Wednesday, 30 December 2015

Visual and emotional direction

I may not be a great actor (see my previous post - below) but I am still fascinated by drama and film. The fact that the sofa in front of the television is much cheaper and nearer than any theatre seat means I watch many more films than plays, but if I consider working in either medium, I cannot help but be drawn to drama, as much less complicated and expensive than film.

If acting is not an option, four other roles are: producing, directing, backstage and writing. I'll deal with writing another time. As for producing, I've done my share of vanity projects to get my own material on stage. The reviews were medium to good, the losses medium - as much as I could afford and more than I would like. I might produce again, but not in the foreseeable future; money is tight at present and
How do you make £1,000?
Start off with £2,000 and invest
in a fringe theatre production
the Other Half would never forgive me. Backstage? Maybe-possibly-might-do, but I don't have the skills for tasks such as set-building and although I enjoy Organising, I'm not enthused by the idea of Stage Manager.

Directing, on the other hand . . . The director is the magician. The director creates the vision. The director paints the whole picture. The actor sees only part of the play and from a narrow perspective; the director sees it all. The actor spends much or most of their time offstage waiting; the director is always active and never bored. The actor has to learn lines and, much more difficult, the cues that precede each line; the director has nothing to learn. The actor has to throw away the script early on in rehearsals; the director can consult the script at any time. The actor can express their opinion but may have do the director's will; the director can hear every opinion and then impose their own will. Best of all, because the director is in charge and always working, in rehearsal there are no breaks; the energy level remains high and the adrenalin is always flowing.

There are downsides to directing. Actors who are not up to scratch, actors who suddenly decide to leave a project, actors who are unprofessional (arriving late, paying little attention, only giving part of their talent), backstage staff who are unreliable, producers who cannot or will not invest as much time and money and promotion as the project demands; these can all undermine the director's vision. But problems and challenges are part of the job description and a good director will be able to overcome most or all of them.

I didn't use to consider myself a director. Decades ago, at university, I joined a dramatic club and offered to direct Olwen Wymark's The Inhabitants. I remember few details. The script attracted me because there was vaguely gay element and I had only just become aware of my own sexuality, but although I read the play several times, I could not understand it. (This was after I had taken on the task; looking back at myself I can hardly believe my idiocy.) I had a mentor at the club who explained that the three characters represented the id, ego and supergo. I still had no clue what to do. Meanwhile, I had persuaded a friend to be one of the cast; where the other two actors came from I no longer remember; I have no idea if any of them could act. Exasperated, the mentor took over while I slunk into the shadows. There was one performance. My name remained in the programme as director (I think I half-heartedly protested the inclusion). After that I darkened the door of the dramatic club no more. I allowed the deepest recesses of my mind to retain the idea that I might some day become an actor. A director, however? My inmost being burnt read with embarrassment.

Fast forward almost forty years. I take up acting and appear in several fringe plays. I listen to directors, understand how they work. In one play where I have a key role I am acutely aware of the different abilities of the actors around me. The leading man is quiet, unexpressive, almost mumbles his words. A bit player has a range of voices and energy that sizzles. Doesn't the director see the difference? I wonder. Why doesn't he tell Leading Man to raise his voice, show more expression and energy? Other actors' abilities fall somewhere in between. My own performance is uncertain; I get no advice as to how to improve it. When the play opens and I get a good review I'm pleased but also surprised; I don't feel as if I've earned it.

My eureka moment came when Emma King-Farlow of Shadow Road Productions directed me in my own one-man play, Angel. It was a mistake on my part. I was producing four of my plays for the 2012 Solo Festival under the rubric Loss, and didn't have the time to focus on my own role. On stage I lacked confidence and forgot lines. Luckily the performance was not reviewed. However, the goals and process of directing remained with me. What is the play about? Who is this character? What does he want? What does each line mean? What is going through the character's head to make him say those words at that moment? What are the emotions or the memory that he is experiencing? The director's job is, on the surface at least, simple: understand and feel the text and help the actors convey those ideas and sentiments to the audience.

As I continued to act I began to understand directors' different techniques. Some were primarily concerned with the overall look of the play - who stands where, when they move, the actiosn they make; they are creating a spectacle. Others are more concerned with interior lives - who are these people on stage, what do they think, what do they feel, whatmotivates them; it's the emotional and / or intellectual experience that the director is interested in, In my experience very few directors combined both. (An exception was the writer-director of a play I was in, who aimed to bring out both the interior and exterior lives of his characters; unfortunately his script was so full of inconsistencies that it undermined his vision.)

My first attempts at directing after my long-ago disastrous debut were three of my one-man plays, Angel, Now We Are Pope and Tadzio Speaks . . . , which I produced in London and at the Edinburgh Fringe. I pushed my long-suffering actors, Christophers Annus and Peacock, as far as they could go and came out of the experience with the confidence that yes, I knew what I was doing and yes, I could bring out the best in the actors that worked with me. Now I have taken on my first multi-cast production - J B Priestley's one-act play, The Rose and Crown for the Edinburgh Graduate Theatre Group. It's guaranteed one performance, at the Scottish Community Drama Association Festival in February, but if it does well, it will go on the next stage of the competition and might even get a longer run elsewhere.  But of that, more in a later post . . .

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