All’s hell but ends well: Reflections of a first-time director

MATT BENTLEY
CULTURE EDITOR

Prologue

The audience files in. As the play starts, someone forgets a line. The stage falls uncomfortably silent. The audience begins to shout at the actor. Then, they attack the director. How could he allow these actors to go on when they were clearly not ready? They then question his decisions. “A wall? Just a wall? Not barrells?” the crowd jeers. “Those costumes? That blocking?”

They are shouting at me, ridiculing me. I wake up sweating. This is not the first nightmare I have had regarding our show. And it will not be the last.

I never feel stressed about a show, mostly because I do not care what the other people do, really. As long as I hit my cues and marks and do not forget a line, I am happy. But, this is a new kind of stress. I do not just care about myself. Everyone else’s problems are my problems. As I l try and fall asleep again, I do not understand why I did this to myself.

Act 1 Scene 1: Planning

I have worked with six directors in the last six years on a series of more than 20 projects at various schools and summer programs. Every director has a different style and gets different results. Some are overpowering, others very loose. One director never said anything unless asked a direct question by an actor. Some shouted out line readings during a rehearsal and expected immediate correction to be made.

I always noted what kind of director I wanted to have; that was the director I wanted to be.
I first read Rosencrantz and Guildenstern are Dead on a recommendation by my brother. I had never before laughed while reading a play. I wanted to put this on. When Head of performing Arts Buck Herron was looking for a play and asking former students for recommendations, I mentioned R+G. I knew ASL and Herron wouldn’t put it on; it’s a small cast and a very difficult play. So, in an offhand conversation with Co-Director Austin Price (’13), we decided to do the play ourselves.

We organized a schedule with Dean of Students Joe Chodl. We bought the rights to the play. All that is left to do was cast.


Act 1 Scene 2: Casting

Casting was a weird experience. I had always been on stage, being judged by a director, and now I found myself in the awkward position of looking at people and “deciding their fate,” as I used to joke. I didn’t really like it, because I knew the other side of it, so I tried to make it as comfortable as possible as Price and I read with potential cast members and discussed the play with them.

Ultimately, it was easy to make the decisions. After the first day of auditions, Price and I had ideas of the casting, and most were confirmed on the second day. We only needed two days.

Act 1 Scene 3: Rehearsals begin, and our first artistic decisions

I’ll admit we were disorganized in our approach to the play. Our cast originally tried to analyze the play, as we had done in Dramatic Literature class, but when that took too long, we moved on to rehearsals. All of our scheduling was thrown out the window, and we mostly just went with the flow, which was stupid of us and brought a lot of stress down the line.

A decision arose quite early as to the direction of the piece. Tom Stoppard, the playwright, loves his stage directions, especially his pauses. His best directions include “Pause. Beat. Sit. Long pause,” or “Hiatus,” or “A light, moon lantern?… light.” Included in these, many of his stage directions directly make fun of Hamlet, such as “Hamlet enters weighing up the pros and cons of making his quietus,” directly making light of “To be or not to be.” We needed to find a way to have “To be or not to be” happen on the side of the stage without any words. What directions would we listen to, and what would we ignore?

Additionally, Stoppard is very particular with his blocking. He tells people exactly where to go, stand, sit, when to move, etc. I prefer to be a bit more loose form in blocking. So, we worked with our cast to find a middle ground between Stoppardian rigidity and my natural movements.

The script was just too long, and our cast was not big enough to have all the characters, so cut 30 minutes from the two-hour play. A scene between Claudius and Ophelia was cut. Most of both Rosencrantz and Guildenstern’s long monologues were pared down to bare essentials. The character of “Soldier” was eliminated.

Act 1 Scene 4: Personal struggles

Personally, I was in an awkward spot. I was directing and had one of the three leading roles. This meant that I constantly had to look on stage with a third eye, being part of the scene, and yet also thinking about everybody else’s character choices and blocking. Price was excellent at helping out with this, and I could not have done this alone. Often, I would be caught up in a scene, and then I would see a note and totally break character. This brought the play to a screaming halt. On more than one occasion, I was asked by an actor how they thought a scene went, and I responded with: “I don’t know how that went, I was acting.”

Act 2 Scene 1: Set, Props and Costumes

I had never really thought about costumes, set or lighting for any other show, so I did not really know what to do. But now I was forced to learn. I spent time assuming they would just happen. As a result, our set was lacking, and we didn’t have many props. We grabbed a chair and a mirror from the working set of The Portrait of Dorian Gray, and decided that that was enough. For props, we went into the weapons cupboard two weeks before the show, and dug around to find a few old rapiers.

Costumes was the gift that kept on giving. After going to three different stores, I booked an appointment with the Royal Shakespeare Company. When I got off the Tube in Stratford I called the RSC to ask for directions. They sounded confused on the other end and told me that they were actually in Stratford-upon-Avon. Eventually we decided on a more minimalist costumes to match our minimalist set. This is a workshop, after all.

Act 2 Scene 2: Rehearsals continue

As rehearsals continued, I became more and more nervous. This is not going as well as I had hoped. People do not do the right thing. People miss their cues. They forget their blocking. I make mistakes; my lines are a bit of a mess.

Price is good for support usually, but he was on honor orchestra two weeks before the show. I was alone with these cretans. Little is achieved for a week, which leads me to panic. I could not sleep. I could not focus on school work.

I tried being an aloof director, allowing actors to make their own decisions, while guiding them, so everything would feel more natural. I wanted them to make choices, and they often struggled to. We would be doing a scene, and people expected me to jump in and take a more active role. As a result, I became more controlling and micro-managing. I retained the tricks I had learned from other directors to help people develop characters. I worked on specific words with Rosencrantz. We put Rosencrantz in a box of sorts for her speech about being dead in a box.

Act 2 Scene 3: What director I became

I tried to be a nice director, and hoped I came across as one. Although I would occasionally shout at the cast for missing a cue we had just worked on for 20 minutes, I always tried to be respectful to outside of school commitments. I occasionally had to tell someone what a line meant.

But I finally realized the merit of a controlling director. I did not want to be a dictator, but the occasional shout was used to keep people in line. I ended up giving people, although reluctantly, line readings and directions of exactly what to do and where to go.

Act 2 Scene 4: Tech

I have been through a lot of tech rehearsals, the long process whereby the lights are set. The show is run from lighting cue to lighting cue. When we get to a cue, we stop the scene and usually spend five minutes determining what the lights will be for this moment. There is some argument and discussion between the lighting manager and the director. Tech rehearsals have taken from two hours to the infamous 12 hour tech rehearsal for The Drowsy Chaperone last year.

Price and I arrived early in the morning to work through lights just with stage manager Christine Rudolph, who ran the show for us. It took us about two hours to set the lights for the measly 25 cues (to put this in context, Drowsy had upwards of 200). When the actors arrived, we rapidly ran cue-to-cue, a process that only took two hours for us.

Tech was awesome. Sitting in the lighting booth, Price asked for upstage light to be a blue and downstage to be a warmer red. Rudolph’s fingers ran across the various levels, and in half a minute, the stage transformed. This process, which is usually purely boring, was stressful but eventually helped our show begin to look like a proper one.

Tech has an interesting effect on people. Somehow, once lights are shining, everything is taken more seriously. Our first rehearsal with costumes helped clarify the play.
There was only one thing left to do: Perform. I took a deep breath. I barely slept the night before our first show.

Act 2 Scene 5: The show

The show premiered on Wednesday March 13. I tried not to think about it during school. When the play started, I relied on instinct. I knew the play so well, and the blocking and lines came naturally. It took five minutes for the audience to begin laughing. It was a small crowd, roughly 50 people, but we did a good job. A few, minor things went wrong, but we quickly moved past them. No cues were missed. Everything that had gone wrong before went well.

At the end of the show, the applause was all the more gratifying; this was our creation.
Usually when you act, you are just proud for yourself, but now I was proud of everyone onstage. The next day, our call time was 4:30 again. We worked through a couple cues. Price gave a speech backstage. We realized we hadn’t distributed programs.

At the last minute we set up a camera in the back row to film it. I calmed down Rosencrantz, who panicked she would trip over the wall. The audience filed in.

Minor things went wrong again, but I stopped caring; by the final show, I was not the director. Instead, I was another actor, giving it everything I had. Three months of work culminated in applause without bows, and one young girl’s loud exclamation, “Oh! They’re dead,” which left me giggling backstage. I was given a signed poster by the cast. I thanked them for everything. I walked away.

Epilogue: My future

I realized now that directing is both an art and a skill. I used to think it was easy, but it is very difficult. I have a great deal of respect for the directors I have worked with, and what they have been able to do. It is still an avenue I am interested in, but a bit more wary about. I want to be a director and an actor now.