I saw many beautiful shows this past UIL OAP season. I saw beautiful set designs, intriguing concepts, incredible movement, spectacular special effects, etc. I definitely saw some stunning plays, visuals that will stay with me for many years, but I did not always understand the story being told. I fear we, as directors (and I am talking to myself), are focusing on spectacle and not a protagonist’s journey. With the removal of many set limitations, the focus has shifted away from the story. I want to see a show that moves me, inspires me, makes me laugh, not one that makes me wonder how that director did that effect or accomplished that design; those things should compliment the story, not drive it. I cannot tell you how many times an audience member has said to me, “Can you tell me what that play was about?” Isn’t that our job – to tell the story?
As I watched contest plays, I realized I am not the only director who has lost focus. So many shows this year were beautiful, cool, and imaginative. While this creates a visually stunning show, this focus sometimes takes away from the playwright’s story. This trend has caused me to revisit Aristotle’s Poetics. Aristotle gives us six elements of a play: plot, character, theme, language, rhythm and spectacle. Many of us are putting too much focus on the spectacle and not enough focus on the other five elements. The spectacle is driving the show and not the protagonist’s journey. Our attention has been on the vision we can put on the stage while the actual story has taken a backseat. Instead of spending energy discovering the best way to cover up the gray or add a special effect to “WOW” an audience, energy and time should be spent on directing the plot and coaching the actor.
When I first began directing, I knew nothing. I was an elementary education major asked to direct the OAP. I am competitive, so I began watching and learning from the best. What I could not learn from them in a short two-hour clinic, I figured out on my own. I analyzed characters with my students using real life experiences from myself and others. I created stage pictures that I thought were pretty and told the story. I focused on a character’s movement (blocking) because I knew that created interest for an audience. I made sure I could hear my actors on stage but did not let them sacrifice honesty for volume. I did everything I could to create the illusion of that playwright’s world with believable character choices. Back then, the last element I considered was spectacle.
Through the years, I have learned so much more about directing. I have met and analyzed many directors. I have read books. I have attended training. I have trained others. I definitely have a whole lot more knowledge than I did twenty years ago. I am a much better director than I was before, but I have to honestly admit that I have gotten caught up in directing the spectacle and not the protagonist’s journey.
Why do we spend so much time on the directing component of the contest and not more time on the acting? First of all, spectacle is being rewarded in competition. A show that is heavy on spectacle is advancing over a well-acted show – even though the contest is an acting contest. It is hard not to follow the trend that takes home the trophies. I believe the other reason we focus on spectacle is because it is the element directors can most control. With today’s teen spending the majority of their time in front of a screen, teaching them to recreate relationships through dialogue is a challenge. Students do not know what face-to-face communication feels like in real life, so they have a difficult time communicating and living in the moment on stage. Even though it is difficult to coach an actor to do something out of his or her comfort zone, that is where our focus should be. Somehow we need to return to the balance of acting and directing in our shows. Our first priority should be to direct the plot and coach the actors. We need to remember that our concept or commanding image should compliment our story, not drive it.
I know this may sound as if I am bitter for not advancing. I am not bitter, but I am disappointed in myself. I did not push my students to explore their characters enough. I spent way too much time directing the art and not the story. So as I prepare for the next year, I am going to challenge myself to return to directing the story. I love working on the spectacle, but I will not allow that to consume my preparation. I am going to return to teaching students to be real, authentic and genuine within the world the playwright has given us. I do not want the audience to leave talking about the show’s concept not knowing what the story was really about. I want to direct a stunning show, but I want an audience to leave with more knowledge, being moved or entertained because they followed a character’s journey.