The process for Richard III at Pigeon Creek was unusual because I spent the first three weeks (of a four-week process) directing via Skype. Now that the show is up and I’m done with my bit of it, I wanted to take some time to reflect on how it went, overall, and what I might do differently next time.
What did I learn from it?
One of the people I met with before I went there told me, “I think you’re going to learn what directing is by what you can’t do when you’re working this way. You’re going to find out so much.”
This turned out to be true. I learned, for one thing, that I can connect with people very powerfully, even at a great distance. Despite the limitations of the technology, at times I truly felt like I was nearly there.
I learned that I have a process. I always think of myself as “just making a show,” but it turns out I have things that I do in week 1, week 2, week 3. I hadn’t thought about it before, because I didn’t have to. When I got to Michigan at the beginning of week 4, everything was taking way longer than I thought it should. That first night of rehearsal, we had scheduled something like two minutes of rehearsal time per minute of performance time, and I was using up something more in the neighborhood of five minutes of rehearsal per minute of performance time. I couldn’t figure out why, and then I realized, I’m trying to do Week 3 work in Week 4, but it’s scheduled in Week 4 time. Which means that I have something called “Week 3 Work,” and, ergo, have a process. It also explained why I felt so deeply frustrated for all of Week 3. Week 3 work is subtle, it’s embodied, it’s detailed; all of these things are nearly impossible via Skype.
I also learned, all over again, the value of a good stage manager. Treva was brilliant and crucial to making the whole thing possible. She was my voice and my ears and my eyes when I couldn’t use my senses to the fullest. I don’t know how I would have done this without her.
How did my process change?
Interestingly, I found myself returning to the earliest parts of my training as a director. When I was in high school, the one piece of directing advice that I got from my theater teacher was to sit on my hands. “You don’t go up there and put actors where you want them,” she said. “Use your words and let them figure it out.” In my work now, I often am moving among the actors, offering adjustments with gesture or touch. I don’t think this is a problem–I’m not ever enacting entire movements for them to imitate, it’s more creating precise landing points and having them figure out how to get from one to the next. But via Skype, of course, this wasn’t possible. I had to learn all over again how to use my words. Even my gestures were harder for them to read, and impossible for them to connect with the space they were inhabiting.
My undergrad theater teacher had me read Contemporary Stage Directing by George Black, which has a number of diagrams to demonstrate blocking for the proscenium stage. He asked me to watch his rehearsals from the balcony and diagram his stage pictures. Then I would analyze them—where was he moving focus or energy in the space? I did this for years, not only with his work, but with anybody who would let me. This was how I learned thrust blocking, perched in the worst seats on the second level at the Blackfriars, filling my notebook with little diagrams.
I used to come into rehearsal with every movement drawn in my book, practiced and tested with LEGO bricks or jelly beans on my desk. In the past decade, I’ve moved away from these more formal styles of blocking, preferring to structure it as problems for actors to solve with guidance, or creating specific stage pictures and guidelines for getting from one to the next, but having a more organic process with it. Actors aren’t LEGOs or jelly beans. Their bodies, their individual bodies, have an energy that matters and informs my blocking work. The principles are the same; I still adjust things so that the pictures ultimately have good composition and look good from every seat, but the process of getting there is more organic. Working via Skype, sensing the actors’ energy was more challenging, and I found myself reverting to a more formal style of blocking, seeing the tiny stage on the screen as the diagrams in my grad-school notebooks. When I got there, part of the work I had to do was to open the blocking up a bit, to make it more responsive to the physical presence of humans on stage and in space.
The exercise in returning to my roots, as it were, was one of the benefits of this process. Picking up tools I had long let get rusty showed me the value in them, and also the ways I’ve grown past them. This challenged me to rethink what I’m doing as a director.
What challenges did the technology present?
While some of the challenges were ones I had anticipated, like the quality of the connection sometimes being poor, others were completely unanticipated.
One was the lack of depth. The webcam flattens perspective. I had no idea, a lot of the time, how far apart people were in the upstage/downstage dimension, or how much space they had to work with before they’d be banging into the curtain or falling on audience members. I think this wouldn’t bother me quite so much if the production were a proscenium staging, but I work in the thrust. It’s a sculpture garden. This drove me a little bonkers. When I got there in person, I was relieved to see that the pictures from the side weren’t as bad as I thought–for this, I credit my skilled collaborators, who made a thousand tiny adjustments to fix my errors.
Another thing was the lack of clarity. I expected that the video would sometimes be unclear; often people’s facial expressions were a blur. But I wasn’t prepared for how unclear the audio would be. Although I could hear what people were saying, and, at a high level, how they were saying it, the details of their vocal production were impossible to catch. The surprise in this, for me, was realizing how much information I can get when I’m in person. I can hear where a person is holding tension in their body and whether they are using their voice in a sustainable way. I ended up asking Katherine to listen for these details on my behalf.
The last thing was that the view of the room was very narrow. I couldn’t keep track of who was present, if they weren’t on stage. I kept having to remind actors to be where I could see them if I was giving notes. It was just a little annoying, overall.
What was surprisingly not so hard?
Here’s a funny one. I’m mildly dyslexic, and I have a hard time with left and right. It’s embarrassing; I’m an adult person, and I still sometimes have to stop and think to be sure I’m doing it correctly. And then for directing, it’s all backward. When I’m in rehearsal, I often make mistakes where I point to my right (stage left) and say, “Cross right.” Actors and stage managers who have worked with me for a long time know that I have this challenge and will gently ask, “Do you mean left?” Via Skype, oddly, I made this mistake something like 10 percent as often as I do when I’m in the space. I have no idea why, but it was kind of neat.
I worried about the people in the process whom I hadn’t met yet. I thought it would be weird to try to connect with them in this way. But they completely rolled with it and didn’t act like it was strange at all.
One of my most valuable habits of mind is that I spit before I enter a theater. I leave all my “life junk” outside and walk into the space with a clear mind. One day, I had a ton of anxiety and frustration about something that had nothing to do with the play. I thought, as rehearsal time neared, “How am I going to be able to do this?” I knew I wasn’t going to walk into a studio. I was going to walk into my bedroom, which is not a space I think of as a rehearsal space, and I would carry all this noise in with me. I was very nervous about it. I even considered calling in sick, because I hated the idea of bringing this baggage along and maybe disrupting everyone else’s process. About 20 minutes into rehearsal, I realized that my body was quiet. All the churning tightness that had plagued me the whole day was…gone. Just as if I had walked into the space with my body as well as my mind. This was such a gift.
The focus people brought into the room was amazing, and I could feel it even at a distance. They had to work a little harder and listen a little more carefully, and that really did have an effect.
What was surprisingly not easy?
I didn’t expect it to be easy, at all, but some things were harder than I expected. Sometimes in key moments, I wouldn’t know what to do at all. For example, in the scene where Queen Elizabeth learns that her older son has been taken prisoner (and will definitely not survive a week), I wanted her to be physically connected with her youngest son as a reaction to that. When we worked on it via Skype, I kept going back and forth about whether I wanted the little boy to go to his mama or wanted the queen to collect him from where he’d been hanging out with his grandma. I couldn’t feel what was right. I told the actors, “Let’s figure this out when I’m there, I can’t do this.” When we rehearsed it in person, I found myself saying to Katherine, “Weren’t you supposed to go get your son?”
She looked at me blankly. “You said we’d decide when you were here.”
The answer was so obvious to me when I was in the space that I didn’t even remember that it had been a struggle when I was working remotely.
Side coaching was harder, too, because I couldn’t just nod and give little nonverbals. It was pretty well impossible.
All of the subtle, softer bits of directing were hard-to-impossible. When I’m working in person, I don’t take breaks. The company might have a five- or ten-minute break, but I’m still working, kind of. I’m strategic about who I’m talking to on breaks, making sure to circulate to everybody. If I’ve given a bit of a harsh note or felt that an actor was having a hard time, I will make sure to sit by them and connect, either about the work or about small talk. This is an important part of my process, and there was no way to do it subtly via Skype. Sometimes people chose to sit by my virtual presence and chat on a break, but it was not something I could orchestrate, and certainly not with subtlety. If I asked an actor to come to me during break, they suddenly had to be on and it was A Thing, which takes away their break time.
I also love the rituals of opening and closing the space. Even if there’s no reason for me to do so, I’m nearly always the last person to leave, making sure that everyone’s car starts and nobody’s phone gets locked in the building. Obviously, this didn’t happen via Skype, and it felt a little jolting to be, instead of the last, the first person to leave each night. That felt strange and lonely.
What was it like to finally be physically present?
I got giddy with the thrill of being able to work in three dimensions, for one thing.
A lot of things that were not apparent to me became clear as soon as I saw them live and in person. Adjusting and fixing wasn’t hard, but it was a Thing, and I had a lot of it to do. I was pleased, though, to find that it was not nearly as much as I feared.
Everything seemed to be suddenly lit on fire when I got there. The work was good up to that point, but the development in that last week was astronomical. Everyone was working so hard and everything was changing and growing so fast. When I closed out rehearsal on the last night of Skype, I thought, “Oh, this is going to be a pretty good production.” When I closed out the final dress, I thought, “Which of my Top 5 Productions is going to get bumped to make space for this one?”
Would I do this again?
YES. I totally would do this again. It isn’t as good as being in the room, but it opens up possibilities for collaborations I couldn’t do otherwise. I would definitely not do as much of it via Skype again. About 75% of our rehearsals were mediated in this way, and that was too much. When I got there in person, I felt like I was way behind. But I would do maybe half of the rehearsals via Skype, as well as possibly some 1×1 work with actors, and not feel like that was a problem.
It won’t ever be my favorite way of working with people, but it was doable.