few courtroom dramas can beat Atticus Finch examining Mayella in To Kill a Mockingbird when presented as a two-person scene. And somewhere out there is a grown boy who may still have nightmares about the time his 3rd grade teacher brought him to see a couple brothers in my class act out Poe’s “The Cask of Amontillado.” Poor drunken sot (the character, not the 3rd grader) met a rough end. (Sorry, kid. I hope the nightmares have stopped.)
Of course, you can’t do anything without pissing off someone, not if you take any stab at real style or interpretation.
The complaint reel started early for us once we started doing theater with students:
theater is too hard,
too feminine (what?!),
too literary and not STEM,
requires after-school commitments,
forces shy kids to do something they don’t want to do,
forces non-artsy kids into what they don’t want to do,
forces athletes to work around something else in their schedule,
exposes young minds to adult themes too early,
doesn’t expose the kids to “good-enough” literature (we must be looking at you, Poe),
contains swear words,
contains characters who do “bad things” and we don’t want to talk about that.
too serious for the second graders,
too hard of language for the elementary kids (Shakespeare),
and above all —
TOO MUCH TIME NOT DOING SERIOUS WORK LIKE WRITING PAPERS AND READING CHAUCER.
Despite the constant litany of complaints about why theater was a waste of time, truth is we all got so much out of it.
I miss directing sometimes. I miss getting to imagine a setting for a complex story and installing artistic signposts to lead the viewers through the tale without losing them.
I miss watching actors grow up and out into fascinating versions of people who were formerly 2D lines on a page.
I love the lessons that hit home weeks after a show closes or in rehearsal or sometimes mid-sentence in a performance when you suddenly realize why you’re saying a particular line.
Directing is like someone took project organization and cross-bred it with creativity and storytelling, with a large dose of behavioral science and management theory.
So, consider this my ode to a romanticized memory of directing, one that forgets the ridiculous amounts of work and focuses instead on all the awesome. Hats off, theatre. I hope we get back together again someday. Forgive me while I take a brief walk down memory lane:
The featured image for this post is a promotional still shot from the 2008 NCS performance of the play Nightfall with Edgar Allan Poe by Eric Coble. We shot this image inside the pitch-black gym/auditorium. I think it turned out rather well, and it made for a cool poster too after it was edited, one of a series of four. Hey, we might have been a tiny school with zero budget, but we could rock the PR machine.