Going Through the Back Door to Get to the Front

May 18, 2018

Misconceptions are unavoidable now that we’ve eaten of the Tree of Knowledge. But Paradise is locked and bolted, and the cherubim stands behind us. We have to go on and make the journey round the world to see if it is perhaps open somewhere at the back. – (Heinrich von Kleist)

In conjunction with SITI Company’s production of Room, based upon the writings of Virginia Woolf, I participated in a panel discussion with Washington DC’s Arena Stage Artistic Director Molly Smith and Tina Packer, who was the Founding Artistic Director of Shakespeare and Company in the Berkshires.  The discussion took place at the University of Maryland.  Our task, in the spirit of Woolf, was to address the notion of women carving out careers in the arts. As the public conversation proceeded I suddenly realized that all three of us – Molly, Tina and I – had each found our places as directors in the theater by going through the back, rather than the front door.  When Molly Smith graduated from American University with an MFA in directing, she and her then husband transported 50 old theater chairs back to her hometown of Juneau, Alaska where she had gone to high school, with the intention of starting a theater company.  In Juneau, a city with absolutely no tradition of theater, she founded the Perseverance Theater.  Tina Packer left the U.K. and the male dominated Royal Shakespeare Company to create her own domain in the hills of western Massachusetts. My own path was the downtown theater scene of New York City.  As a young director it seemed to me that the corporate ladder to success in theater was constructed for men and quite out of my reach.  Instead of trying to jockey for a place with the men on their ladder, I turned in another direction and self-produced work on the streets, in lofts and in non-traditional spaces around Manhattan and Brooklyn.  

In his seminal essay About a Marionette Theater, Heinrich von Kleist wrote about the relationship between the artistic process and human limitation. The essay proposed that since Adam and Eve fell from grace and were ousted from the Garden of Eden we humans lost our unity with God.  Paradise is locked and bolted to us. Pure grace and unaffected freedom of movement is impossible. Kleist proposed that however desirous we may be to do so, there is no “going back” to a state of primal innocence and unity. We are neither god nor puppet but rather something in between. In order to find paradise, we must make a journey around the world to see if a back door has perhaps been left open.   

As a young theater director trying to make it in New York City in the early 1970s, my idea of paradise was to live in New York, find a writer, put together a theater company, direct plays, and flourish. I was definitely ambitious, self-centered and full of the desire to distinguish myself within the wild frontier of the downtown arts scene of the time.  But the doors to all of the available directing jobs seemed shut securely in my face. Even knocking on the doors felt futile. I was young and untested and at the time there were very few female directors in the theater upon whom I could model my own assault upon the citadel. And so, rather than trying to enter paradise directly, a way that seemed to me to be an inaccessible corporate model made for men, I eventually found my way into paradise by moving circuitously around to the back.

“Cast down your bucket where you are,” said Booker T. Washington in one of the most influential speeches in American history. The “bucket motif” represented a call to personal uplift and diligence in order to rebuild the south following a brutal Civil War.  In New York City, as a young aspiring director in the 1970s, rather than using my energy and frustration to knock and demand access from the existing hierarchy, I put my bucket down exactly where I was standing. I kept my head down and worked. I examined the details of my immediate environment. I called in favors from my friends, my contemporaries who were also trying to make their way in a challenging urban environment.  I managed to create theater with no money and within the given confines, restrictions and conditions of downtown New York. These given circumstances led me to create what we now call immersive or site-specific theater. I found my way into the theater by circumnavigation. My choices felt intuitive rather than strategic. I simply pursued what seemed to be the available option at that time: to self-produce.  I entered paradise through the back door.

Molly Smith, Tina Packer and I, each in very different ways, eventually learned to negotiate the theatrical terrain and we found our distinctive places and voices within that world. I imagine that there are those who believe that the three of us, each in our own way, have “arrived.”  But I would not have become the theater artist that I am today if I had knocked incessantly upon what seemed to be the front door. I did not spend my time networking or assistant directing. For me, going through the back door required me to maintain a clear vision of my version of paradise while gaining entrance circuitously. I tried to be mindful about where I wanted to go and what I wanted to accomplish, but rather than moving directly towards it, I moved around to what felt like the back of the world in order to find alternative access. 

In contrast to the front door, a back door can be understood as an alternative, unofficial point of entry.  In past centuries, back doors were used by servants.  In rural areas, visiting neighbors entered through the back door in order to avoid carrying dirt through the front door which was reserved for more formal visits. Today we may think about the back door to a restaurant where deliveries are received, and waiters smoke on their breaks.  A door can be a symbol of opportunity or of detention. A closed door can feel like imprisonment. 

On a metaphorical level, an open door is symbolic of a new beginning, a symbol of opportunity. There is an element of hope that there is something on the other side. Doorways suggest a separation of two distinct places, where two worlds might come together to provide points of access. In religion, mythology and literature, a door is often used to symbolize the passage of one realm to another. The metaphor of moving through a door implies entering new territory, engaging in new opportunities or transitioning from one space to another. A door can symbolize both a beginning and an ending, an entrance and also an exit.

Through years of constant negotiation and navigation, I learned that the creative process itself also requires great facility with doorways. Although every new endeavor demands the kind of intense will and desire that can beget strength and energy, there are crucial steps in the creative process that simply cannot be accessed directly, that cannot be forced. Rather than insist or coerce, I must trust that a fragile notion, a hint or a hunch will lead to an unexpected entree.  There are periods in the process that I must maneuver tangentially in the vicinity of my prey like a hunter. I lie in wait. I pace in circles until an opening occurs. And usually it happens when I least expect it.