After The Pillowman’s last show, I spent the night in a bed on the Intime stage. This was not my plan. Rather, my play was over: the actors were drunk, the set would soon be struck, and I, a tiny Atlas, newly liberated and upright, had merely intended to lug my mattress from its place on the stage and return it to my little bunker in the Witherspoon basement. But by the time I reached Intime – from Terrace, at 3:30 am, giddy with the removal of a gargantuan weight and hugely exhausted – I couldn’t do it. I curled into a ball and fell asleep.
Short on furniture, we had used my mattress for one of the production’s stage beds. On this bed had slept two parents who had confined their first-born son to a little slaughter house and tortured him – nightly, and with power tools – for seven consecutive years. During the play, their younger son discovers their “experiment” and smothers the couple to death with a pillow there, on my very own mattress.
That night, my dreams terrified me. It was as if the watchfulness of an audience could brand events onto the spirit of a place; stupidly tired, I’d accessed the phenomenon in my sleep. As a result, everything I’d experienced while directing the play – a project I’d undertaken exactly one year prior – was paraded before me, distorted and vulgar like the fare of a funhouse mirror: rent faces, laughter, endless catalogues of the technical minutiae that made hours of work for us, stage-blood, applause. This mess was accompanied by scenes from the play’s most violent moments, re-performed lucid and intact, which caused me to play reluctant audience member to my own production.
The last thing I saw in my dream was a member of an all-male a capella group, whose face had haunted me for two weeks. This was because, two hours before opening night – and desperate to run a handful of scenes we had yet to attempt with tech – his group, which we’ll call the Man Tones, stole the stage from under our feet. Graciously, they offered to give us the space after only 45 minutes of singing, but it was a brutal 45 minutes. When I awoke – entirely alone, the theater smelling of burnt rubbing alcohol, small puddles of a banana-stage-blood coagulum smeared about the stage – I relived the event in its entirety: my actors clustered in the wings, equipped with the accoutrements of crucifixion and ready to practice their craft upon a young girl; the Man Tones, trundling fatly about the stage, belting the refrain to an N*SYNC tune; myself, trembling and appalled, manically fantasizing about the night’s imminent failure and dying, quietly, in the corner.
This, reader, is the joy of directing.
Let us begin at the beginning.
In order to direct a play at Intime, you must first propose the project to an ostensibly stringent jury of your theater-enthused peers. In the case of Intime, that jury is the Proposals Board, a war-ready jumble of any and all board members who had the time to flip through the year’s proposals. The situation’s inherent discomfort – inevitable in any peer-review – is only exacerbated by the fact that many Board members also propose plays themselves.
My “director’s interview” was held in Intime’s Charrier Room. The Proposals Board – which, last year, appeared to comprise the entirety of the Intime Board, a group of some 18 students – had arranged their own chairs about the circumference of the room, and placed mine in the center the circle, so that half my interlocutors spoke to my back. A reductive little satellite, the discussion immediately settled in orbit about the play’s horrible violence.
For “The Pillowman” is a violent play, and boasts an abundance of child torture, prisoner torture – really, all kinds of torture (“are you alright?” my mother asked me when she first read it). Not surprisingly, the play was hard to sell. A few years ago, in fact, another student had proposed The Pillowman to the Intime Board. He’d intended to play up the violence, and treat the piece as a bouncy laugh-riot. Now, it is a darkly funny play, but a bawdy comedy it is not. One Intimer burst into tears as she read that proposal; it was, of course, summarily rejected.
Fortunately, this was not the case with my own proposal. The season was announced two weeks later, with “The Pillowman” slated for March of 2008.
Before The Pillowman, I had confined myself to the world of small-scale, low-budget productions. Bad asthma and good sense kept me off the sports field in high school, and so I occupied myself with theater instead. Our high school’s drama department was chaired by a kind behemoth of a man, a booming tenor with a concave gut and large gangly limbs that traveled without purpose or precision. All in all, he had the manner of a man who spent far too much of his life within the confines of a student theater. With his aid, I co-founded a little pseudo-guerilla theater company in 11th grade (“pseudo-guerilla” because the school, in a fine administrative flourish, forbade us from rehearsing plays without faculty or parental supervision). Rehearsing quietly in the classrooms of elementary school teachers, we put on two hour-long productions through my final two years in high school. All was executed with the most minimal of trappings, with the tech work – lighting, set design etc. – divvied up between myself and a friend. It was spontaneous and haphazard, a delightful experiment in the testing of boundaries.
My first experience with directing at Princeton was far less involved. For the Theater Intime Freshman One Act Festival, I directed Sam Shepard’s Fool For Love. My sole responsibility was to rehearse the actors, while a well-equipped production team – led by capable Intime Board members – tended to all other needs.
The Pillowman, however, was something wholly new to me. Here you had two and a half hours of material, a cast and crew of sixteen and, in the Intime Board, an 18-pronged administrative apparatus.
To begin with, the rehearsal process itself is fairly arduous, and requires of the director his surest display of deft stage-handedness. Simply: one must put on one’s best bureaucrat cap, sigh and settle in, then collect the cast’s various schedules and locate a room, coordinate schedules and book the room—and repeat. I was a flustered mother hen, shuttling her chicks from one site to another.
The actors, meanwhile, asked such good questions. They were keen, direct and wholly necessary questions, and by virtue of an arbitrary hierarchy it was my answer alone that bore any weight. Often I had answers, but just as often, I did not. I’d scrunch my forehead, nod a bit, and pretend to chew it over. The more talented the actors, the better their questions – and I had very talented actors.
As a director, it was my precise responsibility to tell anyone working in any capacity on the production exactly what they needed to do, and, once they had done it, assess the quality of their work and decide whether or not they needed to do it again. I was expected to instruct, constantly. Of course, it wasn’t intended as a burden: they all wanted to please and aid, but as the “vision” was nominally my own, it existed, at the time, as but a fancy in my head. So I kept pausing, scrunching the forehead, stalling, chewing it over.
If directing still piques your curiosity, do no more than procure a comfy chair and take on Federico Fellini’s 8 ½. Sadly, perhaps, my own directing style has much in common with Guido Anselmi’s (the director protagonist, played by Mastroianni). In a wonderful scene, Guido attempts to pass discretely through the halls that house his cast and crew, desperate to avoid the barrage of entreaties that might conceivably await him at any turn. His plan immediately fails; he is ambushed continually by people who, quite simply, need something from him. Guido, what is my character’s motivation? Guido, should this dress seam be magenta or violet? Guido, where can we purchase a new set of holsters? Each question a prickly little tine, applying ever more pressure, again, again.
But rather than combust – an eminently reasonable response – Guido only smiles and does a little dance, ignoring the pleas of all concerned and shuffling out of earshot to music no one else can hear.
This situation recalls the atmosphere of tech week like none other, throughout which I myself danced, silently and frequently. Tech week is a small slice of hell. Theater people acknowledge this and plan accordingly. Beforehand, they tidy up the schoolwork they may have, fully intending to hurl their very lives into the production. They are a dedicated lot, prepared to perform their duties unto the very brink of death. I was at Intime for 38 hours in a two day stretch. At this point, one is hopelessly possessed, fueled by the sole vulgar thought that all the work one has done throughout this three month process could have been for naught: if the wall is not constructed, if a cap-gun is not produced, if the fire cannot be lit when it must absolutely be lit so that the play’s close can maintain a semblance of coherence – why did one even bother? And meanwhile one is ambushed, much like Guido, and set to booming decisions, mega-phone decider, without much thought put to any of it. How brown do you want the crucifix to be? Does the coffin need to be transparent? Can we paint it white instead of grey?
All of this begs the question: why bother? Why would anyone subject themselves to the rigorous, ecstatic chaos that is directing a full-length production at Princeton?
For on the one hand, a director is merely a glorified framer. Faced with a text, he fashions for it a quaint and appropriate frame of sorts that may best accentuate its most pleasing qualities. With him in this endeavor are a fanatic lot of thirty-odd oil-painting devotees, who will purchase the wood so long as he locates a dealer, cut the wood so long as he dictates the dimensions, dye the wood so long as he selects an exact hue, and mount the thing so long as he chooses a precise spot on the wall.
(This is not true of all directors. Some fancy directing a primary (rather than secondary) creative act, and engage the text in a battle of competing visions. Sometimes this method works wonderfully. The good directors know when to employ it, and more importantly that it should not always be employed.)
I’ve also heard it said that the director is a conjurer, one who invokes a production from the threads of a text. There is, after all, a reason that theatrical production is so often adorned with mystical terminology. It is the transubstantiation of text to life, to words spoken and performed in real time. I have a friend who talks about directing in this fashion. And while it may ring true in the abstract, on the most practical level it is patently false. For on this most practical level, the director is a functionary, a bureaucrat with a creative streak. His productions are not summoned with candles and chants, but rather assembled piecemeal, with painstaking attention to detail.
So why bother? Why permit friends, family and classes to tumble sadly to the wayside? Why render one’s transcript a sad testament to the calamity of neglect?
For one, the process of working on a play is completely hyper-stimulating, and constitutes an entirely productive distraction. There is also a narcotic quality to a play’s completion. It is a wonderful high, the joy of pure achievement and success – although it might also derive from approval. Finally, there is the opportunity to share your work (and yourself) with others and, at least in the case of the director, to measure its precise effect upon the audience: to notice when they laugh, when they fall quiet, to hear them share with one another polite appreciations as they file from the theater.
All of these sensations are fleeting. Theater is wholly ephemeral: what you create will not last, and no performance will exist beyond the moment in which it was given. On Saturday night, you may play to the largest crowd the theater has ever seen; but on Sunday afternoon, the tech crew will still roll in, turn on Bon Jovi and dismantle the set. This is why, for so many, theater is not a pass-time or a hobby: rather, it becomes a vocation, a compulsion, a way of life, so that you’re never forced to acknowledge that what you have just poured months into is – poof – gone.