Play as Paradox

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Chicago theater director Damon Kiely is about to publish a book entitled “How to Read a Play” with Routledge Press and he asked me to write the forward.   Inspired by the title of his book and the thoughtfulness of Damon’s manuscript, I wrote the following:

I love reading and yet I am usually anxious at the prospect of reading a play. I tend to put off opening a script for as long as I can because it requires such different tools from me than reading a novel, a poem, an essay or a biography. Plays are not intended to be read in solitude and plays ask for an inordinate investment of my patience and imagination.  Essentially a novel, a poem, an essay or a biography embodies the words contained within its covers and is brought to life by the reader’s imagination, but a play, also within its covers, ultimately exists to point at something else and it requires a team of diverse talents to animate it successfully. 

Control and Surrender

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I am currently directing Giuseppe Verdi’s Macbeth at Glimmerglass Festival (come visit this summer in beautiful Cooperstown, New York and catch the entire season of operas between July 11th and August 22nd). This past April with SITI Company, I co-directed the theater is a blank page with visual artist Ann Hamilton. These two productions provide a study in contrast around issues of a director’s control.

The reciprocal link between artistic and scholarly work

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An acting student at Columbia University once mentioned that her father, a surgeon, had a saying: “Study one, do one, teach one.” I instantly recognized that this formula, familiar to surgeons, “study one, do one, teach one,” is precisely the right equation for me as well. The ratio that allows me to be the best possible theater artist is: 1/3 research, 1/3 directing and 1/3 teaching. If I do not dedicate enough time to research or if I teach too much or too little, my work as a director, as an artist, is compromised. The correct balance among the three activities is key. 

Faith and the Vacuum

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One who could make of himself a vacuum into which others might freely enter would become master of all situations. (Okakura Kakuzo) 

I probably share with many a terror and trepidation around the process of creating new work.  I am often frightened and apprehensive of an upcoming rehearsal or difficult encounter.  My stomach churns in a chaotic mess. But there is a saving grace that keeps me moving forwards: the image of my shoes.  Literally. I look down and see my shoes walking, one step after another, towards the rehearsal or towards the encounter. The fuel that makes this dreadful walk possible is faith.  I try to cultivate the faith that something positive will occur once I arrive.  

The Art of Adjustment

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The Taoists describe the art of life as the art of constant adjustment to the current surroundings.  Similarly, nothing could be more central to a successful creative process than the ability to adjust to what is happening in the moment.  A painter continually adjusts to the previous strokes on the canvas.  A musician adapts to the room and to the choices of other musicians.  A theater artist is sensitized to the constant spatial and temporal changes that are taking place from moment to moment.  Clearly the practice of adjustment is essential to artistic training.

Allie's Questionnaire

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Allie Lalonde, SITI Company’s wizard of communications and development, is also simultaneously writing her final thesis paper in completion of the MFA requirements for Columbia University’s Theater Management and Producing Program in the School of the Arts.  Her thesis addresses issues about audiences in our current environment of technology and social media. Allie sent me a series of questions that I found very worthwhile and provocative. For the February blog I would like to share her questions and my answers with you:

Getting Lost

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Man cannot discover new oceans unless he has the courage to lose sight of the shore.  (André Gide)

In 1947 Nina Vance, who at the time had only $2.17 in her handbag but was determined to start a new theatrical venture, emptied the contents of her handbag onto a table and proposed that with that available money she would found a new theater company.  Postcard stamps at the time cost one penny apiece.  She and her friends addressed 217 postcards inviting people to gather at a particular time and place to discuss starting a new theater.  And thus was born the Alley Theater in Houston, Texas, one of the nation’s leading regional repertory theaters.

The Business of Busyness

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Several years ago the performance artist and composer Laurie Anderson spoke with my directing students at Columbia University and advised them never to relate their dreams to other people. “No one ever wants to hear the details of your dreams,” she said. Later I shared Laurie’s insight with Leon Ingulsrud, my colleague and Co-Artistic Director of SITI Company, who then proposed a few other things that people never want to hear about: “People never want to hear about how busy you are or how tired you are,” he said.

The creative balance between two possible states of being

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A number of years ago I co-taught a class for graduate directors and actors at Columbia University with Kristin Linklater.  One afternoon I mentioned to Kristin that in order to catch a Metro North train I would need to leave class a few minutes before the scheduled 5 p.m. finish.  We agreed that she would lead the final hour and that I would participate until I had to leave.

Uninterrupted Connection

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Several years ago I conducted a ten-day Viewpoints workshop at PlayMakers Repertory Company in Chapel Hill, North Carolina with members of the PlayMakers Company and graduate students from the University of North Carolina.  At the time I was furiously studying neuroscience in preparation for a SITI production about the brain entitled Who Do You Think You Are.  My friend Bonnie Raphael, the vocal coach at Playmakers, mentioned that the neurophysiologist R.

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