Theatre Series: Direct

Surprisingly, as long as I have been in theatre, I never directed until this very semester. Not a thing. It wasn’t just that I had never had the opportunity (although I hadn’t), it was also that I had not felt compelled to direct. I was always the one acting, the girl who wanted (and occasionally got) the lead.

However, all of that changed when I enrolled in “Directing” at York College. The class was a requirement for my degree, so I knew I was going to take it, but I had no idea what a profound impact it would have on me.

The first major project we had was the direction of a ten minute play. I chose “Brother” by Mary Gallagher, and once I had my cast we were off. I enjoyed plotting out the movements and studying the dialogue, but there was one rehearsal—a week or so into the process—where a sudden realization hit me.

We were sitting in the basement of our theatre building—Gurganus Hall—myself and my two actors. They had been prepared to run through the show, but I had other ideas. “Let’s chat for a minute first. I have some questions for you.” I had prepared those questions earlier that day, and in asking them I hoped to lead my actors to understand their characters more fully. We talked for about half of our rehearsal period, and they came to some brilliant realizations. It was in that moment that I recognized the fragility of these people.

I held in my proverbial hands the very heart and soul of these freshmen actors. They wanted nothing more than to please me, to do what I wanted, and to be good. Every actor wants to be good. I know, from an acting standpoint, the deep and burning desire to hear words of affirmation from my director; but I had never been in those directing shoes before. I realized that with a single word I could smash their egos into the ground, or make them soar to even greater heights. It is a terrifying, but exciting, power.

Now, I had no desire to hurt my actors’ egos, but realizing the potential for that made me choose my words very carefully. If I had a critique, I put it as gently as I could. Not so gently that it was misunderstood, but gently enough that I didn’t sound more harsh than necessary.

I think every director, or at least every good director, realizes this strange power they have over the men and women who act for them. Many people see the director as a puppet master, pulling the strings left and right, up and down. But we are so much more than that.

A puppet master needn’t worry about the emotions of her puppets—they are inanimate, she animates them. A director realizes that she is molding real, live human beings; human beings with hearts and pride and such fragile self-esteems.

When I realized that, I looked back on what I had learned in the class so far with new eyes. Everything we were being taught was coming from a man who had been doing this for longer than I have been alive (or nearly so). My filter for his words was changed after that. I am no longer simply an actor trying to learn about directing; now I am a director who desperately needs the guidance and instruction of someone who knows more than I about this strange adventure.

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Theatre Series: Design

The designer in a theatre is often the most overlooked individual, at least from the audience’s perspective. There is a certain respect all audience members hold for the builder, the director, and always the actor–but the designer, the mind behind the set, costumes, lights and whatnot–is often forgotten. I myself have been a designer and experienced this firsthand.

When I was in community college, our director always built design teams from his student body. For my very first production with him, I was put on the costume team because I could sew. He has always been one of those men who wanted everyone to use the skills they already have–and yet he was also very willing to teach his students things they might not otherwise know (i.e., how to use a DeWalt drill).

When the production opened (I was also acting in the show), I was excitedly looking around at all the costumes my team had designed. There was so much symbolism! Each character had specific color schemes that directly related to their personality, and every bird that was mentioned in the show (because birds were a very important theme) had a character whose costume related to it. I was soon to realize, though, that none of the audience was nearly as excited as I had expected.

We acted! We tore up that stage. The production was wonderful, and afterwards as I spoke with audience members, I could hear them congratulating everyone on how well the actors did, how fantastic the set was, the effective way that the actors were directed—but no one seemed to have picked up on the symbolism we had so carefully crafted into the costumes. The asymmetrical lines for the mentally twisted characters, the red fabric to represent the life force of each person on the stage, the yellows and browns used for the main character and her family—it seemed like no one understood all of the thought that went into those things.

It wasn’t just the costume design that had been overlooked. Set had symbolism, too, but that is almost never seen. What people see is the work that went into building the set, not designing it.

Then there are the lighting designers. If you have not designed lights, you do not understand the amount of work that goes into it. Hanging lights and covering the stage properly is work in and of itself, but there is a lot of work going into the color choices and the transitions as well. It is lighting that almost no one in the audience will think about. To the average audience member, the lights are simply flipped on at the beginning of the show and then flipped off at the end. Little do they know, it is not that easy.

I write this to bring about awareness of the work that goes into the design of a production. Perhaps next time you go to a theatrical event, you will notice more of the subtleties that are involved. Remember that every color and every pattern is chosen for a reason—it isn’t like we spin a color wheel to decide which one the main character’s dress will be.

Published in: on October 7, 2013 at 11:06 pm  Leave a Comment  
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