Directing the commercial production of POPE JOAN is a task which has presented me with several unique challenges. I'd like to address each of them.
First of all, I am an author who is directing his own work. This is unusual enough in the theatre world, but it certainly does happen. Witness Edward Albee, James Lapine, et al. However, in the world of musical theatre, it is virtually unheard of because musicals are rarely written entirely by one person. There is a standing, unspoken edict which declares that the author of a new work should never direct that work because he or she is too close to it, and therefore not open enough to interpretations that may be valid but different from his or her own. Up until now, I have been an advocate of that position. Most authors of new work with whom I have interacted have tended to be young, and still learning how one makes the transition from script to production -- in short, how to rewrite, how to collaborate with a production team, how to listen to criticism, etcetera. These are essential lessons for any author to learn, and more than enough to take on with a project. 99% of the time, when I am asked, I advise young writers never to direct their own work. Especially at the beginning of a career, even a bad director will teach you valuable lessons about your play -- even if all you learn is how much your script is able to survive a poor production. I began my career directing my own work, and it was a mistake. When I realized that I had a lot to learn about each of my writing crafts -- composition, lyric writing, and libretto writing -- I abandoned directing as a "road not taken" in order to hone my craft in these other areas.
Well, here we are fifteen years later, and I'm directing POPE JOAN. Why? First of all, this is not the premiere production. The non-profit production was what it needed to be -- a valuable learning experience about what worked and didn't work about the show. This allowed me to spend the summer completely focused on rewriting the show. There was an unusual degree of agreement about what elements needed to be addressed in the writing, and what had been obscured by the limitations of the previous production. (After many years of rewriting one's scripts, some objectivity does develop.) Though I was leery of breaking that "unspoken edict" I spoke of earlier, I felt it was important, with the commercial production, to tell the story as clearly as possible. We did not want to run the risk of hiring a director so eager to put his "stamp" on the show that we wound up with a production that still did not present the piece as we intended. With me as director, we could achieve this objective.
My goal as director is so basic as to be obvious -- to tell the story clearly and compellingly, making musical moments the highlights of the show (it IS a musical, after all). I chose to keep all the usual pitfalls in a large project like this as contained as possible -- one basic set without tons of levels (levels are one of those things which directors love but actors and choreographers hate), retaining as much of the original cast as possible, adding a movement director, keeping the number of set pieces to a minimum. (Our show has four -- which has to be some kind of record for a musical). In short, the only place my ego enters into the process is my desire to serve the author's intention. I feel no need to "prove" my great skill as a director. That's a trap which can lead to lots of effects for effects' sake. If I am merely competent and serve the work, then my job will be well done. "Simple, simple, simple" is my motto.
On another level, I feel it is important for creative people to know when it is time to consolidate, to apprentice, to serve as student. But equally important is knowing when it is time to be a leader, to go out on a limb, to try something new. At the exact time that the opportunity to direct POPE JOAN came to me, I knew that it was time for me to do it. Without the stimulation and frustration that comes from venturing into the unknown, our creative patterns become steady and predictable, and eventually deaden. It was important for me as a person to take this risk.
Here's an interesting observation from the rehearsal process thus far: It is standard practice for the director of a play to routinely ignore the stage directions in the script. Actors have come to expect that, because of the set being used and the director's particular vision, the author's directions will be ignored in almost all cases. However, in this situation where I am directing my own script, the actors seem stunned when I do this same thing myself. What they do not realize is that when I am writing a play, I do "visualize" it with a high degree of specificity and include that in the script. But I cannot possibly account for all the logistics problems my directions might incite, nor should I. As the person now responsible for the nuts and bolts of how a stage moment is to "arrive," I pick and choose what I can use from my original vision and let go of what cannot be achieved in our particular circumstance. Even for an author/director, slavish devotion to the text can lead one astray.
Another revelation from the rehearsal process concerns the playing style we are using in this production. Because of our unit set and the fact that our stage is a wide, not-too-deep proscenium space, Angela Allyn and I are using the concept of "a Byzantine religious tableau come to life" as our chief image for stage pictures. What this requires is a real grounding in proscenium playing styles, and a certain acting style which pre-dates the mid-twentieth century "method" approach to using the stage. The "method" dictates that actors must make eye contact almost always, and a body stance which ignores the invisible "fourth wall." Because of the period of the show and the fact that the show is a musical (which, by definition, breaks the fourth wall), and because of the proscenium stage, we are working hard to re-orient the actors to this playing style. In no way do we want a false, melodramatic style -- we want to layer our conventions over the actors' very real and intense acting moments. But we must be conscious of the audience's expectations. Unless the spectator can participate and be moved by what is presented, the most realistic, intense acting moment will be dissipated if not "presented" for them. This does cause some discomfort for our actors, who have grown up in the Chicago storefront theater, "rock 'n' roll" acting school. I am happy to report that all are making this transition beautifully. A director could not have a more congenial cast with whom to work.
Two weeks into the rehearsal process, I am convinced that I made the right decision to direct this show. In some small part of my brain, I have already thought about other shows I might want to direct, but for now:
Four hats is enough!