It's a Human Drama Thing

We've started blocking Hands on a Hardbody, and it's quite a challenge.

First off, the whole premise of the story is that these people are just standing there. I mean it... Just. Standing. There. For a really long time. For ninety-one hours, sixteen minutes, and twenty-seven seconds. Not really doing anything. How do you make that visually interesting?

The original production answered that with a truck that spins and moves, and a goodly amount of choreography. There were even some moments when the contestants all let their hands off the truck during a song, presumably relying on the audience to accept that it's just "a musical comedy moment." During the rhythmic counterpoint in the middle of "Joy of the Lord," the original cast had both hands off the truck a lot. When Kelli and Greg climbed up on the truck, they also let their hands off of it.

But maybe asking how to make the show visually interesting is the wrong question to ask. Maybe the goal here just isn't to be visually interesting, even though that goes against all my usual instincts. Because really, this is a story about stillness. Why fight that? Why struggle against the show's fundamental nature? That can only lead to bad choices. Maybe the only legitimate goal here is to be clear in our storytelling and to be authentic in our emotions. This is a story concerned with who these people are and how they got here.

So what is Hands on a Hardbody about?  I'm not talking about its narrative, but its heart and soul. For instance, the narrative of Fiddler on the Roof is about this family of Russian Jews, but what the show is really about is holding on to tradition in an ever changing world. Likewise the narrative of Cabaret is about this eccentric group of characters being affected by the early rumblings of Nazism, but what it's really about is the idea that doing nothing in the face of evil is also a choice. (Which is why I hate productions of Cabaret that suggest the holocaust at the end – the show is not about the holocaust or World War II; it's about everyday choices and their consequences.) Company presents us with this guy Bobby who hangs out with married couples a lot, but what it's really about is emotional commitment in a disconnected, technological world.

So, with all that in mind, what is Hands on a Hardbody about? I'm still working on this, but I think it's about the American middle class struggling to climb out of the massive, seemingly inescapable hole that our government threw us into in the 1980s and again in the 2000s. But it's also about what makes us Americans – attitude, grit, bravado, stubbornness, contradiction, self-delusion, toughness, aggressiveness, appetite, commitment, authenticity. We never laugh at these characters. These people are America. The show treats them with respect and so must we.

But I still had to block the show. How does this preliminary understanding of the show and its themes help me stage these scenes and songs? One thing I knew – before I could even begin, I had to decide on some ground rules.

I decided that in our production, no contestant will let both hands off the truck unless they're losing the contest. Otherwise, they have to follow the contest rules, even during the songs. I also decided that there would be nothing that looks like choreography. There will be some minimalist "musical staging," in other words, staging that works to the music, occasionally some unison movement, etc., but not much. And if I do it right, it will never look like a choreographer is behind it. I also decided that I did not want the truck to move – it seems to me that choice in the original production came from fear that the audience wouldn't like the show if it was too still, if it didn't look like a Broadway Musical worth a $150 ticket price. We don't have that problem.

And I think that assumption doesn't give the audience enough credit. There's so much going on this show emotionally. We don't need dance numbers.

I remember when we staged Love Kills a few years ago, and I realized midstream that it was by far the most physically still production I had ever directed. So much sitting or standing still. So many songs with virtually no movement. But the more we worked, the more I became confident that this was the way to stage this show, that this show was not built to have a lot of movement or a lot of eye candy. And our reviews and audiences proved me right. Love Kills is almost entirely an interior story. The dramatic action happens on the inside.

And so is Hardbody. Thanks to Love Kills, I no longer fear stillness, and so I feel pretty good about my decisions here.

The next challenge was placing the contestants around the truck. (By the way, check out our scenic designer Rob's blog about creating our truck for us.) First, I had to figure out at what angle we should place the truck, so that the actors would be hidden behind the cab as little as possible. (Our audience is raked, but I still want the first couple rows to be able to see everyone.) After some experimenting, I decided pointing the cab at about two o'clock works best. Then I had to place everyone around it. That was hard because contestants talk to each other in that first dialogue scene, and some of them have to be next to certain other characters. I looked at the initial placement in the original production, and it helped a little, but their truck was pointed a different way, which changes things.

After about ninety minutes of re-reading the script, trying various configurations, I slowly worked out the first placement of the actors around the truck. I found online a graphic of an overhead view of a pickup truck, and I printed out a bunch of copies so I could tape them into my script every time the placement changes. Each new "scene" puts someone else in focus, so we have to rotate the contestants around the truck so that the right people end up in front where the audience can see them best.

In all but one case (so far), that rotation happens during one of those "time passing" moments, and I think seeing the rotation, along with the music and light cues, will make that all clear to the audience.

Still, even as I accept and embrace the story's inherent stillness, there are some songs that really need some physicalization. The trick is to give the actors movement that looks as natural and spontaneous as possible, and that also supports the lyric and the dramatic action (even if it's interior) behind the song. I've been thinking about country line dancing, and watching lots of videos on YouTube. That would make a believable physical vocabulary for these folks, but we have to keep it minimal...

The other issue is the Fourth Wall. At the beginning and end of the show, the actors directly address the audience, and Benny does a few times in between, but other than those instances, this is as naturalistic as a musical gets. And also, aside from the opening, there really aren't any interior monologues like most musicals use. Plus, we're using Frank, the radio DJ, to turn some of those interior moments in the opening song into exterior moments by giving the characters a radio audience to talk to.

I was ready to have two sets of rules, one for songs in which people are talking to each other, and one for songs when people are inside their own heads, just thinking out loud in a soliloquy. But then I realized none of these songs are interior monologues. The characters are always talking to one or more other people when they're singing.

So in other words, this musical doesn't use most of the devices of musical theatre. And I think the original production's one big misstep was imposing musical theatre devices on this show. I think that, to some extent, it distanced the audience from the characters and their emotions. It built up a wall of artifice.

On the other hand, there's a lot of backup singing in this show – how do we treat that naturalistically? In "Burn That Bridge," Mike and Heather are in his office talking to each other (and flirting), while three of the contestants sing backup. So how do I stage those three contestants? Do we pretend they aren't singing? Do we try to find motivation for why the three of them are singing these words? In "God Answered My Prayer," late in the show, all the contestants reappear to sing backup, even though in the story most of them have left the lot. How do we stage that in this mostly naturalistic story? That's an issue I haven't totally solved yet...

It seems to me that my job with this show is to get out of its way, to let the beautiful, smart, emotional, insightful writing do its work, to let our actors focus on nothing but acting. No devices here, no tricks, no conventions, no abstraction, no commentary, just honesty.

We've blocked about two-thirds of Act I now, and I've worked out the staging for the rest of the act. This won't be a walk in the park – genuine simplicity and minimalism are hard to pull off. But I know that, unlike those directors who drive me crazy cramming "stuff" into their shows, I'm more than content to follow the music and text where it takes us. I let the writers decide what the show looks like. When I was younger, I always had some new device I wanted to try out in my blocking, and sometimes I used the device whether or not it served the story, simply because I was anxious to use it. But that's not good directing.

Good directing is when you follow the road the writers have laid out, without imposing yourself or your Great Ideas on it.

If a director thinks a show needs him or her to impose things on it, then either they're working on a shitty show, or they haven't learned to trust the material fully. That imposition is an act of ego, not storytelling. I figured out a long time ago that if I don't think a particular moment in a show is working, it probably isn't because the show is flawed; it's probably because I don't yet fully understand the show. Some directors (particularly in musical theatre) change/rewrite moments they don't get; I do my best instead to figure out why the writers wrote it that way, and how best to serve that moment, how best to make it clear to the audience. The writers have given us this incredible gift; that's the very least we owe them.

This won't be an easy show, but it will be worth it. The adventure continues.

Long Live the Musical!