One interesting thing about this phase in my career is that I’ve been doing this for a long enough time that when I go back to something, there’s a lot of change to notice and reflect on.

I’ve been working on Underneath the Lintel this spring at Silk Moth Stage. It’s a one-person show, with Diana Black as the Librarian. Although I have produced two one-person shows in the past couple years at SMS (Every Brilliant Thing and Artemisia’s Intent), it’s been twenty years—to the month—since I last directed one.

I haven’t thought about it in a very long time, but right before I graduated from Hiram College, Robert Moeller, who was our TD and tech theater professor, asked me to direct him in Krapp’s Last Tape. Robert was very ill at the time; I didn’t believe he was going to live another year, and I don’t think he did either (as it turned out, he lived another 19 years!). The material of the play was deeply personal to him, and when he asked me to work on this, it felt a bit like a dying wish. It was a bucket-list play for him—the first time someone asked me to direct them in a “bucket list” role, but not the last—and I remember feeling the weight and responsibility of being honored with a request like that. I don’t remember if it was particularly good work, either by him or by me, because the quality, on some level, didn’t matter. I didn’t care for Beckett particularly much, but that didn’t matter either. What I remember the most was working from a place of deep love for this person whom I had grown close to in my time at Hiram. In one of the performances, he got stuck in an eddy of the text, and I could feel the whole audience—all people who loved Robert and were concerned for him—willing him to paddle out of it, and willing to wait while he found his way back into the text’s current. I don’t know if any of them would remember if it was good theater, but I think most of them would remember that feeling of deep connection and compassion. I’ve learned so much since then, about audience and architecture and rhetoric and neurology. At 21 years old, in only my seventh year as a director, I had the most important thing, which was love for my collaborator.

Robert, plaid shirt left of center, helping me with the strike for Antony and Cleopatra. Photo probably by Clay Archer, 2003. Wild that I only have two pictures of someone I spent that much time with, but it was a different era—no camera in my pocket!

All of which is to say, I had forgotten how hard directing a one-person show is! Or maybe I assumed that Krapp was hard because I was young, or because Robert was Robert, or because I didn’t like/get Beckett. All of those things are probably true, but also this—directing a one-person show is different from anything else, and I don’t think I fully appreciated that. There’s no one else. No other energy coming into the room to rescue you from yourself. No break for the actor—no moment to pause and listen and rest for a second (oddly apt, given the content of Underneath the Lintel). Nearly every rehearsal was just me and Diana and Glen Berger’s weird and fascinating and smart text.

One thing I find mind-bending is how many people expressed surprise that a solo show would have, or need, a director. Not every one does (many multi-person shows are ensemble directed, for that matter), but I think a director is a helpful component. The actor can’t step outside herself and see the bigger shape of the piece. Which, I suppose, makes me wonder—what do people think directors do?

Poster design by Francisco Escalera

Casting a one-person show is nearly impossible, because so few actors have done them before. A lot of actors will say, “I’ve always wanted to do this,” or “I probably can manage it, after all, I played Hamlet,” but, in much the same way as it’s a whole other thing for a director, it’s vastly different for an actor, too. The line load, of course, is tremendous, and many actors underestimate the challenge. Even if you’ve performed an uncut (ahem, “uncut”) Hamlet, you haven’t been onstage talking by yourself for more than maybe ten minutes (although it can feel like an eternity, “O what a rogue and peasant slave am I” is only 55 lines). Underneath the Lintel runs around 80.

So how does one do it? Once I got past the general casting questions of ability, suitability, preparedness, interest, and collegiality—which is to say, round 1 auditions—I was left with a set of extremely good options. I think any of them would have struggled, because solo shows are hard, and ultimately done a great job, because they were all excellent performers. They would have been different, certainly. When I’m casting, I’m not looking around for the actor who matches the image I have in my head for the character; I’m imagining what the intersection between the character and this individual actor might feel like, and asking myself whether that might be fun. Every actor presents an entirely different possibility for the shape of the show.

Diana asked me one time why I cast her, and not somebody else. The truth is, it was entirely trust in the magic. Silk Moth Stage is the place of serendipity. It pulls in the right people for a particular role and a particular moment. It told me, unmistakably, that Diana was the Librarian. I believe, and hope, that all of those other people will eventually work with us at Silk Moth.

Photo by Tiffany Showalter Photography

Diana’s approach to the text is very dramaturgical, which I, of course, adore. This script has a ton of detail to unpack, and when she needed a break from line-learning, she would dive into texts like The History of Jewish Costume and send me images and quotes. These insights always made me see the text in a new way. There’s nothing “incidental or accidental” in it. Most of the content on our dramaturgy page came from this research.

Diana is also Jewish, and, while the character is not written to be, specifically, Jewish, the play has a lot of themes about Judaism, and the playwright is Jewish. The production would be different if the performer was not somebody who is in a moment of connecting and wrestling with their Jewish identity (for more on this, check out Diana’s article in Kveller).

This is an example of the “identity welcoming” casting I am interested in practicing. It’s not “identity blind” casting, which purports to ignore things like race or disability or queerness or whatever, but in fact says, “Anyone can play this role, as long as they play it in the way a cis, white (probably male) person would do it.” And it’s not identity-centered casting, where an actor is expected to put all of their identity at the service of the project, often in ways that are stereotyping or boundary-violating. “Identity welcoming” casting, at least as I am trying to practice it, says that most roles can be played by anyone, and that people are welcome to bring as much or as little of their own constellation of identity into the character and the process as feels meaningful to them. Sometimes, we leave it outside entirely, as when Chaz Albright, a cis man, played Isabel in Measure for Measure and did it in a way that largely left his masculinity out of the equation. Other times, it shifts the portrayal of the character, as in the case of Glassheart, where the actors were very clear with me and with the costume designer about the ways they inhabit their own racial and gender identity, and where and how they wanted to bring that into the process; these conversations influenced the design and performance tremendously.

Photo by Tiffany Showalter Photography

In Underneath the Lintel, Diana’s Jewish identity shows up in tiny, interesting ways, like the moment where she writes on the blackboard in Hebrew because she happens to know how, or the authenticity with which she says lines like, “the smell of the pesach meal still lingering.” It’s allowed us to have conversations about the questions the play raises about antisemitism and religion and humor. Another aspect of Diana’s identity that came into the play is that she’s a mother. Before I say this next bit, I want to emphasize that she is a very good mother, who loves her children and is giving them an absolutely beautiful and idyllic childhood. And yet. Even (or perhaps especially) the best mothers understand the costs and trade-offs of being a parent. There are a few lines in the play about children, where the librarian mentions not being a parent, and not wanting kids. In the body and voice of another person, those might come through as incidental details, but Diana chose to make them a character trait. Not only does the Librarian not have kids, she finds the idea kind of gross or horrifying, and Diana’s connection with those lines comes from a deep understanding of how gross and horrifying parenthood can be (even for people who really love being parents). Because of Diana’s own life experience, the Librarian can inhabit those moments, which for another actor might be either caricature or non-event, with depth and nuance. I hope that Diana never felt like I was asking her to speak for all of Judaism or all mothers, but only for herself, and that she understood that she could also set boundaries around parts of her identity that she did not want to put at the service of my art.

Photo by Tiffany Showalter Photography

The music that we have for this show demonstrates the flexibility of the script. For the Friday and Saturday performances, we have Shannon Dove playing Irish and Americana music. He’s selected a repertoire of traveling songs, reflecting the themes of constant movement, never settling down, that run through the play. On the nights when Shannon’s starting us off, the show feels kind of global to me. Like it’s about the whole world, moving along. The other music is very different; on Sundays, we have the Melichenko family, who are Ukrainian refugees, performing violin and accordion music. I think they set us up to be more attuned to the Eastern European pieces of the story, the geographic anchor points tying back to Poland. The play has enough stretch to shift focus by the music that surrounds it.

One of the challenges in this script is that the character starts out as a fairly reasonable person, and by the end, is entirely unhinged. I’ve seen this show live once, and watched a few recordings of other performances online, and the trap that most of them fall into is escalating too fast, leaving themselves nowhere to go for the last 45 minutes. One of the comments we’ve gotten the most from audience members is that the “descent into madness” felt organic. Diana and I worked hard at tracking the arc of it, and I am pleased that people are noticing it.

Photo by Tiffany Showalter Photography

The text has a lot of paper props—a tram ticket from Germany in 1912, a letter written in Yiddish in 1905, a specific travel guide marked up in a particular way. MaKayla Baker Paxton was the props designer, and she did such a great job. I knew she would; she loves to craft and research, and this whole script is an invitation. The props are so good that we are passing them around the audience just to make sure everyone can appreciate them.

Photo by Tiffany Showalter Photography

One thing I have learned from this show is that if I ever direct a one- or probably even two-person show at Silk Moth again, I want someone else to be the producer. For shows with more actors, we can spread the responsibility around more. Actors take on production duties, and so I don’t have to think as much about certain aspects. I also just have more people to think with, even if I am still doing most of the work myself. For this play, other than MaKayla’s work on the props, it was just me and Diana making it happen, and at times, that felt like a lot. We keep things bare-bones at SMS, in order to pay actors as much as we possibly can, but this show might have gone too far in that direction.

Two of my strengths as a director are architecture and audience; Silk Moth lets me use both of those to extreme advantage. It is a challenging space, but also full of opportunity. We have lots of levels, a stump, a few nicely-placed trees, a couple posts to play around with. The audience is close and accessible; the actors can move through them, “cast” them, and make real eye contact with them. They aren’t incidental. People often comment on how it feels to be in our audiences and have that kind of interaction, but this time, a couple of folks complimented me on my use of the space. It’s more subtle—I very rarely get that kind of feedback because most people don’t notice it.

Photo by Tiffany Showalter Photography

We have two more performances, if the weather holds! I want more people to see this show! Diana is truly doing extraordinary work, and the script, in the words of one patron, “makes you laugh, think, and feel, all at once.”

One Reply to “Underneath the Lintel at Silk Moth Stage

  1. Wonderful to read this after seeing the show. It makes me appreciate the whole experience all the more. We, the audience, see only the final product—in this case an intimate journey with a person we connect with, all the while we laugh at her quirks and become absorbed in her self-discovery. Yet it is the flowering of a long collaboration of Director and actor. This enlightened me about that process and made the play, and Diana’s extraordinary depth in inhabiting her character more clear to me. Thank you.

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