Stephanie Lexis (not somebody I know, but someone who is obviously very cool) has started a project to promote body positivity in the theater. Her Facebook page is informative, funny, and super depressing, all at the same time. I’ve been especially interested in her recent run of anonymous stories about times when people have experienced discrimination because of their body. “You sing super great, but you’re too fat to play Maria” type of thing. I keep thinking about them, about all the people who have been hurt, and, maybe even more, about the people who do the hurting.
As a director, I’m always hyperaware of the power I have in the room. Using that power responsibly is a major component of being a good director–and it’s not anything that anyone ever tried to teach in a directing class that I was part of. I had some great teachers, and I don’t mean to fault them, but I have this hole in my education, and I think most directors do. I think this might explain (although not excuse) some of these horrible comments.
I have seven years of higher education in theater, all of them in a declared directing track. In my classes, we studied blocking, textual analysis, “concept,” material selection. We got feedback on all of these things after projects, as well. But I don’t remember ever having a class conversation or assigned reading about responsibly managing the power dynamic that is one of the trickiest parts of being a director. When I think about productions that I’ve heard about Going Badly, it’s nearly always because the director doesn’t quite understand how to care for people responsibly. (Favorite example).
The projects I’ve had that went badly would fall into this category as well, although I’ve erred on the side of being too timid, too reluctant to use the power that comes with the position, rather than the opposite. It’s a difficult balance.
So, while I would never in a million years consider saying anything that this project has recorded, I kind of get why it happens. There’s a glaring, gaping hole in our training as directors. I am just speaking from my own experience, but I think that it’s not unusual for training to focus on those things which are measurable and gradable. You can write your blocking down and turn it in for your prof to grade. A professor can give a lecture on some tools for approaching a text. But how to be with people is less concrete. Each of us has our own challenges and failings in how we interact with others. Each of us has our own baggage. No script for interactions will work for every director–or for every actor/director pair.
The best training I had in this was from mentorship and from observing other directors at work. Not every director has the advantage of having had an excellent undergrad mentor, which I did. I’ve also been lucky enough to have actors who helped me learn, who were kind and forgiving when I mispoke–but who felt like it was fine to tell me when I was out of line. I still get it wrong a lot of the time.
I’d like to argue for changing our training to include at least some attempt at this challenging component of the art. When my mom went through her MA program for counseling, she received a lot of guidance in how to interact with clients–what is appropriate to say, how to respond to difficult people, active listening, etc. Nearly 20 years into her counseling career, I doubt she uses those scripts on a daily basis, but they gave her somewhere to start. Maybe we need something like that in our training as directors. Because you’d like to think a person would have the good sense not to say, “You’re too tall to fall in love,” but clearly, it happens regularly.
Another weakness in my training is casting. I think I’m pretty good at casting, but nobody ever taught me how to do it. I am lucky enough to have a good sense for people, and also to be open to working with a lot of different kinds of people. I make the casting work, even if I didn’t make the choices someone else might have. I’ve made enough mistakes to have a good sense of when somebody will be hard to work with, or when a group of people won’t work well together. But it’s taken a lot of failures to get there.
The only lecture I ever heard on casting was from my high school theater teacher, who was very strongly in favor of type casting (this would also be the lecture where she told me I wasn’t pretty enough to be an actor. I was 13.). There’s a truism in the directing world that casting is 99% of the work. If that’s so, why didn’t anyone ever try to teach me to be good at it? I don’t think I’ve ever even seen, let alone read or been assigned, a book that focuses on casting. A quick search reveals lots of books on auditioning, but none exclusively on casting. This reflects the power dynamic, again. You have to study up and learn tricks of the trade to be good at auditioning. If you’re on the other side of the table? Just do your thing, good luck.
I’ve also never had the opportunity to cast in a huge audition. If fifty actors come out for a play I’m auditioning, I consider that a great number. I don’t know how directors handle sorting through hundreds of people in a cattle call situation. It sounds nearly impossible. Maybe I shouldn’t be surprised that the tendency is to resort to a lazy heuristic, a baseline idea of what a particular character should look like. It’s a quick way to cull hundreds of headshots. I hope someday I’ll have the chance to face that challenge; I hope when I do, I’m not so overwhelmed as to resort to lazy shorthand as a way to make it feel manageable.
As I read through the collected stories, one thing that jumped out at me over and over again is how many of these stories involve educational theater. Often, the person saying the horrible thing was a teacher. Educational theater is supposed to be about training actors–all the actors, regardless of their “type.” It’s not about making the best show, although it’s nice if that happens. It’s about creating the best artists. So even if you think that good theatre requires that only conventionally pretty people fall in love (you’re wrong, but for the sake of argument…), educational theater is a time to give opportunities to the people who are ready to learn the most, not the people who will satisfy a specific aesthetic.
The fact that there are still theater teachers who think that tearing people down is the best way to do their job makes me ill. These comments are educational malpractice. I’m sure these teachers would say, “I have to prepare them for the real world.”
As educators, we’re training the next generation of artists. We’re creating the real world. If we honor that responsibility, we can create a better real world.