Drama comes from conflict. This is remedial stuff — Aristotelian — the process of witnessing characters hashing out their conflicting views leading to some larger insight. Among the issues discussed at the April 5 symposium with Humana Festival directors, moderated with jocularity and aplomb by Baltimore Center Stage’s artistic director, Kwame Kwei-Armah, was the agreement that too much agreement between director and playwright in rehearsal of a new play mutes the creative process. The best drama on-stage, they concluded, comes from a good conflict off-stage, from playwrights and directors standing up for their aesthetic principles.
This embrace of conflict, however, did not extend to conflict with critics, which would seem to be something of a double-standard (more on that further down).
The panel got pulled together at the last minute, subbing for a suddenly-cancelled session with playwrights Will Eno and Sarah Ruhl. Participants for the directors-on-directing chat included Les Waters, artistic director of Actors Theatre of Louisville, and directors Meredith McDonough, Lila Neugebauer, Amy Attaway, and Tom Dugdale, each of whom had a show in this year’s festival.
Panelists sat on stools encircling a small table on the set of Sam Marks’ The Delling Shore. Moderator Kwei-Armah cut an almost comical figure with a laptop at the end of one hand, an Android phone at the other, multitasking his duties by lobbing provocative questions while checking tweets, since the event was being live-streamed. One of those tweets, he said winkingly, paid him a high compliment as moderator, but he wasn’t going to be so “self-aggrandizing” as to read it in public.
And thus he negotiated a playful balance of style between faux-vanity and faux-modesty. Another tweet politely complained that though the tweeter enjoyed seeing Kwei-Armah’s face on the single-camera live-stream, it might be nice to see the faces of the panelists as well. And so, at Kwei-Armah’s prompting, the sextet kept rotating their positions clockwise at regular intervals of gentle absurdity, so that they ended the one-hour program right back where they began. Nobody needed to ask if there was a director in the house.
Addressing questions such as the difference of approach, if any, between directing a new play and a classic, the responses revealed why it’s so difficult for viewers and critics to discern what it is precisely that a director does. An actor is seen. A play is heard and can also be read. But the work of a director, if done well, hides behind both the actors and the script – particularly in the script of a new play.
Attaway, Dugdale and Waters all agreed that their approach to a new play and a classic was much the same. “What is the playwright trying to say?” Attaway posited as her first line of inquiry. Dugdale added that it was helpful to have a living writer in the room to check the director’s approach. “And you’re not alone in your crisis.”
“Directing is lonely,” Waters added. “Having a dead writer, I don’t find particularly helpful.”
This led to a discussion about the tendency of directors of new plays to request rewrites of lines that don’t work.
“I think there’s this assumption that when the playwright is dead, the play works,” observed Neugebauer.
“With a classic, the burden is on you,” Kwei-Armah said, recalling rehearsals of an Arthur Miller play in which the actors were stumped by a line. But because they couldn’t really change it, they kept rehearsing that line until they discovered that it actually did work.
McDonough added that as she’s gained experience, “I ask writers to change [lines] much later in the process than I used to.”
Waters, an Englishman who came through the Royal Court Theatre, has devoted his career to directing new plays yet admits that the director’s “invisible hand” can be frustrating.
“It can be annoying because you’re invisible. If you and I were to do Othello, somebody would be able to see what we’d done. . . With a new play, well . . . you’re sort of disappearing out of the equation. Sometimes that negative is completely overwhelming.”
Dugdale: “Frequently, the ego has to step to the side. The pleasure is you get to walk in tandem with somebody else.” Added Attaway, “And my pleasure is to listen and, well, get out of the way.”
Kwei-Armah wasn’t buying any of this self-deprecation. “But isn’t directing new plays a good career choice?” he asked rhetorically. “[When directing a play], we are judged by the three mistakes we make rather than the thousands of good [decisions]. If you direct a classic, they can see your work. In a new play, they don’t know what you did.”
This articulation of the merits of invisibility set a trajectory for some admissions about the terrors of directing, and the helpful roles of both failure (propelled by an insightful audience question) and conflict within the creative process. Waters was particularly candid on these points.
“It’s in my background: Not being of this country and training – if you could call it that – at the Royal Court Theatre, the writers claimed the right to be in the room. They were expected to be there, they expected to be there. I’ve never had to negotiated this curious thing — should they be in the room? I’m not a writer. I don’t write. And I’d have nothing to say as a writer. What I can say, going through somebody else’s work, running alongside it [is to ask] what are the tricky bits? I think there’s a mistaken notion [that] we should all get along. That would be nice. It would [also] be nice if we could get everyone to sing in perfect harmony. [The Royal Court Theatre’s premiere of Caryl Churchill’s] Cloud 9 [was] weeks and weeks of bloody hard fighting. Caryl would say, ‘Yes I know you want this, but I’m not writing that. . . It was very exciting, very risky, with a lot of people in the room with a lot of talent, [all] throwing it around.”
Waters’ aria set off, ironically, not conflict but a groundswell of agreement.
“My best work comes from a place of intense and rigorous conflict,” said Neugebauer. “Successful collaboration doesn’t mean that everyone agrees.”
“It’s great to have tension in the room,” Kwei-Armah added.
“I’ve been in the room with writers who say ‘It would be nice if that pause is actually a pause.’” added McDonough. “The best thing is having the writer in the room who says, ‘Look at this.’”
Yet the directors are not nearly as open to conflict, or voices saying “Look at this” if those voices come from the press.
“I have an odd relationship with reviews,” Kwei-Armah said. “As a playwright, I . . . tend not to read them because if they’re great, you inhale, but if they’re bad, it knocks out the next play you’re trying to write.
“As a director, it’s my duty to read the press. It becomes very, very hard to not listen to that very loud noise that is the reviewer. . . In the world of the Internet . . . 20 comments don’t add up to the one bad review you got. Gossip becomes gospel. How do we take it on ourselves to review reviews, and put them in context?”
Kwei-Armah pointed out that the most popular shows often get the worst reviews, which would suggest the irrelevance of critics if one is judging success by the metric of popularity. But that metric would remove a play such as Edward Bond’s Saved from the canon of British literature, where it currently resides and where Waters clearly believes it deserves to reside. Waters notes that it played to only 13% houses when it premiered in 1965 at the Royal Court Theatre. It’s a difficult play with one scene of infanticide that Waters described as “nauseating.” Yet it’s now regarded as one of the finest British plays of its generation – thanks to critics, or at least to a select group of them.
As American playwright Murray Mednick once pointed out, “There are many successful plays that aren’t very good. And there are many good plays that aren’t very successful. Those are the ones we have to stand up for.”
The issue of reviews is “so complicated,” Waters said. “As a director, [reviews] have to be read. You need to know the perceptions of the press on the work. On a personal level, I find them very, very difficult to deal with. If they’re good, they’re never good enough. ‘He said it was wonderful, why didn’t he say “amazing.”’ If negative, they’re deeply hurtful. After 35 years . . . I find it difficult to identify the ones that are helpful for what I’m trying to do. I don’t look at them for that. I look to colleagues [such as] my mentor Max Stafford-Clark, and whether my family would be proud of it. I think it’s hard to deal with, the misunderstanding of how they missed the context of a [directorial] decision.”
Yet Waters added that he’s “addicted to the fear of failure” — so long as failure isn’t determined by a reviewer. “I like the terror of it. I like not knowing where [the creative process] is going. . . And I wish we wouldn’t think that a great play wasn’t messy. I like the plays that seep out at the edges, that you can’t put in a box.”