One More Vivid Verbal Picture

One of my Cry-Baby actors has said to me several times recently, in regard to a piece of business or staging, "Well, you can decide once you're out front watching." Though they won't say it outright, I think it really makes our newer actors anxious -- or at least uncomfortable -- that I'm still playing piano and I'm not out front taking notes. But I've been making theatre this way for thirty years. Yes, I'm that old.

There are a lot of ways in which New Line just doesn't work the way a conventional, union theatre works. I've spent the last thirty years developing and tweaking the process we use. In some ways, we are very conventional, but in many ways, we're not.

Case in point. When we started New Line in 1991, I had to play piano for both rehearsals and performances because we couldn't afford to hire someone else to do it. After a few seasons, we were finally in a position to hire a pianist for performances, although I still played a show now and then if I really loved the score (like A New Brain and Hair). But it was so valuable for me to be free during Hell Week, to sit out front, take notes, and shape the work.

But even then, I was still playing rehearsal piano, as I do now. And though we could now afford (maybe) to hire someone else to play rehearsals, I don't want to. I love our process the way it is, though I assume we'll continue to tweak it over time. What I've discovered is that because I'm on the piano until the last two weeks of rehearsal, the actors enjoy a lot more freedom than they would otherwise. They get six full run-throughs before I start taking detailed notes. During my time on the piano, I'm awfully good at watching a fair amount of the show anyway (after all, I've been doing this since the early 1980s), but I can't see everything, and I certainly can't stop and take notes.

So after we've blocked the whole show and I've given them what I think of as a pencil sketch of the show, then they get time to experiment and play, to try things, to explore line readings and physical work -- and all without me judging that work (much). And without me trying to polish each moment. (After all, I don't think a piece of theatre is made of moments; I think it's made of arcs.) I realize now that our early financial restrictions led me to a wonderful artistic choice. Never in twenty years of New Line shows have I ever moved off the piano and into the audience during Hell Week, and found the actors on the wrong road. It just doesn't happen. The first part of our process is in-depth enough that everyone knows what road we're on and where we're headed.

Still, some actors hate all that freedom. They want to know now whether or not they're making the "right" choices. They don't trust themselves. But the truth is there are a bunch of "right choices" for any given moment or character. And me giving them notes and correcting things while they're still building their performance seems silly to me. Would I judge an painter's work based on sketches or studies? Would I judge a novelist's work based on a first draft?

Long ago, the A&E cable channel had an arts news magazine, and they did a story on the development of Kiss of the Spider Woman. Hal Prince said in this interview that he thinks of himself as an editor. He gets the actors (and designers, etc.) all heading down the same road, then he lets them work for a while, and then he edits their work. I love that image of "editing" the actors' work. The simple truth is that I'm not creating these performances; the actors are. But I'm responsible for making sure we have good, clear storytelling, aesthetic and artistic unity, and a clear point of view.

I think the actor I mentioned at the beginning is just feeling insecure. She wants someone to reassure her she's on the right road or to tell her if she's on the wrong road. But I already know she's on the right road, even if she doesn't. I know she's really smart and really talented. I also know she has excellent instincts, as do the vast majority of actors I work with at New Line.

I think too many actors are used to dictator-directors (I was one in my early years), who dictate every single moment in the show, every gesture, every step. I have no interest in making theatre like that. Theatre is supposed to be collaborative. If I give our actors a lot of freedom to create, they will create wonderful things, because that's the kind of actors we work with. And our actors will create much quirkier, more interesting, more personal, much realer performances -- the kind of performance that we would never get from me telling all the actors exactly what to do throughout the show. I will never be able to create fifteen interesting performances nearly as well as fifteen really great actors can. I love actors. In my ideal world, my shows would be bare stages with nothing to look at but the actors. And I often find that I have way more confidence in my actors than they do in themselves. I think many of them have been trained by mediocre teachers and directors to search for the "right" answers, which really is a fool's errand.

And it makes for boring theatre.

I remember, a number of years ago when the late, lamented Hydeware Theatre Co. produced Edward Albee's The Zoo Story. It's a two-character one-act, and they performed it twice for each audience, with a different set and the actors swapping roles the second time. And it was a revelation for me! Both "versions" were equally amazing, equally compelling, equally text-based, but I found myself switching allegiances the second time around, having totally different reactions to the same moment. Blew my fucking mind. 

It taught me that there are no right answers. Ever. So searching for them is pointless. This was reinforced for me when I saw the off Broadway revival of Rent this fall. All new choices, but every bit as emotional and powerful. And fresh.

I have virtually no worry and angst during Hell Week anymore. If there are no right answers, then these are just our answers, right? Hopefully, audiences will embrace our choices and they will love our show. But if some folks don't, that's okay too. These are just our answers.

We've been working this way for a long time, and we sell out shows and collect rave review after rave review. We know how well our process works. Even if it makes some of our actors a little anxious once in a while...

Long Live the Musical!