Friday, August 12, 2011

why directors suck

Stephen Sondheim just ripped Diane Paulus a new asshole. (NY Times story) Paulus is directing a Broadway revival of "Porgy and Bess," and she -- and her colleagues -- have chosen to adapt the play almost beyond recognition. Sondheim's letter to the "Times" sparked an electrical storm of comments in newspapers, magazines, blogs and in person, about the state of the theatre and directors. A (female) Facebook friend of mine, mentioning Paulus and "Spiderman's" Julie Taymor, complained that women directors in particular are crapping all over the theatre. Here's my response

I don't think women directors are especially bad. I think DIRECTORS are especially bad -- most directors, regardless of their gender. And it really won't solve anything to get rid of directors, because -- paradoxically -- even though the role of director is new, it's also ancient.

SOMEONE has always been at the helm, whether it was an actor-manager, a committee of actors, a producer, or the playwright. And we're living in a fool's paradise if we think just letting writers direct their own plays (or letting actors do it) will solve the horrible problems plaguing the theatre these days. When I see writer/actor-directed shows, I see the same bullshit I see in director-directed shows. Here are some of the reasons why directing is in such a dire state:

1. No education. How do you learn to be a director? It's not taught. Sure, there are MFA programs (I went to one), but they really don't teach directing. Generally, they give students a chance to direct without giving those students much guidance -- certainly no coherent guidance. In my MFA program, I got a lot of feedback (this worked; this didn't), but little help understanding what my role was, and little help developing techniques and procedures. Which leads to...

2. most directors not knowing what it is they're supposed to be doing. Whatever their job is, it's something they've made up -- or pulled out of their asses. A few stumble upon a procedure that works; most don't. There's almost no apprenticeship going on, so each new generation of directors start from scratch, reinventing wheels, usually in inferior ways. When there's a occupation that has no parameters, that leads to...

3. practitioners feeling insecure. Many directors have Impostor Syndrome. How does one fight that disease? By doing too much. It's the exact opposite of how one SHOULD fight the disease, but when you're suffering from Impostor Syndrome, you have an overwhelming urge to proclaim "I know what I'm doing! Look! Look at me doing my job!" Which leads to...

4. directors doing noticeable things. Usually, it's best if the audience doesn't think about the director at all. He's succeeded when the story just seems to tell itself. People go to "Porgy and Bess" to see "Porgy and Bess" -- not to see Diane Paulus. But, if Paulus is like most directors, her Impostor Syndrome will DEMAND that she make the play about her. So she'll shit "concept" all over it, and she'll make sure that her shit stinks so strongly that it's impossible to ignore the stench.

If there's any truth to the claim that women directors are especially shitty, it may be because women -- since they've had to fight and claw their ways into positions of power -- often have a strong need to say "Look at me! I made it! I'm here!" It's great for women and society that women are able to do that, but no director, male or female, should ever be saying that.

5. Back to education: theatre is a text-based craft. Why? Because we can't compete with the visuals on television and in the cinema. What we CAN do is give actors and audiences a distraction-free environment within which they can confront a text and form a relationship with it.

But here in the 21st Century, our educations are not text based. When I (briefly) taught directing, I learned that college-aged students don't know how to research, analyze scripts, work with actors or understand rhetoric. They have virtually no knowledge of history -- theatre or world history. And they are not well read. Contemporary politics has made them shun the Dead White Males that, for good or ill, make up the bulk of theatre's historical cannon. I don't blame young students for their lack of knowledge. I blame our high schools and colleges.

6. Most theatre directors can't answer this vital question: "Why am I choosing to direct plays and not films?" ANY director who can't answer that question in a meaningful way has no business directing plays. None.

And the answer -- for a director -- can't be "because I like the excitement of a live audience." That's a good answer for an actor, but not for a director, because it can't inform the craft of directing. That answer can't help directors make meaningful choices.

Our theatre is filled with directors who, for whatever reason, stumbled into the theatre but have no idea why they're there. They grew up -- like most of us did -- with a film-based vocabulary, and consciously or unconsciously, they are trying to direct movies on stage. Here's an acid test: I offer you enough money to direct 10 feature films or direct 10 Broadway shows, with no restrictions on what you can do once you start directing. You MUST choose either the films or the shows, not a mixture. Which do you choose to direct? Why?

7. Finally, all directors need to ask themselves "Do I like going to see plays?" I've met an alarming number of people in the theatre who sheepishly admit, "You know, I like doing the work, but I really don't like going to the theatre." I suspect that's okay for an actor or costume designer to say, but it's not okay for a director to say. If that's the way he feels, he needs to do something else!

Why? Because a big part of his job is serving the audience. The actors are, rightly, serving their characters. But the director needs to understand the audience's needs and cater to them. It is true that directors should direct for themselves; but what makes that process work is that directors -- when the stars align -- are smart audience members. They instinctively know what moves and challenges an audience, because they've often been moved and challenged as audience members.

When they direct, say, "Hamlet," the should say to themselves, "If I went to see this play, what would I like to see?" If their answer is, "I wouldn't go see it in the first place, because I only like working on plays, not watching them," then the greatest service they could do the theatre would be to get out of it. ASAP!