"You may have people in your life who don't expect much from you — who do not value your potential and your input, just because of your age. I am not one of those people." If you’re a young actor who’s been in one of our theatre productions, you've probably heard me say this at our very first rehearsal. From the first day, I tend to speak to young actors as though they’re professionals, with opinions and ideas that matter. And, if all goes well, by the end of rehearsals, the actors will own the show as much as I do, because that's when the magic happens.
I’ve seen the other approaches. Heck, I’ve TRIED the other approaches - the ones where the director has the young actors do exactly what he or she says. And if that director is brilliant and creative, the show will shine, and the cast will feel great about being a part of a great production.
But I want them to do more than mimic my intent, because I want them to take it further than they thought they could. So I'll start them off with a concept for the character, and ask them to develop their character/s from the text and the show’s concept and make those characters their own. From the star of the show to a member of the chorus - every one of them should present fully-developed characters, with their own way of walking and talking and their own traits and intentions.
BUILDING THAT PLAY ONE CHARACTER AT A TIME
While directing, I provide all the tools professionals use, i.e. Method acting, emotional recall, etc. Then, as rehearsals progress, I solicit their input and ideas. If the idea serves the character and story, develops the relationships within the play or furthers a plot, then I’m going to want to try to work it in. When you let young actors approach a play in this way, actors start finding relationships and scenario possibilities that I, as director, might have missed.
And if they’ve come up with an idea that just won’t work, I'll say so, but I’ll say WHY… And I still want them to know the suggestion was respected and appreciated. When I became a published author years ago, I had to defend my story choices to an editor. And if I couldn’t explain why something was there, I knew I had to let it go -- this is what the publishing world calls, “being willing to kill your babies.” So what if I spent five hours crafting that paragraph? If it doesn’t develop a character or relationship, further the plot, or provide a set up for a later payoff, I should let it die. Same rules apply on the stage. Clearly this requires your director to know the play inside and out. But if a director doesn’t prepare and has a tiny ego, they’ll be the first to snap at an actor with a good suggestion. Yes, I've also seen that plenty of times. I have to be confident of my choices as a director but I also know I may not always have the best idea in the room. Yes, I have a creative brain. But why wouldn’t I want to take advantage of a much larger creative brain? A group of brilliant young people working together? And the big payoff of this "Corporate Brain" process is actor and cast ownership. But wait... there's more
WHO'S IDEA IS IT, ANYWAY?
Another lovely byproduct is that talking through an actor’s idea leads to further understanding for everyone, i.e., "Yes, that’s a great concept. I can see it builds on the prior jokes. Only problem is, if we do that one more time it'll be the fourth time we've played on the same sort of joke, and now you’ve crossed the 'Comedy Rule of Three.' You won't get the laugh you're hoping for.”
Now if it’s a truly great idea, then maybe as a director it’s at this moment I put my ego in check and realize this hilarious idea SHOULD be used and it should replace the absolutely hilarious thing I came up with for the second scene (See above). And if I’m really, really tired after a long rehearsal, I’ll sometimes ask the cast for suggestions on how best to work in this idea.
THE METHOD IN THE MADNESS
Before you think my rehearsals devolve into a free-for-all of emotional "sharing time,” I should point out ideas are solicited only at certain times in the process. Creative input falls mostly in the beginning of the rehearsal schedule, and actors know to share their ideas only after we run a scene or an act.
Another important rule of thumb: actors do not get to suggest what other actors can do. Every actor should be focused on their own characters and the actions, feelings, background, etc., for their character. Focus on their own characters may lead an actor to suggest a new concept for a scene with another actor, but they should never simply tell another actor to “do it this way.” That would be called directing. So I encourage actors to tell me if they want to try something new with their scene, and we might give it ago.
SO... "DO WHAT I TELL YOU" or "DO WHAT YOUR CHARACTER TELLS YOU"?
In the end, the "Do what I tell you" approach to directing gives young actors a sense of accomplishment in learning and doing exactly as the director tells them. But that asks them only to make the required effort and nothing more. They don't need to challenge themselves to think about their choices or the process, or engage their creativity. And they know the same director can do the exact same show with another group of actors the next year.
But I want actors to walk away knowing they put themselves into that show - that parts of a scene changed because their character saw something new in it. Their character became more interesting, because they found something no one else had found before. And, in the end, there will NEVER be another show like this one, because they came up with that concept, they made those choices, they earned that characterization, they came up with that idea, and those scenes belong to them. In fact, they own that play.
The tip-off came when the mother of a friend overheard me telling my friends what to do - and angrily complained to my mother I was being too bossy.
The woman just didn't understand. It was my JOB to create stories for all our Barbie dolls, and this was at my friends' requests. And, quite frankly, I was in demand. I'd create sets and plot lines, and we'd act out scenes for eight hours at a time. Dead serious about character development, too -- which isn't easy when your actors are plastic-injected. And I took it as a personal challenge to get my friends to like the Meg doll as much as they liked their Barbies. My solution? Create a great story line just for Meg. And did we need another guy doll? No problem. I grabbed my brother's G.I. Joe. Sure, Joe was shorter than Barbie, but he had way better pecs than Ken.
Also had another skill that made me the hit of the neighborhood: I was the only one who could do guy voices for the male dolls. Quite a skill for a five year old.
Fast forward to my excruciatingly boring years at an all-girl Catholic elementary school. There my best friend and I created what we called, "The Story”, used mostly as a device to daydream about boys. She and I would trade off telling "The Story” - an uncomplicated tale of two fabulously well-dressed, jet-setting female spies who traveled the world on the arms of their James Bondian boyfriends. One day I stopped the story line to pass it off to her to continue – just as we always had, and instead, she said, "No, Meredith. You keep telling it. You're the real story teller."
That was an important day.
My big break came when the school offered our 4th grade class a chance to produce its own talent show. I immediately sat down and wrote a play, then cast my fellow classmates, directed my friends through rehearsals, and brought it to the stage. It was a disaster…. And it was all my fault. Classic rookie error: I’d cast myself in the lead. Figuring I’d written the lines, I was certain I’d remember them. Yeah. No.
From that I learned I had a lot to learn. Also learned I really, really liked directing humans. They had their own voices, could make their own character choices, and those bendable arms and legs were a definite plus.
As I grew older, I developed another passion: history, Figuring I’d have at a chance at a normal income, I chose a History major at college, and, after graduation began to work at a small museum that was once a tavern. When the staff was asked to create public programming, I naturally wrote a play about tavern life and asked my college friends to join me. Best casting decision I ever made was asking a tall redhead named Chuck McMath to play the Stage Coach Driver. He said yes. And a year later, I said yes.
When Chuck and I moved to Loudoun County, I began creating living history programs for area museums, schools and libraries. Through our son’s preschool class, I met Laurie Farnsworth - the most amazing seamstress I've ever had the pleasure to know. Laurie and her friend, Dolly Stevens, had just formed a theatre company: The Growing Stage. Would I like to help with costuming? Indeed I would.
While working with The Growing Stage, I spent a lot of time observing Dolly's brilliant directing techniques. Then Dolly hired Tom Sweitzer out of Shenandoah to direct one of her shows, and I watched Tom's brilliant directing process. Then Tim Jon — a Loudoun Co. Radio DJ who'd spent eighteen years of his life as a professional actor — started doing theatre in the area, and I watched his brilliant process. I appreciated every minute of these unofficial internships. Each director was unique, but each one was generous with their time and talents, and each changed the lives of everyone with whom they worked.
In the meantime, I kept writing plays. There was one play I was particularly happy with: it was based on true stories from the pages of Loudoun County Civil War history. Had no idea what would happen to it, but I knew it was time to try it on the stage… as long as I stayed out of the cast.
And then Dolly Stevens took a chance on me and decided to direct my Civil War play, All for the Union (then known as The Waterford Girls). Dolly had been the first Musical Theatre graduate from Shenandoah University, and she was the teacher of my first real acting class. From Dolly I learned things about commanding space on the stage, effective blocking, and an entire goodie bag worth of acting techniques. One day during rehearsals for my play, Dolly watched a young actress who kept crying during an emotional monologue. She stopped her and said, "Listen. If you cry, the audience doesn't have to… and they won't. But if you almost cry, the audience will cry for you, and then you have them." Dolly was dead right, and I've used that technique ever since.
Then there's Tom Sweitzer - another theatre force. From watching Tom, I learned other important things, like how to layer and build rehearsals — how to take into account where each actor is in the development of their character and give them one step at a time to work on (instead of asking for everything at once). Tom had been working on a musical based on his childhood in Altoona, PA. I was thrilled when he asked me write the book using his concept and outline. When we began rehearsal for Porches, I remember speaking to him about a particular actor, asking him why he wasn't pushing this person more. Tom said, "He's not ready. I'll bring that to him when he's ready." And he was spot on. That blew me away.
And from Tim Jon I learned how to approach Shakespearean text. I have a thing for the Bard — been in love with his work since 5th grade, when my best friends and I acted out the scene with Juliet, Lady Capulet and Nurse. I was Nurse. Our teacher, Mrs. Romito, taught us how to interpret the text, and endeared her to us forever by explaining all the dirty jokes (Years later I learned Mrs. Romito had been a professional actor. Did not surprise me at all, and I am so thankful she took the time to share her talents with us). Fast forward: Through Tim Jon’s company, Not Just Shakespeare, we learned the professional actor's approach to Shakespearean text... and several more of the Bard's dirty jokes.
From Tim I also learned actors' preparation and the efficacy of improvisation. Tim has a deep respect for an actor's process, and he excels in teaching actors how to build three-dimensional characters. Tim's use of improv encouraged me to experiment over the years, and that's been a gift. Around this time, I was taking Master Improv Classes with Tom Sweitzer, so, together, these two have had a huge influence on how I use improv while directing.
For instance, when actors over-focus on remembering their lines or stage movement, improv is a great way to shake them loose. When I was directing my play, Arms and the Highlander*, we were working through the first scene - where a young woman was beginning to fall in love with a British soldier. Colonial soldiers were looking for him, and when they came knocking at the door, the British soldier pulls out a knife, preparing to defend himself. Instead, the young woman pushes him behind a door and lets in the searching soldiers. It was crucial the actress caught the gist of the moment, because the audience wouldn’t be able to see the British soldier's tension — they could only see the young woman's face.
But there was no tension in the room at all.
So I stopped rehearsal and asked the British soldier to act out what would happen if those Minuteman found him hiding behind the door. Okay. Granted there was no real knife, but they got into a serious brawl that ended as Minuteman disconnected the British soldier's thoughts from his actions.
The actress got it, and played the tension from there on - and she was brilliant, and the scene began to glow. Improv once more saved the day.
Another huge influence has been the actors themselves. When you have a talented actor, there are times you just stand back in awe... and learn as much as you can from them. Without question, the actor who's influenced me most was my own mother... that beautiful woman who happily defended me from my friend's mother when I was five years old. Maxine Bean was an amazing actor - a child radio star in St. Louis, Missouri, and the star of many college productions at Grinnell. After my father passed, she came to live with us in Loudoun and worked with me in area theatre: favorite roles include the "School Marm" in Dolly and Tom's, The Musical Adventures of Tom Sawyer, and the starring role as "Miss Violet" in Tom's and my Porches. She was incredibly generous on stage - this is a little hard to describe, but every actor who worked with her knows exactly what I mean. But she was deeply serious about the craft, and so there were limits to her generosity. In one production, an actor suddenly stole a line from her - and took the huge laugh my mother's character was meant to receive. Maxine didn't lose a beat on stage, but when she got backstage with that actress, she looked her straight in the eye and growled, "Never do that again"... and she never did.
For me, directing has always been a heady mix of my passion for storytelling, and the constant pursuit of learning - earning how to be a better writer, a more helpful director, and a more creative producer. I’ve appreciated every director with whom I’ve worked, every class taken, every rehearsal attended, and every actor and crew member’s efforts. And I remain particularly grateful to all those friends from my old neighborhood who wanted me to boss them around. This one's for you.
* My adaptation of George Bernard Shaw's Arms and the Man.
A person who publishes a book willfully appears before the populace with his pants down. If it is a good book nothing can hurt him. If it is a bad book nothing can help him. – Edna St. Vincent Millay
So why in the world do authors do it? Why, after her one-hundred and first rejection letter, did Madeleine L’Engle take A Wrinkle in Time to the hundred and second publishing house? Are writers simply arrogant? Patently optimistic? Grotesquely naive? Yes, yes, and yes. But the full truth is this: we write because we must.
We write, though the words go slipping through our fingers like wet soap; though the feelings of a girl living in 1863 are interrupted by a phone call; though the agent doesn’t want us; though the publisher let us go out of print; we write because we must. And when we visit bookstores and stare at the rows of name-brand writers whose publishing houses buy them shelf space and oodles of marketing, we weep at our pitiful condition.
But the act of writing always brings us back from the edge of the abyss.
Something begins as a single thought and eventually rises up to stare back at us fully formed — walking, talking, thinking, feeling — in a world created out of nothing. When we write, we’re a perfectly balanced ball spinning on the tip of God’s finger. Perpetual Motion. Time machine. Pleasure beyond description.
Arrogant? You bet. The sort of rollicking arrogance that comes from knowing the pen is mightier than the sword. Optimistic? Always. We are addicted to hope. Naive? Oh, yes. Entirely. The rejection letter is always a complete surprise.
Will we start again writing despite it? Of course we will.
Twenty years from now you will be more disappointed by the things that you didn’t do than by the ones you did do. So throw off the bowlines. Sail away from the safe harbor. Catch the trade winds in your sails. Explore. Dream. Discover. — Mark Twain
I was reading “Seven Life Changing Lessons You Can Learn from Mark Twain” and thought, Hey, IS my life, for pity’s sake.
My weird little theatre life.
I live somewhere between free and paid-for theatre, community theatre with cash or a poor man’s professional theatre, depending on your point of view. And Mark’s words turned out to be hilariously apt to this particularly form of organized chaos.
First Twain quote: “I have been through some terrible things in my life, some of which actually happened.” Thank you, Mark. For the pleasure of inhabiting another perspective for a time, actors will risk self-respect and criticism, face sleep deprivation and midnight terrors… just to enjoy living through some terrible things. And the things that actually happen? They feed into the actor’s art and enhance the richness of every character portrayed.
“Don’t go around saying the world owes you a living; the world owes you nothing; it was here first.” Ah. The actor who walks into auditions wanting a particular role… then argues with the director about their casting choices. Yes. That’s going to go over well; do try that. And then try auditioning again… somewhere else. Of course, he could also be describing life as a director. And, yes, I tell myself to get over it a lot, actually. And I better had, because…
“When people do not respect us we are sharply offended; yet in his private heart no man much respects himself.” I hate a bad review, but if I don’t leave room for improvement, what do I think I am, perfect? A ridiculous notion. Every really good actor I know doubts themselves, because they’re always reaching for perfection. Conversely when an actor has said (however shyly) they believe they’re good, nothing good has ever come of it.
Mr. Twain even has great advice for the actor and director’s technical processes: “The secret of getting ahead is getting started. The secret of getting started is breaking your complex overwhelming tasks into small manageable tasks, and then starting on the first one.” Spot on, sir. Spot on.
And when chaos descends — as it will, without fail, one to ten days before opening night - remember Mark’s words: “When angry, count to four. When very angry, swear.” Twain may not have given theatre a thought when writing these, but those words sure do come in handy to a thespian; yes they do.
Mark and Me
Should I turn my old books and manuscripts into Kindle-ing?
Years and years ago, when I first became a published author, I was content to believe all I would ever do is write book after book, and attend signings, speaking engagements and Book Clubs. A good life. A very good life. But then two things happened that changed everything:
1. A story came to me that begged to be turned into a play. It’s impossible to explain, other than to say that, instead of the characters wanting to be housed in a bookly habitat, they told me they would much prefer being brought to life. So I wrote a play for the first time in many years and a local company decided to produce it.
And I added “play writing” to my daily list.
2. My publisher disappeared. Specifically, the Editor who loved, loved, loved my work and promised to publish everything I sent her changed jobs two months after my books came out. And the new Editor was taking the company in a new direction and neatly rejected my next novel in the series. Well, more accurately he rejected the box it came in, because the envelope was never even opened. I knew I should get my manuscripts out there to another publisher, but there was something about theatre. Bringing those characters to life was amazing. And I loved what actors brought to the table – an ever-changing dynamic. So I decided to take a break from the publishing world.
And I moved “play writing” to the top of my daily list.
Years later, I manage my own production company, Run Rabbit Run. I work with fabulous people, do speaking and teaching engagements once in a while, and submit plays for production or go ahead and produce them myself. This is working well for me, but every once in a while I think about the characters in my unpublished books. If you’re a writer, you understand. They want to be heard, and sometimes they’ll whisper to you: “HEY, why don’t you trying getting PUBLISHED, again, JERK!” Or something like that… I try not to listen.
Then along came eBooks.
In the last year a sea change in publishing has occurred. Amazon appears to be calling most of the shots, and their Kindle platform is definitely calling 75% of the eBook shots. But still there’s that icky “self-publishing” thing, right? Well, apparently in the last year that’s changed too. In fact, the publishing process is being reversed as we speak: eBooks that sell well are being picked up for “real” publishing by the majors.
Hmm… Suddenly I’m looking like a pretty good bet here, because I…
– design websites and love to learn new internet tricks. I am, in fact, a Net Geek;
– love creating video promos, graphics and taking great photos;
– dig every aspect of marketing (my focus during my Masters in Arts Management studies);
– have a group of previously published works with solid reviews;
– never stopped writing, and so have a stack of unpublished manuscripts to send out, as well. Oh, and plays! And nonfiction! And… heyyyyy, this could work!
But now for the reality check: the eBook formatting process isn’t easy (a lot of people opt to hire someone to do this for them, and, after mucking around, we’ve been tempted), but I thank heaven daily for my Software Engineering husband, and it’ll get easier after the first one. Next problem: It’s true 99% of eBooks just don’t sell, but there’s no harm in trying, and I do appear to have better odds than some. Besides in this day and age, $20 is $20, know what I’m sayin’?
Lastly and best-ly? I’m one of those people who have ever and always appreciated being my own boss, and eBooks are giving me the chance to manage my own publishing experience. How can I say no to that?
Thus, I have decided: I will Kindle. And we will see.