On Directing Community Theatre

In the film “Shakespeare in Love,” there’s a wonderful moment when a theatre owner (Henslowe) and a ruthless moneylender (Fennyman), to whom he owes a great deal of dosh, tiptoe down a London street awash with all manner of foul things, as the sewage systems aren’t up to snuff in this part of town. The play they are trying to put on has experienced one disaster after another. The divine Geoffrey Rush plays Henslowe, while the always sincere Tom Wilkinson is Fennyman. Script is by Marc Norman and Tom Stoppard, both of whom know a thing or two about plays.

Phillip Henslowe: Mr. Fennyman, allow me to explain about the theatre business. The natural condition is one of insurmountable obstacles on the road to imminent disaster.

Hugh Fennyman: So, what are we to do?

Philip Henslowe: Nothing. Strangely enough, it all turns out well.

Hugh Fennyman: How?

Philip Henslowe: I don’t know. It’s a mystery.

A fictional exchange, yet oh-so-true in all theatre, really. I just know more about the community theatre level. I think of this quote every time I reach what we know as “tech week” in the theatre, a moment when (hopefully) all the moving pieces come together, and you start to see what the show is going to look like.

Being a director is delightful. Theatre is already the ultimate collective of artists working toward a singular goal: to delight an audience, transport them elsewhere for a few hours, and have fun doing it. Being the director for this collaboration means that you get to shape it, and be in a constant state of delight as you see little black words on pieces of paper bloom to life as your cast embodies them.

It also means you’re the one to blame if it doesn’t.

Ah, art!

There are always, always problems to be solved. They change with every show. If the set is ready ahead of time on one show, the paint will still be wet on opening night for another.

If props are easy for one show, they are a nightmare collection of weird things to find on the next. (I’m looking at you, full-on working printing press for “You Can’t Take It With You.) Sound effects can be daunting to unearth even in this day and age when you think you’d be able to find anything. Sometimes the lighting board Just. Doesn’t. Work…. And the poor person operating it has to scramble to work what can be up to several hundred cues manually. On time, and in sync with the actors who just have to hope that the light turns on when they put their hand on the fake switch on the wall. They do it though. Strangely enough, it all turns out well.

Heaven forbid you have fire or fireworks on your set—you need to get the fire marshal to sign off on it. Sometimes they just… don’t. Then you need to find a way around it.

I will say, there is always a way around it. You just may spend a few sleepless nights coming up with it as the director.

You can count on actors forgetting lines, always. My job is to prep everyone for that certainty. Knees bent, stay in character, know the point of the scene and navigate it. Nothing is certain, except that everyone is working towards the same end, a great show. For me, I also want to add value to the actors themselves. Show them a new way into a character that they can take with them to the next project. Show them their greatness, how talented they really are. It’s a wonderful feeling to see the ‘ah-ha’ bloom.

I’m also extremely partial to sitting in the back of the house and watching the audience laugh, cry, or jump at what we’ve all created together. It’s kind of like sitting with someone who’s never seen Game of Thrones, and the Red Wedding is coming. The anticipation of their reaction is just as rewarding as the actual moment on stage.

For me, there are two moments in every show that I’ve had the privilege of directing that make all the worry and work worth it. The first is the hush just before the lights go up. Then, boom… we are in a new place, and a bunch of strangers in the dark suspend their disbelief and go on the journey.

The second moment is the second hush, as the end tableau settles, just before the applause. The moment of letting go of the ephemeral experience that existed only for those people, in that theatre at that time. Not recorded, never to exist again in precisely that form, ever.

There is always a collective inhale from the audience, that happens just as the actors exhale. A final shared breath.

It’s beautiful.

It’s why I direct.

If you’re in the Dallas area, come see “Wait Until Dark” at Garland Civic for a fab thriller. We open April 29th – May 15th on the weekends. Tickets and info can be found at www.garlandcivic.org

Or, if you’d prefer a funny, touching, original work, I’m directing my own play “Like Kissing Moonlight” in its Regional Premiere at Mesquite Arts Theatre June 10-26th. Tickets and info at www.mesquiteartstheatre.org/tickets

Wait Until Dark production photos credit: Steven A. Bracey

On Garlic Bread and Mixed Bags

My friend Jeanne made wonderful garlic bread. I first watched her make it on a shared vacation at her beach house by Los Osos on the mid-coast of California. The place is just as lovely as it sounds, with tide pools nearby to explore and the stretch of the Pacific Ocean just outside the front door. Jeanne was generous with everything, and her garlic bread was no exception. Lots of butter, garlic, and parmesan cheese creamed together and slathered on long loaves of crusty French baguettes cut in half and then into quarters. Grilled under the broiler until the cheese became browned and bubbly, and the aroma of garlic filled the beach house.

A happy memory. I’m delighted that I’ve lived a nice long time and collected lots of these. I hope to do so for another nice long stretch. The balance to lots of good memories made with friends is that sometimes they get effing cancer and die. They diagnosed Jeanne not much more than a year ago with skin cancer on her scalp that spread too far and too fast to her insides. She passed away a few days ago with her daughter, who is the same age as my boys, at her side holding her hand.

This past week also saw my high school swim coach who changed my life for the healthier and better pass. Now, I will say it is just like Coach Spahn to go to his heavenly reward during a master’s swim meet swimming a 1650 (that’s a mile, for you non-competitive swimmers out there, or 16 football fields and a bit for you visual learners). Active and vital is how I will always remember him, along with his brutal workouts and his insistence that I was a distance swimmer. I tried and tried to talk him out of that. Distance swimmers had even longer workouts than the rest of us did. I did not want to be team distance.

I’ve swum two 1650s this past week. Finishing Coach’s race for him. Negative split them too, which is proof that Bill was right about me being an effing distance swimmer. Negative splitting means I swam the second half faster than the first half.

So, I’ve been a little sad this week. Yet… I had fun too. And that is where the “mixed bag” section of this blog comes in. We had a Sunday brunch cooked by our son and his girlfriend (eggs and fruit and waffles!) and a trip to the fantastic Fort Worth Zoo. I fed a giraffe there. They are lovely creatures with a sort of doggy vibe to them up close. I petted its cheek. The giraffe didn’t seem to mind. There was also a baby elephant romping around, playing with a stick. I don’t even need to tell you how cute that was.

I won cookies in a contest and sold some of my books. I got a lot of writing done. My husband brought me flowers. I chatted with two long-time pals on the phone and got caught up. Got word that another one of my plays is going to be produced this year and that I get to work with wonderful friends in the process. Did a gig as a theatre critic for the first time in two years. It was nice to go out to the theatre again. Accompanied my dad to another doctor appointment. Went for a few long walks at the lake.

So, there was certainly a lot to be grateful for, and enjoy. A mixed bag.

This week, I expect to get more writing done and pick up directing “Wait Until Dark” at a local theatre. We were due to go up in early February, but Covid postponed us. I’m a lucky gal in that my entire cast and crew stayed committed. I’m looking forward to going back into it and creating a show that will scare the pants off people. I’ll take a meal to my folks, and have some more nice long talks with long-time friends. Might bake something.

I’ll send that recipe for garlic bread to Jeanne’s daughter. And swim another 1650 or two for Coach. Their presence blessed me. Sure is hard letting them go.