I’m not much for New Year’s resolutions. I don’t think they’re very helpful for me, or the way I think about time. But I do have areas of focus each year, especially for directing.
Each year, I think about something I don’t think I do very well as a director, and I spend time really focusing on it and asking myself constantly, “Am I doing better at this? How can I do better?” One year it was side coaching. Another year it was pushing the limits of what I think I know about thrust blocking.
This year, it’s “Learn to empower actors to name the difficulty so that I can help them transform the difficulty into the work.” Every actor should have something about a production that is hard for them, or they aren’t growing. For actors new to Shakespeare, it’s often that they don’t know where to start with text work. For intermediate actors, might be about learning to stay engaged with a partner when a scene gets intense. For advanced actors, it’s often hard to name–but sometimes they find a depth in the work that takes them beyond their comfort zone. Their feet can’t touch the bottom and it’s terrifying, especially if they’ve gotten used to acting on terra firma.
I find that actors at every level have a hard time admitting what’s difficult to me. Newer actors don’t want to show their inexperience. More advanced actors sometimes tell me they didn’t share the problem they were having because they didn’t want to take up my time. But I always know, somewhere in my mind, that something is a little off. I can hear their struggle, if not the precise nature of it. Wondering about it distracts me from my own work. It’s easier if they can just tell me.
I’m good at helping actors do their work. I’m trying to find ways to open the communication that says, “I want to know where it’s hard. Let’s move through it together.” This is partly about trust–but many of the actors I’m thinking of are ones who I know trust me a great deal. I think it’s more about vulnerability, about admitting the challenge.
The other annual thing is that I often have a theme for the year–a phrase or motto that rolls into my head at important times. They don’t show up every year, and I don’t choose them. They find me. These often are broad; rather than being specific to my work, they can apply to many different pieces of my life. In 2013, the theme that found me was “Roll with it.” That theme turned out to be something I needed a lot that year; I didn’t get a job I’d been working toward for a long time, and my husband was laid off from his job the same week I found out. We had small children, we felt overwhelmed, anxious and adrift. But when I got panicky, that phrase showed up in my mind, and I relaxed into the current of that strange and difficult year. And things got better.
In 2016, in memory of a dear friend, I resolved: “This year, I will not make art. I will let art make me.” 2016 became the most amazing year of my artistic life so far. My work transformed, grew, deepened. It got so much harder, and so much richer. I woke up into it in a new way. Art did make me. I won’t ever be the same again, and I’m grateful for it.
For 2019, the motto that keeps showing up when I need it is, “Do the next right thing or the next thing right.” It’s the lyrics to a song by Seth Glier, an artist whom I met years ago when he did a house concert at my mom’s place.
Sometimes the music comes along with the phrase, others, it’s just the words. Do the next right thing.
I’ve been searching for what’s next in my life as a director. I’ve organized my life in such a way that I could work almost anywhere that would have me. I want to work at a wide range of theaters, from educational theaters to small professional companies in underserved markets, to the occasional big show in a fancy place. I’m just not sure how to make that happen. I once saw Liesl Tommy speak at KCACTF and one thing she said that gave me both relief and depression was that finding work as a director is like catching a unicorn: “You’re not sure how it happened, and you can’t quite tell anyone else how to do it.” Yep.
I’ve been engaged in a project of writing to theaters I’m interested in working with. Katherine told me years ago that this is what I should be doing, and I just couldn’t. Putting myself out there felt embarrassing and I was sure no one would respond, anyway. so what was the point.
But then something changed–I think, in some ways, it was related to that 2016 experience of letting art make me. How I see myself is entirely different, and I can put myself in that position. It’s still hard, but not impossible. In the past year, I’ve finally taken that advice. I’m not reaching out to theaters that are clearly entirely out of my league, but I’m reaching above the level I’ve been working at (“level” being about status/prominence/budget, not quality–I’ve been working at some exceptionally high-quality theaters, both professional and academic, for a decade).
Here’s what’s crazy. Some of them have responded. And it’s not always ones I think will. Some theaters that I think of as being definitely an easy next step for me haven’t responded at all, or suggested that I shouldn’t bother asking them. And some that I thought of as a reach have come back to me with, “Let’s talk. Your work looks interesting.” And there’s been a lot of in-between.
Some days, I’m floating on the high of an encouraging response. And then I get the slightest bit of a glimpse of where I am and how far I have to go, and a wave of despair hits me.
That’s when those words of wisdom come to me. Do the next right thing.
And I write another letter.