Now that Richard III is rolling around Michigan and I’m home, I’m finding myself explaining to people more or less daily that the show goes on without me. Most people who haven’t done much theater don’t realize that a director is very different from an orchestra conductor. I set the show up and then it goes without my downbeat, night after night.
It’s not even that they don’t need me–more that I’m completely in the way if I’m there too much. I can’t ever find the right spot to be during the prep; I try to slide out of the way of the actors, and no matter where I stand, I’m blocking somewhere somebody needs to be. But exhiling myself to the lobby feels awkward, too.
Yesterday at church, someone asked me, “Don’t you wish you could see it?” My feelings on that have changed over the years. I used to avoid watching performances, back when I was in high school. I knew everything was going to go sideways and I got too stressed out by the experience.
By college and grad school, I attended every performance, but I watched the actors like I watch my ball rolling down the lane at the bowling alley–trying to steer it by sheer force of will. My directing professor in undergrad told me he likes to take his wife out to dinner on opening night. “If I can enjoy a meal out while the show is going on, I know I’ve done my work well.” I used to think this was the craziest idea I’d ever heard. Now, I see it as a good measure of the quality of my work.
At some point in the past decade, I’ve learned that watching the audience watch my work is the very best way to improve my directing. I do wish I could do more of that. I wouldn’t come to every show, but two or three would be good. I learn a lot when I see whether the things I thought were so smart in rehearsal work in front of people who don’t know all the things I was hoping for in that moment.
But as much as I would like to see it more, and in front of more audiences, I have no problem with it playing without me. I love when actors send me backstage selfies. Sometimes I get reports like this one Katherine posted on Facebook: “I was loving the vocal reactions — laughter, gasps, hissing, even spontaneous applause when Richmond announced ‘the bloody dog is dead.’ Half of the performance experience is made by such appreciative and emotionally available audience members!” My brain melted with joy when I read that. They applauded Richmond?! Ashley deserves it, she’s working her tail off, and Scott’s Richard is just detestable, but I’ve never seen that happen in a performance of this text before. I wish I could have witnessed that audience reaction. But just knowing it happened is pretty exciting.
But the play doesn’t need me. It goes on whether I am there to micromanage it or not.
Directing productions that I can’t watch for most of their performances has been very healthy for me. I know that if my work is not done at final dress, it’s not getting done. I don’t have the opportunity to be tempted to keep trying to change it. Sometimes, I look at a clock and realize Right now, Clarence is trying to talk his way out of an early grave, and that’s a neat feeling to have. But I’m alright letting the show go on out of my sight.
The other thing people ask about a lot is how the touring works. Our venues are all very different from each other, in terms of house size and configuration. In some places, they just have time to load in, put up the pipe and drape upstage wall, and talk through adjusting entrances, and then it’s time to go. If I happen to be there (as I was at Central Michigan University for Richard), I walk the show and plot where adjustments need to be made. But if I’m not there, actors figure it out themselves.
Touring is a particular skill. Actors have to be super organized–everyone has their own system of checklists and plots. They have to be very flexible, too. Every space is different, and they have to respond to it.
Katherine talks about how the company’s actors have to be adept at the Viewpoint of Architecture. You can’t just go into a new space and play exactly the same way you did in your old space. You have to listen to what the space is giving you. How does the shape of the space contextualize your stage picture? How does its resonance change your vocal choices? How does its size adjust your movement?
The actors have tools and habits for processing the challenges of touring. They “walk their show,” physically moving through the entire path of their story, noting where they will change costumes, leave a prop, change an entrance from its original blocking to accommodate a longer vom. They listen to the space, finding the resonance where their voice comes back to them. We always do a long fight call in a new space, with a careful eye toward audience safety.
This experience of touring helps the company fulfill one of its core missions in bringing classical theater to communities that haven’t had it. They play in nontraditional spaces, so towns don’t have to have a well-appointed theater to bring them in. They keep the props and furniture to what can fit in a minivan so they can travel cheaply. They build everything themselves, so they know how to fix it.
I’ve been engaged in a process over the past several months of sending emails to theaters I’m interested in working with in the next five years or so. Mostly, I get silence, but sometimes I have interesting conversations with people–and one of the surprises for me is that they always want to talk about how I direct a show for touring. I don’t think of this as a special skill, but I guess not everyone can do it well. I’ve heard innumerable stories about refusals to adapt blocking or to think practically about a design that can be set up in an hour.
Everything I know about touring, I’ve learned from Pigeon Creek. I did direct a show in undergrad that toured to middle schools, but I had no idea what I was doing, and I’m sure it showed.
So, if you’re thinking about directing a touring show, here’s the best advice I’ve got:
- Less is more. Every object that you put into your stage picture will have to get from one location to the next. Can you reuse some things creatively? Can you do without a lot of things you think you might need?
- You can’t plan for everything, but try. I sometimes can visit spaces before we put shows into them, and Pigeon Creek returns to many of the same venues season after season, so I know those spaces. But we always have new ones to throw a wrench in everything. In the case where I know a space, I will preemptively mention to actors that they’ll need to adjust their blocking a certain way. But mostly, I can’t do that sort of thing.
- Trust your actors to be smart. One thing I do a lot when I’m working with actors is ask them to solve problems. I will describe a piece of staging that feels complex, and explain the most important storytelling bit of it (There’s a moment in Richard where I told Katherine, “The story is the reach, not the grab,” and that let us isolate exactly what the important thing was, which made it achievable). Then I ask them to suggest ways to solve it. We try different things in space. We work through it together. Although I usually land on a solution and identify it as the right answer, the actors have worked with me through a few options. When they’re in a situation where our top choice just won’t work, they already have a few other ideas and my blessing to use them.
- Hold it all loosely. Crazy stuff happens on the road. Every touring company has so many wild stories, it feels miraculous that anything ever goes right. As a director, you have to assume that your show will be different when it is out of your rehearsal space and out of your hands. Name this for actors. Give them permission to respond to the situation where they find themselves. Don’t treat your blocking like Holy Writ. If they have been paying attention at all to your work, they can adapt your show to any conditions.
Here’s the image that cured me of any sense of clutching tightly to my shows.
To say that this is not how I blocked it is the understatement of the year. But when fate and architecture give actors a balcony, they’d better feel free to use it. The photos from Romeo and Juliet at the Rose showed me something astonishing. The show was undoubtedly my show, even though it was two years later and a number of cast members had been swapped around. I could see the beats of my story in these photos. This was not just any Romeo and Juliet, it was mine. But at the same time, it was so gorgeously responsive to the space and the audience. The actors understood the story I was trying to tell, and they understood the space I hadn’t ever visited. They preserved what I valued about the story, and amplified it through the beauty of that wooden O.
Ever since then, no matter where we’re touring, I know that my play is in good hands.