directing, theater

take a cup of actors

Making theater is a lot like making food in a restaurant. Both enterprises are public, audience-based, relying on other people’s consumption. Both are best live – recording a great performance of a play is as impossible as recording a great meal. And both are plagued with violations of various civic codes. It’s almost impossible to do a play without a fire code violation, or to make food in a high-pressure restaurant without the same for the health code. Both appeal to young, foolhardy people who feel like working sixteen hours a day. Both are plagued with financial problems – restaurants close almost as quickly as theaters do.

This comparison has come to my mind every time I’ve been in a restaurant for the last six months. There must be something we can learn from food. Maybe our approach to documenting theater should be more similar to that of documenting food. Document the process, the steps, not the final product. All you can really do with a finished play is take a pretty picture of it, posed, like a hamburger glazed with varnish to make it shine. But a videotape of a play in performance is like watching someone chewing. You want to look away, or tell them to close their mouth.

So, how could we document the theatrical process? We could write recipes for plays or theatrical happenings. They could be very short. Like this:

Deconstructed-Sexuality Play
(Bill R/Cornerstone’s recipe for As You Like it at the Pasadena Playhouse)
1) Take a Shakespeare comedy which involves cross-dressing twins and gender-bending.
2) Cast one of the female leads (i.e. Rosalind, Viola) as a man, playing a man. Cast all of the other parts in the play as true to gender (as written, not as performed by the Elizabethans)
3) Update or alter the setting as desired, but let this be the only directorial commentary on gender within the staging.
4)Let the love story between this traditionally female lead and her male lover be a relationship between men, as understood by both characters and the audience.

Or like this:

Layer Cake Play
(the recipe that I used for x restrung cortex in Los Angeles)
1) Take a play that is less than five minutes long and whose text is in some way non-realistic: poetic, heightened, etc.
2) Cast and rehearse the play normally. This should take about four hours. Pay especial attention to Stanislavskian acting values (intention, action) but also make sure the actors understand the meaning of every single word. Don’t attempt to block it in any way.
3) In the two weeks prior to performance, ask the actors to be off-book. Let them have their scripts on stage for reference, but encourage them to not use them.
4) Find a band that plays music which is similar in some way to the poetic texture of the play, and whose music can be divided into five short segments, about five minutes in length each.
5) In a performance situation (without having ever tried this beforehand, but making sure all the participants understand what is going to happen) layer the music and play like this:

– First set: 1-3 songs long
– First repetition of play
– Second song
– Second repetition of play
– Third song
-Third and final repetition of play
– Fourth and final set: 1-3 songs long

Wouldn’t it be amazing to have recipes from past directors of the way they cooked? The Elia Kazan Cookbook? To know what the steps were (in their minds), the key ingredients, towards assembling their Shakespeare or their Beckett? We have recipes that date back to medieval times, and we have scripts, too – but in too many cases, the scripts only tell us what was spoken.

I’m not advocating for more stage directions, being a long-time adherent of the school that if the playwright can’t get it into the text, it doesn’t belong in the play. But just as great chefs have different ways of making a lasagna, great directors have different ways of staging, I don’t know, a Shaw. I also think that some recipes (like the two I’ve excerpted above) apply to many different texts.

Would directors want to reveal these process secrets? Probably not all of them – some chefs don’t want to publish their recipes, either, for fear their ideas will be stolen. Directors would probably be very unwilling to publish “recipes” for plays they hadn’t yet directed. But for ones they had, productions that had already been publicly done, wouldn’t they be willing to to share their processes?

Imagine reading a book of these. The book could be really beautiful, using lots of pictures and footnotes, or it could be very dry and text-only, depending on the director’s style. The recipes could hand-hold or could be extremely technical and inaccessible if you weren’t a theater insider. They could be experimental, or traditional. They could be ones that anyone can make at home – Rachael Ray style – or three pages of pastry-chef jargon.

Maybe this will be a feature we can publish on UpstageProject (the theater criticism weblog which Amina, Rachel, Martine, Kate, Lisa L and I are working on – which has, so far, been very well-planned but not yet executed): featuring great directors and their theater recipes. We could even get the collaboration of dramaturgs and historians to publish historic theater recipes – to share their research on staging techniques of the Greeks, for example, or medieval mystery plays, in this kind of format.

I think it would be so good for directors and playwrights to start thinking of their work as something that should be documented through words – to hold their writing about theater to a high standard, and consider themselves within a tradition of criticism and commentary. Chefs have to be able to write (or to hire a ghostwriter to write about their work.) Why shouldn’t we write about our processes in the same way?