Seeing people’s #threefictionalcharacters posts this week (which has been super fun, by the way), I’ve been thinking of other ways to sum up a person in just a few items.
Here’s one: What are your top five creations? Ground rules: Listing your children is cheating. It should be stuff you’re proud of and that helped you grow, and that makes you feel proud of who you are.
If I limit mine to plays, which seems like a good plan (and sort chronologically), I get:
1. Antony and Cleopatra, Hiram College Theater, 2003.
It was the first Shakespeare production I had ever directed. I was a college junior at the time, and had incredible support from my theater department. It was the department’s spring show that year. I had just come back from my internship at the American Shakespeare Center, and I was full of…ideas. With literally six weeks of training in original practices, I thought it would be a great idea to teach a dozen other people and do a show with it. There was a lot of good about the show. It went better than it had any business to, honestly. Ellen Summers, who was my English professor, agreed to teach a research seminar on Shakespeare’s Roman plays, on the condition that she play Enobarbus. She was also the dramaturg. That worked out well.
This play was the first one where I felt like I didn’t have to be The Boss and impose my ideas, but work collaboratively with the actors. I suddenly wasn’t afraid of them, and I didn’t need to assert my authority. I still felt out of my depth–I remember comparing the experience to being one of the people holding the lines on a parade balloon in a tornado.
One true gift from this show was the work I did with Caitlin, who played Cleopatra. Early in our years at Hiram College, we were competitive with each other in the way that only true overachievers can be. We were catty and snippy and generally awful, and it was because we both knew who the competition was (and we had both come from very competitive high school theaters, where you didn’t have friends, you had threats). Our college theater department was not at all like that, but it takes time to learn a new culture. In our sophomore year, we went on an overseas semester in England. Removed from the context of our competitive arena, we began a cautious friendship there. After we returned, it grew to the point where, when it was time to cast my biggest project, there was no one else I wanted in that role. We worked together with trust and respect. I admired her deeply, and in a healthy way–my admiration didn’t turn to envy, but stayed appreciative. Learning to work well with people whose talent scared me was one of the best things that happened to me in college.
The people from my college theater that I think of the most fondly were those who participated in this production. It was a revelation, and I fell in love with them.
The Monday after the show, I remember talking with my mentor, Rick Hyde. I told him I was a little disappointed–it didn’t match the play in my head. He said, “If I had directed that production, I would be congratulating myself all over the place.” I said it wasn’t as good as I wanted it to be. In retrospect, he was right–with a cast that had mostly not done any Shakespeare, and in a style of theater that was nearly as new to me as it was to the actors, I couldn’t have expected it to have the tightness and snap of the shows I saw at ASC over the summer. The acting was better than it had any business being, and the show was funny and sad in equal measure. “You picked something that was a bit beyond you and the actors you had,” Rick said. “‘A man’s–or, I guess, girl’s–woman’s–reach should exceed her grasp, or what’s a Heaven for?” That was another big lesson–not to settle, always to be reaching for the next biggest thing.
The other day, I found the article our campus paper wrote about it, and the card the cast signed for me. I loved that it had so many things I had forgotten; I also loved that the article ended on the most important thing I learned from the experience:
2. Julius Caesar, Pigeon Creek Shakespeare, 2009.
If there’s anything better than Shakespeare’s Roman plays, I don’t know what it is.
In the summer of 2009, I was lucky enough to direct my first show with the Pigeon Creek Shakespeare Company, an all-female production of Julius Caesar. I wish I could take credit for the idea to do it with only women, but that came from the company. They had a lot of talented women and wanted to showcase them in the great roles in this play. In the years that followed, I noticed a fad of female Caesar productions, but I hadn’t seen one before ours. I’m glad we did it this way. The women were incredibly fun to work with, and my ears were surprised at how lines like, “You have turned womanish” pop when a woman says them.
I hadn’t directed any full-length shows in a long time, when I went up there. When I was in grad school (part 1), I directed several showcases and things like that, but not anything full-length. After I got married, when JC was so sick, I took a hiatus from both grad school and theater to focus on managing our lives. I remember driving up to Grand Haven, Michigan, quietly terrified that I might have forgotten how. In the seven years since that show, I have directed 17 productions. I feel this exact nervousness every time before the first rehearsal.
Working with PCSC is in part a challenge because everyone is so well-trained. I have to earn my keep, and the actors are so good that coming up with helpful direction can be challenging. I remember setting goals for myself for each rehearsal, which included things like, “I will give a direction that takes a good actor and pushes her further in this scene,” or “I will give a direction that helps actors help each other onstage.” Sometimes my goals would be related to specific actors. Focusing on the weaker actors and letting the stronger ones figure it out is an easy trap to fall into, and I tried to stay aware of that.
The show ran fast. I remember taking the intermission on opening night, and the house manager for the theater asked me, “Do you have two intermissions?” I told her we didn’t, and asked why she was wondering that. “Most groups do their intermission toward the middle,” she said. “It’s been forty-five minutes.” I was in a phase of experimenting with noise and silence, and I pushed the actors to create a constant stream of sound except for one moment–after they stabbed Caesar, they were silent and still for a good thirty seconds, just breathing and trying to figure out what to do next. Not only did the tightness of the sound let us earn that moment, it also made the show fly by.
I made friends on that production, and when I left, all I wanted was to come back and work with them again.
3. JB, Eastern Mennonite University Theater, 2011
Oh, this play. No matter what other art I do in my life, I will never forget the power in the room of this play. I doubt this production will ever fall out of my #top5creations.
This was the first show I have ever done where I felt like the work was holy. From one night to the next, we were making discoveries and being present together and wrestling with impossible questions. I chose it in response to the series of tragedies that had befallen a family I love very much. It was a show I needed to do, a kind of need I hadn’t felt previously. The actors needed it, too. Although the casting didn’t take this into account (we simultaneously cast two shows, and nearly everyone said they would be happy to do either one), of the ten actors, four had lost their fathers within the previous couple of years. We all had big questions about grief and life and death. I remember that I loved this play in college and directed a scene from it in grad school (starring Katherine and Scott, from Pigeon Creek, as it happens), but I felt like I didn’t know enough to direct a full production of it. I hoped I would never know enough to do it justice. And then, in what felt like no time at all, I did.
I still have the last line of the play memorized, and it comes to me whenever I’m stuck with those questions about why terrible things happen in our world.
He answered me like the stillness of a star
That silences us asking
We are and that is all our answer
We are and what we are can suffer
what suffers loves.
Will live its suffering again,
Risk its own defeat again,
Endure the loss of everything again
And yet again and yet again
In doubt, in dread, in ignorance, unanswered,
Over and over, with the dark before,
The dark behind it… and still live… still love.
For the voice of God, instead of a booming man, we had a young girl; I think she had just turned eleven. Her voice was clear and unpretentious. When she said, “Where were you, when the foundation of the earth was laid?” it sounded like an honest question–no sarcasm, no pomposity. She was an easy God to love.
I also think of this play every time Regina Spektor’s “Laughing With” comes up on the shuffle. One of the actors mentioned that she was learning it and she thought it would fit with the play, and that is how we got one of my favorite moments–at the top of the second act, she sat on a stool at center stage, wearing a clown nose, and played her guitar and sang this song. It was the kind of beauty that would break your heart.
4. Noye’s Fludde, Eastern Mennonite High School, 2014
“The touring choir wants to do a musical,” they said.
“To raise money for the tour,” they said.
“I don’t think you know how theater works,” I told them.
I wrestled for a long time to find the right play. It had to have a small cast, minimal to no set/costumes/etc. It had to conform with the specific requirements of a Christian high school (and a Mennonite, and therefore pacifist, one at that!). It should be musically challenging, to capitalize on the incredible level of training in the touring choir kids.
Oh, and it had to be a money-maker (!).
I had a goal in 2013 of directing an opera, but no one would take me seriously. I called opera companies. I wrote emails. I networked. Apparently, operas often don’t have directors in the way plays do. They work on the music and I guess the acting takes care of itself?? When I was presented with this challenge a year after my failed attempts to break into opera, I remembered one piece that I had fallen head over heels in love with: Noye’s Fludde. It has everything a geek could ask for: It’s a historical cycle play text, set by Benjamin Britten, addressing one of the oldest stories in the Bible. It’s funny! It has a great storm! AND it has a children’s choir for the animals. Children tend to have friends, parents, and grandparents who might not come to a high school show ordinarily, but if little Emma is being a badger, they are there.
Getting to yes took some pressure, but once the choir directors agreed to it, we were off! The project was deeply satisfying. I hadn’t worked with musicians at that level before. The music director and the accompanist were both delightful to spend time with, and we worked well together. The challenges of our budget led to choices that I thought were effective–the set made out of shipping pallets, which Noah and his son construct while singing. The silk for the water, rising up as the storm mounts. The storm itself, which the little animals mad with their mouths and bodies, conducted by one of the high school kids. The rainbow, made out of helium balloons, which I am so irritated I didn’t get a good picture of because it was AWESOME and it just magically rose up behind the ark as the animals were disembarking and singing a kick ass Tallis Canon.
In rehearsals, I got to nerd about theater history and the music director nerded about music theory stuff and the students were actually into it. The whole production was a straight-up delight.
And we arrived at rehearsal to see rainbows arching over the school no fewer than four times. I kid you not.
I’d love to direct another opera. It’s simultaneously very similar to Shakespeare and nothing like it.
5. The Duchess of Malfi, Pigeon Creek Shakespeare Company, 2016
PS If you’re wondering about my #threefictionalcharacters: