Tuesday, July 26, 2005

The Director's Job Is Not To Honor the Words Of the Writer

A director's job is to tell the story as truthfully as he can. Or so I told myself after my first few years directing plays for the theatre. And I still stick by this definition. But it's a definition that must be unpacked if it's to make any sense at all.

A director's job is to tell the story… Yes, but what story? The playwright's story? What is the playwright's story? For that matter, what is a story? A story -- or at least the type of story the interests me -- contains a series of events linked via cause-and-effect: THIS happens, which causes THAT to happen, which in turn causes THE NEXT THING to happen. But causal-linkages alone are not enough to make a story. With cause-and-effect alone, you have "mere" real life: I got hungry, which caused me to go to the fridge, which caused me to see that we were out of mayo, which caused me to go to the store, etc. This is boring and not worthy to be called a story. A story contains a series of causal events centered about some interesting organizing element.

I hate dry phrases like "organizing element," but I'm wary of "theme" (though, since it's a short word, I'll use it in this essay), because it evokes term papers and statements like "the alienation of the individual from culture in the context of mechanized society." Such themes are formal and intellectual, and the theatre is most powerful when it is casual and emotional. But a story's "organizing element" CAN be a theme. One could also call it a "center" or a "pivot" or a "world" or a "purpose."

The chief notion here is that plays exist in theistic universes. Whether or not our (real life) universe is controlled by an intelligence mind is open to debate. I think of it as random and chaotic: event A may not have much to do with event B. I may call my mother on the phone and then, after that conversation, spend two hours taking a nap. But that's not a satisfying story. A story is only satisfying if its events are controlled -- if they are metered out to us in order to suggest some whole, which is greater than the sum of its parts. The storyteller, if he is a smart deity, will erase all aspects of the story that don't contribute to the story's organizing element.

I am tempted to say that a story, created by its storyteller "god," must have some purpose. But I'm almost as scared of "purpose" as I am of "theme." Purpose tilts dangerously toward didacticism, morals, ethics and social utility. A story's point COULD be to illustrate some moral principal, but it needn't be (and, in my view, the most satisfying stories don't try to lecture us about right and wrong). A story's purpose could simply be to thrill or titillate or entertain. For instance, a Stephan King story contains a series of causally-linked events, orbiting around a purpose -- which is to scare us to death.

The director's job is to tell the story … Which means that he must make sure that each event is clear. The man went where? Oh, he went to the STORE. The director must make sure that the causal links between the events are clear. The man walked out of the store without buying anything. Why? Oh, BECAUSE he doesn't have any money. And the director must also tie all the events and causes to some organizing principal: Why are we watching this anyway? Oh, because it's scary (or funny or touching or thought-provoking), and it's fun to be scared (or provoked in some other way).

It's not necessarily important that the audience can put their fingers on the theme or center or purpose. In fact, it's often better if they can't. If they can say, "Oh, I see -- this is a play about racism," then they will be able to classify the play in their minds, and once it's classified, they will be able to forget it. The best stories evoke a sense of mystery. They give the audience the feeling that their guide is a confident person with a purpose -- and that they can relax and know that they are in the hands of a master. It's okay that he is going to keep that purpose secret. The feeling that there is a purpose is more profound and satisfying than knowing what the purpose actually is. (God moves, but he moves in mysterious ways.) And the mystery is important. Once the mystery is solved, the story is over -- even in our minds. An unsolved mystery can resound in out brains forever, as we spend the rest of out lives trying to work it out.

(Note: so many storytellers don't understand the power of mystery. They've been taught to build their work around a theme or center, but they don't understand that the main value of the center is for them -- not for the audience. The center's value is to help the storyteller make storytelling decisions. It allows him to choose the right words or costumes or lighting or movement. By ensuring that each part orbits around the center, the storyteller creates a world that hangs together, which gives the audience a luscious, deep, complete feeling. And that's the goal. The goal isn't to explain the center to the audience. Or, if it is, one can do it very simply. One can put a note in the program saying, "The theme of this play is 'racism is evil.'" (Or whatever.) After reading this silly note, the audience can get on with what they came to the theatre to do -- to be titillated, moved, excited and provoked.)

We're used mysterious purpose in music. Those of us who aren't trained musicians can still listen to a Beethoven symphony and get the profound feeling that it all hangs together -- that every note is part of something great; that it has meaning. Yet what that meaning is, we can't say.

But the storyteller must know the meaning. He must know it, because all of his storytelling decisions must take this meaning into account. Otherwise he risks perverting the work away from being a satisfying story. Should the actress where a red dress or a blue dress? How do we decide? Well, does one of those colors distract from the point of the story? Does one further the point of the story? Only when we decide that the story is neither hindered nor helped by red or blue can we risk choosing the red dress, simply because it flatters the actress. The storyteller must use his knowledge of the meaning to make these decisions.

In the theatre, who is the storyteller, the playwright or the director? The storyTELLER is the person who TELLS the story. He's the last person in line between the story and its audience. Similarly, the joke TELLER isn't the joke book, it's the person who tells the joke that he read in the joke book. In the theatre, the real storytellers are the actors. They, along with any scenic, costume, sound and lighting events that take place (live) in front of the audience, are the vehicles that actually carry the story (the causal events) directly to the audience.

The director is the person who tells the writer's story to the actors (who then tell it to the audience). When the writer writes the story, he is the storyteller and the director (and, initially, the actor, when he is reading his script at home) is his audience. But soon the director takes over. He explains the story to the actors -- pushing them to emphasize this point and ignore that point. He becomes the storyteller, making sure the events are causally linked and centered.

Why? Why do we need directors? Why can't the writer -- or his text -- communicate directly to the actors? The director serves several purposes. If he didn't exist, rehearsals (and the resulting performances) would dissolve into chaos. Each actor would read the script, come to rehearsal and do whatever he wanted to do, based on his personal interpretation of the story. Interpretations would clash. The causal links would be unclear and the story would, like the Olympic rings, have many centers. One person needs to be the arbiter, the final decision maker, the guardian of the story. This doesn't mean he has to be a ruthless dictator who listens to no one but himself. A good director listens to everyone. He becomes a president, and the actors, crew and writer become his advisors and cabinet ministers. But the buck stops with him. And he must make the final decisions, so that the story has a chance of hanging together.

(The writer can take this role. He can come to rehearsals and tell actors what to do. But if he does this, he is the director. He may have been the writer when he wrote the play. Writing a play is writing. Telling actors what to do is not writing -- it's directing. One person may have two jobs. That doesn't negate the need for a director.)

The director is also needed to flesh out details. The writer may simple mention that a table is present on the stage. But what kind of table? A round one? A square one? Wood? Metal? Big? Small? These questions may seem unimportant, but they can't be ignored. They can't be ignored because someone has to actually go out and buy a table -- a real table. What sort of table should they buy? It’s appropriate that the writer simply writes, "table." Additional detail would clutter his script. People don't say, "I left the book on the blue, circular, metal table." They say, "I left the book on the table," so this is what the writer should have them say. Sure, writers can add "stage directions" in which they describe sets and costumes. But they can't describe everything. Yet in the theatre, everything must be described. It all must really exist. It must be purchased, placed and then the actors must interact with it. So the director fleshes out these details (thousands of them). And he makes sure that none of them pervert the story's center.

(Note: sometimes it's obvious how this should be done. You're directing a play about rich people. Should you choose the fine china or the plastic cups? Obviously, the fine china. On the other hand, if you're telling the story of a beat cop who happens to carry a notebook, which notebook should you use? There are dozens of notebooks for sale. Which should you buy? The answer in this case is to buy the most boring notebook you can find. The notebook that merges into the background. The notebook isn't integral to the story. It doesn't really contribute to the center. But the cop must have a notebook. If he didn't, the audience would notice -- "Hey, where's his notebook?" -- which steal their focus away from the story. So in this case, you choose one that doesn't distract from the center. In cases like this, you are creating the closest stage equivalent to minimalist writing like, "The cop wrote down the name of the suspect." In a sentence like this, you don't add that he wrote down the suspect's name in a blue, spiral-bound notebook with a Staples logo on the front, because this has nothing to do with the story. On stage, you don't have the luxury to leave out such details. The notebook must exist. So you simply make it boring. Audiences don't focus on boring things. So the boring notebook will deflect their attention towards the story.)

A storyteller has little chance of telling a good story -- an exciting story -- if he is not, himself, excited by the story. We know this, because we've all heard people tell stories that they are forced to tell against their will. It's deadly. We've all heard bored parents reading the same bedtime story to their children, over and over, each night, until they want to pull their hair out. They hate the story. So they won't tell it well. In fact, their children have to keep intervening: "You forgot to do the bunny voice, Dad!"

A storyteller finds the story exciting when it is his OWN story. This doesn't necessarily mean it is the story of his life. But he must feel like he is the owner of the story. When you tell a joke from a joke book, you only enjoy it if it feels like YOU are telling the joke -- that it's your joke. So when the writer writes the story, it must feel, to him, like it's his story, or he'll do a bad job writing it. Similarly, when the actors tell the story to the audience, they must feel like it's their story. They must feel like they have invented the words that come out of their mouths. The words may have originated at the writer's pen, but the actors must ultimately own the words or they will bore the audience.

In rehearsals, the director must own the story. So he's telling HIS story, not the writer's story. This offends many people, because they (rightly) hold writers in such high esteem. They feel like the director should merely carry the writer's words to the stage without adding any flourishes of his own. But if the director does this -- if he's just a pipeline between the script and the stage -- then he won't ever be able to own the story. And if he doesn't own it, he won't tell it well. He'll be like the bad joketeller who says, "Here's something I just read in a joke book. I may not tell it very well, but it's funny in the book." Who wants to listen to that?

If the director does own the story, then he will change it. He may change it in minor ways that are almost undetectable. Or he may alter it beyond recognition. But he will change it. Because by owning it, he will bring his own personality to it. And his personality is not the writer's personality. We want the director to own the story (so that it will be well told on stage) but we want him to stay absolutely faithful to the author's intentions. And this is not possible. If we allow directors to do their job -- and we must if we don't want chaos on stage -- then we will be watching the director's story, not the playwright's. The director's story may be adapted from the playwright's story -- it may even be closely adapted -- but it will necessarily be an adaptation.

(The audience will watch the actors' adaptation of the director's adaptation of the writer's story.)

And the director is not even really adapting the writer's story. He's adapting A story. It's a story that, influenced though it may be by the writer's words, comes out of his own head. Why? Because the story is the about CENTER. The story is the theme, spine, world, pivot, etc. That is what the story is about. But the writer doesn't tell us what this center is. It doesn't really exist in the words he's written. The words simply describe a series of linked events.

The director analyses these events to find the center. And one director doing "Hamlet" may find a very different center than another director doing "Hamlet." In fact, the same director may find different centers for two productions of "Hamlet," directed at different points in his life. And the writer (who takes on the role of director) may find that the play has a different center for him on stage than it did when he originally wrote it on paper.

The center isn't overtly stated in the text, but doesn't the text imply it? Maybe, but we must look closely at what the word "imply" means. Take a look at the following simple story:

Mark kicked the black man in the face. All of Mark's friends disowned him, never speaking to him again.

Most readers would say that this story "contains" a theme. And if asked to articulate it, the would probably say something like, "The theme of the story is that racism is evil." But no where in the story does it state that racism is evil. The story doesn't even show that racism is evil. The story shows that (a) Mark kicked a black man, and (b) Mark's friends disowned him. That's literally all the information that is contained in the story. (Note that the story doesn't make any universal claims. It DOESN'T state that anyone who kicks a black man will be punished. It states that one specific person, Mark, kicked a black man and he got punished.) We may say that the story implies that racism is evil, but the implication occurs in our heads -- not in the story.

Yes, the same implication occurs in most people's heads. But that is because all people are humans. And all humans share similar DNA and cultural experiences. So they are likely to derive the same -- or similar -- implications. A writer can capitalize on the similarities shared by all humans. He can try to push certain buttons, knowing that this will likely result in similar effects in most readers.

But even this theme isn't universal. For instance a racist man, reading this story, might derive a totally different theme. He might, for instance, say, "The theme of the story is that people treat you unfairly when you do something perfectly natural and right, like kicking a black man." We might loathe such a person, but we can't call his analysis wrong. (Though me may call his morality evil.) How is it any more right or wrong then our analysis?

Themes aren't IN stories. They are suggested by stories. And a suggestion must exist in a mind -- a human mind -- that is separate from the story. Yet in school, we are constantly told that, "The theme of 'Moby Dick' is…" or "'MacBeth' is about…" This is, at best, a sort of shorthand and, at worst, a sort of intellectual tyranny. Story's don't have universal themes. At best, they suggest similar themes to many people.

So the director must run with HIS theme. Yet that theme (or center), as subjective as it is, is the most important part of the story. It's the root from which all production decisions will follow. True, he can forgo coming up with his own theme. He can, instead, ask the writer what the theme is. Or, if the writer is dead, he can read interviews with the writer, from when the writer was alive. Or he can turn to scholarly analysis of the writer's life and works, from which, perhaps, the writer's intention can be derived. (Really, it can only be guessed. One can't KNOW another person's intentions.) All such analysis can be useful, but ultimately the director must go with his own theme. Only by going with his own theme, will he be able to own the story. And only by owning the story will he be able to tell it well. It may happen that his own theme matches exactly what the writer said the theme was in some interview. But that is a coincidence. The director must feel that the theme is his own.

And since the theme (or center or pivot or world) is what the story is ABOUT, the director must prune away anything that distracts from that theme. And he must add things that further that theme. In general, this will involve coaxing actors towards (and away-from) certain line-readings and gestures. It will also involve setting down some rules for the production designers. It may also involve altering the text.

This makes people nervous, but it is the natural outcome of sticking to a theme, which is the director's duty (if he doesn't want the play to fail). He may find that the theme is stronger if he cuts certain lines of text. If this is true, it's his duty to cut them. He may find that the theme is stronger if he changes certain words. If this is true, it's his duty to change them. He may find that the theme is stronger if he adds new lines. If this is true, it's his duty to add them.

Why would there be extraneous lines in the script -- lines that distract from the theme? Why would there be missing lines -- lines that must be added if the theme is as-strong-as it should be? Because the writer was using his own theme when he wrote the play; the director is now using HIS. And though these themes might be similar, they probably won't be exactly the same. The director must bring the script into line with his theme -- just as he must bring all other production elements into line with his theme. If he doesn't do this -- if he brings the sets, costumes, lighting, sound and acting into line with his theme but not the script -- then the script will be at odds with the rest of the production, and the audience won't have a satisfying experience.

(It's also possible that the writer simply made mistakes. If the director finds mistakes -- mistakes that distract from the theme -- he must correct them.)

Should the director willy-nilly change the script? No. The playwright lived with the script for a long time -- probably much longer than the director. His reasons for making certain writing decisions may not be clear at first. But upon further study, they may become clear. So before making a cut or change, the director should spend a long time studying the original version. He should make sure that the original really does conflict with his theme. But ultimately, if it does jar with his theme, the conflict must be eradicated.

(In the theatre, there are two traditions that clash. On the one hand, there is a cult of the writer. Actors and directors continually state that the writer's words and intentions must be obeyed. "It's wrong," they say, "to change a word in the text." Yet another tradition allows the text to be cut. "We can't expect a modern audience to sit through a full-length Shakespeare play," they say, "So we must make cuts." As if cutting a line (or scene!) wasn't just as much of a bastardization of the original as changing a line. Presumably, the writer wrote a word just so for a reason. And just as presumably, he included all the lines that he included for a reason.)

Theatre is a collaborative art form. Collaboration is a wonderful tool for bringing many minds to bear on a problem. But collaboration also has its dangers. Collaboration without control leads to anarchy. So in any successful collaborative effort, there must be an arbitrator. And in the theatre, that arbitrator is the director. The director takes the contributions of the actors, designers and the writer, and he bends them into a shape that fits within his theme. It is not the director's job to honor the writer's intentions. It is the director's job to tell the story as truthfully as he can.

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