Control and Surrender

Jul 07, 2015

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.

Control is a slightly taboo subject in the theater world and yet it is a central ingredient in a successful theatrical event. A director’s control of a production is implied and required but also often criticized and lamented. The difference between directing opera and directing theater is largely a variation of control. An opera director, compared to a theater director, has very little control over time and a great deal of control over space. The conductor is the master of tempi. In opera the director also rarely has a say in casting. The machine nature of the opera world requires that every opera house balance singers’ schedules years in advance, making sure that each major role is covered.  A director can choose a design team but rarely has a voice in casting a production.

In the theater, on the other hand, directors generally have dominion over who will be in the room and they devote much effort and consideration to casting the actors. Some directors suggest that 99% of directing is casting. Once the entire creative team is chosen, it behooves the director, both in theater and in opera, to provide agency and freedom to the talents of each artist, giving space for everyone to flourish in what they do best. But a proper balance between control and surrender is a key ingredient in the process.

Each member of a creative team exerts control over certain aspects of the artistic process and must relinquish control over other areas. An actor defers to the director’s mode of storytelling but in performance can exert significant control over an audience’s experience of a play, altering nothing less than their breathing by way of tempo changes, accent, contrast and misdirection. Playwrights too exercise various levels of control over the enterprise through explicitly prescriptive dialogue and stage directions. The playwright Samuel Beckett often set and monitored every possible aspect of performance in his plays. Always fastidious with stage directions, he notoriously controlled the actor’s intonation, breathing and even steps. In 1969 he wrote a play entitled Breath that consists of one stage direction and that lasts exactly 35 seconds. Even gradations and rhythm of the lighting mattered to him. The playwright Irene Fornes, frustrated by the playwright’s lack of control in rehearsal, became a very good director herself to remedy her lack of control of her own plays. Most film studios traditionally retain final cut but director Alfred Hitchcock managed to write and shoot his films in such a way that the editor could only put it together in one way: Hitchcock’s way. Through inventiveness, intelligence, technique and wile, he managed to maintain control over the audience’s experience of his films.

I love directing both theater and opera. But in each I must be sensitive to and conscious about what I can control and where I must necessarily surrender control. In both theater and opera the budgetary or institutional restrictions are regulated and controlled by available resources, by unions and by inherited or assumed rules. As a director I must be quick, inventive and mindful around the issues of control. I must identify what is fixed and where there is space for movement. The fixed is akin to a riverbank; containing and allowing for the abundant free flow of creative freedom.  

In Verdi’s operas, tempo is a given structural element. His indications concerning time in Macbeth are exceedingly rigorous and specific and form the skeleton upon which the audience’s experience of the opera is formulated. Although the source, the story and the characters are close to Shakespeare’s Macbeth, the way an audience experiences time in the opera as opposed to the play is vastly dissimilar. There is a drive and momentum that is brought to bear by Verdi’s indications and the conductor’s presence. In directing the opera, my job is to keep the images and the relationships and the shifting locals in concert and symmetry with the music and the vocal acrobatics.  

For blank page with Ann Hamilton and SITI Company we began indeed with a blank page, no indications, no recipe, no tempo markings. We wanted to create a production that examines how time passes, about how we “spend” time, both in life and in the theater. Our literary source was Virginia Woolf’s To the Lighthouse, a non-linear stream-of-consciousness, part autobiography, part exposé of deep philosophical enigmas and searching social questions. Written in 1927, on the surface the book seems to be about the daily life of a family but ultimately becomes nothing less than a loaded reflection on time, gender, morality and death. In piecing together our three-hour production, we tempted the edges of duration, extending the audience’s sense of time and expectations of space. We asked the audience for patience and availability, and as a creative team we asked for no less from one another.

Surrender lies at the opposite end of the spectrum of control, but also, in tandem with control, surrender is a necessary ingredient in the creative process. With every project, I must consciously ask what can I control and where and when can I relinquish control and surrender to the process and to the given circumstances. Where can I release control and trust the process, the material and my collaborators?

The composer John Cage challenged the definitions of art and music in the twentieth century by an ongoing interrogation of control vs. surrender. He did not want to be considered a creator in the ordinary sense of the word and he consciously chose to relinquish his authority to aleatory or chance operations. He used the term “purposeful purposelessness” as a way to describe what he saw as the function of his art making. Cage’s chief preoccupation was the agency of the audience and its co-creation with the performer. The audience, according to Cage, is a group that performs with the performer and composes with the composer. The composition is completed the moment the audience interacts with it.  

John Cage notoriously gave up control. But did he really give up control? Even though the choice of elements and the order in which they were performed were randomly determined, Cage did control which elements the performer could use. He arranged the musical charts and created the choices that a performer could make.  

John Cage introduced Merce Cunningham to his dislike of the idea of one art supporting another or one art depending upon another. Together they began to investigate the idea of independence between the music and the dance by working separately, independently, to produce one work of art. The dance met the music for the first time on opening night. Consciously, willingly, Cage and Cunningham took away the personal control over the relationship of the dance to the music. These experiments with autonomous and yet coordinated confluence of dance and music led to fresh and revolutionary new art. Merce Cunningham described it: “I remember so clearly the first day when we were rehearsing with John and I made a large, strong movement – there was no sound but just about three seconds later came this ravishing sound, and it was very clear that this was a different way to act: not being dependent upon the music but equal to it. You could be free and precise at the same time.”

Filmmaker Robert Altman liked to gather the very best actors and technicians around him and simply let them improvise. He embraced the accidents that happened and that seemed to be out of his control. Allowing things to happen rather than controlling the surface might be the very strongest kind of control. To trust others and create an environment of co-operation where chance can play a role makes for a very powerful workplace.  

If power and control is visible to an observer, then it is probably not true power or control. A director who shouts and controls an actor’s every action and psychological motivation is not necessarily a strong director. The kind of power and control that can be felt rather than seen is far more potent. In the study of T’ai Chi Chuan I have learned that true strength is “steel wrapped in cotton.” The external muscles seem soft, but conceal an indisputable strong inner core. I can develop internal power or external power but probably not both. As a director I can either control the surface or I can control the interior but not both. While outwardly civil I can be inwardly martial. Mahatma-Ghandi was once quoted as saying that true humility always comes from a position of strength; anything else is not humility, but cowardice.

In a recent stage adaptation of Ingmar Bergman’s Scenes from a Marriage at the New York Theater Workshop, Flemish director Ivo van Hove, who is known to pay tremendous attention to each and every detail of a production, allowed the actors to choose clothes from their own closets at home each day to wear for every performance. Normally costume design is a powerful tool to express character and period, to determine style through shape and color palate and to effect the overall composition of the stage. In this case Van Hove consciously allowed a big anomaly, a chance element, to impact the audience’s experience of the production. He relinquished control. He surrendered.

My job as a director, whether in theater or opera, is to render a world that is understandable and to make sure that everyone in the room is telling the same story. Albert Einstein proposed that if you cannot explain something to a six-year-old child, you do not actually understand it yourself. The question remains, how can I allow space for people to do what they do, to create in the best way that they can? How can I stay out of their way and relinquish my own control over certain key areas without relinquishing my taste and vision?