Where Do I Leave Off and Where Do You Begin?

May 10, 2021

When we try to pick out anything by itself, we find it hitched to everything else in the universe.

John Muir

The DNA of the theater is human connection.  Both creating and receiving a performance requires cooperation and collaboration, not only between audiences and actors but also with the creative team that puts the production together. Some types of theater require more co-authorship than others.  For example, auteur theater, where the director exerts a singular and high level of control over a production, involves less thinking-together than, say, devised work, which requires tremendous cooperation and collaboration amidst the group of artists. 

When directing an opera, I know only too well how much preparation is necessary preceding the start of rehearsals. I must arrive at the first rehearsal with a carefully worked-out plan for every moment of every scene. Where do the singers enter and on what exact measure in the music? What is the sequence of actions that follows? Where is the chorus and what are they doing exactly at each moment? To direct opera, I must lean into the auteur part of my brain.   

Each creative process calls upon different brain functions and diverse ways of thinking and collaborating with others.  As humans, we are fortunate to be endowed with the capacity to work together beautifully and to cooperate in the process of thinking through, invention and innovation. It is our friendliness, our sociability and our ability and inclination to work together and to copy one another, that led Homo sapiens to thrive over the many other species of Homo erectus. The historian Rutger Bregman in his book Humankind, A Hopeful History, showed how Homo sapiens flourished on this planet while the Neanderthals, with their stronger bodies and larger brains, did not. The Neanderthals were highly innovative and had developed tools, built fires, and cooked food, but in the end, it was us, the Homo sapiens, who survived.  Neanderthals, despite their intelligence, were not very social and did not tend to work as a team. Homo sapiens, on the other hand, benefited from their ability to cooperate. “Human beings, it turns out, are ultrasocial learning machines.” Bregman writes, “We are born to learn, to bond and to play.” 

Devised theater, in contrast to, say, the auteur method, requires a group of artists to think together and to cooperate in ways that go beyond the mere interpretation of a previously written play. Most devised work is the product of the chemistry that exists among the co-creators. Devised work requires lateral thinking, which is a manner of problem solving that uses an indirect and creative approach via reasoning that is not immediately obvious. Then the audience arrives upon the scene and, as with all the best theater experiences, is the final co-creator.

There is a power of language, thought and speech to transform both the subject and the world. How is it that a book, a poem, a conversation, or a thinking can fundamentally transform both the subject and the world?  We enter this book, poem, conversation, or trajectory of thought at one end and when we come out the other everything is completely different. Indeed, in such experiences, we can scarcely remember who we were and what the world looked like.

Levi Bryant

On March 11th, 2020, I travelled to London from New York City, expecting to stay for one week. A year and two months later, I am still in London. Everything went online. Almost everything went onto Zoom.  All my directing classes at Columbia University became virtual classes. Initially I pondered the problem of how to teach directing online. I decided to spend the fall semester of 2020 examining the history of theater and opera directing with the MFA directors. At first, I considered approaching the history of directing in chronological order. But this felt pedantic and a bit problematic. 

Generally, the history of directing, as traditionally taught, begins in the late 19th century with the Duke of Saxe-Meiningen and then moves on to Max Reinhardt, Konstantin Stanislavsky, Erwin Piscator, Bertolt Brecht and so forth. But this approach felt not only Euro-centric, but also a bit arcane. But what did make sense to me was to think about how contemporary directors are able to pick and choose from a toolbox loaded with what has been accumulated over time thanks to the radical innovations of many talented artists from around the world. Those of us working today, the beneficiaries of these advances, can select the appropriate tools and techniques for whatever project that we are currently working on from the history of innovations and breakthroughs of our predecessors. 

Quite often, the most radical developments in art and theater occurred in moments of political discord and cultural change. At various moments in history, the acts of resistance to the status quo on the part of artists caused explosions in the art world that, in turn, exerted a significant impact not only on cultural and political systems, but also on how performance interfaced with the world. I like to think of these artistic and social explosions as the big bangs that, in turn, engendered various movements in art. Artists in these explosive moments were forced to develop new tools and new ways of thinking about theater and opera.  In this way, a diverse set of tools have gradually been accumulating in the director’s toolbox. 

For my directing classes, I began to develop what has become a series of lectures on the art of directing. I focused upon nine significant developments in the theater that resulted in nine buckets of tools, each one fomented in response to and in dissatisfaction with the way things had been done up till then.  These dissatisfactions were often located in the social or political conditions of the time. I chose to highlight the following nine explosions: Ensemble, Gesamtkunstwerk, Dance-theater, Devised, Visual-art, Auteur, Political-theater, Site-Specific, and Technological. Now, when a director opens their toolbox, they can find an array of tools developed by different artists over time. The postmodern ethos encouraged us to sample freely and to mix and match. I can move from an ensemble approach to making theater to an auteur approach to dance-theater and so on. 

Now, as we emerge from the current pandemic, poking our heads out of the proverbial underground, eyes blinking in the sun, we are seeing signs of an altered landscape. With an ever-growing awareness of and responsibility for the pervasive racial inequality, abusive work environments and structural racism that has been a long-term problem we are called upon to change our personal and institutional habits while forging brand new tools and methods for making theater and meeting audiences.

Things were already starting to change long before the pandemic. The top-down rule of white male control had been crumbling. An example can be found in the music world. Many major orchestras have refused to continue the tradition of hiring bullying, autocratic conductors. In the twentieth century, highhanded behavior was common in conductors like Arturo Toscanini, Herbert von Karajan and George Solti and even more recently, Daniel Barenboim.  But now there is a growing antipathy for displays of egoism and power from the conductor. “Today, the relationship between conductor and musicians is more informal, more collegial – and less reverential,” said Mark Elder, music director of the Hallé Orchestra. “It hasn’t changed the way you make music, but it demands that conductors show respect.” Selfish, petulant, diva behavior no longer flies and does not necessarily create the conditions for better music.  

Traditionally, the theater director is responsible for a play in the same way that a symphony conductor is responsible for the score.  But as the field changes, it is imperative to draw from a diverse coterie of communities, actors, directors, design teams and methods. Our toolbox is already expansive but even newer tools are required to successfully move into the next paradigm.