First-Person: TJ Dawe on Lessons he's Learned on Directing Never Shoot a Stampede Queen
What I learned Before...why it is wrong
by TJ Dawe
The director's job ends on opening night. What a crock.
Here's how the gig works, as I learned it in theatre school:
-the director directs the rehearsals
-she gives notes after every run through, tech dress, full dress, previews, and opening
-after that it's the stage manager's job to preserve the show in its opening night incarnation
-if the director wants to watch the show again after opening, she's welcome to buy a ticket like anyone else
-she is not welcome to give further notes to the cast, crew or designers.
I didn't study to be a director. I studied to be an actor. I didn't study to be a writer, dramaturg, designer or stage manager either. I stumbled into self-created theatre, and wound up doing all of those things, going on instinct, learning by osmosis. Mostly outside the bounds of theatre as it's practiced in established, regional houses across the country. Outside the rules Equity fights to uphold. Working exclusively with new scripts. Creating them myself, or midwifing the works of others. Usually while on tour.
Here's what I learned doing this:
-the audience is the final ingredient.
-you can get all the feedback you want from people reading your script. From people watching public readings. From peers and critics and papered seats in previews and opening. But there's nothing like the honest unfiltered reaction of a house of paying strangers. They're the heat in the oven. Without that, you have a pan full of batter, not a cake.
-and if you were to create a new cake from scratch, wouldn't finalizing the recipe after a single baking seem inadequate?
The little nuances stumble in, like figs falling from heaven, right into your mouth.
Most runs of plays are woefully short. It takes me a certain number of kicks at the can before I can genuinely relax with new material, before I can be lucid and present with the people there and how they're responding. Before I can really mean what I'm saying instead of saying something I've memorized and rehearsed. But there's a certain point where that threshold pops like a soap bubble, and I'll find myself there. Alive. In the moment. And that's when the really good discoveries happen. The little nuances stumble in, like figs falling from heaven, right into your mouth.
I've recognized this in shows I've directed as well. After a certain point, the actors are off and running, confidently, with an ease and a naturalness that can't be quantified. Give them a bit of time in this state and they're punctuating the work with all kinds of flourishes - many of them extremely subtle - that add up to a mountain of difference.
I've never seen anyone get there on opening night. It would be unrealistic to expect them to. Many of the best lines in shows I've worked on popped into existence months into the tour. To lock in the show at opening hobbles it. And it potentially freezes moments that don't work into place. A colleague told me about a production she'd been in in which a serious moment right at the play's conclusion was consistently met with laughter from the audience. The director made a mistake. The cast couldn't change it. The mistake played out, night after night, and the stage manager kept the show as it was. Insisting a play retain such a moment is tantamount to demanding a hair be left in the salad. Every night.
You have to be there.
Even though people having been pronouncing theatre to be dead for who knows how long, the medium has this towering advantage over pretty much any other art form: it can't be file shared. It looks atrocious on Youtube. You have to be there. And with the increasing digitization of our lives, a counter-pull occurs, building a desire to actually connect with others, at the same time, in the same place.
As I argue elsewhere, theatre is mutating. It's growing increasingly experimental and interactive - often in playful and accessible ways. The fourth wall isn't endangered, but it doesn't occupy the only important place at the table anymore. I'd like to see traditional guidelines about the director's - and the writer's - involvement changing as well. Every performance is a conversation between the cast and the exact audience that's there that night. And every audience is at least somewhat different.
Perhaps this notion applies more to new scripts than to published plays. One of the reasons I’ve gravitated to new scripts is the fact that you can’t throw a new line into Caryl Churchill or Ibsen. But the variations in the way a line can be delivered, how an interaction can be played, how a moment comes across, especially in response to the unique reactions of an audience - those are practically infinite.
Keeping the various creators' roles alive throughout a run allows them to participate in the living, ongoing collaboration and conversation with each audience. It allows many more opportunities for trying as many adjustments as the team's creativity can come up with to reach the audience, to enrich the ride they're on. And to continually improve the flavour of the cake they're chomping down.
Feed an audience something like that, and they'll be back. With friends. And an appetite.
Never Shoot a Stampede Queen runs to May 25 at The Arts Club in Vancouver. Click here for tickets.
Read also: TJ Dawe on preparing Never Shoot a Stampede Queen
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