n All About Eve, Joseph Mankiewicz’s 1950 film about life on Broadway, stage star Margo Channing gets into a spat with Bill Sampson, the director of Aged in Wood, the hit play in which she is appearing. “And you, I take it, are the Paderewski who plays his concerto on me, the piano?” she says sarcastically, implying that his contribution to the show is trivial next to her acting.
In fact, scarcely anyone outside the theater business would have known who directed Aged in Wood. Except for Elia Kazan, there were no famous full-time American stage directors in 1950. Successful playwrights like George S. Kaufman and actors like Alfred Lunt and José Ferrer sometimes staged their own shows, but most left the chore to theatrical journeymen who have svanished into the annals of obscurity. Who now, for instance, remembers Bretaigne Windust, director of the original productions of Arsenic and Old Lace and Life with Father, the longest-running nonmusical show ever to open on Broadway?
All this started changing in the ’50s. Before long, many directors in addition to Kazan, among them Mike Nichols and Jerome Robbins, were sufficiently well known that their names on a marquee sold tickets. Even now, when the cultural profile of live theater has been sharply diminished by the drying-up of press coverage, there are still a few directors who, like Julie Taymor and Ivo van Hove, are widely known by name to playgoers in New York and elsewhere.
This increased prominence, however, has not been accompanied by a clearer understanding on the part of audiences of what directors do. One reason for this is that they do not appear on stage. Unlike conductors, who stand in front of an orchestra and wave a baton, they are invisible artists whose work is done when the curtain goes up, and their methods differ so greatly that the art they practice defies succinct definition. Moreover, directors work not only with actors and playwrights but also with the designers of the sets, costumes, lighting and sound for their shows, making it still more difficult to single out their contribution to the theatrical process.
It follows that directing should be as hard to teach as it is to define. Despite the profusion of academic programs aimed at preparing young stage directors for a professional career, the English director Tyrone Guthrie was largely right when he claimed that “the only way to learn how to direct a play is to get a play, get a group of actors who are simple enough to allow you to direct them, and direct.” Like Guthrie, I learned how to direct by watching other directors work, talking to them about what they did, and then doing it myself. In the process, I learned countless things about the mysterious art of staging a play that I could not have learned in any other way.
n Shakespeare’s time, there were no directors. Plays were performed without scenery on open stages, and the members of the cast simply got up and acted out their parts. Even after realistic-looking sets became the norm, it was common well into the 20th century for plays to be performed by companies run by “actor-managers” who assumed the leading roles and “directed” by telling their underlings exactly where to stand and how to read their lines.
By then, though, such pioneering directors as England’s Gordon Craig and Russia’s Konstantin Stanislavsky had developed new styles of production aimed at infusing shows with a higher degree of emotional realism and visual unity. Orson Welles popularized their ideas in the ’30s with his “conceptual” stagings of the classics. His modern-dress Julius Caesar (1937), for instance, was performed on a seemingly bare stage and set in a fascist state suggestive of Germany and Italy under Hitler and Mussolini. Even the lighting was symbolic: Jean Rosenthal lit the stage much like Albert Speer used searchlights at Nazi Party mass rallies.
As these innovations began to be absorbed into common theatrical practice, traditional “fourth wall” set design, in which the action of a play unfolds in a realistic-looking space framed by a proscenium arch, gave way to the less literally realistic sets of designers like Jo Mielziner, best remembered for his work on Tennessee Williams’s A Streetcar Named Desire (1947) and Arthur Miller’s Death of a Salesman (1949), both directed by Elia Kazan. A proponent of the Americanized version of Stanislavsky’s theories known as “the Method,” Kazan used the Method as the basis of a personal style of direction whose heightened naturalism was well suited to the charged emotional climates favored by Miller and Williams. Since then, most American stage directors have been, knowingly or not, descendants of Kazan or Welles, opting either for a contemporary variant of Kazan’s poetic naturalism or for “conceptual” productions like Welles’s Julius Caesar.
Regardless of their theoretical approach, all good directors start by asking themselves a deceptively simple-sounding question: What is the play about? The answer can be as general as the sentence intoned by Laurence Olivier in his 1948 film version of Hamlet: “This is the tragedy of a man who could not make up his mind.” It can even contradict the playwright’s intentions, as is often the case with postmodern European stagings of the classics, whose directors see themselves as co-equal in importance to the author (unlike most American directors, who at the very least pay lip service to authorial intent). But whatever the answer, it must be both concise and comprehensible, for every production-related decision made by the director will flow from his understanding of the play’s meaning. If it is vague, then the production will lack focus.
The next step is to figure out what the show will look like on stage. This is one of the most important decisions that a director makes, for it sets the overall tone of the production, and it is made in consultation with the set and costume designers, whose input is crucial. Generally speaking, three broad choices are possible: A production can be realistic, abstract, or set in a stylized space that is used as if it were realistic. Some shows mix these modes, as did Charles Newell’s 2004 revival of Edward Albee’s Who’s Afraid of Virginia Woolf? at Chicago’s Court Theatre. The set, by Jack Magaw, looked realistic at first glance, but the walls and floor were slightly askew, a visual metaphor for the disordered inner lives of the characters. This choice must be made early on, since sets and costumes are designed and built well before a show opens, and it must also reflect the fact that certain kinds of plays demand certain kinds of sets (it is almost impossible, for instance, to successfully perform a realistic comedy on an abstract set).
Even more important is casting, in which the director seeks to embody his understanding of what the play means in the people whom he chooses to act in it. No matter what else its director does or does not do, a revival of Hello, Dolly! will change radically in tone if Bernadette Peters replaces Bette Midler in the title role, as recently happened on Broadway. Hence the axiom that “good directing is 90 percent casting.”
Typecasting is common in theater, mainly because it is safe. But if you cast an actor who looks, sounds, and carries himself like your idea of the character that he is to play, you may reduce the chances that his performance will grow richer and more complex during the rehearsal period. Insofar as time and circumstances permit, it is better to leave room for an actor to infuse a role with his own individuality, as Frank Langella did to spectacular effect in Peter Morgan’s Frost/Nixon (2006). Langella conveyed Richard Nixon’s self-pitying awkwardness so believably that you forgot he neither looked nor sounded like the familiar historical figure whom he was playing.
On Broadway, the problem of casting is complicated by the growing need to use screen stars to make stage productions commercially viable. Artistically speaking, however, it is almost always a mistake to cast a screen actor without stage experience in a major role, since he must be able to fill a thousand-seat theater with his unamplified voice. Actors not trained to project their voices, or who have spent many years working exclusively in film and TV, will either be hard to hear or must shout their way through a role, in both cases resulting in flat, colorless performances.
Once a play is designed and cast, it goes into rehearsal, usually for three or four weeks prior to the start of public preview performances. This is when the director starts working with his cast for the first time, initially in a rehearsal room, then on the stage where they will perform. After a preliminary “table reading” at which the cast reads the script out loud, he “blocks” the show, determining when and where the actors will stand and move. Then he polishes the performances, with the actors “going off book” as soon as they learn their lines by heart.
By this time, a director’s interpretation of a play has been substantially predetermined by his casting and design decisions. His goal in rehearsing, then, is to help the actors be as effective as they can be within these parameters. The best directors do not act out parts in rehearsal, or even give individual line readings. To do so inhibits the creativity that is an actor’s most powerful tool. Instead of treating him as a human keyboard on which the virtuoso director “plays,” it is always better for a director to let a performance emerge naturally from an experienced actor, then guide him in shaping and refining it. An actor who does not believe in the directions that he is given will not realize them convincingly on stage, and he is more likely to do so when they grow out of his own understanding of the part instead of being “pasted” on him by a tyrannical or overzealous director.
What else does a director do in rehearsal? He listens closely to every line, making sure that they are spoken intelligibly, distinctively, and with the emphases placed in such a way as to make their meaning clear to the ear. He also sets the show’s pacing, “throwing away” less important moments so that the more important ones will stand out in higher relief. When I direct my own Satchmo at the Waldorf, a one-man play, I tell the actor what I think the loudest and second-loudest lines of the entire show should be—a simple, even obvious direction, but one that also clarifies numerous aspects of the play.
t the same time, the director positions the actors on stage in such a way that the audience knows where to look, insisting that they move from spot to spot only when they have a reason to do so that is rooted in the script. This makes their actions appear purposeful and “motivated.” Needless to say, real-life action is rarely determined so precisely, but stage action is an imitation of life, molded so as to seize and hold an audience’s attention. Therein lies the difference between directed and undirected acting: A performance lacking in directorial guidance, exciting from moment to moment though it may be, will tend to drift aimlessly instead of building inexorably to a climax.
What a director should not do is hold forth in high-flown terms about the deeper meaning of a scene. That is something to be discussed, if at all, prior to rehearsing the play. Instead, his directions should be expressed in terms of the character’s immediate intention. Why does he cross the stage? Because he wants to see what is on the other side—or because he is so angry that he can’t stand still anymore. Such instructions are of practical use to the actor, as are simple metaphors (“Sign that contract like you know you’re signing away your soul”). Pretty much everything else is self-indulgent, time-wasting prattle.
A director also serves as a combination of cheerleader and psychotherapist. Acting is the least secure of professions, one whose practitioners are often fraught with agonizing self-doubt. Directors who do not go out of their way to show appreciation for an actor will not get the best work out of him. A good director voices his criticisms of a performance with the utmost tact, simultaneously leavening them with warm praise for its virtues. This makes it easier for the actor to let himself go instead of holding back out of fear of being rejected or disrespected by the director.
It is not until the actors start rehearsing on stage that the lighting and sound cues for a production are designed. During this grueling process, the actors run through the show in sections while the designers “write” cues on the spot and try them out one by one, with the director either accepting them as is or asking for changes. These technical rehearsals, in which every remaining element of the show is simultaneously put into place and painstakingly scrutinized for flaws, typically run for three or four days and last 12 hours each. All this work is worth the trouble: Not only can imaginative lighting and sound design enrich a show’s poetic atmosphere, but a good lighting designer does as much as the director to show the audience where to look on stage.
After tech and dress rehearsals, the show goes into previews, with further rehearsals taking place as needed during the day. Once the director decides that all is in readiness, he “freezes” the show, and no further changes are made. If he is a nonresident artist who has been hired for a particular production, he then departs after opening night, leaving subsequent performances in the hands of the stage manager.
As this account indicates, the key to understanding stage direction is that it is a fundamentally collaborative enterprise, one in which a group of artists led by a director come together to rehearse and perform a show at a given time in a given space.
Such an undertaking requires much compromise, not least by the director. The days of the old-fashioned Jerome Robbins–style director-tyrant are mostly over now, killed off by changing times. A director who insists on having his own way in all things will soon find himself bumping up against his collaborators, rarely to helpful effect. Even if he succeeds in imposing his will on them, they will respond grudgingly, and the show will suffer as a result. As a general rule, a modern director does far better to build consensus in the rehearsal room—though he must also be decisive whenever necessary, since it is the director who is ultimately held responsible for the success or failure of a production (unless it is of a new play, in which case he shares responsibility with the author).
Be that as it may, a director must expect to read reviews that have little of interest to say about his work. Even the most favorable mentions of him will typically be replete with meaninglessly vague generalizations. Nor should this lack of specificity necessarily be attributed to critical ignorance: A stage production, especially of a new or unfamiliar play, is a dauntingly complex cloud of information that comes at the viewer all at once. It was only after having seen my first play staged by three different directors, then directing it myself, that I started to “see” stage direction as something separate from the total effect of the show, and was able to make more educated guesses about the nature of the director’s contribution.
Yet for all the inescapable difficulties of comprehension that it poses, the significance of a director’s work cannot be vouchsafed. He makes plays manifest, moving them from the page to the stage in such a way as to heighten their virtues and diminish their defects. Stage direction is, to be sure, an interpretative art form rather than a creative one: A play’s meaning is determined by its text, not by any individual staging, however memorable it may be. But without directors, we would be left to read Macbeth, The Seagull, and Our Town alone and in silence instead of coming together as a group to watch them brought to blazing life before our dumbstruck eyes. For those who cherish the communal experience of going to the theater, there is no nobler pursuit.