Tuesday, August 04, 2009

The Pre-Critic

I’ve said before that I think stage directors don’t get enough credit. I’ve said this because I noticed only within the past few years that I’ve often been guilty of not recognizing or not acknowledging the tremendous work directors do. This hasn’t been a universal tendency; in fact, for me it tends to run either very hot or very cold. I’ll be enamored of the work of a director – like Rick St. Peter or Chase Kniffen, for instance – and so I’ll trumpet their triumphs nearly every chance I get. I won’t apologize for doing so because one of my true (one of my few…) pleasures as a reviewer is to dole out praise where I think it is deserved.

But I’m afraid that the impression that can sometimes be given is that productions where the director is not mentioned specifically just kind of spring into existence, the actors and technicians just doing their jobs and the pieces magically falling into place.

For instance, my last post mentioned “Driving Miss Daisy” and I had a little back-n-forth in the comments about the merits of the various actors. Neither I nor Mr./Ms. Anonymous brought up Joe Pabst who certainly must be commended for shepherding this production to success. As I mentioned below, I think it is easy for any of the characters in “DMD” to fall into caricature – crotchety old white woman, servile but proud black man, etc. For DMD to really succeed, these characters have to be real and it’s the job of the director to pull the reins when any of these really broad tendencies start to take over. Though they might not think of themselves this way, I think there are situations when a director has to be a sort of pre-critic, looking at a show the way a critic or an audience member will look at it, giving perspective and of course, imparting their own artistic vision.

Another tricky situation is a one-person show. It’s easy to think that when an actor is flying solo on stage, he’s been working that way all along. One actress who I respect tremendously, Jill Bari Organ (nee Steinberg), has always been exceedingly generous in her praise of Keri Wormald who directed her in “The Syringa Tree” and was similarly appreciative of Amy Berlin who did “Shirley Valentine.” As much as anyone else, she has opened my eyes to the true collaboration that happens between actor and director in situations like that.

Similarly, Scott Wichmann specifically gave kudos to Steve Perigard for his work on “Fully Committed;” I included one of his quotes in my piece on Scott a couple weeks back. There is no doubt that Scott does amazing work in this show but, perhaps even more succinctly than in ensemble shows where they may be some interactional correction of aberrant acting, it is also clear that Scott was guided by someone with a keen theatrical sensibility and a clear vision. As straight and true as a train may be, it'll jump the track if it doesn't have someone modulating the speed.

Beyond that, as anyone knows who has worked on a show, the director gives the final word on all aspects of a production and the good ones are aware of everything from the largest thematic issues to the smallest cut of a costume’s hemline. Another thing that I find kind of amazing about directors is most of the ones I know are among the least self-aggrandizing people in the theater world. They usually are uncommonly focused on getting the job done and, as Patti D’Beck recently told me, making everyone else look good. A somewhat unfortunate side-effect of this characteristic, however, is that when the reviews come out, or the blog posts get written, the director’s name does not get enough prominence. So this post is a small attempt to rectify that. Good work Joe and Steve with your recent dazzling successes, and retroactive kudos to all of the other directors I so often neglect. You are appreciated, if not always singled out.


JB said...

Great post Dave. I apprecaite you bringing this topic to the attention of everyone reading this blog - no man is an island - and it is nice to see the hard working, ofter overlooked, directors getting some well deserved praise.

joepabst said...

Thanks, Dave! It's no wonder that a Director's work is overlooked. It's often difficult, even in the shows I direct, to distinguish the Director's work from the actors'. Often, I think, "That's a brilliant moment!" -- but was it me who thought of it, or was it the actor's idea? Or was it the actor who INSPIRED me to think of it??

I guess this all speaks to my firm belief that Theatre is a collaborative art form. No single person is responsible for the success (or failure) of a production. I agree that the Director must take a critical view of his/her production, with the audience's experience firmly in mind. Hopefully, those things that the Director appreciates will be appreciated by others!

Thanks, by the way, for your recognition of Garet's work in "Daisy". You are right -- much praise has already been given to Joy & Jim. I don't think it took anything away from their stellar performances. And it was nice that Garet got some well-deserved praise!

eraserhead said...

In no particular order, five local directors that I think are outstanding in both artistic vision and collaborative style:

1. Amy Berlin
2. Bo Wilson
3. Andrew Hamm
4. Grant Mudge
5. James Ricks

This is just one man's list--I salute every individual taking a seat in the director's chair. Thanks, Dave, for recognizing them.