This autumn, I directed a show. It’s something I’ve wanted to do again for a long time — there was a period in my life when I thought I wanted to be a director, and when I returned to grad school, I did so with the ultimately failed ambition to carry on doing creative as well as scholarly work. There were things about the process that, it turns out, are a lot like riding a bike: rehearsal, for one. Not that I’ve ever been, or am, an especially accomplished bicyclist; but I discovered that I could still stay upright without flailing too wildly. (It helps that working with actors and teaching aren’t completely unrelated activities.) That was a pleasant surprise. What I hadn’t anticipated, though, was how profoundly at odds my work as a director would be with my work as a critic. In fact, directing pretty much broke me as a critic, and I’m still on the mend.
First, there is the relationship with the audience. The show I worked on was conceived as a workshop production in the sense that we wanted to hear from each evening’s audience about what worked for them and what didn’t — the show will have a future life, and we wanted to try out what we had. So we got a lot of direct feedback in Q&As every night. As a critic, I’m quite comfortable arguing about productions — and I’m quite comfortable disagreeing with other critics and other audience members about what a show was trying to do, and whether or not it succeeded. That mode of discourse is what comes naturally to me now: you listen, you agree or disagree, you enlist arguments and evidence for your views, you persuade, you adjust your own views, you reason things out. As the director, sitting in front of an audience we had asked to voice their opinions, none of those strategies were available to me: sure, I could have told someone that they were wrong, that they had missed crucial points, that they hadn’t been paying attention — but to what end? To fail them? To persuade them that the show they saw wasn’t actually the show we put on? To ask them to reinvent the experience they’d had? What I was struggling to come to terms with is the difference between argumentation — where someone can be wrong, and can be shown to be wrong — and experience — where one can’t be wrong or right, or where being wrong or right doesn’t matter. It’s a truism (most of the things I will be saying in this post are truisms): any work of art, but especially a piece of theatre, has to stand on its own feet. It has to speak for itself. Go litel book go, and all that.
There is a gratifying side to this, too: when audiences absolutely got what we were trying to do. When someone seemed to recognize all the nuances. When moments I really wanted to land seemed to land, and were described as such during the Q&A. But that gratification was quite short-lived. How could it be that some people seemed so well-attuned to the show, and others, no less perceptive, no less intelligent, could not get on the same wavelength at all? It would be easy to say that those viewers just weren’t being attentive enough, but what if they were right? What if the others simply shared my own distorted perspective, whereas the people who criticized the show actually saw it for what it was? As a critic, I could have those discussions — I could offer alternative points of view, could draw on evidence, could make arguments for my interpretation. And perhaps I could persuade some spectators that how they saw the show wasn’t doing justice to the piece. But even so, I couldn’t change their experience of the evening. At most, I might be able to give them a sense of the experience they might have had if they had seen the performance I saw. But as a director, I had no arguments other than the show itself.
What I learned from this process is that there may be ways of tweaking a production to increase the likelihood that more audience members will get it, but that ultimately, there is no way to control the kind of experience people will have — that you can’t even come close to guaranteeing that people will see the show you want them to see, the show you think you’ve put on. I think I’ve learned that, anyway. But I don’t like it. I’ve realized that I have a hard time letting disagreements go. I know that it would be a perfectly fine response to say “I understand what kind of show you wanted to see — I’m sorry we weren’t interested in producing that kind of show.” Or “I’m sorry this aspect of the show overwhelmed everything else for you to such an extent that you weren’t able to see other, equally important aspect — but I can’t change that.” But I can’t quite do it. People will see what they can see, want to see, are ready to see — and they will respond in whatever ways their personal, local, specific circumstances make accessible to them on the night. I know all those things. And yet, I found the criticisms far more important, far more troubling, far more vexing, than I was comforted or thrilled by the positive perspectives, and not because I thought the critical voices were inevitably right; what kept me up, churning, what still has me waking in the middle of the night, are responses that I, as a critic, could have argued away but that I, as director, had to accept as an audience’s genuine experiences.
Coming to terms with how negligible the category of correctness is in the theatre: that was tough, and it remains a work in progress. It’s not that the critical viewers were right and I was wrong; it’s that their experience of the show was as authentic, in its own terms, as mine, and that I, as director, had no way of modifying after the fact the experience they undeniably had. If I’m having trouble accepting that, it’s not just because it seems like such a defeatist admission — it’s also that as an intellectual position, it’s so radically at odds with the work of the critic or the scholar. (And if thought through to its logical conclusion, also an utterly narcissistic perspective: if all responses are ultimately subjective, and all equally valid, then no director or performer has any kind of responsibility to the audience or the show at all and can do whatever he or she wants. And I don’t think that makes sense either.)
For me as a critic, this was a sobering experience for another reason, though: I’d always understood why theatre people might not want to hear negative responses to their work. Who does, after all? But I’d often been puzzled by muted reactions to positive reviews, to in-depth analyses, to detailed appraisals. Not anymore. What, after all, is there to say in response to someone who accurately describes what you were trying to do? And what is there to say in response to someone who missed what you were going for, but saw something else to get excited about in your work? It’s gratifying to hear such things — but beyond gratitude, what can one say in a format in which argument isn’t the currency?
Beyond all that, however, beyond the unbridgeable gap between my critic’s brain and my director’s brain, something happened to me as a critic as I sat through a public dress rehearsal and four consecutive performances of our show: the realization of yet another truism. It really is different every night. Of course I knew that. I’d experienced it with other shows I’d directed. Even in the decade or so that I’ve observed theatre almost exclusively from the audience side, I have obviously been aware that no performance is the same night after night. But what I hadn’t truly grasped is just how different different is. How much a single actor’s choice can change the tone of an entire evening. How much a deliberate or accidental shift of emphasis early on in the show affects everything that comes after — not (just) because the actor herself and/or the other performers are aware of it, but because of how the show as a whole looks and feels as a consequence. And how little any of this is under anyone’s control. I am certain that I would have written quite distinct reviews of the five performances I saw, and rightly so, as they were five quite distinct shows.
Now, I should hasten to say that this is not because the actors I was working with were unusually ill-prepared — far from it. There were hardly any textual slips (normal as those are). Every actor’s performance, broadly speaking, was fully in line with what we had worked on in rehearsal. But moment-to-moment, in details, they were differently nuanced every night; and in their sum, those nuances amounted to a very differently shaded picture every evening. The length of a hug, the length of a silence, the quality of a gaze, the speed of a cross, the placement of a hand on a knee, the loudness of a shout, the exact distance between two bodies, the intensity of a smile: worlds and worlds of difference. Like I said: a truism. But as I sat there, night after night, and responded differently, night after night, and then heard audiences respond similarly differently, night after night, my critic’s brain slowly despaired: what exactly are we writing about when we write about shows? Is there a there there at all? How do you argue about something when the something you’re talking about is in so many ways a different thing than the something your interlocutor saw on a different night?
The insight as such isn’t news. It’s trite, in fact. But experiencing that difference viscerally, over and over again? That was unsettling.
And then, another truism, also something I already thought I knew, but most unsettling of all: what happens to a show as it becomes a show. How much we gained and lost during rehearsal, how much detail we filled in and discarded, how often something seemed clear and settled only to disappear again, how many things remained unsaid and unexplored, how many decisions only were made on the home stretch, how much happened in the last few days before opening, despite an unusually long rehearsal process. How much the energy shifted as we got closer to the end of the process. How some long-established decisions were thrown out, more or less impulsively. How some things suddenly took on a dynamic of their own. How a number of huge choices only fell into place a day or two before the end. How clear it was to me what I would have changed if I had had a day or two longer — and how completely unavailable that clarity was to me a day or two earlier. How much developments in the process built on one another, and how unpredictable subsequent developments were. How wide a gap there was between interpretative perspectives or conceptual notions and detail-by-detail, beat-by-beat acting and staging choices. How much happened in the rehearsal room that never ended up on stage — and how crucial those vanished things were all the same. How much we forgot. How much we learned. How differently individual actors respond to the same challenges. How differently the same actors respond to the same challenges at different points in the process. How much I wanted to continue rehearsing. How arbitrary “opening” is as a cut-off point. How utterly necessary that cut-off point is.
Sounds great, right? Well, for me as a scholar, it’s a bit troubling. Because it makes the relationship between rehearsal and performance feel so… mushy. Ill-defined. Slippery. Where is intention in all of this? Design? Planning? Concept? Meaning? I am really dissatisfied with performance analysis as a standard mode of theatre scholarship, but given this state of affairs, where else is there to turn? Much as I love the rehearsal process, as an observer or a participant, what is there to talk about, if the relationship between rehearsal hall and stage is as profoundly chaotic as I am increasingly convinced it is? (I should say that I insisted a lot on actorly freedom in this project, which obviously left more room for change from day to day than may be permissible in the standard Canadian three-week rehearsal process; but even in more rigorously goal-driven rehearsals I have observed, I have often felt that the most exciting stuff happens before a show gets on stage — that building a performance often means levelling peaks and filling in valleys, but that that process therefore necessarily involves the reduction of excitement as well as of indifference.) Or perhaps rehearsal is the only thing we should talk about. If shows are different night after night anyway, why not focus on the private show that is the rehearsal? If coherence is established differently every night, if what holds a show together is a differently constituted assemblage of varying nuances, if everything is in flux all the time, then why not shift our attention to the moment in the performance process when that flux is not just acknowledged but positively embraced?
So, broken as I am as a critic, I’m trying to put the pieces back together. I imagine that once the visceral experience of the truth of all those truisms becomes a memory, and the realizations fade back into widely acknowledged clichés, I’ll go back to going about my business more or less as I did before. It is, after all, an art of transience, theatre. Right?
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- Trump, Surrogatism, and the Death of TV Journalism
- The Plough and the Stars (O’Casey; dir. Sean Holmes) Abbey Theatre Dublin, at Canadian Stage, Toronto, Sept 2016
- Young Chekhov (trans. David Hare; dir. Jonathan Kent) National Theatre, London; Aug. 2016 (and also some The Plough and the the Stars)
- Prose and Verse in the 1608 King Lear Quarto: An Alternative Explanation
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Holger Syme's work is licensed under a Creative Commons Attribution-NonCommercial 3.0 Unported License.
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