I’ve been spending a lot of time in recent weeks talking about what has been unexpected.
We’re in the thick of things now – about midway through the rehearsal process, when the “getting to know you” feelings toward the text and each other have faded in favor of the natural rhythms of collaborative exploration. It’s an exciting time, when deeper, more specific work really starts to take off, made possible by a shared sense of direction established over weeks of “heavy lifting.”
This is the stuff of the Player’s craft and it can be a bit hard to explain without jargon or poetic terms, but you inevitably try to when interested parties ask about how it’s going. I’ve found that it’s been easier to talk about what has not gone according to plan rather than what has – and thereby illuminate the course of our journey in charting where we have diverged from it.
First off, it is a myth that it’s easier to direct a two-person show than it is to direct large cast. There are wonderful benefits to doing so: there’s less blocking to manage, the schedule can be more elastic to allow for the needs of the moment, and the additional opportunity for personal attention can generate wonderful depth in the playing.
But there are also less places to hide. There is an armor in large groups and it’s easier to fall into the protective shell of one’s organizational role when interacting with them. When it’s just the three of you on the rehearsal floor night after night, you have little opportunity to keep a safe distance. It’s nothing to be afraid of and it opens the door to truly honest work – I’d even make the argument that directors should always strive for that level of accessibility.
But that structurally-generated intimacy, combined with emotionally heavy material, can have a way of ratcheting up the intensity of focus in the work, the sense that everything is under a microscope - at least in the beginning – with little downtime.
Now take the weight of all the above and crash it against some very specific, very physical sequences of stage combat…and a director’s instinctive sense of organic progress can become easily masked.
These are certainly challenges that can be overcome, but they serve as a reminder that the director is not just the guardian of everyone else’s process – he also needs to allow room for his own process and it’s necessary adjustments to address the needs of the moment.
Because absolutely everything is process.
With THE MONUMENT, I have the extreme luxury of working with an amazing violence designer, Greg Poljacik of Gravity and Momentum, and two actors who are very experienced with fight choreography. And one of the cardinal precepts of theatrical collaboration is that I don’t have to have all the answers. Sometimes, being a good director simply means remembering to ask: “what do you need to be able to move forward?”
So we are now in a place I like to call, “hitting our stride.” Where we are emerging into a freedom from technical hang-ups, like unfamiliar lines and clunky blocking. The work here is all about expanding and deepening the existing framework. We began, after a fashion, by making sketches and now the shape of what will eventually become the show is beginning to appear.
Likewise, we are finding our way in navigating the emotional fallout. I have spent a great deal of time in this blog considering how to approach a play about war crimes with the appropriate humility and respect. For a theatre artist, doing this means being willing to face some pretty horrific things and exploring what it means to let the resulting feelings affect you.
Yes, living in that emotional place can be profoundly stifling, even outside of rehearsal…making it a bit harder to get up in morning, make it to the next work meeting, or walk in the door for the next scenework session.
But human beings are resilient.
We find coping mechanisms when we need them. And somewhere along the way, that most human of coping mechanisms found it’s way back into our presence: the smile.
It was tentative at first – and perhaps a little unsure of it's welcome…but as technical challenges began to fall away, it also somehow became okay again to begin enjoying the work and craft for its own sake. There was a kind of progressive realization that a journey into darkness is only bearable when shared with others: a common understanding that a grin at a flubbed line, a laugh at confused blocking – or even an outright intentional joke - can in fact be an expression of respect for the gravity of the material in play…the seriousness of the undertaking made more apparent in that it requires a sort a release valve to keep moving forward.
Doing our job right, it seems, and therefore doing the material justice, means acknowledging when the art is well done…and treasuring the moments that remind us we’re still alive – even in the midst of darkness.