Theater Review - In her own words

Alliance artistic director Susan V. Booth on directing

As told to Curt Holman

Every time I do it, I'm convinced I have no idea what I'm doing. Once I decided that that was not a bad thing, I felt much better. It's about creating an environment of thick curiosity, and being not an answerer but a guide to the answers. I think that's what good directing is.

My favorite part is right before rehearsal, when you have a play that hopefully you've selected yourself or someone has offered to you, that you have very personal connections to. Not autobiographically personal, but that you collide personally with the play.

You go and find your designers and begin creating the physical world of the play. To do that you have to figure out what it is you need and want the play to be about — you have to figure out what part of the play you're going to stand behind and push forward the hardest. If you have really wonderful designers, you talk about the play, the emotional resonances of it, the psychological world, and they go off and abstract that conversation.

Young directors — and I include myself in that, way too many times when I was starting out — will use the design process to tell someone the physical environment: 'I want you to build me one of these.' As you grow up a little bit and work with better designers, and become more trusting of your own abilities, you find this great vocabulary where you talk about one thing, and they come back and show you what it looks like, and you didn't know it looked like that.

During the design process where you're researching, you're reading, you're listening to music, you're going to galleries, you're finding out everything in the world you can find out about serfdom in Russia or Fermat's last theorem. (For Proof, she's reading up on Italian engraver Piranesi and Kay Redfield Jamison, MacArthur "Genius" grant winner and expert in [and sufferer from] manic depression.)

Closer in, you start the audition process, and again, you're better served if you walk into the room with questions, not with answers. The only thing I knew about Proof going in was that I wanted Catherine to really be the age she's supposed to be in the play — that was very important to me. Other than that, I didn't know who these people were going to be, and actors came in and showed me that.

When you get into the rehearsal room, the first day is nerve-wracking. The night before is nerve-wracking. It's like the first day of school, and you sharpen all your pencils and get your papers together. I actually sit down at the computer and write something the night before: "Why (fill in the name of the play)?" And then I have to answer it. Sometimes it takes me a page, sometimes it takes me two. Before the first read-through, I read it to [the cast], because I figure, if I'm going to be the camp counselor, people are going to want to know what I care about, so I should talk about that.

There's this great idea that when you start rehearsal, the director's talking this much, (she holds her hands far apart, then brings them closer together) and the closer you get to opening night, you're talking that much. You're talking less and less, and the actors are talking more and more.

We sit down at the table with the designers, who present scenic designs, costume renderings, if you have a composer they might talk a little bit about the aural landscape of the piece, and then you do your first read-through and it's great. It's the first time the actors have all met, or they may know each other, but they've worked together on other shows. There's often a lot of people in the room, board members, etc. You inish the read-through, thank them, and everyone goes, "I'm glad that's over!" And then you start working.

I like to stay at the table for two to three days, work through the play painstakingly, read it a little bit at a time and ask a lot of questions. It tends to be a time when people tell stories about themselves, it tends to be a time when lots of the research that's been done by yourself and the dramaturg is plugging into the conversation. And you constantly keep notes of how the actors are connecting with the text. What you need to do every time you direct a play is learn a new vocabulary, and it has to be a vocabulary that's created from the collision of one text and however many actors you have. Because you can be the smartest thing in the world, but if you're there in the rehearsal room speaking a language they don't share, then you're just a pompous windbag.

So you keep notes and you talk and then you start blocking, and I'm convinced that there's a way to do that that every other director in the world knows except me. It's my least favorite part of the process, and it's the most uncomfortable part of the process, but it's really good because I always tell actors, "If you're experiencing discomfort, don't run away from it. Claw at it and figure out what it might feel." You give the actors some parameters — "There's a door here, there's a window there, the only thing I know is that at the end of this scene, I think she needs to feel cornered by you. Let's see what happens." The best actors in the world are the ones who are constantly generating, that aren't saying, "What do I do here?" I once had an actor say to me, "I want you to find me the spot where I put the pencil back in my pocket." I thought, "You sir, have been doing far too much film." Blocking can be a week's work, that can be two weeks' work. And you build a physical first draft of the play.

And I always return to the text, that's something that all directors do. You can't decide something purely by arbitrary aesthetic whim. Your job is to stand behind a text and push it forward into the audience's lap. If you're out there dancing, saying, "Look at me," try another field. There was an era of the auteur director, but I'm kind of glad it's passed. So you have a rough draft, you look at it and you edit. And you constantly ask your actors, at every possible moment, "Why? Why are you doing that? What do you want?"

I don't sit when I direct, I don't sit behind a table — I made the concession of a music stand, so I have a place to put my script down — but I try to move as much as I can, so I'm not creating this notion of "You're being watched" for the actors. That comes later. I think the longer you keep the work in process and forget about the outside audience, the better off you are. Later when you're editing, you can sit in the back and say, "Oh, we're using that corner of the stage far too much." Those sort of refinements come into play.

I think if you don't see [the directing], it's good. I think the things that make me look at a play and say, "Wow, what a good director," are when all the actors are in the same play. That doesn't mean you're not going to have wild fluctuations of emotional volatility, because in any room full of people you're going to have that. If everyone is in the same play, I think, "Good director." If the environment in which the play happens feels inevitable — it could only happen in this space — I think, "What a good director." I also think, what good actors, what good designers, but finally, if there's a seamlessness, and a sense of inevitability, then you've got a really good director and you've got a really good play.

And it's about audiences leaning forward. I hate plays where audiences lean back. When I see audiences lean forward, I feel like it was successful. Previews are devastating. You're still rehearsing, you're not done yet, but there they are, you have to have them. But you have to have them to figure out where you're connecting and where you're not. And so I find moments that are working in preview.

I almost never have the capacity to look at the big picture and say, "Look at that, that's good." I can look at individual performances: The cast of Proof is impeccable, but the actress playing Catherine in Proof (Susan Pourfar) is lit from within. Maybe that's something that happens to her in every show that she's done, but I see that and I'm incredibly proud. I'm proud of her, I'm proud of me, I'm proud of the production, because she's taken the whole thing in, and it animates her, it pushes her forward. I can see that and say, "I don't have to become a plumber."??

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