I currently serve on the Executive Board of the Stage Directors and Choreographers Society (SDC), the union for directors and choreographers. Recently at Board meetings and, in fact, amidst many directors in the field, conversations abound around the phenomenon of theater directors who copy the staging created by other theater directors. The subject is discussed with great heat and passion in the search for due process and even litigation. What actions can be taken in retribution for a director stealing the work of another director?
Although I am certainly not advocating that directors make direct copies of other directors’ work, I am interested in the phenomenon of influence. We do not create in a void. Merely copying seems to me like gathering the components of a meal without cooking the ingredients. The directors who simply copy without transmuting the material into something else have missed the rich process of absorbing, digesting and remaking; representing and re-presenting. They have forgone the joys of influence and transformation.
When the brilliant American director Robert Woodruff is preparing to work on a new production, he goes out of his way to avoid the influence of other directors’ productions. Although his research and his work with dramaturgs is always extensive, he personally avoids seeing other productions of the play. He wants his approach to be fresh and singular. He does not want to be influenced by choices made by other directors.
I admire Woodruff’s integrity. But I am a scavenger rather than a visionary. I choose plays and subject matter based upon who and what I want to spend time with through the preparation, research and process of rehearsal. In preparing to direct a classic play or opera, I invariably search far and wide to find out how other directors and other companies have handled the same work. How did they approach the specific challenges of the drama? How did they contextualize the world of the play or opera? How did they translate the ideas and the narrative into the languages of time and space? I am not afraid of being influenced by what I discover. I want to take it all in. I want to internalize the lessons accrued by the study and investigation and to be altered by this action.
If the word “theater” were a verb, perhaps it would be, “to remember”; to re-member what has been lost. To put the pieces back together. The influence of others is what keeps us connected to one another and to those who came before us. Humans are replicators. Not only do we replicate the species biologically, by having offspring, we also replicate ideas, or what evolutionary biologist Richard Dawkins calls, memes. A meme is an idea that spreads from person to person within a culture. Memes carry cultural ideas, symbols or practices and can be transmitted from one mind to another through speech, gestures, rituals, writing or mimicry. We are meme-making-machines and we are communicators. We are signaling to one another through the haze.
I love that the word influence shares the same root as influenza, or even “flu.” Making theater can be, in the best possible sense, a contagion, the spreading of a “dis-ease”. Something goes “viral.” A (positive) virus spreads. We are not separate beings, we are connected, we are engaged in quantum entanglement across space and time.
In my own process I try to fill myself up with all previous productions of the play or opera. I stay open to the influence of other theater artists who came before me. But I also know that I must allow myself to be open to discovery and the transformation that develops in the heat of engagement, in rehearsal. In SITI Company rehearsals we are motivated by a deep desire for discovery and creative alchemy that can be triggered by shared listening. A rehearsal can be like a séance, an attempt at communion with those who have passed away. I am a proponent of the Ouija Board approach to the creative process. We collectively ask a clear and relevant question, put our hands upon the planchette, listen carefully and follow the ensuing movement towards a response. This approach to rehearsal requires deep listening by everyone involved, trust, cooperation and openness to influence.
In my search for powerful and productive influence, I attach myself first and foremost to people who do things that I do not readily understand. In preparing for Euripides’ The Bacchae, in a new translation by Aaron Poochigian, for which we are currently in rehearsal at the Getty Villa in Los Angeles, I looked with great interest into the 1974 Berlin version of Euripides’ play directed by Klaus Michael Gruber. Although I did not see the live production of the Berlin Bacchae, I was lucky to experience a number of other Gruber productions in Europe before he died in 2008. The memories of each one remains haunting and somehow permanently etched upon my body and in my memory, each in different ways. Gruber’s work became highly influential in my own development as a director. This production of The Bacchae, and Gruber’s work in general, is known for its incomprehensibility and mysterious atmospheres. Even on DVD, Gruber’s Bacchae is the production that I understand the least; mysterious and yet plugged into a vitality that is energetic and authentic.
The films of Luis Bunuel have also had a huge influence upon me over time. Each of his works, such as The Discreet Charmof the Bourgeoisie, The Phantom of Liberty and Belle de Jour, were strange in their own particular way, and put all my assumptions about art and narrative into question. Among many other things, he taught me to mistrust how scenes conventionally build, develop and end.
Despite my extensive research in the year preceding the launch of rehearsals for The Bacchae, the biggest influence upon our production seems to be the play itself. Euripides is kicking us regularly, fighting back against the imposition of too many ideas about interpretation and staging. I have learned in this process that if you listen carefully to the play, if you are engaged in the archeological excavation of an ancient play as great as The Bacchae, it will not allow you to mitigate its power. It will talk to you from the past. It will make its influence real.