This weekend, I started reading a book by Maria Brito called How Creativity Rules the World. I’m getting those artistic juices flowing however I can, y’all! At the end of Chapter 2 she suggests quantifying things that you’ve already created, so I figured I’d outline here – for you, for potential investors, but mostly for me – the moment I fell in love with directing.
(This is long, so get cozy.)
I guess it wasn’t a moment so much as it was a semester. I was a junior in college, nearing the end of my coursework as a Theatre Arts major. The program was pretty regimented – you couldn’t take this course before the Spring of your junior year, and taking it any later would result in graduating late.
I’d always been excited for this class. I hated that I had to wait until three years into my degree to take it. The program I was in sought to give students a round theatre education, rather than focus on any specific discipline.
The class was a bit of a disappointment in that it didn’t really teach us to direct. It was more like a dress rehearsal for our capstone class: we were responsible for a 10 minute, one act play in preparation for the 25 minute, one act play we’d be presenting in our senior year. Most of the class was focused on making sure elements had been secured: cast, set, lighting cues, costumes, etc. Obviously, making sure you’re crossing your Ts and dotting your Is is important…but I was more interested in HOW to cast the right actors, HOW to convey themes and meaning, and HOW to create an overall vision.
A lot of my classmates shot for the moon. They picked shows by award-winning playwrights and were going about the whole process with a…masturbatory vibe. It was precocious. Very self-congratulatory.
I didn’t want to do that.
Before we left campus for Christmas, I brought the script I’d chosen to the Directing teacher. It was standard practice to have your script approved before the course began.
I remember her not being impressed. “This isn’t a play. This is a scene.”
She was right! More specifically, it was a contentless scene. No stage directions, no settings, no character descriptions. Just non-specific lines of dialogue, an exchange between two people about the contents of a ketchup bottle. One character peels the label off, and the other character remarks that no one will know what’s inside without a label.
It was boring, and that was the point – it was an exercise for actors to put their own spin on what each character wanted, and how different tone and emotion could be portrayed depending on the reading.
“No, I know it’s a scene! But I see something in it. I have some ideas.”
“It only reads at 5 minutes. The show needs to be 10.” Most students would obnoxiously stretch that to 20.
“That’s one of my ideas! See, here at the beginning, I want to do a whole nonverbal thing to introduce who these characters are to the audience. I see that taking like, 5 minutes.”
She might rolled her eyes at me. She might have sighed. She told me if it was something I really wanted to do, she’d allow it. I think she might have given me some one act suggestions to look at over the break…but honestly, I was already on my way.
I’m gonna break here to say that I didn’t have the best time in college. The theatre department was rather incestuous and myopic, and I’d been ostracized from it. Therefore, I was free from the shackles of doing something to please someone, or to try to fit in with the pack. So when the class sat down to duke it out over who would win the honor of casting the popular kids in their show? I kicked back.
The professor furiously scribbled names on the chalkboard as students called out their dream cast. It was all very:
She didn’t turn when she called out my name.
“Jazzy and Renata*.” I replied.
“Very funny. Go ahead.”
“I’m not kidding. Jazzy and Renata.”
The classroom got quiet and I heard a few snickers.
You see, no one knew Jazzy. She was new, and was a big girl with big energy. Renata, on the other hand, was a peer that wasn’t easy to work with. Very last-girl-picked-for-dodgeball vibes.
And…look, I’m just gonna say it. They were the only two women of color who auditioned. I went to a pretty homogenous school with quite a bit of conscious and unconscious bias.
I got the same tone of voice from the teacher as I got when I showed her my script. “Seriously?”
“Yeah, I think I’m gonna play the characters as sisters. It works.”
Another sigh as she wrote JAZZY and RENATA on the board. She’d just fully given up on me at that point.
And so, off I went to work in the shadows, completely under the radar. Not a single person asked about how rehearsals were going.
Which honestly? They should have. Because rehearsals were AWESOME. The whole process was wonderful. The gals were over the moon to have been cast. A had an amazing stage manager to help and because the scene was easy, all of us were able to relax. Rather than worrying about whether or not my actors had their lines down (because they did, because they were easy) I had them try different acting exercises. We ran lines in the stairwell of the theater, with Jazzy and Renata taking a step up if they felt empowered or a step down if they felt belittled. We ran lines while they laid on the floor. We ran lines with them standing on blocks. We built the nonverbal blocking at the beginning of the scene as a team. We fleshed out who their characters were together. We took field trips and bonded.
We. Had. Fun, which was incredibly surprising to me. I’d been confident about my choices, but not totally confident that I could execute them well.
Here’s the thing: I sort of considered myself a massive bitch. I always wanted to direct, but I assumed I’d be shit at it because I grew up as Type A. I was someone that got made fun of for wanting things to be just so. I was a frequently frustrated, unhappy kid. I’d been described as bossy since I was three years old, a stuck up older sister, a tightly-wound daughter. I was so concerned that I was going to be a cunt of a director, someone that people didn’t want to be around.
But here I was, having the time of my life with people who enjoyed being with me, whom I enjoyed being with, and we were making magic together. There was no room to worry about whether or not I was a butthole because I’d hired the right people to do the right thing. We all shared the vision.
When the Directing showcase night came, I got sandwiched between other plays because no one expected that my project was worthy of opening or closing the night. HOW WRONG THEY WERE. People were screaming with laughter. It was the loudest audience reaction I’d ever heard in that blackbox theater. Jazzy was a very physical actress, and her energy was an absolute wrecking ball. Renata played the perfect straight man, an excellent foil, a character whose whole schtick she tactfully upended in the last lines of the show. Those two raised the vibration of the room.
When lights went down, I felt multiple hands grab and squeeze my shoulders from behind. Rows of eyes glistened in the dark as the front row turned to look at me. And out loud, loud enough to hear over the applause, I heard:
“Are you kidding me?”
“THAT WAS AMAZING.”
This was the first time I’d created something that I hadn’t been physically a part of. All of the theatre experience I had was as an actor. I’d been a dancer as a kid. So it was an out of body experience to see something I’d created while enveloped by an audience, and to feel the vibration of the room lift higher, higher, higher.
I think I’m chasing that high. I fell in love with Directing that semester, but the moment the lights went down really crystallized it.
Epilogue: My teacher used The Ketchup Bottle as an example the next year, telling students that she didn’t expect me to pull that out of the bag. She encouraged them to go big and try something different for their shows. That’s fucking cool, isn’t it?
*Names changed to protect the incredible.