characterized by sentimental vulgarity

Well, theatre, and opera in particular, has been characterised by sentimental vulgarity, by exorbitance and the belief that, in order for it to be entertaining, in order for it to be diverting, for the the audience to be taken out of itself, it must do something that is in fact different from what they see in real life. I think that the most exciting thing is to have your attentions drawn to something that you overlooked in real life.

– Opera director Jonathan Miller interviewed at Via AJ. The article’s got a great section on his attempts to bring American English pronounciation into opera (Donizetti):

…they suddenly realised that American English is not a degenerate form of received English, it’s simply another form of English. They kept on saying at the beginning, oh, well, the ‘rs’ will violate the resonance and the pronunciation. I said it won’t at all!

directing, the chorus

set another before you

When I was working on THE MARRIAGE OF HEAVEN AND HELL, at the Met Theater, at the end of 2006, I asked the producers to let us have six weeks of workshop time many months out before the actual rehearsal/production process.

A fun group of people drifted in and out of the process, including some very talented people whose schedules wouldn’t have permitted them to commit to the full calendar of rehearsals and performances. One woman only came to one workshop, but she made a big impact on my methods.

Somehow, I had also planned things far enough out in advance that, through Craigslist, I found two very talented videographer/directors who taped all the workshops. We used some of the footage later as background imagery during the production itself. I also watched it, when I had enough time to do so, at home, to go over what I had and hadn’t learned from the rehearsals.

I still have the tapes of the workshops, and I haven’t watched them since then. But I salvaged a little television with a VHS deck built in from the street, months ago, and plugged it in now – and popped one in.

There they were, and there I was, my hair wrapped in a bandanna (definitely hadn’t showered, definitely was running late that day) their legs in sweat pants and knees padded to protect from the improvisations. We were working in a theater that was maybe fifteen feet square, for the stage, and had twenty seats, for the audience. It was the truest black box I’ve ever seen. I am right on top of them. They are reciting William Blake and breaking the line into nothingness through repetition. They are dripping sweat. I am watching them like I know what it all means. I don’t.

“The most sublime act is to set another before you.
Set another before you.
Set another before you.
Before, before…”

And I am trying to figure it out, and so are they.

It was so nice to find this footage. I’ll be able to watch it, when I’m old and withered and have no more hair to put in bandannas, and be like “See? See? I used to have hair!” (And actors…)

I think that I have to do a better job of being my own archivist, of maintaining the records of the things I’ve done. It’s not that they will be significant to other people – it’s that they continue to be significant to me. I seem to be taking a break from directing choruses for the present. But if I ever do, again, I would want to know where these tapes were.

directing, film

everything in the director’s handbook

Kevin Maher on Darren Aronofsky and Mickey Rourke’s director-actor relationship:

…to get him there, Aronofsky admits that he had to use everything in the director’s handbook. Rourke, for instance, refused to even attempt one elaborately choreographed fight sequence. “He’s like, ‘Why don’t you do the routine?’” says Aronofsky. “So I got into the ring and I did the f***ing routine, the whole thing. And that f***ing shut him up for the day.”


heating the cold turkey

I saw a play recently, with friends. I felt the usual confusion of emotions, like going into a bar after having quit drinking, being surrounded by the cues and quirks of your old haunt. The cold women’s bathroom, spiderwebbed, improperly dusted, because actors are responsible for the cleaning. The cast members, ranging from awkward to extraordinary, with every gradation in between.

I got to thank a couple of the actors afterwards for their work. Seeing an actor I wanted to work with was very tempting. It would be so easy to get back on that particular three-legged horse. I’ve been directing for almost ten years, and this – from June to December of 2008 – is the longest voluntary break I’ve taken from it since I started.


know it like the back of my head

I recently saw some images of the workshops from THE MARRIAGE OF HEAVEN AND HELL, in late 2006.
My own face, or the back of it, was interspersed with the faces of the actors – photographed in close black-box quarters by my duo of consumnate Craigslist videographers. I see my ponytail and my head swathed in a bandanna (I obviously didn’t shower that morning), and that fake leather jacket from Target I wore every day for a good year and a half. I’m a very jaded and world-weary 24, but from the ancient vantage of 26, looking at her, I look as young as a teacup.

I have a variety of these back-of-Dara’s-head-while-directing pictures: from the first LYSISTRATA even, at seventeen. It’d be a fun little image montage to put together.

directing, self-blogerential, theater

talking cats

So, I watched the Budweiser commercial with the dog and horse high-fiving each other, and I think we are at a period in society, for whatever reason (and by “we” I mean my narrow class-subset of young highly educated people who watch too much imagery) where “we” are highly entertained by the idea of talking animals again. A history of this subject would be great, but more than writing the article, I really just want to make a very simple Youtube video with a dog and a cat in “conversation.” No attempt would be made to have them move their mouths or anything. We’d just show the camera on the two of them there, and have actors speak. They could read “Talk To Me Like the Rain And Let Me Listen.” They could have an ordinary conversation. Found text, staged written text, anything. Much like how LIFE IN HELL has the still images. I think, and I don’t quite know why I think this, but I think it would be superbly entertaining and would also tell us something about our selves in this particular moment in time.

Part of the trip I’ve done on myself the past four years is to de-academicize myself. I was brought up in the academy, by which I mean that education is the cardinal virtue of my family. And I’ve had to learn, in order to make theater, to – when I have impulses like this – to resist analyzing them until I have staged them. The staging of them is the analysis. Going in with too much of a theory about how it is supposed to work will make them not work as well as they could.

I have been tempted to veer back towards theory a bit this year. But I know that I won’t really understand why it is things ought to work until I make them work. This blog ought to be called Practice Makes Theory instead of Style Over Substance. Maybe I will rename it.

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?

directing, theater, writing


I catch up with an old friend and fellow playwright, to recruit her to the staff of the National Theater of the United States. She’s going to be, among other things, our ambassador to Poland.

I talk about the reading of 13 WAYS, and how completely the bottom dropped out of my brain after it. The post-birth doldrums was a thousand times worse than it’s ever been for anything I’ve directed. I ask her, already knowing the answer, if it’s always that way with writing.

Yes, she says. But she says it with a smile – and it reminds me of my old comparison between the loggers and the theater people – the more pain, the more pride.

She also brings up something I hadn’t considered, that the further you go in the playwriting field, you quickly lose control of casting. This startles me. I realize how specific and important it was to me to be able to cast the particular actors that I cast in the reading.

I walk across the mental aisle, I put on my rapidly fading “director hat” and imagine directing a play that someone else had cast for me. Not so much.

I know, however, as tough as it’ll be, that I would be willing to give up casting in order to give up the responsibility and stress of directing. Just another thing to practice letting go of. (Definition: a writer: someone who has let go of everything except the words?)

directing, theater

Awards for LYDIA

Octavio Solis’s LYDIA, which I assistant directed (dir. Juliette Carrillo) at the Denver Center last year, just cleaned up in Denver’s Henry Awards last night: Outstanding Ensemble Performance, Outstanding New Play, Outstanding Production of a Play.

a propos of nothing, directing, theater, travel

a time of decision

One way or another, the events of the next ten days will determine my future for the next year – and it’ll be nice to have more of a location forecast. Partly West Coast with a chance of East? As of July, I intend, I vow, to have moved somewhere in this country for an entire twelve months.

I am waiting to hear about a couple of large deadlines. If one comes through, I will go where it takes me. If not, I will go where I feel like going. Where that is is still unclear to me, but it will, at least, be only one place at a time.

In the spirit of this year of travel, I’m going to be in Texas, Atlanta, and Seattle, with friends and loved ones, at the time when these deadlines come forward. One way or the other, I’ll still be seeing the people I love.

One way or another, I’ll be directing two readings in Los Angeles in June – one of a short play by Ron Allen, one of a long and messy play adapted, by me, from the Greeks (all of them.)

And one way or the other, I expect to be very hard to reach for the next ten days – to go into the hermit crab’s shell while I wait for the shell of the wanderer crab to fall off.