What’s the Question

Nov 11, 2013

Questions are the key tool of every theater artist.  Each worthwhile project is animated by curiosity, by questions, by a nagging itch that requires attention. Part of what makes a play endure through time is the significance of the question that lies at its core.

Emily Dickenson wrote, “Wonder is not precisely knowing, and not precisely knowing not.”  To live in between knowing and “knowing not” is a fecund place and a creative one as well.

I have found that many great questions can be answered with a single word:  Exactly.  These questions are themselves an embodiment of the action of trying to answer them. For example: Question:  How can I balance my personal life and my professional life?   Answer:  Exactly.  Or, question:  How can I work collaboratively and yet still maintain my personal vision?  Answer:  Exactly.  The paradox contains precisely the problem that needs attention.  The answer is an ongoing action.

In September I completed a new book of essays entitled What’s the Story.  Up until now these blogs were very helpful in the writing of the book.  And now, in turning the next corner, I invited interested readers to pose questions that would become the organizing principle behind my monthly blog. In October, I received questions from four people:

Miguel Angel Rodriguez Abajo wrote:

You always talk about theatrical or artistic issues, about the creative process but usually you bring us your thoughts after a big deal of reflection has gone inside you. I think it would be interesting to read a diary on one of your creative projects where you would write daily without too much reflection your feelings, your failures, thoughts of the day.

My response:

Gosh Miguel, I would be so hesitant to broadcast any writing without working on it, refining it, trying to figure out what I am trying to say and learning new things to share in the act of forging cogent sentences and paragraphs.  I feel that there is so much unprocessed reporting going on, especially online, and I do not want to contribute to that overabundance. I feel that reflection is part of the reason that I write and also why I direct and that my undigested and un-reflected-upon experiences are fodder for expression but are not reflection itself.

And so, thank you Miguel for the invitation and interest but for now I will take a rain check.


John Flax wrote:

In an ongoing effort to re-energize the art form, my company is currently discussing the place of experimentation with style in the creation process of devised ensemble work. With a parallel discussion on the importance of story. We all would love to hear your thoughts on these topics.

My response:

John, thank you for the question.  Personally, I avoid concentrating on issues of style. Rather than experimenting with style, I simply try to find the form or container for a production that allows me to see and hear the play clearly. And I look for shapes that can successfully create the circumstance in which the audience can zero in too. I think that style is a word that is used and applied to a production after the fact by people who come into contact with the work.

If you consider realism a style, I would refer you to Robert Edmund Jones, the brilliant scenic designer from the first part of the 20th century, who famously said that realism is something that you do when you are not feeling well, when you are not quite up to it.  He was a proponent of expressionism.  I too lean towards expression over description.  I try to find the expression, the ideogram that evokes rather than describes the dramatic situation. 

You also mention the importance of story.  These days I am thinking a lot about how we tell stories on the stage.  Perhaps it helps to imagine that stories are happening at each and every moment, that every action, every movement onstage is a story.  I love the title of choreographer Yvonne Rainer’s 1972 film This is the story of a woman who…..    In the spirit of Rainer, an original innovator in the postmodernist Judson Church era of the early 1960s in New York, I would suggest that an actor walking onto the stage is the story of a woman who walks onstage.  Her entrance relates a particular story and the actor is responsible to be clear about that story.  And then, this is the story of a woman who sits upon a chair.  Or, this is the story of a woman who lifts her arm. The audience is reading the story in each and every moment.

Joanne Hudson wrote:

How did you become yourself?  Or, perhaps better stated, how did you become your artistic self? Where did you begin from and what were key moments in your development as an artist? Was there a moment when you thought to quit, but carried on?

My response:

Joanne, your question is is very difficult to answer because I believe that there is no “myself.” I am not one entity. I do not believe that anyone is simply one entity, one self; rather, each of us is what cognitive scientist Marvin Minsky calls a “society of mind.” And so your question about how I became myself is very tricky.  

In the theater, an actor understands that their character is defined by the particular dramatic situation. Oedipus becomes a different person in the moment that he realizes that Jocasta is not only his wife but also his mother.  I am a different self when I am with my tax accountant than when I am with my sweetheart. I take on the shape that the situation requires and I act accordingly. And the experiences that I undergo, the encounters, the problems and the obstacles that I overcome all shape the breadth and width of my possible selves. 

Emphatically though, there are stories that we tell to ourselves and to others to make up an effective persona.  We become, in the eyes of others and in our own minds, the stories that we tell about ourselves.

I do have many stories. I am not sure which ones to share with you.  I can enumerate some of the experiences that formed me as an artist, certain crossroads that changed the course of my trajectory.  Here are some critical crossroads in my trajectory:

  1. My high school teacher Jill Warren opened my eyes to the power of art by taking my class to new places both physically and mentally.  These encounters changed my perspective about the wide parameters life and art.
  2. A production of Shakespeare’s Macbeth at Trinity Repertory Company in 1967 when I was 15 years old, an experience that I could not comprehend at all intellectually but that led me want to direct plays for a lifetime.
  3. Montreal, 1976, I saw a film of Gorky’s play Summerfolk directed by Peter Stein and performed by the extraordinary acting company of the Schaubühne in West Berlin.  Until then I did not know that one play could be many things simultaneously:  highly political and deeply personal, great storytelling and great acting, formally rigorous, intelligent, aesthetically beautiful, emotional, complex and simple all at once.
  4. A conversation with the French director Ariane Mnouchkine who, in response to my question about the necessity for a company, looked at me sternly and said, “What can you do without a company?”  Then she added, “Don’t get me wrong, companies are always problematic, people leave, there are always difficulties.  But what can you accomplish without a company?” That moment changed my trajectory and gave me a new mission that catapulted me into many new adventures that contribute to who I “am” today.

Jeremy Halpern wrote four questions:

1. How can we bring the “three Indian rules for great theatre” into practice in new media (on the Internet, etc.)?

My response:

1.  I believe that with the “three Indian rules” you are referring to the Sanskrit notion that theater should accomplish three goals simultaneously:  1. Entertain the drunk. 2. Answer the question “how to live,” and 3. Answer the question “how does the universe work?” 

Jeremy, I believe that YOU are the one to address this question about bringing these notions to new media, not me.  You are an Internet maven!  I do not mean to shrug this question off but I do not traffic much in new media, rather I spend time considering the acoustic body and concrete physical issues about time and space in a rehearsal room and in a theater. One hears about the successful pioneers in the field of Internet technology who spent their youth in tens of thousands of hours of “coding,” I wanted to understand what these “coders” were actually doing and had to ask my muse Leon Ingulsrud to explain exactly what “coding” is.  Now I imagine that to make the Sanskrit prescription for good theater apply to new media and the Internet, a great deal of coding hours would need to be logged.

2. How can we encourage more “leisure Art” (i.e. art that is done by “amateurs” with no intent to make money) in our culture?

 My response:

The deep roots of amateur productions that proliferate in each and every high school and community theater production directly feed whatever richness there is to be found in the professional theater.  The human need to “display” in front of others is basic and ancient.  Actually, humans are not the only species to preen and act-out in front of others.  Birds in a “lek” engage in competitive displays in order to entice female birds to have sex.  The behavior, called “lekking,” is also found in insects, amphibians and mammals. The etymology of the word “lek” is Swedish and denotes games and activities with some rules. I imagine that our acting out, an activity central to our social systems, is related to lekking and will continue until the earth is flooded over with the seven seas.

3. How do we know the difference between listening and “pandering” to our audience?

My response:

As a director I know that I cannot second-guess any audience.  I must trust my own taste and delight and measure the “rightness” in any moment of theater by the barometer of my body’s excitement and engagement.  I must trust that an audience’s imagination will be activated by what also activates mine and what makes my blood flow faster, my pulse quicken. 

I do listen to an audience in the midst of a performance. I can discern, and I know that the actors can also discern, the quality and tempi of an audience’s breathing.  I am aware when the audience breathes in harmony with the production or in conflict.  In the most successful productions the actors help to tune the audience’s breathing by their own tempi. 

4. How can we find a way to insure that Anne always knows how much she has done for humanity?

My response:

Thank you Jeremy.  Here’s how:  I would ask blog readers to continue sending me questions. Write to

I end now by sharing two questions that I am presently reflecting upon:

During the course of a performance, when does an audience become a community? 

How can patience become more than a skill, but also a currency that has value in our present cultural climate?