Being an artist is incredibly fulfilling and exhausting. Performing takes energy and our most invaluable instruments (our voices and bodies) are not infallible. It takes dedication, time, precision, and persistence to create worthwhile theatre and a director can end up feeling drained of their creative juices at many points during the process. The best way I have found to recharge these creative juices is to be open to all ideas and just say YES. Saying “yes” to scary questions is something that is drilled into the brains of young performers.
Casting Director: Do you tap dance?
Actor With Zero Tap Training: Yes.
Casting Director: Can you tumble?
Actor Who Somersaulted Once in Kindergarten: Absolutely.
Casting Director: How's your cockney accent?
Actor Who Has Watched A Ricky Gervais Comedy Special: Tip top, Gov’nah!
When I was in my early twenties and in my final semester of college I auditioned for a production because the theatre department required all seniors to audition but I knew there wasn’t a role for me in the show. So I was surprised when the theatre manager called me on casting day. He asked me if I would be their stage manager and I can still remember standing in the kitchen at my dad’s house, about to politely decline, when my dad interrupted and told me to say yes. I told him I had no idea how to be a stage manager and he pointed out that the theatre department had seen my resume and knew I was inexperienced so they had to have other reasons for offering me the job. Good point, Dad. So after a brief hesitation, I said YES and that one decision has made a monumental impact on my theatre career. The skills I developed as a stage manager helped me have the confidence to say YES to my first directing job, my first conservatory director job, my first job as a college professor and now my decision to go back to school and getting my teaching credentials. Saying YES and taking that risk has made me artist I am today and I am determined to find ways to provide opportunities for my students to say YES!
In my opinion, the best directors allow inspiration to come from their cast and their creative staff. Collaboration can be magical if everyone is committed to telling the same story and willing to put their personal egos aside. It is helpful to arrive to the rehearsal room well prepared with an understanding of the script, score, story, and purpose of the production but I find that when I take the time to get to know my cast and encourage them to explore what personal connections they can find to their characters, the acting choices are effortless and so much more authentic than anything I could have crafted on my own. Remember, budding Divas, you are the vessel for the character and you must allow yourself to be involved in the process. Being YOU on stage is far more interesting and brave than pretending to be someone else. Luckily, I’ve been blessed to direct some courageous young performers this summer (and work with some awesome and fearless professional artists) and the results have been so rewarding for me as an artist and an educator.
I’m currently directing a production of Bring It On at Hillbarn Conservatory Theatre and have had the opportunity to say YES to some truly incredible ideas. Mounting a production with an existing script means we are often married to staging and acting choices that worked for the Broadway production but are not exactly the best fit for ours. We find creative ways to stay within the boundaries of the script but allow our actors the freedom to make their own character choices. There are ways to personalize a performance without changing a word in the script. In this production our actress playing Bridget is wearing Heelys (like sneakers but with wheels!) and every entrance, cross, and exit now tell a very specific story. This minor costume decision has drastically improved the role and all I had to do as a director was say YES to my actor.
Other personal choices are subtler but just as effective. Our actor who plays Randall came up with a really awesome costume element that enhances his story but most of the audience probably won’t even notice. Randall has a crush on the new girl Campbell (yes, like the soup) so my actor made the choice to wear Campbell Soup Chuck Taylors during Act 2. The actor had those in his own wardrobe! In fact, the choice came up organically while he and I were discussing shoe options. This choice is one of my favorite YES moments because while it isn’t something that makes a huge impact on the audience, it makes an impact on my actors. The actress playing Campbell gets to choose when she notices Randall’s shoes, the actor playing Randall gets to wonder if she has noticed, the rest of the cast chooses when or if they notice the shoes. Everyone is alive onstage and making choices that support the story. YES!
Working on a YES production means that everyone takes ownership of the art. We are all sitting at the creative table and personally invested in the outcome. The actors are alive onstage in truly authentic ways because they are given the freedom to make nuanced choices in the moment that support the story but might surprise their scene partners.
But the best part of collaborative productions is that ultimately it is more enjoyable to work on a show where the cast, crew, and creative team are equals because everyone has more FUN. And if you’re not having fun working in the theatre then WHAT ARE YOU EVEN DOING?! Go be an accountant, Karen. Theatre is for having fun.
So I encourage you budding Divas to say YES to scary opportunities. And to my fellow teaching artists, be sure to provide ample opportunities for our students to stretch those muscles. I guarantee you won’t regret it!