A Stage Director Says ‘Let’s Go!’

stage director Leigh Silverman

stage director Leigh Silverman

Attention should be paid to stage directors by theatre artists of every stripe. The enjoyment of audience members can also be enriched by knowing more about directors’ alchemy.

There are a number of reasons I occasionally shine a spotlight on directors in this blog. First off, by paying attention we might figure out what it is they do. That’s not so easy because there is a wide range of approaches different directors take and 99% of their work occurs out of sight in closed rehearsal rooms – sort of the theatre world’s version of black ops.

The director has more impact on the quality of a play’s performance than does anyone else, including (gulp) the writer. And then there is the fact that, after commercial producers and artistic directors of nonprofit theaters, directors are the industry’s most influential gatekeepers for deciding which plays get produced. Nothing will grab the attention of an artistic director faster than a respected director whispering, “Psst – this is a play you should take a look at.”

So whenever I can catch a glimpse of directors and their work, I try to stop and peek in. New York producer Ken Davenport regularly interviews theatre people and releases those conversations as podcasts on his blog “The Producer’s Perspective.” A recent interviewee was the A-list New York director Leigh Silverman. Besides her demonstrated skills, her presence on that A-list is notable because she is a woman and relatively young. (And yes that does imply that most directors, especially in New York, especially on Broadway, are older and male.)

Three of the better known plays Silverman has directed on Broadway are Well, by Lisa Kron, Chinglish, by David Henry Hwang, and the musical Violet, for which she received a Best Director Tony Award nomination in 2013. (Seattle Repertory Theatre will produce Well next spring.)

Silverman attended Carnegie Mellon University, where she earned a Master’s degree in playwriting after majoring in directing as an undergraduate. She told Davenport that she got the graduate degree in playwriting because she knew that as a director she wanted to work on new plays and by studying playwriting she could be in the room with writers and see how they approached story, structure and characters. There she learned about the writing process and how to talk to writers about their scripts.

Here are some of Silverman’s observations that I found particularly insightful.

What does a director do? “The director is the captain, the manager of all personalities, all creativity, and it is the director’s job to pull it together, to shape it, and then bring it forth to an audience. It requires a huge amount of vision, tenacity, flexibility. You have to know what to say when and to whom. Directing can be the most rewarding role [because of its] collaboration, and the most punishing because we can be blamed for things that we have done nothing but try to rally against. It’s a tricky spot because you have to take full responsibility.”

How early does she come into the process of working on a new play? It varies widely. Sometimes a writer will just send her an early scene or monologue and then take her to dinner to ask if the play is viable. Other times she receives a fully baked – as she puts it – play, reads it, and thinks “Yeah, that could be something really interesting to work on.”

What boxes does she tick off to decide whether a play is viable and that she wants to work on it?
• A history of collaboration with the writer. The collaboration gets deeper the more you work with someone. She considers it an honor when writers return, wanting to work with her on another new play.
• A writer who sees well both the forest (overall story) and the trees. When there’s clarity about one line or detail or action, she can sometimes respond with “Yes, write that!”
• When a play’s main idea has depth, presents an artistic challenge, has interesting characters.

What is her process for directing a new play, beginning, say, three months out from opening?
• She tries to assess from the writer how much work they’re planning on doing, what they want to change. She’ll discuss characters and casting with the writer. How do they envision characters portrayed?
• Leads a rigorous dramaturgical conversation with her designers (set, lighting, sound, costume) about how they as a team are going to tell the story. What’s the first image the audience will see? What’s the story’s climax? What’s the tone of the play and how do we communicate that through design? She likes to meet with her designers a lot; wants to know what they think about the play. Sometimes she and the designers will read the play out loud together. She has found that this helps everyone get in synch, plus as a group they often make new discoveries about the play.
• Auditions. An important secondary benefit of auditions is they are a great tool for learning more about the play. The choices actors make during auditions can reveal new aspects of the play, or uncover weaknesses and traps for a character. She often gets all kinds of new ideas for a play from auditions.
• Rehearsals. She’s a big fan of rewrites, of working on the play until you can go no further, which can be as late as five minutes before it opens. She’s fond of something writer David Henry Hwang once told her: “My plays are never finished, they just open.” As an example of her enthusiasm for rewrites, she explains there are three published versions of Lisa Kron’s play Well, one for each production she and Kron collaborated on. She suggests that comparing Well’s three published scripts would be very revealing about how the new play process unfolds.

● She believes the new American play is thriving right now because every writer she works with is also writing for TV so for the first time ever writers have a way to support themselves and have a sustainable career.

How can a director build a career? When young directors ask her how they can get these [directing] opportunities, her first thought is that if they are asking that question they’re already in trouble, because so much of directing is creating worlds and convincing people to go with you to that world. So it’s a problem if you cannot figure out how to create your own opportunities. You have to be proactive and create the environments you want. “When you walk into a rehearsal room and you say ‘Hey guys, we’re going to work on this play, there’s no act two and we’re not sure about this character. Let’s go!’, you have to get everybody aboard for that. That’s a major part of what directing is. A director has to be able to do that for herself and her career the same way she does it in a rehearsal room.”

As I listened to this last point I was reminded of similar advice from another A-list director, Casey Nicholaw, about taking charge of one’s own career, which I reported in a recent blog post.

For the complete 45-minute interview with Silverman click here. You’ll find a rehearsal room-full of advice from a top director on an ascending trajectory.

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