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.