Friday, January 01, 2010

letter to a young director

A friend of mine cut lines from a bunch of different Shakespeare plays and pasted them together to form a new play. After seeing it, I wrote her this email:

I really liked your play, and I have some advice about it. I waffled about writing this, because I hate giving unsolicited advice. I think it's rude, and I don't like it when people do it to me.

But I feel strongly about what I'm about to say, and I suspect it's different from what other people will tell you. Selfishly, I want my voice to be heard. Please know that this email comes from a someone who loves your work and wants it to be the best that it can be.

I am surprised that I liked your script, because, to be honest, when you told me about the project, it didn't interest me. I thought, "Why do it?" Why make a new Shakespeare play when there are already so many good ones. I wanted to see you, as a director, grapple with "Merchant of Venice" or "Romeo and Juliet" -- not some hybrid script. But your play won me over. I still don't know "why," but I no longer care. The script was smart and seemed more than just an exercise -- more than just a clever parlor trick. It was a real play. A real story. And stories don't need a justification. If they are compelling and beautiful on their own terms, that's a good enough reason for them to exist.

Here's my unsolicited advice: PLEASE remove the tongue-in-cheek, campy anachronistic jokes. (Example: one of your actresses put on a disguise, which was just a pair of glasses. She then broke out of Elizabethan language and period, looked at the audience and said, "Hey, it worked for Superman.")

I suspect I will be the lone voice telling you to stop doing this. The audience LOVED those jokes. They loved them more than anything else in the play, and, as a director, writer and performer, that's extremely seductive. We all want to be liked, and when we get a laugh, our social brain says, "That thing I was doing -- that thing that made people laugh -- I need to do more of that!" That's a natural way of thinking, and I fall pray to it all the time. I suspect I always will, no matter how many years I spend directing. Because I'm human.

When I direct Shakespeare, I am continually on guard against that impulse. If I give into it, I wind up with a play in which the audience enjoys the super-accessible jokes more than they enjoy the tougher-to-understand Shakespeare verse and prose. As seductive as that enjoyment is, I have to continually remind myself why I'm doing this to begin with -- why I'm directing Shakespeare. If I just want people to have an easy laugh, I can always direct "Barefoot in the Park." I am directing Shakespeare because I want to communicate HIS world and mind to the audience. If I inject campy stuff that's easy to laugh at, I dilute his words, his world, his beauty.

The audience will love you for diluting it. Many of them are scared of Shakespeare, and your campy jokes takes the fear away. People are able to go home afterwards and feel smart -- feel like they "got" Shakespeare. But they DIDN'T get Shakespeare. They got Shakespeare lite; Shakespeare with a spoon full of sugar to help the medicine go down. If your goal is to make an audience feel at ease and smart, the campy stuff is on the right track. If your goal is to share your love of Shakespeare with them, you need to cut that stuff out.

The MAIN thing I remember about your show -- the line that sticks in my mind the most -- is "It worked for Superman." That's frightening, since I sat through two hours of some of the best English poetry ever written!

(Also, why did you use modern songs? Shakespeare's plays are full of lovely songs. I don't understand why you didn't use them.)

I am making this sound way more dire than it is. If you see a smudge on the roof of the Sistine Chapel, that doesn't mean you hate the painting. You love the painting and you want it to be the best it can be, so you wipe away the smudge. I am trying to wipe away a smudge.

I am laboring this because I know you'll get praised for the campy stuff. I don't expect you to follow my advice when everyone else is saying the opposite. But on the off-chance that you will, I want to make my argument as strong as possible. Ultimately, of course, you have to put YOUR vision on the stage. Not my vision. And bless you for doing that. If you wind up reading this and thinking, "No. That's wrong. I totally disagree!" then that's good. You're cementing your world view, which is something writers and directors need to do.

My last word on the subject is to ask you that whatever you do, you do it with CONFIDENCE. (Or, if you can't, fake it until you make it.) I don't know why YOU added the camp, but I'VE been tempted to do that sort of thing because, if I'm honest, I'm worried the audience won't sit through my play otherwise. I think, "They don't REALLY like Shakespeare, so I have to throw them a bone now and then to thank them for tolerating it (really for tolerating me and my silly obsessions)." Many directors do that. They don't all use camp. They cut the plays or throw in huge song-and-dance numbers, not because they think those cuts make the story clearer or the musical numbers move the plot forward, but because they are worried that the audience will get bored otherwise.

(Cutting and song-and-dance numbers aren't intrinsically bad, but if you're going to use these tools, use them because they help make the story clearer, more sensual or more exciting. Don't tack them onto the production just to keep asses in seats.)

Don't ever do this. Say, "I love Shakespeare, AND HERE'S WHY..." And put your reason (and your love for it) on the stage, naked and unadorned. Be brave enough to do that, and let the audience confront the naked, screaming baby as they will. They may get bored. Or they may pick up the baby and cuddle it. Your job is just to present them with the baby and trust that they are grownups, capable of forming their own relationships with it.

Another way of saying this is "the play is not about you -- it's about Hamlet." This is the fucking hardest part of being a director (or any kind of artist). Removing ego (or ignoring it as best you can). Why do we care if the audience is bored? Because we don't want them to blame us for boring them. That's natural, but any decision we make based on that natural impulse is a decision about us -- not about the story we're supposed to be telling.

"Gotta keep a link with your tradition;
Gotta learn to trust your intuition,
While you re-establish your position
So that you can be on exhib--
So that your WORK can be on exhibition!" - Sondheim lyric from "Sunday In the Park With George"

I have at least one crisis per Shakespeare play (which I keep from the actors). No matter how long I do this sort of work, at least once, I panic and think, "The audience is going to have no idea what's going on. They're going to be bored. They're going to hate me." At those points, I try to act like a Christian who has temporarily lost his faith. I throw myself into the work as passionately as I can. I say, "Shakespeare, I TRUST you." And I spend an extra ten minutes working with Benedict or Juliet or Lear to make sure that he or she is saying Shakespeare's lines clearly and with a strong intention.

To my surprise, this approach has payed off over and over.

"Whether you’re familiar with the poetic language of Shakespeare’s plays or not, the actors make sure the action is impossible to not follow." -- Talkin' Broadway review on Folding Chair's production of "The Winter's Tale."

Still, no matter how many times God proves His existence to me, I lose my faith when I start work on the next play. Grappling with ego and fear -- and the profound desire to be loved -- is, alas, a war that I'll never win. But I CAN win individual battles. And I'll fight until I die.

Please keep up the great work. It's thrilling to watch you grow as an artist.

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