I haven’t written as much as I would have expected about my theater work on this blog. In part, this is because it’s hard to find the right time to write about it. During the process, I have so much to say, and no one I can say it too–so many things, I fear, would mess up the development if they became public. And after, I’ve often forgotten what the point was.

Some of this was written midnight, a week before my production of The Duchess of Malfi opened with Pigeon Creek Shakespeare. Some was written after the show opened. But I’m going to schedule it to publish after the show closes because I don’t want to disrupt things. You have to walk quietly around magic.

For people who don’t do theater, this might not be interesting. Unless, like me, you’re just always curious about what other people do and how the sausage gets made. Also, sorry I’ve written a novel on this play. It’s my last Duchess-obsessed post, I promise. We’ll get back to your regularly scheduled “Weird things my weird kids say” content forthwith. Oh, did you miss my other Duchess post?

Also, the theater says they’ll have better photos for me soon. These are the handful I was able to take with my phone when other people (Scott Lange and Scott Wright) were directing fights or music. My mom asked me why I couldn’t take my decent camera and take some scene photos, and I just couldn’t imagine doing it. If actors are working, I’m working. The camera would be at least as much of a distraction to me as to them. But they have someone coming to do performance photos, so I should have some soon.

Two things that I say about a production that goes badly: This play is keeping me up at night. I have a lot to learn from this experience.

Two things that I say about the best production I’ve ever directed: This play is keeping me up at night. I have a lot to learn from this experience.

Music call

Before I get too deep in the weeds, a recap of the play:

The play opens just after the death of the Duke of Malfi. His wife, the eponymous Duchess, begins the play by marrying her household steward, in secret. Her brothers, a Cardinal and a Duke, would be furious if they found out, so she keeps her marriage, and her eventual children, a secret. All goes pretty well, until the brothers figure out what is up, and then the bodies start to hit the floor. Oh, and this is based on a historical person. Most of the stuff in this play actually happened. Even some of the very weird stuff.

The Duchess of Malfi was written by John Webster, one of Shakespeare’s contemporaries. He’s a bit younger than Shakespeare, and he has a cameo in Shakespeare in Love.

Yep, that guy. That’s John Webster.

Duchess certainly lives up to his reputation. One person dies by kissing a poisoned Bible (what kind of person just happens to have that around?). In another scene, the Duchess receives a hand which she is told belongs to her husband, Antonio. Later, a curtain opens, revealing what appears to be his body, and that of their young son. It turns out, later, that they are merely wax figures, created to torment the Duchess into believing them to be dead. There’s a ghost, a werewolf, a few people who get stabbed basically just because. It goes without saying that at least three of the major characters are psychopaths, in a very literal, Hare-checklist kind of way (PS, just read The Psychopath Test by Jon Ronson. Highly recommend).

And yet.

It’s also a love story, and a story about acknowledging the risks involved in living the life you desire, and taking those risks anyway. The Duchess and Antonio create a loving family, a safe haven from the Machiavellian politics around them. As the Duchess says, embracing him, “All discord without this circumference / Is only to be pitied and not feared.” Their love is true and deep and something to fall into with an open heart.

It’s also a very feminist play; the women in it make strong, positive choices. Although they suffer terribly for them, they face their deaths without regrets and without fear. Wouldn’t we all want to live a life that we don’t regret?

And so this is the world of Duchess. A love story wrapped in a Halloween movie, like some kind of demented Twinkie.

Creepiest family band ever, performing “O, Sister.”

Webster is not nearly the writer that Shakespeare is, but he is still very, very good. His verse is all over the place, making it a bit trickier to memorize and manage. Lots of anapests; he probably would have been great at limericks, if they’d been invented back then. Non sequitors appear everywhere (I keep turning back to our canonical text–we’re using the Arden Early Modern Plays edition, if you’re curious, and I think very highly of it–to see if I have made an awkward cut in our performance script, or if the authorial script is just weird. So far, it’s John Webster 12 or so, Alisha 0.) and some things we’re pretty sure he’s just thrown in because he was quoting someone else and wanted to use their fancy words. He’s much more heavy handed and obvious than Shakespeare. For example, he sets up a complicated thing where the Cardinal tells his toadies not to come to him, even if he’s screaming, because he might try to test their vow to give his brother his space. Of course he’s going to be killed while screaming for help to people he’s told not to help him. Because that’s so Webster. The last words of the play are literally “the end.” That is how obvious Webster can be.

But some of the lines are just astonishing in their beauty. When she’s presented with the ropes that will strangle her, the Duchess refuses to be frightened by them.
“What would it pleasure me to have my throat cut / With diamonds? or to be smothered / With cassia? or to be shot to death with pearls?” she says. Another character, Bosola, has the best pick-up line ever: “Let us grow most amorously familiar.” The sign that one of the wicked brothers has gone a bit crazy is his parting line after the Duchess’ death: “I will hunt the badger by owl light! Tis a deed of darkness.”

A lot of the lines, actually, make me sit up and take notice. It’s still 17th century English, something I’ve spent half of my life doing, but feels so very different. I can easily tell that there’s a different authorial hand at the wheel. I’m enjoying having a new collaborator, even if he’s still a very dead one.

I had a very strange dream tonight.

I suppose I should start with an explanation of how I ended up doing this play in the first place, because it was back at the very beginning that things got weird. Three years ago, I was teaching a theater history class. I made my students read a lot of plays, but, since I needed to reread them anyway, I scheduled optional play reading evenings, where we’d read the plays together. One of the plays I included for the class was Duchess of Malfi. That night, I had a dream that I was directing this play. I always hate directing dreams. They’re usually the directorial version of the famous “actor’s nightmare”–the play isn’t what you thought it was, the set is coming apart in people’s hands, everyone’s screaming. This dream, though, was completely different. I dreamed that my friend Katherine was playing the Duchess, and that I spent a whole rehearsal just in wonderment at her–how she could be by turns powerful and playful, witty and mysterious, always completely luminous. This wasn’t a performance-watching dream; we were working together. Every direction I gave her, she took and did something better than what I had thought to imagine. It was the most vivid director’s dream I’ve ever had; I could picture her costume, the stage, the way she’d move her hands. So I thought about it for a few days, and then sent her an innocuous enough text: “Have you ever thought about playing the Duchess of Malfi? I want to direct it.”

Katherine was interested, and we began plotting how and when I’d be able to come work on this with her theater company. Apparently, I didn’t tell her about the dream (I thought that I had!). When I mentioned it at our last meeting before I came up here, she said, “Oh, you didn’t tell me that part. Now I feel this cosmic pressure!”

She shouldn’t have worried. Her Duchess is a dream come true.

About those dreams.

I hate to even really say this, because I feel like it makes me sound like those flighty directors I have absolutely zero patience with, but I’m up all night thinking about this play. I’m a very practical theater person. I don’t fetishize my muse or avoid saying “Macbeth” or any of that nonsense. I don’t gossip, I don’t make a big deal out of every little thing. I’ve been known to roll my eyes until I sprained my eye-roll-muscle on reading a director’s bio, in which s/he described hir work as “edgy” no fewer than four times in a hundred words. And yet, some powerful force is taking over in this rehearsal process, and I feel like I’m channeling it. Does that make me more of an artiste than I have patience for?

I have a new Ann Patchett novel that I haven’t even touched because all I want to do is re-read Duchess. This play is demanding that I change my process. Every play is different, of course–different people, different production process. Often, I’ve read some new book and I want to try out some of its ideas. But this is a whole new level of different. In some ways, it reminds me of when I directed JB at Eastern Mennonite University in 2011. That production marked a real turning point in how I worked with actors (although it was a deliberate thing that I was doing, inspired by my re-re-re-re-reading of The Empty Space. The change this time is not anything I sought out). JB rehearsals had an intense feeling that I could only ever describe as “power in the room,” and I feel that in these Duchess rehearsals, too. I wish I knew where it came from or how to invite it in. I’m still at the getting lucky stage with that kind of power. It feels like being slain in the Holy Theater Spirit.

I’m having incredible insomnia. I always come home from rehearsal–from any play–with a bit of an adrenaline buzz to work out. But I usually go to sleep within an hour. This is different. I come home and I go to bed and my brain is at war with itself–one part saying, “The kids are going to be awake in FOUR HOURS so GO TO SLEEP, please,” and the other is replaying scenes from rehearsal and thinking about each individual actor and what is so great about them, and whether they received the note I gave them in the way I meant it and if I should try to apologize for saying something a little bit not quite how I should have and should that blocking adjust a bit because the sightlines are kind of messy and do I want the line to read “wither’d” or “wither-ed” and and and. I’m dreaming, too, still. I usually don’t dream about my work, but I have been having unbelievably vivid dreams about this play. One night, from midnight until at least 4:30 am, I moved back and forth between awake-and-thinking-about-the-play and sleeping-and-having-vivid-dreams-about-the-play. The dreams are weirdly relevant, too. They are actual scenes that I’m struggling with and sometimes I’m in the middle of the actors and suddenly saying just the right thing, and sometimes I’m coaching from the side. What’s crazy is I’ve been trying what dream-me says in reality-based rehearsals and…dream-me is a much better director than I am, apparently.

One other thing that happened–I’m hesitant even to write this, because I know it will sound terribly silly to people who don’t know me very well–but on opening night, at intermission, someone said to me, “Did you know Julia’s sister has a hedgehog?” And I said, “Oh, that’s nice, I used to have a hedgehog.” And they said, “No, I mean she has a hedgehog, right now, here.” I may have kind of freaked out. Hedgehogs have been my totem animal for a long time. The fact that one would show up on this incredible night was just too much to process. I told Bethany about it, and she said, “It sounds like that video about Kirsten Bell and the sloth.” I hadn’t seen it, but when she sent it to me…well, yes, this is exactly what it was like:

Pam says that I am too pragmatic, that I resist the mystical side of theater too much, but that, in this production, the mystical side clubbed me over the head and took me prisoner. I think she’s probably right.

Such excellent company.

Besides Webster, the other super important piece of this experience is, obviously, the theater company. I’m working, for the third time, with Pigeon Creek Shakespeare (PCSC), and it’s glorious. PCSC is Michigan’s only year-round, professional, touring Shakespeare company. Some of the members of Pigeon Creek were in my graduate program at the American Shakespeare Center. They have solid training, and they’ve brought all that education back to this group and trained up other people. Walking into rehearsal, I have a group of high-quality talent with excellent skills just waiting for me to tell it what to do. It’s very different from when I’m directing at a university (which I also love, but for different reasons). They all have their own ideas, and we’re able to enter together into the art. The final calls are mine, but it’s a deeply collaborative process, and I love some of the things they’ve come up with when they’ve said, “I have an impulse to do _____. Can I try it?” One of my favorites was the scene where Ferdinand, the evil brother, brings in a pile of people from the local insane asylum, hoping that their crazy actions will drive the Duchess crazy, too. They come in and sing a weird song, and do a dance. It’s always felt like one of those random John Webster things. The first time we rehearsed it, Katherine said, “I feel an impulse to join them in their dance. Would that be okay? I think she’s sort of toying with the idea of madness.” She was right–only minutes before, she’d said, “I am not mad yet, to my cause of sorrow,” meaning that maybe life would be less stressful if she could just go crazy. So I told her to go ahead and follow that impulse, and what she did, we ended up keeping–a slow, dreamlike walk into the midst of these wild madfolks. I added an ending, the Duchess getting pulled into their slant-ways “London Bridge” type game, and trapped in the bridge. It makes the madfolk dance, which always seems so extraneous, tie in together with the rest of the play. I would probably never have seen that if I didn’t say “yes” as much as is humanly possible in rehearsals. Having good people with good ideas makes it easy.

I speak it without flattery.

There’s a truism in the directing world that casting is 90% of the work, and I think that’s close to accurate. If you find good people, the job becomes a game. I’m exceptionally lucky when I work with PCSC because (since I can’t travel there for auditions, generally), they do the casting for me. They always do an excellent job. They’ll text me if there’s a decision they want me to weigh in on, and we have discussions beforehand about my thoughts on the various characters, but the cast list is always at least as much a surprise to me as it is to any of the actors.

“I’m Just a Girl.” Photo by stage manager Cassandra Sandros.

I can’t speak highly enough of the talent on stage. Besides Katherine, there is her husband, Scott, who is playing the Duchess’ husband, Antonio. In addition to acting, he’s the music director. He’s selected some interesting music for the play–opening with No Doubt’s “Just a Girl,” and then Bob Dylan’s “O Sister” and The Civil Wars/Taylor Swift’s “Safe and Sound” at intermission. I’m in awe of how I can dump a whole pile of thoughts and themes in his lap and he magically returns with a pile of songs that somehow fit just right. He’s a phenomenal actor, too: emotionally open, physically aware, so skilled with the words, they sound new. Kat, a grad school colleague, is playing bad guy Bosola. The last play I directed her in was Romeo and Juliet; she was Juliet. Before that, she played Falstaff. That girl has range. Her Romeo, Sean, is also in the play, as wicked brother Ferdinand. R&J was four years ago, and I can hardly believe how Sean has developed as an actor (a testament to Pigeon Creek’s training). They are all absolute professionals. Kate had surgery the first week of rehearsals and was in pain for a long time, but she still showed up, off book on time, ready to work and give what energy and focus she had to the work in the room. She made no excuses. Everyone has developed their skills since I was here last. Everyone is reaching for more depth, more honesty, brighter storytelling. The ones who are new to me are all promising actors, and, most of all, they are hungry for the training and experience they get from those who have been with the company for a long time. As I have seen here in the past, the actors cast in minor roles don’t sit back and let the play happen around them; they create the scenes with their presence and focus. Those minor roles can be harder than big ones, in their way. Janna found what was funny about a minor lord without drawing more focus than she should have. And then our stage manager, Cassandra, had to replace her for a performance, and she found her own, very different hilarious things about that lord. Julia, as Cariola, had to hang out on stage for long stretches of time, but she found ways to be present in the scene, listening and responding to what was going on. Steve played a number of smaller characters, but the one I found surprising and delightful was the non-speaking role of the Duchess’ and Antonio’s oldest son. Although he is a full-grown adult man, I asked him to play a three-year-old child. I thought it would take a lot of coaching, but he went for it with total commitment, and it was weirdly believable. Which, I suppose, proves my theory that you can get away with anything if you fully commit. Chris and Bridget, as the Cardinal and Julia, were so good at taking care of each other and making each other feel safe, while conveying characters who were anything but safe. It’s a hard thing to do, but in intimate scenes as well as fights, the audience should worry about the character, but never the actor. Chris and Bridget built amazing trust between them, which allowed that to happen.

People here look at me funny when I say that I’ve come to a Michigan beach town, nearly a thousand miles from home, in the dead of winter, with my two young children, to direct a play. They don’t know that PCSC is an absolute treasure, beyond anything you’d expect to find in the hinterlands. Many of the actors in this production are on par with the best stage actors I have ever seen, anywhere, and those that aren’t quite at that level are making strong progress in that direction. Working with them is an incredible privilege and a joy. I wish I could do this every single day.

Scott L. and I work on load-in at Seven Steps Up. Picture by Chris Teller.

Now everything is still.

One of the other times I was here–I think it might have been for Caesar–I had a conversation with Katherine about how dancers have a culture of quiet focus, and this is one reason many of my favorite actors are former dancers. At the time when we had that conversation, I had no idea how deeply guarded and enforced that tradition is. Now, I’m taking an adult ballet class at the rec center these days–about as far as one can get from professional ballet training!–and one night, I bumped into my friend when we were doing a group thing. “Oh, I’m sorry!” I said. “Are you alright?” and my dance teacher said, “Alisha, there’s no talking in dance class!” I remember telling Katherine that I wanted to work on a production where the actors brought that level of focus and attention to the room, where there could be that silence. This show, it has happened. For the first time, I believe I will get through an entire rehearsal period without ever once having to ask someone to take their conversation in the hall. Interestingly, we’ve had many of our rehearsals in a dance studio. Maybe that helped set the tone.

The focus bleeds beyond simply enforcing silence. One night, we had three actors who were sick (of a cast of 10!), and so the stage manager had to read in for “ghosts.” I’ve never, ever had a rehearsal with ghosts where it went anything near this well. The deep focus is at least partly responsible for this.

Truth, speak for me.

After learning, some time ago, that many of the people I respect and enjoy the most have no idea how thoroughly I love working with them, how deeply I admire them, I’m trying to take care and take time to tell these actors how highly I think of them. The words aren’t ever capacious enough and my tongue feels thick and I stumble. Every attempt is inadequate and awkward, and they feel like they should respond but don’t seem to know how–and I wouldn’t know how to, either. I wish I could always be in rehearsal; I know how to talk to actors, but I’m not good at talking to people (and, as Stoppard reminds us, actors are “the opposite of people.” Thank goodness!). Person-to-person, I’m always too much or too little, either overwhelming or cold. It’s only when my message is refracted through other people’s words, other people’s bodies and hearts and voices, that it starts to make sense. I can say anything with a play. And I don’t have to wonder how it’s being received or wait for an answer, because I’m right there, sitting shoulder to shoulder with everyone and breathing their air, and I know. It’s my only medium.

Place thyself behind the arras, / Where thou mayst overhear us.

PCSC does “original practices” Shakespeare (and now Webster), which means that the audience is on three sides of the stage, the lighting is universal (actors and audience share light), sounds are all created live, one actor may play several roles, and we do some cross-gender casting (back in Shakespeare’s time, that cross only went one direction, but…). Doing the plays in this way brings to light features of the text that would be entirely obscured in a more modern production style. One aspect of Duchess where this is especially evident is the use of blindness, darkness, and blindfolds. In the marriage scene, the Duchess blindfolds herself, telling her (still quite stunned) new husband that “I would have you lead your fortune by the hand / Unto your marriage-bed.” So she can’t see the audience, or Antonio, and all of us can see her. It’s a beautiful, trusting moment. Much later, after things have gone seriously awry, she and Antonio have gone separate ways, hoping that at least some portion of their family will live. Her brother captures her and takes her to her palace, now her prison. He sends word that he wants to visit her, but will not look at her face, so he’ll come at night and all the lights have to be taken away. When he comes in, he tells her that he has brought her a ring that she will recognize, and the hand with it–the implication is that it’s Antonio’s hand. Since it’s dark in the imaginary world of the play–but not in the actual theater, where we’re doing original practices Jacobean staging–the Duchess believes it’s Antonio’s hand, and it’s not until she goes to embrace the rest of the body that she discovers it’s a severed hand and not her returned husband at all. The audience, however, knows the whole time. The character sees darkness. The audience sees the character. The audience sees the actor seeing them…past the character’s reality. The mirrors start to break as the play goes on; we, the audience, are oddly complicit. Lots of other moments use this double-layered darkness, as well. It’s kind of Brechtian.

Let all sweet ladies break their flattering glasses.

This production is stretching me as a director and the text is taking over in ways I hadn’t expected.

I’m finding a lot of mirrored action in the play, and so my blocking has a lot more mirroring than is usual for me. Mirroring is when a moment in the play features a repetition of the body positions that happened in an earlier moment. For example, early in the play, the Duchess and Antonio kneel to take their marriage vows. Later, they kneel in a very similar fashion when they are parting for the last time. I typically don’t use mirroring overmuch. It can be a nice effect, but most plays don’t seem to call for it a ton. This play has it all over the place. It’s one way in which I find Webster a bit heavier-handed than Shakespeare. Shakespeare’s text does lend itself to mirrors sometimes, but not egregiously. I found myself saying in rehearsal, “Let’s do this, because this moment mirrors that earlier one, and why am I blocking this entire show in mirrors? Somebody stop me!” It is a kaleidoscope of a play. The same body position and movement that are loving in one context turn violent with the next scene’s new intention. Even when the implied stage directions don’t specifically call for mirrored positions, I definitely am responding to something within the text that is pushing me in that direction. Frankly, I like it. It gives the play a ritualistic quality, as well as adding cohesion. But it doesn’t look like most of my shows, I think.

Fie, fie, what’s all this? / One of your eyes is bloodshot.

Even after directing for 20 years, I’m still learning so much about what a director does–things that I sometimes do instinctively, but once I recognize and name them, I can do more deliberately and better. One night, late in the process, we were doing a fight call, and we finally had the real rope prop for the Duchess’ strangulation (did I mention she dies by having three guys strangle her?). I have watched, and in some cases choreographed, all manner of stage violence, from stabbings and shootings to pummelings and poisonings. Usually, my response to it is pretty gleeful. The worse the better, I say. My Caesar here had an incredibly rough and violent assassination scene, and it was awesome. I had watched this strangling in rehearsal a number of times, watched Katherine contort her face and heard her make gasping and choking and constricting sounds and then slump over, and it has been No Big Deal. I’ve seen other people stage stranglings, too, and wasn’t bothered at all. The first time we had the real rope, I watched it during the fight call, because I needed to make sure that it looked right. I found it incredibly hard to watch. This surprised me–I knew it was fake, I had designed the illusion. The fight director had built the prop, but it was my design, based on a description from an actor who’d done the play elsewhere. I had put every person in the exact position on stage where I wanted them. I had talked with Katherine about the timing of her death (exact words–Katherine: “Do you want this to go on long enough to make people…uncomfortable?” Me: “How long have we worked together?”). I knew every piece of what was happening, but it was hard to watch. I said so, at the end of the call, and Katherine said, “Well, that’s good, right?” And it is good. That’s exactly the point. I wasn’t concerned for my friend the actor. I knew she was safe. But watching her be strangled was just horrifying, in a way I can’t pinpoint. Maybe it’s because her face is so exposed the whole time. After the fight call, I sent Katherine down the hall to the music call and other people mostly dispersed one way and another. Nearly alone in the rehearsal room, I was walking over to my bag to get my water, and I suddenly found myself completely overwhelmed and crying. Not little tears-running-down-my-cheeks crying, but racking sobs. Two of the younger actors in the troupe were in the room and they came over to me. One of them offered a hug, which I gratefully accepted, but I was terribly embarrassed. I don’t think I’ve ever cried in rehearsal as a director. Ever. Directors don’t do that. They scream, maybe (I’m not a screamer), but we don’t cry. The fight director came back through and saw me, and he kept saying, “It’s just an illusion. She’s fine. It’s just up tan illusion.” I managed to pull myself together, and was thankful that there weren’t more people in the room. I asked the couple who were to please not mention it. But I didn’t stop thinking about it, trying to puzzle out what made it so much worse than other violence, trying to get a grip on myself. I still don’t know, really.

Setting up the strangling.

Here’s the weird thing that I learned from that, about directing. That rehearsal, especially the first half, kind of sucked. People were dropping lines they hadn’t dropped before, moments were a bit flatter than they should have been, emotions were muted, people just were not in it. At intermission, one of the actors said, “Well, it’s like we all just pooped on the stage, that half!” and he was pretty much right. I realized in that moment, that this was my fault and none of them knew it–I didn’t even know it until everything was falling apart. Although I had stopped crying and most of them didn’t know I was upset, I hadn’t regained my focus or my equilibrium. I was watching the show, making notes, but part of my mind was counting down to when I would have to see that strangling again. Sixty minutes. Forty. Thirty-five. Fifteen. Five. Now. Part of me was still distraught, although I think my outward appearance was just as it always is. What I do well as a director–something actors expect me to do–is to create an aura of calm and focus and joy in the work. I’m careful to leave whatever stress my day brought at the theater door. Without overtly or deliberately doing or saying very much, I provide an emotional ballast that allows the actors to push their boundaries–knowing that I’m present, and right with them. And when I failed to do that, everyone felt it. I’m constantly amazed that I’ve been directing for almost 20 years, and I keep learning so many new things. Or, in this case, re-learning something I did once learn, but which had become so ingrained I don’t think about it. I remember learning, from watching other directors, to take the emotional temperature of the room, to keep my hand on the temperamental thermostat. I knew which directors brought a tense or frenetic energy and which ones made the room feel bathed in afternoon sunlight just by how they carried their shoulders. Actors are empaths. They might not know that that is what I’m doing, but they feel it, and more so when it’s missing. In the same way that different physical spaces have their own presence, something you feel when you walk through the door, directors also create their own space and presence. It’s like learning to read, though–ages of struggling and paying attention to it, and then it’s effortless, to the point where I can’t not do it. Until the one time I can’t do it.

I’m not exclusively responsible for that bomb of a rehearsal; the actors were the ones dropping lines all over the place and forgetting what they were doing. But creating the emotional environment is part of the director’s job, and, in failing to do it, I set people up for failure. Luckily, that was basically the only bad rehearsal we had.

Show poster

You only will begin then to be sorry / When she doth end her speech

When the show opened in Spring Lake, Pam drove up to be with me. I was so happy to have her there–not only as my dear friend, but also as another set of eyes that knows theater. Pam knew what she was looking at. When she was able to point out things that she saw in the play, little details, bits of business, particular strengths of the various actors or moments of staging that she admired, she affirmed what I thought about the production. The opening night was fantastic. My face hurt from grinning so much. I’m not tired of watching the play yet. I would watch it again tonight, if I could. Often, in the rehearsal process, I reach a point where, even if I think the show is good, I dread having to watch it over again. I don’t know if that would ever happen with this Duchess. The actors are still making discoveries, still changing tiny things to challenge and surprise each other. I’m still discovering moments in the text that I want to explore. It’s still very alive, and I think that communicated to the audience.

We had a small but responsive audience for the opening. They laughed a lot. It’s okay (even good!) to laugh at tragedy. It’s okay to laugh even right after some horrible thing. We kind of need to. Laughter elevates tragedy. At moments in the play, a funny thing happened, and then things got serious immediately, and the audience slid right into that space of present silence. We had moments of capital-H, capital-T Holy Theater. Stunning.

Now it has a few more performances in Grand Rapids, and I’m not there. And that’s fine! I miss everyone, but my work is done; I would only be in the way if I were there. People always seem surprised by this–that it can go on without me, that I’m fine that it does. I think maybe if they’re not theater people, they don’t know about stage managers, or what a director actually does and does not do. The fact that the play can happen without me, and that I feel completely calm about it, is a sign that I did my work well, and that the people are good. It’s a little like having some magic extra sense, too–because I know the work so well, I can glance at a clock on a show night, and it’s as if I can see through the thousand miles that separate us, and have a good idea of what my friends are doing at this very minute.

The look on Cariola’s face is 100% perfect. I wasn’t at this performance, but I knew it would go well. Photo by Cassandra Sandros.

The treasury of all my secrets.

I saw a friend on the way home from Michigan. He asked me about my life, and I tried to tell him. We were close, in college, but we hadn’t seen each other in several years. I wanted to open my heart to him, and I didn’t know where to begin. “I want you to come see one of my plays, one of these days,” I said, after babbling on for a bit. “That would say everything I wish I could.” What I meant was that I wished he could see Duchess. Words seem insufficient for the magnitude of ideas and emotions I want to express. Duchess says so many things that I struggle to tell people, constantly. Some of them are huge, and obvious–a desire to live without regrets and without fear, to live a life of integrity even if the cost is high. An insistence on making home and family the safe core of the universe, a place protected from whatever other danger lurks outside. But subtler things, too. A need to tell someone how one truly feels about them, without it being received as empty flattery. A willingness to embrace the mysteries of art, even when theatricality feels overwrought. Wanting to shield the people one loves from pain.

Duchess is so much more than werewolves and poisoned Bibles and severed arms, although we gleefully employed all of those and more. It has guts and soul, and I am immensely impressed with it. I have rarely been so unequivocally thrilled with my own work, although I’ve often felt this way about the actors’.

I’m still processing and thinking about our work on this show, as this ridiculously long and poorly organized post would evidence. So much went right with it that I wish I could capture and summon every time. The right people. The right words. The right focus. The right timing. And something beyond that. There was power in the rehearsal hall, and it translated onto the stage. The power came from focus and skill coming together, from a dozen people finding flow state all at once. And something else. That mystical theater that came by with its club, maybe. I can’t make it come, but I think, having met it closer and more personally than I ever have before, I can better create the conditions to let it feel welcome. An empty space. An open heart. Good people. Good words.

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