I wrote this before I went to Michigan, but it didn’t post correctly. If you’re curious how I was feeling about Skype directing after a couple weeks of it, here’s your answer. I’ll post a reflection with a broader view of the process soon.
Directing via Skype has been quite a learning experience.
The first night, which was the read-thru, somewhere in the middle of the whole thing, I suddenly had this overwhelming sense of This is going to be fine. Good, even. I don’t know what made me feel that, and what made me so certain, but I knew. And that first knowing wasn’t wrong. It has had its challenges, of course. I’ll never love it more than I love being in the room. But…It’s not bad.
I don’t feel like I’m 622 miles away. I feel like we’re in a focused space together.
People have asked about my set-up. Here you go:
I don’t really have a proper desk these days, so I set up a workspace on my dresser. The room has terrible lighting, so I borrowed Silas’ desk lamp. My computer (Dell XPS 13, which I mostly adore) isn’t great for video conferencing. The microphone is junk and the webcam is in the lower left corner of the screen, rather than top center where any sane person would put it. This has its downsides–I always appear to be looking up and to the right, which exacerbates the webcam eye contact challenge. But it has at least one benefit. Because the microphone is such trash, I use a headset during rehearsals. This has the effect of making the sound on my end somewhat stereophonic. I have a sense of being in space in the room, aurally.
This experiment has, in some ways, forced me to return to my roots. I remember, as a (very) young director, always directing by ear. I could hear if somebody didn’t quite know what they were trying to say, if they were fudging it, if their intention was muddy. I sometimes would spend whole rehearsals with my nose in my script because most of the information I was getting was aural. As I got older and better trained, I became adept at the visual art of directing, especially shaping stage pictures in the three-dimensional sculpture garden of the thrust space. In the webcam space, the visual is untrustworthy. Sometimes we have delays where the sound is coming through at close to true time, but the visual is delayed a beat. Sometimes the signal isn’t great and I can’t truly see everyone’s faces. Sometimes the camera is positioned a little too close to the playing space and people disappear when they come downstage. But my ears are always just right. I even have a sense of where people are in space because of how they sound on the microphone. In some of our rehearsal spaces–the dance studio, for one–there’s too much bounce for me to do this, and I find it distracting.
I feel so much like I’m there that when someone makes a remark just off camera, I find myself leaning in and looking their way, as if the screen is a window that I could see sideways out of. They keep teasing me about this, but I think it’s a good sign. The experience is more immersive than I had expected it would be.
Another way this has sent me back to my earliest days is that I can’t use my body to get anything done. I remember my first directing teacher telling me that I should sit on my hands and work that way. It was a helpful caution against the cheat of saying to an actor, “Just do it like this” and offering a physical model for them to mimic. Work is better when it comes from within an actor, and so using my words to plant a seed and allowing the actor to grow the fruit is a better way to work. As much as I internalized that idea, I have, in recent years, become more free about moving in among actors. For some complex business of staging, moving among the actors and showing them exactly where I want them to land can be helpful and efficient. Before this experiment, I would have told you that I practically never touch actors. I’ve learned that isn’t quite true; I quite frequently find myself wishing I could touch them to offer an adjustment. It turns out that I touch actors’ elbows a lot–that’s where I find myself reaching for, in my mind. Just to offer a nudge, a minor correction, a gentle tug to open or close a position. I’m having to use my words and be clear with them.
I’m developing my work, too. One problem I’m constantly working on is how to interrupt actors mid-scene. I hate doing it, I always feel so rude (Scott once said to me, “Why do you say you’re sorry when you pause us so you can give direction? You don’t have to apologize for doing what we literally pay you to do.“). My virtual presence is so tiny in the big room and not very loud, that I have to shout “STOP!” to get noticed. I’ve been trying to practice giving myself permission to interrupt actors and not apologize for it; this new medium gives me no choice.
Scott told me that on their end, the focus is deeper. People know that if they’re messing around, they’ll miss something. They can’t half-listen to me, because I’m not giving all the cues I usually do with my hands and my body. I’m not taking up space like I usually do. They have to truly listen, with intention. I said on our first night that some of our best focus comes at rehearsals where something isn’t going the way we’d like it to–and here’s three weeks of that. I love when a group of actors focuses in that way.
One thing that is helping a lot is laughter. We always joke around a good deal in rehearsal, possibly more for tragedies than for comedies. When I can’t read the nuances in people’s faces, it can be hard to tell if I’m connecting with them, if they are truly present with me. But when I make a joke and we laugh together, the distance closes and my heart opens.
Most of our challenges have been related to technology. The signal isn’t strong enough and jumps and stutters. We’ve found that mobile hotspots are better than the wifi in the buildings we’re generally in. One night, my computer randomly decided to forget how to connect to my wifi at home, so I had to work on my phone for a while, which was annoying. The sound on their end can’t be too loud or I hear my own echo, which is very distracting.
I had worried about not being able to sense impulses in people’s bodies, or the way the energy moves in the space. I’m learning that I still have that sense, but it’s muffled, like listening to a conversation with my hands over my ears. I’m not completely incapable of sensing the chi in the room, but I don’t have clarity with it.
Working this way is much more cognitively taxing. I have less input of all kinds than when I’m in the room. I’m guessing more. My mind is working overtime to fill in gaps. Even little things I wouldn’t have thought of. For one, the webcam is one eye, not two, and it’s designed to deepen the focal field. This makes figuring out how people relate to each other in the upstage-downstage dimension a real challenge. I think my brain is just having to work harder to compensate for it.
Normally, after rehearsal, I’m so jazzed I can’t sleep for a couple of hours. This, though, is straight-up exhausting. I’m collapsing into bed minutes after we call it. A very different way of working.