Wednesday, March 30, 2016

Theatre Roundtable: Directly Speaking

One of the many benefits of Dramaworks in West Palm Beach is the diversity of their offerings outside the productions on the main stage, in particular their ongoing educational program Dramalogue which is “a series that explores all aspects of theatre, in conversations with or about the industry's top professionals and master artists.” This year’s program is one of their best and last night’s Theatre Roundtable, Directly Speaking was, for me, particularly fascinating and relevant.

This was a live question and answer session about directing, trying to answer the question “what, exactly, does a director do?”  The participants were among the leading directors in South Florida, Joseph Adler the producing artistic director of the GableStage, David Arisco, the artistic director of the Actors’ Playhouse at the Miracle Theatre, William Hayes a founding member of Palm Beach Dramaworks as well as its producing artistic director, and J. Barry Lewis, Dramaworks’ resident director and who also directs plays at other area theatres. Hayes and Lewis were the moderators of this spellbinding discussion.  Between the four directors on the panel, they estimate having some 400 plays under their directorial belts!

What impressed me was not only the content of their discussion, but their passion as well.  These directors are devoted to their craft; it is both an art and a process.  I was also struck by how closely directing relates to the role I fulfilled during my career, publisher. To be one for nearly forty years required the same degree of passion.

Joseph Adler likened his directorial career to pushing that absurd rock of Sisyphus up the hill, trying to reach the peak, but always being condemned to not reach it and having to do it all over again.  To him, it has always been the attempt to achieve perfection, but having to settle for the act of directing as being an ongoing learning experience.  I can relate. During my career as a publisher; the more I learned, the more I discovered there was to learn.

The director’s role is to present the play as the author intended and to get all the artistic aspects of a production in alignment to achieve that purpose, stage design, lighting, costuming, blocking and movement of the actors, not to mention the auditioning process as actor selection is as critical as getting the actors to understand the director’s vision and to act in harmony. 

Amusingly, someone said when a play is good they commend the actors but when it is bad it’s entirely the director’s fault! It was also said that a leading actor’s off night is always much worse than an average actor’s average night, especially if an actor goes “rogue,” changing interpretation after a play opens.  The production will then most likely stray from the director’s vision of the play.  And, unknown to most audiences, once a play opens (and in the South Florida regional theatre scene that occurs in most cases less than a month from when they first start to work on a play!), the play is no longer in the director’s control; it is handed off to the stage manager.  So the director has precious few weeks to get everything working together.

While there are overlapping choices of types of plays presented at the three theatres represented in the discussion, each has its specialization as well.  David Arisco’s background in musical theatre, as well as the size of Actor’s Playhouse’s 600 seat main stage has resulted in more musicals while Joseph Adler’s intimate 150-seat theater in Coral Gables’ Biltmore Hotel has gravitated to more experimental productions.  Dramaworks 218-seat theatre is also intimate but Hayes and company have focused more on well-established contemporary dramatic works, with some musical theatre during their summer programs.  And next week it is opening its new 35 seat Diane & Mark Perlberg Studio Theatre on the second floor for its also new endeavor, the Dramaworkshop, a lab for developing new plays, the first one being Buried Cities by Jennifer Fawcett. 

All of this reminds me of my publishing days. We too would have overlapping publishing programs, particularly in academic publishing, but we also forged our way into unique reference programs and even occasionally a competitive trade book (one published for a general audience).  Each press would generally be known for a particular specialty.

Unlike many commercial enterprises (and except for the university presses most publishing is a for-profit endeavor – or at least that’s the intent), book publishing is different as each book is a “unique product.”  Plays are similarly unique, each needing a creative team to produce it.  The director of a play is its CEO, very often involved in the selection process itself, and then heading up his creative technical team, and the actors, to present the author’s vision and to please his audience. 

As in theatre, we had to do justice to our authors. In publishing, our team was comprised of advisory editors (to help select the publishable material or to develop new works from scratch), copy editors, production editors, marketing specialists to make sure the book reaches its intended audience, designers for promotion and for the book itself, and then the back office business -- royalties, sales receipts, customer service, etc.  And there are similar business requirements to run a successful theatre, including fund raising as ticket sales themselves usually cover only about half of a regional theatre’s expenses.

I make these observations as those were the thoughts running through my mind listening to these great directors speak.  They were talking about a creative process I identify with although I neither have the knowledge or translatable experience to direct a play.  Ask me to produce a book, no problem! So no wonder I’ve become a “citizen reviewer” of many of the Dramaworks’ productions, and some other theatre productions as well.  Dramalogue helped bring out the sense of parallelism to my working life.  The “invisible hand” of the director is not so dissimilar to working with a creative publishing team.