Planting Seeds

Sep 12, 2022

I paint flowers so that they will not die. (Frida Kahlo) 

I am constantly surprised by and reminded of how little control I actually exert over the unfolding events of my own life. My best intentions are often hijacked by distraction. I turn events that happen to me into fiction and stories, and although I feel like I am moving through life linearly, my experiences and interactions probably happen in little packets or bundles rather than with any true linearity. The human brain notoriously mismanages information and makes ongoing mistakes of judgement, leading me to predict the future incorrectly. 

I suspect that I am not alone in this ongoing dance of approximation, instability, and change. How is it possible to negotiate our lives and our artistic development amidst such a morass of uncertainty?  I have written and spoken about how, as theater directors in rehearsal, we cannot force things to happen, rather we can only create the circumstances in which something might occur.  My job as a director is to take care of the conditions of the space and the time and pay attention to the ethics and overall direction of those gathered together. Exerting desperate demonstrations of control rarely encourages anything innovative or miraculous. I propose that a similar approach can be applied to other arenas as well.

Despite our overall lack of control over our own destinies, and the fact that we cannot force things to happen, it is possible to develop, mature, and flourish by planting the right seeds. Of course, it is essential to consider what kind of garden we want to cultivate and then to plant the seeds within the soil of our daily lives. Planting seeds is a way of creating the conditions for something to happen; for something to grow. We do not need to know exactly who we will become before the planting in order to successfully bloom. What matters is to set up the right path, then to work the path and let the path work you. Planting the seeds in our daily actions entails changing daily practices, rituals and habits and setting goals. And then, once these seeds are planted, once the path is laid, it is necessary, as is often intoned in Alcoholics Anonymous meetings, “to work the program.” Practice is a path that leads into that gap between aspiration and habit. We can only do the practice and let it shape us.

The Sanskrit word yoga is derived from the root word “yuj,” meaning “to control,” “to yoke” or “to unite.”  A yoke, traditionally, joins or harnesses two things together for the purpose of steering them. Yoga is meant to join the mind and the spirit. Yoga is an excellent example of a prescribed path, that, when embarked upon, can lead to personal transformation. You enter the physical practice and you “work the program.” It is by moving through the forms and teachings of yoga, by committing to that particular yoke or path, that personal transformation occurs. The specific pattens of action, the asanas, teach how to meet obstacles, and can unite the disparate elements-of-being. The fires of the practice forge the alchemy of a whole person.  

For me, the practice of T’ai Chi Chuan is a path, a form that I enter into, an embodied experience and a daily practice that reminds my body and mind to embrace and open pathways. Although the form, passed down through many generations, remains the same, the daily experience is always different and unique, encouraging me to wake up, cast aside assumptions, cultivate fluidity, and strengthen connections. 

For the past thirty years I have watched actors train in the Suzuki Method of Actor Training. I have witnessed the transformation that occurs in individuals who apply themselves, who “work the program”, and practice regularly. I have seen a palpable increase of focus, rootedness, fluidity, and vocal elasticity in the actors who move through this training. The specific forms require courage and the ability to look regularly at one’s limitations. 

There are other kinds of prescribed paths meant to bring about personal change. Boot camps, for example, are designed specifically for accelerated learning.  Military boot camps prepare recruits for the physical, mental, and emotional trials that lie ahead of them and give them the basic tools that they will need in the service. The stated aim of the Outward Bound organization, another example of a prescribed path, is “to foster the personal growth and social skills of participants by using challenging expeditions in the outdoors.” Joining in the activities of this organization, which apparently inspired the Peace Corps, teaches discipline, resilience, confidence, and patience. The program participants do not necessarily know how they will be altered by the challenging experiences, but for the most part, they are changed. The healing benefits of teamwork coupled with the challenges of the natural world teach people how to be strong in the face of adversity. These prescribed paths challenge the participants to move out of customary habits and routines in order to find transformation and advancement. 

This month at Columbia University, where Brian Kulick and I run the graduate directing program, a new semester is beginning. The six new MFA directing candidates who arrive for their initial year of training are offered a curated experience that is meant challenge their assumptions about what directing is and offer them the opportunity to direct often and receive regular critiques. We can guarantee each director enough obstacles to be transformational in practice. In the first year, in addition to pursuing classes in dramaturgy, theater history and producing, each of the six students are required to direct two fully staged short productions per week. The directors are responsible for casting actors from New York City as well as for organizing the rehearsals, designing the space, and the presenting these works in a classroom setting but always with an audience. An intensive critique on another day follows these presentations. During the first semester the directors stage Greek plays with my colleague Brian, and with me they study composition and make theater works that explore issues of character, relationship, construction/deconstruction, music, text, arrangement and so forth. In this class, in addition to compositions based upon classic and new plays, the directors are required to devise original, site-specific, and musical work for the stage.  

By the second or third week of the initial semester at Columbia, the directors have generally exhausted all of the director tools and tricks that they have previously amassed. Around this time, their workload is simply too jam-packed to worry about failure. Each director has no choice but to surrender their anxiety and to work intuitively, from instinct, from a place that might be raw and more vulnerable, and from the moment-to-moment unfolding of the process of preparation, rehearsal, and performance.  

The philosophy behind the intensity of this first semester is based upon my own experiences as a young director.  I learned to direct under pressure. The intense periods of problem solving in rehearsal forged who I became.  At first, as an inexperienced young director, I postponed making choices until the last possible moment.  It was only when I arrived at my wit’s end, when the clock was ticking and an audience was imminent, that I began to work intuitively and effectively.  Without the pressure, I avoided facing the critical issues. And so, with the directors at Columbia, we set the clock ticking immediately. 

It’s very difficult; it’s exhilarating; and it’s the journey that will re-define you and make you into a good artist. (Agnes de Mille)

I spend a great deal of time planting the seeds for future projects. In addition to the four productions that SITI Company will present this autumn (The MediumRadio Macbeth, War of the Worlds – The Radio Play, and A Christmas Carol), I am preparing to direct an opera (Bluebeard’s Castle by Bela Bartok), a musical (Beautiful Lady by Liz Swados), a new play (Eastland by Jocelyn Clarke) and I am conducting research towards a new devised work based upon the relationship between Simone de Beauvoir and Jean Paul Sartre. For each of these projects I must find the time, space, and discipline to cultivate the garden that allows each of these productions to grow. In order to sit quietly and study or to conduct research, dramaturgy, and planning for these new projects, I generally say to my wife Rena, “I am going to garden now.” I find the gardening metaphor more useful and life-giving than saying “I am going to work now.” 

While planting these seeds and then following the outlines of a set path, I try not to remain too fixated upon any particular goal. I avoid getting too dogmatic or determined to make any one thing happen. I stay curious and open to the subsequent flashes of insight and inspiration and trust that by tracking these sensations, these signals, some real alchemy will occur. I endeavor to keep to the path open and to “work the program” without too many expectations. I understand how slippery and disconnected I can be in my daily life, and I appreciate that laying down and following these paths makes it possible for the garden to flourish.