I have been hearing a lot of horror stories from playwrights lately about their bad experiences with directors.
Much like Salieri in Amadeus, could the fear of mediocrity scare artists into panic mode which then leads to destructive behavior? True, artists make rash decisions all the time-I have heard stories about maverick playwrights such as Sam Sheppard who allegedly pulled a production of "True West" due to the bold casting choice of two women instead of two men; or Lee Blessing allegedly pulling a production of "Chesapeake" (which I directed the West Coast Premiere of) due to the mediocre reviews it received at NY Stage and Film where it premiered. Does the playwright have the power and the right to do such things? Yes. Can the power be misused or abused? Absolutely.
So what determines the professional (or unprofessional) behavior of an artist? I think it has a lot to do with their early training combined with their experience and a little bit of upbringing thrown in. My early theatre training began at the Mark Taper Forum where my very first assignment as an intern was on the writing workshop of Pulitzer Prize winning "Angels In America, Part II-Perestroika" by Tony Kushner. The gospel according to the Taper staff was to honor and respect the playwright above all others. Tony Kushner was a bit of an unknown writer at the time, but the respect for him in the room was enormous. He sat in on every rehearsal, and in some cases had been developing the play with the same actors, such as Ellen McLaughlin and Stephen Spinella, for years. Despite the two award winning and critically acclaimed directors in the room, Tony Taccone and Oscar Eustis, the writer truly had final say and it was clear that the workshop was for his benefit. This early training built the foundation for which I have developed new work for over fifteen years.
"Angels..." was one of the first new plays that I watched a playwright develop in a rehearsal room with the help of an artistic team of actors, directors, producers and dramaturges. Since then, I have worked on several new plays and have watched some of the best Regional Theatre artists interact with each other. Playwrights such as Tony Kushner, Peter Parnell, Alice Tuan, Han Ong, Jon Bastian, Tim Toyama and John DiFusco among others. Although my experience working with playwrights has spanned over seventeen years, the playwright/director relationship still eludes me. Has anyone read the book How to Get Along With An Over Dramatic, Controlling, A Personality Director? Or how about What To Do When A Playwright Really Wants To Direct? No such luck. Rule books on these types of things just don’t exist. I am afraid that we must rely on our experience to be our only guide.
What is the protocol when it comes to the playwright/director relationship? Although there has never been an official rule book written, here are some thoughts that might make the production experience a lot more enjoyable for both:
Step #1-Choose a director/playwright that you trust and respect
Before you choose a director/playwright to work with, be sure it is someone who has supported you in the past or has an investment in your future. If that is not possible then try to see their work, read their reviews, or ask around about them before you make the commitment. It is essential that you are absolutely confident in each others work and are eager to work together.
For example, most of the new plays that I direct are plays that I have developed with writers in my workshops. The relationship from dramaturge to director is a natural one, since I know the play so well and care for its well being and execution. The writers are secure with both my knowledge of the script and my emotional connection to their piece. This kind of relationship makes sense, since both the playwright and I have the same goals in mind for the production.
Step #2-Get on the same page
I believe that it is the director’s job to fulfill the playwright’s vision so be brave, honest and fair with each other regarding your intentions from the beginning. Sit down over a cup of coffee and talk about the play-what you like and don’t like, how and when it moves you, and any conceptual elements that you feel you want to enhance or experiment with. This initial conversation is crucial to determining whether or not you are both on the same page which is mandatory in order for the production process to work.
For example, when I went into production for Blaine Teamer’s "Pandora’s Trunk" at LATC, my concept was to personify the main character’s alter ego. The playwright’s original intention was to have it be a one woman show, a tour de force for some lucky local actress. When he discovered that I planned on putting another actress onstage as the character’s alter ego instead of using a voice over, he was not happy. After a long passionate email exchange we came to a compromise. I would show him what the show would look like, and if he still did not like the work that we were doing, then I would change it. Thank God he liked it, because it would have been hell to re-stage the show! In this case, the playwright was willing to be open minded and give my concept a try. However, in the end, he had final say and was ultimately in control of the show’s destiny.
Step #3-Trust each other to do their work
Just as a writer has a process in writing their play, the director has a process in directing it. Although you might not understand each others process, try to respect it and trust it. For example, I know from my experience as an Assistant Director to Tom Hulce on the Pulitzer Prize winning "The Cider House Rules", that it can often be painful for me to watch the director’s process. It may seem foreign to me, or ineffective or sometimes just too passive. For example, Tom used to give the actors line readings which were brilliant and fascinating to watch.But these things can be confusing to actors. Does the director want you to imitate them or did they want the actor to make it their own? Despite the director’s approach with the actors, rest assured, a good director has a plan and it is usually related to getting the performances they want out of the actors.
Similarly the playwright also has their own process which may seem unusual to the director. I have seen writers like Tony Kusher use improvisation with the actors to help solve some problems that he may be having with the text. He would often write scenes at night and bring them in the next day to be “tried” out with the actors. This kind of interaction with the actors is what seemed to help him most in creating "Angels..." Playwright Peter Parnell had a lot of behind the scenes input on "The Cider House Rules", from the two directors, Tom Hulce and Jane Jones, and from production dramaturge, Kurt Beattie. Jane and Tom were also the originators of the piece which was born out of Jane’s company Book-It Repertory Theatre, which adapts plays from literature. Due to Jane and Tom’s background and investment in the piece, they had very specific ideas of what the text should be and how it should be executed. Therefore Peter spent a lot of time with the directors discussing the text and structure. This type of interaction and development process is obviously very different than the one used by Tony Kushner who was more hands-on with the actors. Regardless, every playwright has their own way of working that is very specific to them and their projects. Accept each others process, don’t judge it or analyze it too much.
Step #4-Allow there to be one voice in the room
It can be confusing to the actors to hear more than one voice guiding them through the process, especially if those voices are in conflict with one another. For example, I worked on a project which starred the writer. Although he had asked me to direct the project, he himself is a critically acclaimed, award winning director who had very specific ideas for the piece. Considering all of these givens, you can imagine that he had a lot of ideas and information to share with the cast. Although it may seem natural for him to share with the actors, it from time to time would confuse them to hear from the playwright instead of the director. He and I eventually came to the agreement that all notes would be passed through me first which substantially eased the actor’s minds.
Believe me, the last thing you want for your production is unhappy actors! Keeping one voice in the room will keep the actors happy, on the right track, and focused on what they need to be doing. All of the writer’s ideas and character thoughts for the actors are best if communicated through the director. A good director will take the writer’s notes and try to implement them in a way that will not be too disruptive to the cast.
Step #5-Schedule note sessions with each other
It can be very distracting and confusing to have a writer whisper in my ear while I am working. On the other hand, it is also frustrating for a writer not to be heard by the director. Therefore, I suggest scheduling time with each other to share ideas and concerns (if any) any time other than during rehearsal.
Besides the occasional coffee meeting, a good time for the playwright to give his or her first set of notes to the director is after the first invited stumble thru, which is usually set aside for the designers. A separate meeting should be set up between the writer and the director in order to ensure that the director and the playwright are on the same page before any information is released to the designers, actors, producers, etc to avoid confusion.
The second private note session could be after the first dress rehearsal. This gives the director and the cast time to gel the changes that the playwright might have wanted and allows them time to work on them in a manner that is suitable for viewing.
The third private note session could be given after the final dress rehearsal or first preview. This proves helpful because by that time an audience will have attended and based on their reaction to things, the playwright and the director will know if certain aspects of the play work or not.
Step #6-Be Cool
The best playwright/director formula for success all comes down to mutual respect, communication, and trust. After all, no one knows the play like the writer, and by the same token, no one can find the nuances in a script like a director. In other words, you need each other, so be cool with each other and look out for one another.
Above all else, remember that it is only a play. We are not performing brain surgery or saving the world from mass destruction. Put your emotions about each other in check and in perspective when dealing with each other. As my high school boyfriend used to say “don’t be lame”.
Step #7-The worth of the work
Congratulations! Now that your show has opened, got great reviews, and was a hit, other theaters want to produce it! How do you proceed with your relationship to each other? What if you don’t ever want to work with each other again? What if you only want to work with each other on every single project from here to eternity?
Well, if the playwright liked the director, then they are in luck. Most directors that are members of their union, The Society of Stage Directors and Choreographers, are mandated to have a first right of refusal clause in their original contract. Therefore, if the writer and producer like the original staging, then the contract has been put into place to keep that original director.
But what if you never want to work with the director again? Rest assured, there are ways to arrange that as well. There is also a clause in every SSDC contract to “buy out” the director so the production can be remounted by someone else. It is usually a flat rate buy out which essentially pays the original director off so that the writer and producers don’t have to work with them again. Another scenario that the playwright might encounter is that they like the original staging but they don’t want to work with the original director again. In this case, sometimes a fee can be negotiated so that the staging can be used but remounted by an assistant or stage manger who is familiar with the production.
In any case, the original director receives written credit for the original staging no matter how many directors continue on with the production. The playwright is of course always attached to the piece, and should have final say in choosing the director and final casting approval as well.
The future of American Theatre depends upon directors and playwrights being able to work with each other. You never know when the next Pulitzer Prize winning play will be written and who is going to write it. As the notorious producer Diana Gibson used to say “Playwrights have to come from somewhere”. So, find a director/playwright you trust, get on the same page with them, trust each other to do your work, and above all, be cool. A sense of humor goes a long way in the stressful, fast paced, sometimes wacky world of theatre.
...Che’Rae Adams is the Producing Artistic Director of the LA Writers Center