Monday, May 14, 2012

Thoughts after seeing The Most Exotic Marigold Hotel

Strange not being able to see into the future.  Not that one ever really can.  We merely imagine a future.  Even tomorrow is mere fiction. Yet it is the future we propel ourselves toward. A vision. An idea. A hope. A dream.  There are those who say that the energy of  creative visualization moves us toward that which we dwell upon.  When dreams come true, life seems to have a perfect plan.  In hindsight we see how everything in our lives aligned perfectly to bring us to that moment. But when they don't - we are thrust into the abyss of uncertainty as if we have been robbed of something we deserved.  The notion that we "deserve" anything is problematic in itself.  Did any of  those poor souls from Syria who now sit in a tent in a refugee camp in Turkey have dreams? I'm sure they did. Have things turned out differently than they'd planned? I would guess so.  

I just saw the movie The Most Exotic Marigold Hotel.  The fact that I chose to see it on Mother's Day says something about the demographic I now find myself in.  While there were many wonderfully delightful and touching moments in the movie - I think what hit me the most was that we must choose how we go on in life. Certainly there are some things we can't choose - things happen to us that we wouldn't have chosen - but having an attitude of adventure and an outlook that embraces uncertainty and insecurity certainly makes for a spirit of openness and a strength that I admire.

In the movie, many of the characters had lost something - their position, their savings, their spouse, their health, their sense of purpose.  What struck me was how we spend most of our lives dreaming of a future of security and comfort. This expectation is bred and programmed into us. When our imagined future is dashed or taken from us we often feel cheated.   What, after all have we worked so hard for? What do we have to show for all those years of work?  

 As if the privilege of working in and of itself was not enough.

Yes, the privilege of working. The privilege of earning. The privilege of innovating and creating.  The privilege of opportunity.

We have come to rely so heavily on the dream of a secure retirement that we miss the point.

I don't know what the future holds.  I only have imagined one.  There is no certainty. There is no security. These are ideas.  My expectation of the future is but a dream which may become reality or may not. It is in the making peace with that - that I think ....we are able to go on.... no matter what.
So much of our expectation for the future  is tied to the desire for material possessions.
Yet once we get the thing - there is satisfaction for a while - and then the desire for something else comes in. This pattern plays out over and over again in our lives.

 One of the characters in the movie says, "I don't even buy green bananas."   She has come to that place of understanding that every moment - every day is a gift and so why not just enjoy it? Each of the characters in The Most Exotic Marigold Hotel is forced to face their imagined future and to own the truth of what it actually ended up being. And what it ended up being, was the present.

I'm going to take this to heart as we begin our grand adventure.  Be here now. Wherever that is.

Saturday, May 5, 2012

Lessons From the Barricade

I have always believed in the importance of working with  "good material." My philosophy is that getting to opening night is hard no matter what show you are doing - so why not be working with masterful writing, well developed characters, and interesting subtext? As a director you live with this project sometimes for months on end - it becomes your job, your obsession, your daily companion - in short - your life - for the duration of the process.  Why waist your energy, breath, and the audience's money on a show that isn't worthy of your effort?  I always have said, "Good material will never betray you." In fact, good material can save even the weakest of actors simply with a great line even poorly delivered. Good material is good for everyone. 

At this stage of my directorial career, I want to stand at the feet of giants. I want to wrestle with complexity.  I want to tackle the tough ones.  I want to strive to tell the story on stage in as clear a way as possible using all of the theatrical elements available to me - in all of their limitation.  Limitation, I have discovered, is perhaps the greatest source of creativity there is.  How to make it work given the limitations imposed forces collaboration, inventiveness, revision, looking again, problem-solving,  seeing possibility where there appears to be none. 

Before taking on Les Miserables in a modified circus tent, I looked at artistic compromise with some disdain - boldly and stubbornly demanding that my vision be made a reality - but this was when I had everything available to me.  A stage. A fly system. A curtain.  Space for an orchestra. Seating for an audience. Wings for scenery.  A backstage. 
Not having any of these essential elements for my recent production of Les Mis forced me to compromise at every turn. No there is no way to install a turntable.  No there is no way to rig a fly system for Javert's suicide.  No there is no way to rig a scrim for the ghosts in "Empty Chairs at Empty Tables." No there is no way to rotate the barricade for the Enjolras reveal.  No. No. No.  And so with my collaborators, we had to find ways to create dramatically compelling moments within the limitation of our space.  Nothing so impacted the show as the limitation of space for an orchestra.

My musical director told me we needed a minimum of thirty pieces to play the score.  I almost choked.  Now there are ways around this.  Tracks. Synthesizers. Re-orchestrating for fewer players. But just as I resisted compromise, so did he.  And he was right.  So, at the recommendation of one of my other colleagues,  we put the orchestra in a different building entirely from our performers - a first for me.  And we were forced into  an elaborate sound design and mix that required dozens of microphones, extensive cabling, multiple audio and video monitors, and a digital mixer.  Adding to the complication was the fact that my Valjean was legally blind and so in order to see the conductor, we had to install a TV monitor at the base of the stage.  At the curtain call, I was struggling with how we could acknowledge the orchestra and had the brainstorm to have two actors hold up the monitor proving to the audience that there really was an orchestra in the next building. 

The rehearsal process goes through various stages - the first of which is to understand the text.  In the case of Les Mis, the text is adapted from Victor Hugo's novel and is through-sung.  It is essentially, an opera. This was the first time I ever attempted to direct a through-sung musical.  What I learned was that the text needs to be treated as if it were a straight play.  The recitative needs to be treated as if it were being spoken.  Everything is essentially the same, except the singer/actor must be able to deliver the emotion and objectives not only through his actions, but through his voice.  

The staging of Les Mis came down to pictures for me.  Moments captured with composition, levels, and form like in a photograph.  As hard as one tries to create these pictures in the early stages of the rehearsal process, crammed into rehearsal spaces without the actual set - the final touches cannot be made until all of the elements are in place - set, lights, costumes, and props.  In this regard, theatre is more akin to painting than to photography - the photograph captures the moment - but the creation of the moment is like the brush on canvas. And it happens very late in the process.

I learned that scale is important.  Too big is too big - even if by inches.  Shaving off corners, trimming a baseboard, installing smart casters or fixed casters, shortening a staircase can mean the difference in both look and function.  Design and function - communication between the design team and director can avoid costly mishaps and re-builds.  I learned this the hard way.

I spend a lot of time staring at the stage.  Hard, steady stares - waiting for the picture to emerge.  How to create clarity where there is nothing but mush? This is where blocking is only the beginning.  Directors have lots of different methods for getting their shows "on their feet." I have come to believe that the initial blocking is simply a way to get actors moving.  There are directors with the luxury of time - who espouse weeks of table work so that the movement for characters organically emerges from their objective or action - a technique I believe in (in theory) but have never had the time nor courage to fully embrace.  I am absolutely a believer in analysis - ask any actor who has ever worked with me - barraged by questions of motivation - there are no shortcuts as far as I am concerned in this.  Thus, movement is inherently connected to objective as far as I am concerned. However, what I learned through Les Mis is that the orchestration of movement - and the carving out of the picture are sometimes more important -especially in a through-sung show where story points can be missed in the blink of an eye and entire character choices happen almost simultaneously. Case in point:  Jean Valjean's entrance into the "Beggar" scene with Cosette, his recognition by Thenardier, Cosette and Marius' bump and love at first sight moment, Javert's entrance and Valjean's fleeing from Javert so not to be discovered by him - all happen within a few short minutes and each moment is critical to the understanding of the story. Messy blocking can result in utter confusion.  I re-blocked that scene almost up to opening. This in some ways because everything changes once the cast is placed on the actual set. You cannot see the play fully until that happens - forcing re-staging.

This show, more than any other, reminded me that lighting design is possibly the most important scenic element after costuming. I have always known that costumes are what transforms the actor into the character with one look in the mirror  - but this show was a lighting epiphany for me.

Sitting next to my lighting designer, staring at the stage and painting the canvas before us with color, texture, pattern, intensity, beam angle of  moving lights, focus, and count was quite possibly the most satisfying aspect of the production for me.  Again, limitation forced inventiveness - but lighting finished the picture. Lighting punctuated the moment. Lighting gave us goosebumps. Lighting made up for all of the other deficits.  I remembered as I sat asking for this or that - "What about those instruments - can we point those at the barricade?"  "Can we flash or do some effect for each of the slow motion deaths?" "The last moments of the finale needs something - can we add a cue?" "Can that cue come later?"
 " Can it be more amber?" "Can it fade on the last note?"  "When are you calling that cue?" 
Timing is everything - even in lighting.  Faster fades. Quicker blackouts. Up with the music.  Out on the last note. Orchestration - even in lighting.

I remembered how, when I was eleven years old, I walked into the high school gym where I was performing in my first musical, The Sound of Music and I saw the Von Trapp veranda bathed in blue light - it took my breath away.  I have identified that moment as the moment I was bitten by the theatre bug.  I had the same feeling as my lighting designer and I sat at the table staring at the barricade sequence trying to get it just right.  Here, I was unwilling to compromise and I believe it paid off. I'd let go of so many of my original ideas out due to the limitations of the space - taking the time to painstakingly light the show was a treat - a luxury afforded me by a collaborator willing to put up with my perfectionism and equipment that surpassed the facility we were in. 

Sometimes you just miss it.  Sometimes it isn't until the bitter end that you realize you've made a mistake and you need to fix it.  Sometimes that isn't until after you have an audience.  Case in point:
Eponine's death.  I staged it on the floor - but it was too far downstage to be seen by 3/4 of the audience due to the makeshift seating and rake of the choir platforms on which the chairs were placed.  So after our first performance in front of an audience, my choreographer and I toiled to find a way to drape her across Marius on top of a box.  Both of us, stumbling our way across the stage, laying this way and that - until we found just the right picture.  The domino was that somebody had to move the ammo crate off the top of the box to create the room for Eponine to collapse into Marius' arms.  It never happened and Marius had to think on his feet and move it in a split second to catch Eponine as she fell into his arms.  It was a "happy accident" making the moment seem utterly realistic. 

I realized my ultimate blunder in my sleep - which is often the case for me. In an effort to simplify a set change at the end of the show for the Epilogue when Valjean is sitting in a chair, writing his last confession and preparing to die, I'd eliminated the desk. In eliminating that second piece of furniture, I'd inadvertently eliminated the most important symbol in the whole story - the two silver candlesticks that were given to him by the Bishop transforming his life. So just before opening, we added a small table, the candlesticks, two new spike marks and an additional actor to set the table in place and I re-staged the last picture - Cosette on the floor next to Valjean, the candlesticks, and Marius looking over as Fantine enters to take Valjean to the other side.  Timing.  Lighting.  Fantine was coming in from the up left portal and the side light was in the down left portal.  I changed her entrance.  Timing. The moment Valjean stands and moves to Fantine symbolizing his death - the moment Cosette sees the "empty chair" and knows he is gone - Timing. Timing and Picture - Valjean, Eponine, and Fantine encircling Cosette and Marius - Focus - where to look on the famous line "To love another person is to see the face of God?"Look at them on "And remember the truth that once was spoken...." Look out at the audience on "To love...."
  Timing. When should the chorus enter on the reprise of "Do you Hear the People Sing?" They're stepping on the moment.  Delay their entrance. 
All of this changed in the final rehearsals.  
Attention to detail makes all the difference. Push it over the finish line.  Never, ever give up.  

  I would have to say, directing  Les Miserables is to date, the pinnacle of my directorial experience.  All I ever set out to do was to produce the best Les Mis we could do within the limitations of our situation.  Sometimes all of the elements from casting to curtain call come together and transcend. It is a humbling and awesome experience.  It is ephemeral. The product lasts but for the run of the show.  It all comes down in a few short hours of strike.  Photos last. And these days, a few youtube clips capture pieces of the show. But ultimately, it is in the process - detail by painstaking detail - transition by transition - chair by chair - table by table - bottle by bottle - rifle by rifle - crate by crate - moment by moment - that art is created.  That is the artistic chore of the theatre. That is the wonder of collaboration. That is the gift in limitation. That is why I stick to good material.
And no, I don't know what I'm going to do next year....
Quickly, as if she were recalled by something over there, she turned to her canvas. There it was-her picture. Yes, with all its greens and blues, its lines running up and across, its attempt at something....With a sudden intensity, as if she was clear for a second, she drew a line there, in the centre. It was done; it was finished. Yes, she thought, laying down her brush in extreme fatigue, I have had my vision.                                                                                 From To The Lighthouse Virginia Woolf