I’m working on On the Verge (a play, ironically, about time) at York College, and the first thing I told my student stage manager was, “Give me a warning five minutes before we’re due for a break, and no matter what I am doing, call the break.”
He glanced pointedly at my watch, but he did as I asked.
I always wear a watch when I’m directing. I can’t look at my phone when I’m working–it’s too distracting. I have to wear a watch, preferably an analog one, so I can see the slices of each hour disappear like so much pie. The problem is, it doesn’t help much.
I have a hard time internalizing my rehearsal schedule. I have to have a printout of it on the table, and even then, the connection between this document and actual, four-dimensional reality is …. tenuous. I’m notorious for having in my head that we have another hour to use, or spending thirty minutes on a scene when I had scheduled fifteen–not because I legitimately couldn’t have gotten it done in half the time, but because I had it in my head that I had thirty minutes. The very simple math suddenly feels impossible, when I’m trying to do it while also listening to actors.
Actors and stage managers learn pretty quickly that I never get offended when they correct me on my time errors because I know that this is my bugbear. I want to be respectful of people’s time and use it well. When I mess this up, I’m not just embarrassed at failing at a skill I learned in first grade, but also angry at myself for violating my own principles around valuing others.
The funny thing is, I’m good about time in my regular life. I’m an obsessively punctual person (“If you’re not five minutes early, you’re late.”). I rarely double-book myself. When I chair meetings–which you would think is not that different from directing–I am always comfortable in my awareness of the time we have left and the business that remains. I even can stage manage competently when I’m not directing–including keeping excellent track of time.
I have a strong sense of stage time–when does the action speed up? What parts do we need to take in a more measured, deliberate pace? How does the metronome of the verse tick, hiccup, and shift as we push through it?
I used to be better about time in rehearsal. I don’t think I had this problem until maybe five years ago. I got a lot worse at tracking stage left and stage right around this time, too. It bothers me when I get worse at things; I can’t stop noodling over them and wondering, Why? What did I lose? and How do I fix this?
The best explanation I can think of is that as I’ve become more skilled as a director, I have more things I need to focus on. I used to have all I could do to keep the story moving and the actors more or less connecting and the blocking not an absolute trainwreck. Now all of those things are second nature, but the work is significantly harder. I have more decisions to make because I now know they exist. I have more information to process for each person who is in the room because I now listen to them with more depth than I was once capable of. The work doesn’t get easier. It just gets bigger. It sure would be nice to be good at this; instead, the more I learn, the more I can see how much I still have to learn.
Maybe the kind of deep focused listening required to direct at the level I want to makes it hard to keep track of time. Maybe if I were better at directing, I could do all of it well–even noting the minutes ticking away in the outside world while we dig deep on the arc of the play.
Each year, I have a specific focus for myself as a director, some particular thing I want to learn to do better. One year, I wanted to expand my movement vocabulary. Another, I wanted to get better about side coaching. This year, after yet another flub of rehearsal time with my Richard III cast, I told a few of them, “My directing goal for 2019 is to learn to read my damn watch.” I meant it as a self-deprecating joke, but then I realized that was a good idea. So I’ve been working on learning to divide my focus–to still stay deeply embedded with the actors’ process and the play’s world, but also to maintain an awareness of the schedule and those kinds of details. Holding both of those things in my mind feels like a double layered vision, like looking at the reflection in a pond while also seeing the stones and fish beneath the surface.
In our recent remount of Antony and Cleopatra, we had six rehearsals to put a two-and-a-half-hour play back together, with new dances, new music, and four new cast members. And no stage manager, in a space where sundown places a hard limit on rehearsal time (we have some battery-powered lights, but the batteries only last so long). I had to manage time all by myself.
And…I did a pretty good job of it, over all. We had breaks when we were supposed to, and the nights ended when they were supposed to. As dumb as it sounds, this is one of the things I was the proudest of about that remount, where my own work is concerned. It was genuinely difficult, and dealing with it, adjusting my mental habits to solve this frustrating problem, felt like a real accomplishment.
But seriously, it would be nice to be good at this.