The Director As Innovator, Introduction To This Week’s Interview Topic

This past weekend Dallas hosted the annual Theatre Communications Group Conference.  Undermain Theatre was on the host committee, and Artistic Director Katherine Owens sat on a panel of prestigious national directors to address the topic of artistic innovation.

I spoke with Katherine yesterday about some of the ideas raised by the panel.  That interview will be running on the blog later this week.  In advance of that, I thought it might be helpful to introduce more fully the territory these great theatremakers were covering.

The title of the session was “The Director As Innovator,” and its question was described as follows:

“In the American theatre, have we given playwrights too much responsibility to be the primary innovators of a production? What about directors? Are we training directors to show too much deference to playwrights at the expense of their own visions?  Are we giving directors the time and tools they need for innovative work?  Are there successful examples of theatres or communities nurturing visionary directors?  This session will ask hard questions and look for opportunities to empower the director’s role in the American theatre.”

Now, as background, it is worth mentioning that the position of director, as we currently understand it, has only existed for the past century and a half.  The rise of the director as a separate and privileged interpreter of the playwright’s work has coincided with many other developmental trends in theatre, including, perhaps most importantly, unifying aesthetics such as those practiced by the major Russian theatre producers of the late 19th and early 20th centuries.

It is not necessarily true that directing did not formerly exist, only that the duties now associated with a director were once dissolved among various actors, writers, and managers constituting a company.  It is safe to assume in most present day productions that a director is responsible for staging (the movement of actors), guiding the concepts that influence design and performance, and for working with the actors.

The implicit thesis of the TCG panel prompt is that playwrights are currently treated as the creative artists while directors are interpreters of a completed work.  That statement would be neither very surprising nor controversial to most American theatregoers.

Why directors should want things to be otherwise, and how they might intend to assert creative control, is a more difficult question.  Here it’s important to shift back and forth between at least two paradigms.

In one (the dominant mode of American theatre), the theatrical work of art is effectively an existing script embodied.  To bring a script to life is not an easy task and it requires a great deal of creativity from all involved, but the ultimate product will be judged primarily for its effectiveness in translating the imagination of the playwright onto the stage.  The potential merits of the final production will be more or less outlined by the merits of the script (what would good directing of a bad play look like after all?).

In another paradigm — which may be achieved with a playwright but encompasses other forms that tend to devalue the writer as a separate entity – the art is a separate thing embodied, because the production and the production alone is the statement.

In the first paradigm, a director is most often a secondary artist and interpreter.  She must come to an understanding of the play and unify production elements (including performances) to communicate what the playwright has done to the audience.

In the second paradigm, a director is the primary artist, and the script, if it exists, is more rightly considered a material of the production than its circumscribing force.  In this paradigm, apparently radical interpretations of existing works make total sense because the communication originates with the director using the script as a relay rather than the other way around.

Of course these paradigms may be penetrated.  By developing work with a playwright as part of the company, a director may have a strong hand in innovating the finished product, while still maintaining a structure that takes a full script faithfully to stage.  Even devised work tends to ultimately create a script (possibly credited to multiple writers) that is then translated rather directly into performance.  When it comes to wild post-modern directorial concoctions of the second paradigm, it may be fair to ask if the director is not ultimately writing in one way or another.

The above prompt seems to assume that directors ought to be moving American theatre from the first paradigm into the second, or at the very least using creative development processes to wield greater influence within the first paradigm.

One final note to address before Katherine’s interview is the use of the word auteur.  La politique des auteurs, as coined by François Truffaut and developed by French film critics of the mid-20th century, holds that within the studio context and the collaborative, mechanical process of filmmaking, the director may be seen as the primary artist of the film, and her voice will be present across genre, content, and even production studio (think Hawks, or Hitchcock, or Welles).

As applied to theatre, one might then expect an auteur director to be one whose works an audience recognizes regardless of the kind of play it is or the theatre in which it is produced.  Relatively few directors answer that description, and those that do tend to work in paradigm two.  Significantly, the majority of the famous auteurs film directors collaborated on their own scripts.

In any case, when the word auteur is dropped in that upcoming interview, it refers to a director whose individuality is expressed on top of or through script, design, and performance elements, all of which may be the work of other people.

Please forgive me for how terribly condensed this all is.  The history and role of the director is a fascinating subject, and there are examples that counter just about everything I’ve written, but I’m just hoping to give enough background to pave the way for what Katherine has to say in this week’s interview.

More to come.