Tuesday, February 12, 2008

What Are We Teaching The Children?

A ten-minute play of mine is being produced right now. It’s not going too well. Not well at all. My director is incredibly young and, what’s worse, incredibly bad. Not just bad as a director, but bad in the room, bad in dealing with actors, bad in dealing with me and giving notes. Just plain bad. The situation is so bad, that, not only have I resigned wholly from the process (the play could use some rewrites), but I’m seriously considering pulling the play. That’s not something that I prefer to do, but this situation seems to require more.

This young man asked an actor at the auditions (which were sloppily run, at best, also a producer problem) where he’d “stolen” a character from. In the one rehearsal I attended, he wasted time, asked the actors to do ridiculous things for no discernible reason and gave nonsensical notes that seemed to indicate line readings. Not to mention that our main character was not present. This was a train wreck of a rehearsal.

And then to top it off, he sent me a long, wordy e-mail of suggested rewrites. Not just notes, or thoughts, but actual rewrite suggestions. Part of my frustration with him is when we had a brief discussion of rewrites (in the middle of the rehearsal), he indicated his thoughts on how the ending of the play should be re-worked. I disagreed, and tried to explain why I had (mostly) the ending I wanted and what I was looking for, in terms of rewriting and workshopping, was that I wanted to support it better. His e-mail was, in essence, a four paragraph reiteration of his original idea, explaining that he’d thought about it and the “right” way to end to the play was his way. Plus, he quoted Harold Pinter.

This isn’t just a rant about a bad director. I’ve had them before, I’ll have them again. It’s not even a rant about a young director. He may turn out to be a fine director down the line. But that’s exactly the point: How will this young man learn to be a better director?

He’s at a fairly well-known school already. He has presumably been working with directors, both his professors and his fellow students. He may have even taken a class or a workshop. He’s not un-bright (well, that may be stretching it). So…what happens now?

This is part of the problem, and big part of it. Theatre is a collaborative art. I’m willing to go out on a limb and say that making theatre is the most collaborative of arts. It can only happen, even in this day and age of technological advances, with a group of people working toward a common goal with a common language and understanding. This doesn’t happen magically. It is taught.

Except our theatre programs don’t teach it. Actors learn to act and do whatever is necessary for them to achieve the best performance possible. Directors are taught to direct, to bring their vision to the stage, by whatever means necessary. Playwrights are taught to write their play and then defend it from predatory actors and directors by any means necessary. How does this help plays? How does this help theatre grow?

My young director is a bit of a bonehead, but somehow no one is taking him to task for being a bonehead. How does this help? And I lay this at my own feet as well. A serious conversation is needed, but I’m unwilling to do it. In part because, well, why invest in this kid. But partly because, as the playwright in this position, it doesn’t feel like it’s my job. (There's another post on powerlessness when things go wrong, but that's for another day.) But whose job is it?

So…how do we fix it? Well, we start by teaching collaboration. A class on collaboration should be a part of all college and grad school level curricula. And not just a “throw the kids in the pool and see what happens” kind of thing. I had that in my deeply dysfunctional grad school, a weekly, three-hour workshop that taught playwrights, directors and actors to fear their professors and classmates, that taught timidity and safety. Instead there should be classes on how collaboration works, on techniques and skills used in collaboration, on how theatre is made by many hands and voices.

We need to make better artists. Better equipped artists. We have to get them young.


David said...

I couldn't agree and simultaneously disagree more.

It is paramount that students get instruction and mentoring specifically designed to foster productive collaboration.

But its not ok to flatly say it isn't being taught. I can't speak to other programs, but here we've made this content a priority in our pedagogy.

It's also worth noting that without specific intent this is a "you take it" volleyball moment as collaboration is a meta-skill, often assumed and rarely included on a planning level. Operationally it is all too easy to assume "they're getting that in another class."

I would add that among the current crop of college students that there is significant confusion between the ideas of collaboration, cooperation, and consensus. Knowing how to participate, how to evaluate other's participation, and how much of your participation to reasonable expect to be used is very difficult for our current crop of "millenials." They are VERY used to getting their own way.

So, yes, you're right. But don't lose hope; there are places addressing the issue (even though we're finding the issue very complicated and difficult).

Laura said...

I have the tremendous advantage of having a "day job" which has taught me an awful lot about personal development and "giving and receiving feedback" from the people you work with. So I have lots of thoughts on issues like this:

For one thing - it's not a "course" that you need. It's continuous coaching and feedback in all other areas where a student is being taught (whether that's in other classes, in mentorship situations, or in situations like this where there is presumably an artistic director of some kind in charge of the festival). And it's not the kind of thing that stops when you complete that phase of your training.

From what I've seen at the aforementioned day job, I'd say that the majority of Fortune 500 companies invest a LOT of money in continually training their employees - even those employees making 6- or 7-figure salaries at high leadership positions. And certain people within the arts have the same basic idea - actors often keep getting coached or taking classes, writers keep seeking feedback on what they've written - but other areas of the arts continue to maintain this idea that once you're trained, you're "done," and I think that's a real shame. But I'm getting off-topic...

At any rate - in this case, if you don't care enough to spend the time giving feedback directly to the director - perhaps there is some sort of supervisor/AD/producer you could pass it through? Especially if it's so bad you're considered pulling your play. The people in positions of authority deserve to know.

99 said...

Thanks, David & Laura! Good comments both.

David- I'm glad that you are teaching undergrads the tools, but it's not just the millenials (though it may be more pronounced with them). I managed to get through undergrad and grad school without getting the fundamentals of collaboration (and that includes understanding the difference between collaboration, compromise, and consensus). I think a lot of theatre artists of all stripes could learn more about that.

Laura- That's exactly it! In the corporate world, how you do the job is sometimes as important as the job itself. I'll post more on this soon, but that kind of coaching and feedback is essential. Also a fair amount of modeling of better behavior.

On the practical...I've spoken with my producer who unfortunately doesn't feel its her place to speak to this director. It's a bit frustrating all around.

The Director said...

Why invest in this kid? For several very good reasons. First, you'd want the same courtesy. If nobody had invested in you to begin with, you never would've gotten anywhere. Someone, somewhere, has to take a chance on each and every one of us.

Second, how else will he learn? You said it already: somebody has to take him to task for this, and if nobody else is stepping up to the plate, then you should do it. I currently have a bonehead of a stage manager, whose solution to everything is to yell at whoever at the top of his lungs. Nobody likes him, nobody listens to him, and nobody respects him, because he just screams. The director hasn't said anything to him, the producer hasn't said anything to him, and none of the actors have said anything to him. So I did. I informed him that his current plan of attack wasn't quite working, that he was alienating everyone rather than unifying everyone, that maybe he should rethink his approach. Then I offered him some advice from my own teaching and directing experience. He welcomed my advice (although he didn't actually take any of it).

Third, like Laura said, this isn't something you can teach in a course. It takes real life repercussions to make things stick. In my undergrad program, nobody showed up for strike, nobody showed up on time, nobody was off book by the time they should've been off book. Why did this continue? Because they were never taken to task, they never faced consequences for their actions. The department didn't have enough students to fire anyone who broke the rules (or even discipline anyone who kept breaking the rules over and over), so nothing ever happened. They got a slap on the wrist. Give him an ultimatum: listen to me, or I'm yanking the play. That'll teach him.

Fourth, people learn from failure as much (or more) as they learn from success. If this kid goes through with this and he changes the script, because you're not there to reign him in on that aspect, then he's going to think it's okay to keep doing that. Yank the play, he fails, and he learns not to do that stuff again.

Having said that, take it in baby steps. Have a talk with him about your feelings regarding the matter. If that doesn't work, give him a warning. If he still insists, yank the play.

Anyone can sit on the sidelines and bitch and moan.

It takes courage, strength, and integrity to step up to the plate and do what needs to be done.

ian said...

I read this post with some serious interest being a young director myself, not this young, but everyone was young once right? I think just because a person is at a "prestigious" university does not mean they know what they are doing. Directing comes so much from experience and so much from failure. And hopefully it comes from learning from those more experienced as well.
I would say you should absolutely speak with this kid, and instead of pulling out, take a bigger role, come to rehearsals, speak with him on breaks, suggest ways of working he may not be aware of. I think its always worth the time to invest in someone, and if he feels you really caring about this production and his work maybe he will try harder.
Even if it is only taking on his relationship with you- if he’s offering rewrites you should sit him down and say that’s not how you work and suggest a better way for him to interact with you… at least if this were me, its what I would want, I would want help.

Hans said...

David is right that collaboration is being taught, it's just not being taught everywhere. It was a major part of my undergrad training, and its emphasis was actually used as a selling point for parents of prospective students who didn't want their kids to major in theatre (collaborative skills being essential in business environments, etc.). Certainly that's not the case with all or even most programs, but all of my professional experiences have showed me that my training was top notch, even if the program was relatively unknown.

As for this specific kid you're dealing with: though 'the director' makes excellent points in his comment, it sounds like there's a fair to decent chance this kid's a megalomaniac who'll find his way to the film industry eventually, in which case, no, he's not worth your investment.

Darren said...

Collaboration was beaten into us at my grad school too. Not everyone got it, of course, and there were also times several of us were "thrown in the pool" to see what happens. I think actually that it takes a lot of experience to learn to collaborate well; and some get it quickly and others never do.

As for this director, it sounds like he's intellectualizing the process too much rather than dealing with the people and situation in front of him. He's probably also had some professor along the line who's either taught or suggested that directors are god.

I'd be interested in knowing where you went to grad school by the way.

99 said...

I definitely feel ambivalent about this particular director and this particular issue. On one hand, the big picture part of me thinks, Do something! Do some good here! The smallest part of me says, Who give a crap? You'll never work with this guy again. And the playwright part of me wants the best production possible to invite people to and I won't get that without rewrites. There's a juggle to it all.

I think that better collaboration can be taught. I have a post coming up about the talent myth and the damage that does to artists of all stripes, but the tools and ground rules are teach-able. It may take some time to figure out what works best for you and who you work best with, but a better common language is possible. Many schools do teach and encourage collaboration, but it means different things in different places. Is there a standard textbook (not that textbook learning is the way to go, but it's a start)?

A part of my issue with this particular young director is wondering what kind of directors he's around. What behavior is being modeled for him? That's as much a part of it as anything else.