Undermain’s Artistic Director, Katherine Owens, discusses “the director as innovator.”


Last weekend Katherine Owens spoke on a panel at the Theatre Communications Group National Conference.  The topic was “The Director As Innovator,” and panelists included Rob Melrose of Cutting Ball Theatre, Chris Ashley of La Jolla, and Howard Shalwitz of Wooly Mammoth Theatre Company (who led the group), among many other nationally renowned artists.

Earlier this week, Katherine met with Undermain’s Literary Manager, Stephen Foglia, to share some of what they discussed.

Stephen Foglia: So this panel was called “The Director As Innovator”. What questions were you convened to address?

Katherine Owens: Howard Shalwitz [Artistic Director, Wooly Mammoth] put forth that this is really the time of the playwright in the American theatre, and some of the traditions from the 60s and 70s — what we thought of as the auteur director — we’re not seeing that tradition continued in the same way.

And the question is whether there are things that are societal or institutional that are keeping theaters from having a platform for directors to really develop their own voice.

What distinguishes an auteur director from the current crop of directors?

I think there’s a concern that the director is relegated to a craftsman or a producer in certain instances and that the vision of the playwright has to dominate.  That you don’t have two strong entities coming together but one strong entity and an assisting entity.

But there are a couple of other factors as well.  Usually the auteur director, I think, is unpacked in a process that has to do with a classic play.  And we are not seeing anywhere near the number of classic plays produced that we might have seen at another time.  And certainly nowhere near the number that you see in Europe.

The emphasis now is on new plays.  And so then the question is, do we as directors have a responsibility to that initial production to bring forth the playwright’s voice first?

And how do you feel about that?

I think that there’s a real danger sometimes with new plays that if you don’t try to follow the thinking of the playwright that you can really end up with a pastiche or worse.  You can end up with something that’s crossed itself out.  Like mixing two complements together.  If you’re not careful you’ll have a very dull brown.

In the best cases there’s a meeting of minds.  The director and the playwright have a symbiotic relationship.  And in the worst case you just have two strong ideas fighting for the right to write the piece.

Do you have examples of that from your career?  You direct a lot of new work.

I hope I don’t have examples of that. (laughing)

I’m sorry, I mean both –

But I probably do! (laughing)

I mean both cases, the positive and the…

Anecdotally of course, you know the playwrights talk to you and the directors talk to you. I think the feeling of some directors is that sometimes the playwright really just wants to direct their own work but doesn’t have the directing skills.  And so you’re sort of in their way.

And many times playwrights have told me about a production that went horribly wrong.  In general it seemed to me that it was either an incapable director or was a very well-known, auteur type of director.  But it was always on a new play.

I think we [at Undermain] try very hard to follow the playwright’s intentions.  But then we don’t develop work in the way that some places do.  We have a little more of a radical acceptance viewpoint of the work.  We usually pick it and say, “if nothing changed in this work, and we simply presented it, it would be all right.”

Someone on the panel brought up the dichotomy between traditional playmaking and devised work and how that creates a split pathway for emerging directors.  Do you remember that part of the conversation?

What we’re saying is traditional playmaking, there’s an author.  A central author.  And I think in devised work, I think the author is the director in a sense.  They’re orchestrating it.  They’re putting it together.

It does sound like one of the problems that we’re running into is that not only are there different ways of directing in the room but there are possibly entirely different purposes to directing.  There are directors who view themselves as the primary creative artist and directors who view themselves as the controlling interpretive artist.  Which are two similar but significantly different things.

Yes, and that takes us into – and this could be a whole other blog post – the interpretive artist notion and the creative artist.  There was a great deal of talk about this when I was in school.  I don’t hear those discussions in the same way any more.  In fact, we’ve kind of entered this era of what I would call community creativity.  Where part of the art-making experience is making sure people feel some kind of creativity in themselves.

Our relationship to creativity changes rapidly.  What we think about it, what we say about it, who’s allowed to be involved in it.  There are a lot of books about happiness and creativity now.  People are enjoined to be creative in their own lives.  They want to have experiences at art institutions that feel creative and interactive.  So that’s a whole other side to it.

With the staging of classics, it seems to me immediately there are two advantages for the auteur director.  First is that, since we might have, say, a vanilla idea of what the play might be by default, without another artist attached to it, it’s easier for them to demonstrate their own effect on the project more clearly than with a new play.  But also the writer is dead.  So the materials do lie there as materials to be used.

I couldn’t put it better myself.  That’s very well put.  Or as Aeschylus said about The Iliad, “I’m really just all the time cutting off chunks of Homer and using them.”  We’re using our canon, in a sense.  And the author is dead, and they’re not in copyright.  Look how we felt when Joyce went out of copyright.  You said, “why don’t we just cut together a version of Ulysses!”  Or now that Kafka’s out of copyright.  I was just discussing the fact that Kafka’s out of copyright – or parts of his work at least – with Sylvan Oswald.  You know with copyright out of the way you’ve got a lot of latitude.

And then from a creative standpoint it becomes something similar to, say, sampling in hip-hop.  You have existing materials that you as the artist are combining in original ways, and what had formerly been a work of art entire to itself is now a chunk that you are using.  But in hip-hop the samples are songs that already exist, possibly famous songs.  With newer plays, if a director is trying to metaphorically sample that work, the work hasn’t fully been played yet, there’s no original version that the author would have seen.

That’s exactly right.  So that voice has not had a chance to develop.  I think the director has a different – I don’t know what their obligation is to the play – but sometimes two strong forces on the play can be the wrong approach.  Once we’re ready to do the play, I’m ready to do it without any changes.  I have so much to do as a director, I see a path through it as a director.  It’s not incumbent upon me to solve all the problems of the play.

We had a reading one night, and there was a talkback.  And Erik [Ehn] said, “Boy, I bet if Shakespeare had had a talkback after Lear, the Fool would have had a final scene.” (laughs)

But you know, when I was working with Mac [Wellman], I would say, “Mac, I don’t know what to do here.”  And he’d say, “oh, cut it.”  I’d say, “No!  I don’t want to cut it!  I just can’t figure it out.”  He’d say, “Just cut it.  Move it around.  It doesn’t matter.”

The contract changes between you and the playwright.

They’re all different.  And we’ve allowed them to have their head quite a bit because I feel like its better for the play.  They’re able to bring they’re technology in and leave it with us.  And sometimes they’re tracking on something that I just have no idea where it is.  I’m trying to listen to the resonant parts of the play.

Another way to put it is sometimes the surface of the play is not that interesting to me.  Sometimes I just like to leave the surface alone so I can see if there is a deeper tone way, way down.  If you leave the surface untouched, you can plumb the depths a little bit better.

When I did As You Like It, the Shakespeare Festival said, “what’s your concept?”  And I said, “well, it’s a play that’s outdoors, in the woods, in a beautiful setting, in a park, with gorgeous costumes.” Because I had a thought that if you left As You Like It alone there might be something in there that was just so radical.  That was already there. (laughs) Looking back I would have pushed it a little bit more.  I probably should have come up with a concept.

But when I saw Peter Brook’s Cherry Orchard it seemed for all the world to be a fairly traditional approach to the play.  It was magnificent.  It was simple.  I mean, if anything, there’s a way of working with those plays where you subtract.

Sort of like the Chanel, “take on thing off.”

You take on thing off, yes.  (laughs)  I always wonder what that one thing should be.

It’s a little easier when you have complete control.  And this is where there was very little sympathy in the room for the Artistic Directors.

They said, “if you want to change something, it’s not going to be us – the freelance directors.  It’s got to be you guys.”

Change something like…?

If you’d like to see more innovation on your stage, if you’d like to see more auteur directors, more new ideas, you’ve got to get us more rehearsal time, and you need to be willing to take a chance on it, and you need to be willing to protect our right to do it.  And think of it as an important function of the theatre, the director’s voice.

Philip Himberg, from Sundance, said – this was such an interesting point – he said that in Europe, because of Fascist regimes and social turmoil, the playwrights were much more easily censored than directors.  Directors could take a play and make political points with just a turn of a gesture, whereas playwrights were a lot more vulnerable because they had written it down.  He said that drove the rise of all these strong directors.

You do hear all the time about the famous European directors, Spanish, Catalan, the Germans – the Germans, especially – doing just wild things with classics.  Often involving nudity and bodily fluids (laughing).

Wasn’t there a production we saw on YouTube of Penelope?  Just a completely different take on the production.

It was the ending of the play, and the sequence began with a gruesome castration.

That’s it.  It was interesting to see how far afield that production was.  You know, and really you’re looking at a new play, so people were seeing that play for the first time.  When I was researching Endgame I saw an unbelievable number of weird productions online.

Well, that has one of the most famous director versus playwright wars of recent theatre history.  JoAnne Akalaitis versus Samuel Beckett.  She’d placed it in a subway.  More or less a New York subway.

He wasn’t actually able to stop it completely.

I think the solution was the play ran but with a program note from Beckett saying, “this is not my play.”

And he had so much control of his pieces.  And this is also the case with musicals.  It’s extremely difficult to make changes in American musicals.  And you have to have such force.  You really have to rebel on musicals, in a lot of cases.

Something that strikes me about Beckett, you can see that he imagined [the plays] fully in action.  There are many playwrights that sort of take the tack of, “I provide the words, and the rest is up to you.”  Beckett was never one of those playwrights.  You can see that he’d imagined every single action on-stage.  The pauses, the turns, the blinks.  It makes sense that he would view himself as having fully created the work and requiring no invention on the director’s part.

Sometimes a form like that, which is more like a Noh drama, where everything in the form is known, is a very interesting approach.  Sometimes you try to do nothing innovative at all.  Like painters in the Charles Barque school of drawing, where you’re taught to take a cast and capture everything in the exact proportion of the plaster.  It’s almost like an iconography.  You’re looking at a perfected form that you’re trying to become fully part of that form.  That’s a radical experiment.  And people are dismayed because there haven’t been changes in it.  But there are always changes in it.  By the time you’ve got it cast there are changes.

And it’s not as if they direct themselves.

Not at all.  And also, as I said earlier, if you leave the surfaces undisturbed, all of the changes take place at a subconscious subliminal level.  Maybe people feel like that’s craftsmanship or something.

I was surprised that it seemed like craftsmanship had gotten a dirty name.  I’ve never thought to be a craftsman was something to be belittled.  I don’t know if he would use this word, but the two plays we just mentioned, Endgame and Penelope, were both done at Undermain, both done with Stan Wojewodski directing.  I would be shocked if Stan said he innovated anything in either of those plays, and yet surely they were different than any other production that had been done, required all of his immense talent, and to many of our audiences were immensely satisfying.

Yes, and I think it was interesting because Patrick Kelly said on his way out of the panel, “this innovator is a word I have trouble with.”  I mean, I think probably a lot of people had trouble with it.  I think we used it as a word of departure.  Chris said, “who is challenging the director?”

The thing that I talked about, and you and I discussed this early on, I’m asking, “where is the documentation?  Of directing?”  I mean directing is the most undocumented of all fields.  There’s no notation for it.  It’s impossible to say how you did things.

Let’s say there was an innovative production somewhere.  We would have no idea what the director did.  That’s something Mac Wellman told us early on.  He said, “you really need to write about what you do because nobody is documenting theatre in this day and age, the way it’s put together.”  Of course the play is there, but many of these plays lie fallow because they do not have a set of accompanying notes that talks about how it’s put together.  So it can’t be reactivated, in a sense.

Philip Himberg mentioned the idea of developing mechanisms for directors to observe and critique one another.

On Penelope and on Ghost Sonata, I watched the entire span of rehearsals.  Penelope was a complicated process, and I wanted to be there to help and make sure Undermain was on point because we had no time to spare, but I also got to watch Stan direct.  I really watched him from the beginning.  I hid in the back, I had my notes with me.  And I think Stan was fine about having me in the hall.  When something was funny he’d always turn around and look at me, like, “isn’t this great?”  And it was.  It was great.  So that was an opportunity that I had because of the time of year.  I highly recommend that.  But who has the time?

Also, you being the Artistic Director don’t have to ask permission to come to rehearsals.

Sometimes I think people are nervous when the Artistic Director is at rehearsals.  But Stan, you know, is not nervous.  And so I was able to observe.  It was really a lot of fun.  What would I have been doing anyway?  I would have gone home and worried about it.  I think that was a very important point about mentorships and watching people.

That’s why we have two and three assistant directors during shows.  When you’re that age you look for a different thing than you look for if you’re a little further along in your career.  For one thing you don’t second-guess the director as much when you’re a more experienced director.  Isn’t that interesting?  When you’re young you’re like, “oh, I wouldn’t do it that way!”  When you’re old, you’re like, “huh, how about that?”

This interview has been lightly edited for clarity.  For all internal quotations: [sic].

Stephen Foglia, Literary Manager