“It’s a simply marvelous play, but do you think there is a movie in it?”
– Successful film producer who shall remain nameless
The first original play I directed for the Cygnet Theatre Company was a beautiful piece called Star. It was a very dynamic play, which skipped back and forth from present day Toronto to Second World War Berlin. The playwright, Samantha Swan, painted a very large canvas, with about 40 scenes and 50 characters in the 90 minute play, taking place in dozens of locations, from cafe to bomb shelter, ocean liner to interrogation room, cattle car to war-torn fields.
Producers we happened to meet during this period admired the writing, but said without qualification that it would be impossible to mount because of its enormous scale. Swan was perplexed. She had written it to be performed by 6 actors, (5 if need be), with 2 chairs on an empty stage. Even I had difficulty imagining how this could be done. But she is smart, so I trusted her, and we mounted the play ourselves, with our own company.
My only real job as the director, I figured, was to bring the play intended by the playwright as fully to life as possible, with no clever bullshit showing off what a brilliant director I thought I was. I often wish more directors approached the work this way.
At that point in my life, I had seen many plays, mostly bad. But I had watched many more – untold thousands of hours – of film and TV. I had very little knowledge of stagecraft. So, directing was a real learning laboratory exercise for me. I knew only one thing for sure: not one moment of the play should be boring.
A couple of plays I’d seen in my life that were riveting from end to end, so it’s possible. Why strive for anything less?
From this simple goal flowed every other problem and solution. I believe it is the golden rule of storytelling – hold their interest.
You don’t actually need to be a genius to do this, but you do need to pay close attention to your audience. When you are telling someone a story one on one, you should be able to tell moment by moment whether they are interested in what you are saying. At some point we have all been held prisoner by someone with no concept of how boring he is, who talked at us rather than to us. This person should neither direct nor be invited to dinner.
As a director, you must be capable of being simply an attentive audience member during rehearsals. You have to be able to put aside all your ego, hopes, dreams, and anxieties, as they relate to the piece you are directing, often enough to get a sense of how the play will affect someone seeing it for the first time. Maybe that’s impossible, but you can get close. Then, after watching and listening, you put your director hat back on and assess what was boring, and what worked. Then you try whatever you can to make it better.