Wednesday, April 29, 2009

Directing my own play (about me)

I've started rehearsals on Doctors Jane and Alexander, a play about my Mom and my grandfather going up in the Festival of Jewish Theater & Ideas. As I often do with my own work, I am directing it myself.

I have often heard people debate whether a playwright should direct his own play. My approach, when directing my own work, had always been to somewhat detach myself from the role of writer and to become a director. To stop thinking of it as my writing and just think of it as a play. But of course I have a certain freedom I wouldn't have with someone else's play - I can say, that line is just horribly written, it doesn't work at all, let's change it. Often I find I go there more quickly than my actors, who at time protest, no, I can make this work. Which may be true. A good actor can often disguise bad writing. But I try to avoid the bad writing altogether.

The one nice thing I find when someone else directs a play of mine is that I can really concentrate on rewriting during rehearsals - and I do mean during rehearsals. During Golem Stories, I would rewrite the play as they rehearsed, so that the new lines would come by the end of rehearsal, and I could hear them. And having a director with strong opinions (Glory Bowen in that case) is very helpful - unless I completely disagree, I suppose. I occasionally disagreed with Glory, but the play came out much better by the end of rehearsals, thanks in good part to her feedback.

Doctors Jane and Alexander has gone through many iterations. It was a ten-minute piece, written in 24 hours, for my 24/7 Festival. Alex Roe (of the Metropolitan Playhouse) did a fabulous job with that little piece, and staged it in ways I didn't expect and found very moving. Then it became a one act in NEUROfest, and Ian W. Hill directed it, once again doing a fabulous job with it. Both times, I was grateful to have an outside director, because the play is so personal - I'm a character, my Mom is a character, my grandfather as well, and in the latest incarnations, my brother too. It was interesting to have an outside eye who didn't have all the inside information.

When Ensemble Studio Theater gave me a Sloan Grant to develop the piece into a full length (and present it as a reading) I decided to direct it myself. It's partly because I enjoy directing, and it was a piece I thought would be fun to direct. But it was also because, having seen other directors work with it, I felt I was ready to direct - and even more, at the time, there were some actors I really wanted to cast in the reading, and I had the luxury of determining the casting as the director.

Now I have reached the fully staged version, and I am directing again. I have to say, it has been an unusual process for me, in the early rehearsals. Before we began, I urged the actors not to worry about the reality of who I am, who my mother is, etc, but just to perform the play (much of which is found text, from actual conversation) and interperet them. And I still urge them to do so. But as a director, my instinct is to insert my own experience. And my own experience, of course, come from the reality of my experiences with my Mom and others.

At first I resisted injecting that reality into the play, but the actors had questions from day one, and really, the answers that I can give are just based on my own life. So I find myself selectively injecting a little more reality into the show.

I do simultaneously have some strong feedback about the show. Henry Akona, who is composing music for the play, or rather taking my grandfathers relatively simple compositions and filling them with ornate, complex, and clever harmonies, has been giving me feedback since the reading at Ensemble Studio Theater, and with such a personal piece, it's particularly good to have an outside eye. Henry's also a director (he has been workshopping another play of mine, Rudolf II, for years) and someone whose opinions I greatly respect.

But the difference, in the end, between directing one of my own plays myself and having someone else direct is this: when I direct, I know that everything that's really important to me will happen on stage. All the reasons I was inspired to write the play will be directly in front of the audience. I feel relatively confident about my directing, so the chance are good I will like the end result. And I will have the enjoyment (as well as the work) of putting it together.

When someone else directs, something or other that I found important in the text will inevitably missed. But with a good director, some things I didn't even realize were there will be found. Which is exciting. And I get to focus on honing the script all the more. And that is also enjoyable.

ButI won't get to discover the play as a director. And that, for me, is the real joy of directing my own script. When I write, I deliberately only include minimal stage directions. First, I don't enjoy writing them. Second, I feel like it is up to the director to fill those moments in, while it's up to me, as a writer, to give the director dialogue, with only the occasionally comment, to make the meaning clearer. And the staging that works in one theater, with one set of actors, won't necessarily work in another.

But now, as the director, I get to discover daily what staging works and doesn't work with my particular actors, discovering the transitions, the flow of the piece, etc. And it's fun. Frustrating, sometimes, when I feel the flow isn't working. But almost an extention of writing, like I have taken a work half finished and now I'm providing the other half. Because there's only so much one can express in words. And I'm not always good at explaining I mean. But showing what I mean, by moving actors in space - that, I'm good at

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