Searching in the Dark

I never really thought about it before this week, but one of my jobs as director is to protect our actors. Maybe that'll sound obvious to some people. I just never thought about it in those terms. The actors arguably have the most important job here, and it's my job to give them the best possible environment in which to do their job.

One easy way I can do that is by protecting them from bad material. We get so many new musicals submitted to us and the majority are either awful and shallow, or interesting but a mess, or worst of all, really old-fashioned (there are a lot of those). One promise I made at New Line's founding, to myself and to everybody who works with us, is never to produce a musical only because it will sell tickets. Nothing matters more than a strong script and a strong score. Because I've sort of stumbled along my own odd path to where I am now, I've never ever had to work on a show I didn't love. Most professionals have to, once in a while, but I never have. And I get to share that luxury with our actors, designers, and musicians.

Though, lest we forget, it's our audiences that allow all that to be true. New Line hasn't survived twenty-two years because I'm such hot shit, but because St. Louis audiences are intelligent and adventurous, and they'll support long-term a company like ours doing the kind of work we do.

Maybe the most important way I can protect the actors is to give them a comfortable, private, artistically safe place to work, freedom to experiment, freedom to go "too far," freedom to fail.

When actors first work with us, particularly if it's on an unconventional show like Night of the Living Dead, it's scary for them to try weird things that don't totally make sense to them, or that don't initially feel right to them, and to trust me to protect them from looking foolish. Especially if they don't know me well.

Almost every New Line show requires full-out fearlessness. If they've haven't gone there before, this scares a lot of actors, even those with training and experience, because a lot of theatre doesn't require fearlessness. Many directors just don't ask for it. (Which is one thing I think is wrong with a lot of theatre.) Luckily, there are always at least a few veteran New Liners around who are already fearless and set an excellent artistic example.

Eventually, each actor says fuck it and they just go for it – or as I like to put it, they jump off the cliff and see if they can fly. Once they've done it the first time, once they find out what true fearlessness feels like, it's really easy for them forever after. Once they taste the heady freedom of fearlessness, they never want to give it up. It's sort of addictive.

But it's almost always scary getting there the first time...

The actor just has to convince himself to believe that rehearsal is a genuinely safe place, where it's okay to try something and fail, where it's okay to go too far and let me pull them back, where no one will judge them because everyone is going through the same experience and trying their own experiments. And everybody tries things that don't work. Our rehearsals are all closed. No visitors. The actor has to learn that the only way to get to a powerful, fearless performance is to fail a few times on the way. There's nothing wrong with failure – it's how we figure out the right answers. But we've all been taught to fear failure.

I frequently tell actors that until they feel stupid, the performance isn't big enough. I think sometimes they think that's a joke or an exaggeration, but it's really not. If they feel really comfortable with their performance, it's probably bland and timid. Giving a great performance is difficult and scary, and you have to accept that as part of the process. Acting in a musical, particularly an unconventional musical, is entirely unnatural. The Bat Boy authors call it "the height of expression, the depth of sincerity," meaning the emotions and inner life are as real and honest as possible, but the style is heightened. I described it in one of my books this way – "The canvas is bigger, the colors richer, the brushstrokes more expansive, but the image is no less true, the details no less real, the textures no less subtle."

But for actors to attain fearlessness, they have to know I'm protecting them on the way.

The last way I can protect actors is that, to quote A New Brain, "I give you time." I figured out years ago that time could be our enemy or our friend. I decided to make it our friend. Some companies do five or six shows a season. We do three. Compared with most companies our size, we have a pretty leisurely rehearsal schedule, including nine full run-throughs (three with tech and band) before we share it all with an audience. As a result, through most of our process, when an actor can't quite find their way, I'm able to say to them, "Just play – we've got time." That's such a gift I can give them. It's not about a looming deadline, just finding the right road.

It's hard to do well what actors do onstage. And it's even harder to do it in a musical. A big part of my job is figuring out every way I can help.

We've had three full run-throughs on the set now, and it's really going well. The show is so well-built structurally and the song placement is outstanding, so we just have to trust it. Our actors are really finding their characters and this world now. There are already some moments that are intense. And we've still got two weeks to work! The adventure continues.

Long Live the Musical!