Sometimes it's the more memorable aspects of a production that sharpen your regret over the lack of directorial finesse. At the end of "The Women of Lockerbie" at the Actors' Gang last spring, I sat for a while in my car, unable to drive out of the parking lot. The soul-mauling shrieks of Kate Mulligan, who played a distraught New Jersey housewife whose son was killed in the 1988 Pan Am flight brought down by terrorists, and the persevering compassion of the Scottish women who were witnesses to the shocking tragedy, left me emotionally wrecked.
After I was able to consider the production with a cooler head, however, I remembered my frustration at the scattershot staging. The playing area was ill-defined, the actors never threaded into an ensemble, and there was little effort to find a compelling imagistic life for the piece. The pathos of Deborah Brevoort's powerful though problematic play managed to come through -- it's a devastating subject -- but the jerry-built production seemed cobbled together by a committee rather than guided by an assured, integrating sensibility.
With the rise of the director's theater, which exploded after the
breakthroughs of Artaud and Brecht, the new interpretive artistry became for certain auteurs not a means to an end but an end in itself -- a development that only exacerbated the rising tension over whose show it was anyway. Were directors now assuming authorship? Many playwrights bitterly complained that they were being rewritten, while actors often bristled at the way they were being trampled by despots who were more concerned with creating dazzling stage images than with nurturing human truth.
In America, the director's theater has been in decline since its heyday in the '60s, '70s and '80s with Andrei Serban, JoAnne Akalaitis and Peter Sellars, to name just a few. Stage directors of every stripe have been implicitly on parole ever since, though of course everyone in the theater community just adores them and would love to join them on their next project, kiss, kiss. Send a script and maybe they can rearrange that voice-over.
This back story may partly account for the attitudes and animosities that continue to charge the rehearsal hall. It may also help us better understand the bias of a largely actor-dominated theatrical landscape. Is there any city in the world that has more artistic directors that are actors? And is there any major theatrical capital that treats the art of directing as such an afterthought?
My thinking on the subject is fairly straightforward: Playwrights and actors constitute the building blocks of theater, but directors guide the art form into the future. Without their innovative influence, the stage tends to revert to its trunk of shopworn tricks. What's more, as the team commanders of synergy, they provide a basic check on the delusion that any one contribution is greater than the collaborative whole. I really don't want to sit through another unresonant directorial shuffling of Shakespeare (a "Macbeth" with UFOs, a Hamlet as a ganja-smoking Jamaican dude, both of which I've suffered though), but I have even less interest in seeing an uncaptained ship of actors perform O'Neill, Shaw or one of the other canonical playwrights "straight."