Playwright/directors share their advice and experience about putting your own work onstage
Stephen Kaliski (left) on the set of In the Next Room (or the Vibrator Play) during rehearsal for the Yale Dramatic Association’s 2013 production.
Mounting your dream production of Hamlet (or whatever thrills your artistic spirit) is wonderfully challenging—you want to honor the material you love by interpreting it accurately, and authentically, in terms of the writer’s vision. When you’re staging an original play of your own, your material deserves the same honest and care-filled treatment—but objectivity can be an issue. What’s the right way to strike a balance—separating yourself enough from your writing so that you look at the play’s strengths and weaknesses, and both emphasize the good and fix the not-so-great in terms of your staging? We asked three accomplished playwright/directors who’ve mastered this skill to share their wisdom for putting up a successful hybrid production.
To many theatre artists, the very idea of a writer directing his or her own work is a daunting concept. “I think there’s a common wisdom that writers shouldn’t direct their own work, but I don’t believe we should make those kinds of generalizations,” says writer/director Stephen Kaliski, who has worked with the Classic Stage Company and the Royal Shakespeare Company, and is an adjunct professor at Fordham University and Brooklyn College. “The first question I believe a writer should ask is: How do I see myself? If you’re a playwright, you may be used to writing in a vacuum, which happens in a lot of university programs. If you want to direct your work, however, you have to be willing to collaborate. Personally, how I see myself is NOT to think of myself as either a director or a storyteller—I focus on the material and how to present it honestly. So, my objective is bigger than myself.”
Separating yourself sufficiently from your own writing in order to identify your play’s strengths and weaknesses then becomes crucial. It’s easy to fall in love with a phrase, scene or character that isn’t integral to the play’s theme or plot—but you have to be ruthless. A great tip for seeing your work in its unvarnished form is to put it on its feet early. “One of the signposts in my career came when I met David Mamet,” says Charles Messina, writer/director of the hit Off-Broadway play Mercury: The Afterlife and Times of a Rock God (about Freddie Mercury of Queen) and A Room of My Own, which is currently being developed for Broadway. “I went to a reading he gave, and got to ask him for some advice on writing and directing afterward. Mamet said, ‘Get a group of actors together and put your plays up.’ Best idea ever. You need a solid core group of actors who will bring your piece to life as soon as possible. Being a guy who hates multiple drafts, I’m not shy about getting in a room with those actors that I trust early on, and listening to what they do with my work. Either the first draft will come to life, or it won’t. No matter what, I love that process of enlightenment.”
Also listen to, and accept without defensiveness, the creative opinions of your team members. “Collaboration is combustion when it works,” says writer/director Victoria Rue, whose socially conscious plays have been performed at the Mark Taper Forum and the Manhattan Theatre Club. “I learned a tremendous amount about it when I worked on a play called Lady Lazarus, about Sylvia Plath, with wonderful artists like Tyne Daly. We became an extended family—the experience was especially wonderful because it was a group of people who really put out their trust, back and forth, and we gave of our deepest selves, drawing from our own life stories as we worked. That’s the definition of power in creation.”
Making Constructive Change
Even though collaboration is an absolutely fruitful tool in the process of directing your own piece, it’s also vital to hang on to the basic concept of what you’re trying to convey. “You need to go into the rehearsal process thinking of the play as if it’s proven,” Kaliski explains. “You want to the work honored on the page. Sometimes, actors will try so many things that you’re no longer telling the story as fully intended—if you let that happen, it’s a sure sign you’re not trusting your own play. That’s not to say you shouldn’t try changes out in a rehearsal, but as the director, you’ve got to also be the one to say to your collaborators, ‘What we’re trying is just not working.’ It’s great to appreciate others’ suggestions, but you ultimately must decide when changes are not functional.”
At that same time, it’s important to look at directing your work as a fact-finding mission. “I think as a writer, you’ve got to come in with the rib cage of the story, and then as a director, give yourself time to establish a vision,” says Rue. “As a director, my goal is to create a culture of understanding in regard of my original material. For my piece about the Koran, for example, I felt it was very important to have cast members who were Muslim. My eye, my sense of what the arc of this story was going to be, needed to be informed. A Muslim member of our company one day informed me that Mohammad’s face should never be shown—of course, that changed how we depicted the character. It was so helpful, and that education of my vision really helped me to let go of the material. It’s such an honor to watch the growth of the work you began.”
Gina Ferranti, John Barbieri (foreground) and Lou Martini Jr. in a production still from the 2010 production of Charles Messina’s Klepto at The Theatre at 30th Street in NYC.
A smart writer/director will take in constructive input, divine whether it’s warranted for the material, and be confident enough to make needed changes quickly and decisively. Messina exemplifies this kind of self-assurance: “I know I have to hear my play out loud. Then, if I trust the actors I’m working with—and I do have a handful of great actors I trust—then I listen to what they’re telling me. Most likely, I’m on the floor laughing at how they’ve interpreted a line in a way I never thought of. I feel like it’s a 50% situation on both sides—the text is what you bring, and then the actors equally feed that draft.”
Learning About Your Work—And Yourself
What’s the greatest lesson you can learn by directing your own material? Art comes from gut instinct, for one thing. “As a writer, I don’t really take longer than three weeks to create a play,” Kaliski explains. “I’m not the same person three weeks later! So I go with my first thought—I write it up, then see the next day if it works. As a director, though, you’re wearing a new hat. In rehearsing original work, I feel that we, as a group, have to push against the play, try different things, and not be afraid of happy accidents.”
For Messina, it’s knowing when not to let go. “I’m very happy to leave the direction of a number of my plays to others,” Messina says. “There are a few situations, though, where I know I am the right person to interpret the material. Ralph Macchio, who’s been with me on the journey as an actor in A Room of My Own from Off-Broadway, said, ‘It’s so great that the producers who optioned the play for Broadway agreed to let you direct.’ I agree, but who else would be right? This piece is so deeply and dearly me, and I’m so proud to be able to carry it through—it’s one of those times where I found my riff, and I’m the right person to keeping playing it.”
A mother and daughter work with toxic chemicals to make computer motherboards in their living room in a scene from Nhu Thien Dang/Like Heaven, a play that Victoria Rue developed with the members of San Khau Viet Cali, a Vietnamese theatre company in San Jose, Calif.
Rue feels that staging original work has given her insight into her own character. “I did a play called The Terry Project—it was based on the journals of a young schizophrenic woman I’d known. My goal was to look at the schizophrenic experience from the inside out, not from a doctor’s point of view. A month after I’d done the piece, I was talking with a friend who said, ‘I don’t think it was a play about schizophrenia—I think it was a play about you.’ I had never considered that—but I realized, yes, the play is really representative of my experience of coming out as a lesbian. I suddenly saw that within my staging of this new work, I was breaking down the interior process I’d undergone, as opposed to the exterior process of becoming who I was in the world. My life drew me to a topic which could be illuminating to others—that was an amazing lesson.”
Your ultimate reward in directing your own material just may lie in the experience of seeing the impact your art has on those who watch the finished product. “An audience will never lie to you,” Kaliski sums up. “If it felt right when people were watching it, you’re learning what works, and that’s generosity.”