The Waltz of Control and Letting Go

Apr 08, 2021

As a young director during the 1970’s, I occasionally, surreptitiously followed Robert Wilson on the streets of New York City. I am pretty sure that he did not know that I was following him. To me, he was such an enigmatic and intriguing figure and I wondered how it was possible to create the kind of theater that he did.  I was also fascinated by the way that he dressed, how he moved and how he interacted with the world and I was curious to learn about what he paid attention to. Perhaps I simply wanted to imitate him. 

Before experiencing any of Wilson’s work directly, I had already heard stories about his legendary productions with the Byrd Hoffman School for Birds. I knew about The King of SpainThe Life and Times of Sigmund Freudand the 12 hour long The Life and Times of Joseph Stalin. Even the descriptions of these productions fascinated me.  How could such miracles happen? The first production that I saw directed by Robert Wilson was The $ Value of Man at the Brooklyn Academy of Music and soon afterwards, A Letter from Queen Victoriaon Broadway. And then some smaller works like Emily Likes the TV and then the massive Einstein on the Beach. And that was just the beginning of the theater adventures that Bob laid out for me. 

My curiosity about Robert Wilson paid off. I am certainly not the auteur that he is but seeing his productions taught me a great deal about meticulous stage movement, non-literal scenic design, arresting stage lighting and about how to render the flowing theatrical rhythms of dreams. And he taught me about control. Wilson controls a huge territory over any production. He does not simply stage a play, rather, he painstakingly creates a specific theatrical world, one with its own precise architectural logic, and then he has a strong hand in every aspect of the design and execution. 

All directors waltz with different gradations of control and letting go.  The issue of control is rarely discussed in relation to directing, but it is implicit. Perhaps every director is part auteur. Those of us who became directors often share a childhood of making puppet shows or directing our friends in the family’s basement or setting up stages out of doors to create elaborate neighborhood shows.  The hyper control of puppeteers over every aspect of puppetry shows provide a perfect example of auteurship

I became a theater director in part because I craved control. I found so many aspects of my life out of my control and I longed to construct an arena wherein I felt safe and appreciated and where I could define the rules of engagement. This worked up to a certain point, but, of course, no one, including Robert Wilson, can control everything. In fact, one of the benefits of maturity is learning how little one can control in any situation. Eventually I learned how to let go and allow things to happen without my constant intervention.

The issue of control in the artistic process is complex. Too much control can lead to a lifeless outcome. Too little control breeds inexpressive generalities. Theater directors in particular have developed a bad reputation for being over-controlling, imperious and excessively demanding. But allow me to suggest that the most powerful varieties of control are, in fact, invisible. The more visible manifestations of control such as micromanaging, yelling and screaming when things go “wrong,” manipulative behavior and insisting that things can only be done one way are all manifestations of a distinct lack of control. Those who appear outwardly controlling and who micro-manage a rehearsal hall, are also most likely to be desperate and lacking in self-confidence. Attempting to control others and to nail absolutely everything down from beginning to end is a protective measure and a by-product of lack of security. Plus, it is ineffective. External control eats up a great deal of energy and can be quite exhausting. 

The most effective form of control is invisible, happens internally, and requires acute listening.  Leading a rehearsal effectively necessitates a relaxed, centered and available state of being. To be receptive and to notice and surf with what is actually present is an essential aspect of inner control. If I spread myself too broadly and attempt to control absolutely everything, the result will be generalities. I have to focus fiercely in a specific area while allowing plenty of space for others. The greater the space that is left unoccupied, the greater the presence of mystery. The combination of power and absence, gentleness and fierceness are qualities that cannot be seen but are key ingredients in the creative process. I need to cultivate the courage and the strength to get out of the way, to listen more than speak, to receive more than give, to be moved more than move, to put air around whatever is happening and to avoid throwing my weight around, overpowering, over-reacting or over-committing. Simply, I tell myself, pay attention to what is happening right now. 

And yet, a very clear kind of control and a strong core are also necessary in the process. Preparation is necessary. Developing a singular vision is necessary. A game plan, an organizing principle and a “why are we engaged in this project?” are also all necessary.  At the first rehearsal I often share two lists with all collaborators:  One list is entitled, Things I know for sure, and the other list is Things I do not know.  Nevertheless, I must always be clear about what we are aiming for. If not, the result will be undifferentiated chaos. But, at the same time, whenever something serendipitous happens, I must be able to say, “that fits,” or, “that does not fit.” 

Inner control allows for unexpected things to happen. The film director Robert Altman reveled in the unplanned incidents that inevitably happened on his film set. After gathering the most talented crew and cast that he could find, he had the inner control, courage and patience to allow things to happen that he had not planned for in an environment that he had established. This is a striking example of invisible control.  His films are beautifully constructed journeys full of vision, complexity and ambiguity but also clarity and great storytelling. They are also full of life and energy. 

The Chinese martial art T’ai Chi Chuan teaches the sensibility of steel wrapped in cotton.  Popularly understood to be “soft power,” the Tai Chi Classics suggest that “from true softness comes true hardness.”  The muscles are soft externally, yet the body feels solid inwardly. Muscular tension is relaxed so that the chican penetrate to the marrow of the bones. The body of a Tai Chi practitioner is steel wrapped in cotton. One’s exterior, like cotton, is soft, easygoing, open and ready to adjust, or to change on a dime when necessary. The bones, meanwhile, and with practice, become dense, hard and alive. Whereas most martial arts have a stance to face an opponent, the T’ai Chi philosophy suggests that showing a stance already displays your weaknesses and so in T’ai Chi there is no preparatory stance. 

Even though I know that in life there is very little that I can control, I also know that I can consciously choose which kind of control to cultivate. I can either be strong on the outside or strong on the inside, but I cannot be strong both on the inside and on the outside at the same time. In that case, it might be worth asking, what kind of strength and control am I developing? Am I developing the exterior or the interior? My T’ai Chi teacher Jean Kwok said, “Be round on the outside but square on the inside.”  In other words, be flexible, generous and welcoming but, at the same time, know exactly what you think and feel. In martial arts it is possible to transform any attack or movement to one’s advantage. I can be outwardly civil and inwardly martial.