I Got Some Moves That I'd Love to Show Ya

We've finished blocking Bonnie & Clyde.


This was a hard show to figure out, particularly since we're going in a somewhat different direction from the original Broadway production.

I've developed a really nice system for myself over the years, when it comes to blocking. I'm not someone who likes working under pressure or deadlines. I remember freshman year in college, doing an all-nighter to finish a paper the night before I came home for Christmas break. And I hated how it made me feel! I decided then and there that I would never do an all-nighter again, and in order to keep that promise, ever since then, I plan to finish everything ahead of schedule. Everything. Grant applications, program notes, blocking, press releases, all the things I have to do in my job.

So first, as soon as we've decided that we're definitely doing a show, I photocopy the script (so it's one-sided) and get it coiled-bound at Kinko's. Then the script sits on my piano for a long time. My first job is to figure out the style and tone of the show – how does it look, how does it move, will we acknowledge the audience, will we place any action out in the audience, is this a full-front, presentational show or an intimate, ignore-the-audience show, will we have full-out choreography or less dance-oriented "Millerography" musical staging, will our set and props be very realistic or more cartoony or a mix of the two, is the acting naturalistic or heightened realism or full-out cartoony, is this a high-energy, fast-paced show or a more moderately paced, moodier show for which we'll really use pauses and silence...?

So many questions to answer before I can do anything else.

Also, I have to make sure I know the central theme of the show, the one sentence that summarizes the point of the story. Not the plot; the point. For example, Cabaret tells us that not doing nothing is also a political choice. Fiddler tells us that we must balance tradition with the ever-changing world around us. Company tells us that being in a relationship is really hard and frustrating, but it's better than being alone. So what does Bonnie & Clyde tell us?

I think this is a harder question with this show than with many others, because this show fundamentally changed what it was about between its out-of-town tryout at the La Jolla Playhouse and its opening in New York. At La Jolla, the show was about these two kids falling in love during difficult times. But on Broadway the show was completely transformed. They cut seven songs (including some great songs that just didn't belong in the revised show) and wrote six new songs, including many of the songs that define the show now – "Picture Show," "When I Drive," "Raise a Little Hell," "Made in America," "Too Late to Turn Back Now," and "That's What You Call a Dream." If you look at the two song lists, you'll see that they took the songs away from the lawmen and Bonnie's mother – these are not characters (at least in the revised show) that need exploration. Instead we get songs that lay out the socio-political themes for us (something almost completely missing in the earlier version), and go deeper into the central characters.

So what is the central point of Bonnie & Clyde? To be honest, I'm still wrestling with that. I'm close to it, but I don't think I've nailed it yet. It's certainly related to that socio-political context, and most directly related to "Made in America." It's something along the lines of A broken country creates broken people with broken values. I'm in the right neighborhood here, but I don't know if I'm knocking on the right door yet. The answer is in this lyric:
We may be in debt,
Wake up in a sweat,
But let's not forget
We were made in America.

Yes, let's not forget that. America is a big part of this story.

I think it's easy to imagine that without the Depression and the Dust Bowl, Clyde and Bonnie might have had less awful childhoods, more loving, attentive families, more stable upbringing, and maybe they wouldn't have ended up this way. If the Barrows and Parkers weren't suffering so profoundly, would Clyde and Bonnie have fantasized about being Clara Bow and Billy the Kid? Probably, but it would've stopped there. Clyde's "Bang! Bang!' probably would have stayed make-believe.

And thinking about all that led to my biggest decision as director of this show, and that is to bring the ensemble – the community – onstage periodically as backdrop to and comment on Clyde and Bonnie. I'm putting "America" onstage, in the show's opening and closing (which were both just Bonnie and Clyde on Broadway), and also for a few other scenes.

I try to make sure I work through all this stuff before I start blocking, but sometimes the answers only come as we're working. I create "rules" for each show, guidelines about how we will physically use the theatre space, what will and won't be part of this world we're creating, including many of the questions I ask above.

So for a long time, the script and score just sit on my piano, and the show percolates in the back of my mind.

Every once in a while, over the next weeks or months,  I'll have a revelation about how to stage a moment in the show, or about character, style, etc. When that happens, I grab the script, write my new idea(s) in, and put it back on the piano. Over time, I get a lot of big and/or complicated moments figured out.

Then as we being music rehearsals, the ideas start coming faster and more frequently, and I keep adding them to my script.

Finally, when it's time to block the actors, I work my way through the script and fill in between the ideas I've worked out. Sometimes that's easy; sometimes it's really hard. It was harder with Bonnie & Clyde because it's very cinematic in its writing, which calls for much cleaner, tighter, more economical blocking. And it means using cinematic techniques, like pans, zooms, split-screens, focus pulls, over-the-shoulder shots, etc.

My big secret (which really isn't very secret) is that I mostly block my shows stoned. I discovered years ago that marijuana mostly disables my internal critic, so that crazy and/or impossible ideas don't get dismissed automatically. And some of those crazier ideas are great!  And some of those impossible ideas seem less impossible if I just think through them and picture them in my head. Which means I come up with much more interesting, more adventurous, more unexpected, and often a lot more insightful staging if I've smoked a little of God's Goofy Green Goodness first.

Am I stoned now? What an impertinent question.

Usually, I try to get all of Act I blocked before our first blocking rehearsal, but I don't try to block the whole show that early. I want to see if my ideas for Act I work first, if it all feels cohesive, if our storytelling is clear, if the rules I've set up ar good ones, etc. If I'm feeling good about all that, I go ahead and work on Act II. If I'm feeling iffy about Act I, I try to figure out why before I go on to Act II.

I used to worry a lot as I worked if it was good, if it was funny, if it was powerful in all the right places. It drove me nuts because you just can't tell that stuff without an audience. But during our first production of Hair (we've done it three times) in 2000, I learned a really valuable lesson. When I focus on whether my work is good or not, I'm thinking about me; when I focus on whether we're telling the story clearly and well, I'm thinking about the story. I'm not trying to be impressive or funny or shocking or brilliant; I'm trying only to unlock each scene so that I fully understand it, and the actors understand it, and therefore the audience will understand it.

I read an interview with Sondheim, in which he said that he doesn't really care if an audience likes his show – since that's a matter of individual taste and every person will react differently – as long as they understand what he's saying, as long as the show is clear.  As long as you're working on really good material, and we always are, all you have to do is tell the story. Clarity is everything. Without it, a show may be diverting, but it won't be good.

Of course, even now that I've finished blocking the show and staging the actors, things will still change a lot. As I've mentioned on this blog many times, I see making comic book art as a good metaphor for my idea of directing – I do the pencil sketch, together and the actors and I ink in the lines, and then the actors fill in all the colors, with me on the sidelines as editor to make sure we're all drawing the same story in the same style.

We've run both acts separately. That's when we start to shape the show. I guess this would be the part of my comic book art metaphor where the actors and I, together, ink in the lines. We do a lot of stopping and starting, trying different ideas, different staging, different emotions behind lines. This is almost always the stage where we put some good fights into the show. Confrontation is one of the pillars of drama, so writers love to write fights (and the great writers write amazing fights), but most actors are afraid (or at least, hesitant) to really fight onstage, to get furious, to scream (or its musical equivalent), to Fucking Lose It. Luckily, all I have to do is ask, and they run with it. It's fun for an actor to have a fight onstage, so once I give them permission, they really find it.

We've got some humdingers in Bonnie & Clyde.

Now we'll just run the whole show at every rehearsal, and over time, things will settle, evolve, and find their final form. Everything will make more sense to our actors and they'll have time to fashion their characters' interior lives. Now is when our actors do their hardest and most important work. I've given them their exterior life; now they have to access the deepest corners of these characters' interior lives. They have to live fully and honestly in this non-naturalistic world I've given them. They have to add the color.

Sometimes I think many non-actors think that acting is, after all, just pretending, right? Well, yes and no. It's a very specific, meaningful, and complicated kind of pretending that communicates something of value to an audience. Pretending doesn't need an audience, but acting without an audience is just rehearsal.

I have such powerful respect for actors. They are magnificent beasts. (And I don't use that noun carelessly.) I really, really love watching each actor work, create, evolve, explore, take risks, succeed and fail, incorporate ideas and discard ideas, blend into the other performances being created, and slowly, skillfully create this amazing, detailed, complex character. One of the hardest parts of my job is that every actor needs something different from me, but I'm getting better and better at delivering it. Sometimes they frustrate me (and I know I frustrate them), but they dazzle me just as often. I still remember being an actor and I don't know that I could jump back into it at this point. There's so much more to it than pretending.

So now we run.

For the first few run-throughs, I try not to give them too many notes. I want them to have the freedom to explore, to fail and try again, to take risks. Then Dowdy and I will start shaping the show, cleaning things up, making sure it all works together to make a unified piece of art.

This is the fun part for me.

I can't wait to see this creature take shape. There's so much awesome on the way.

Long Live the Musical!