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 KEEPING KNEES BENT AND BISCUITS

Being a community theatre director is usually fun. You get to meet new people, create some art, laugh a lot during the rehearsal process, add value to your actors, and the best part—make an audience “have all the feels” as one of my friends delightfully says. It’s a good fit for me, as I have zero problems telling people what to do. (My family and good friends are laughing so hard right now. Stop it, you’ll hurt yourself. Stop.) I also like it because I like puzzles. There are always issues to be solved, from juggling schedules, to finding a “safe” switchblade, or how to create a small, controlled fire onstage. It’s akin to an excellent jigsaw puzzle. Hopefully, you have all the pieces, and you can put it together so that it looks like the picture on the box.

It’s not so fun being a community theatre director during a global pandemic that has legs.

My first show to fall to the pandemic was only two days away from opening when the city closed all the theatres. “You Can’t Take It With You” is a delightful play that also has legs. Kaufman and Hart knew how to set up a joke. Our cast had bonded, the chemistry was fantastic, the set and costumes and off-stage explosions were ready to go. I’m sad that only I got to see what those actors created. It was magical. We were holding onto the hope that we could bring it back, but now two years later, we’ve been told the theatre will not produce it. Here is a fun picture of our set and a moment just before end of Act One. Love all of the cast reactions! Great set, too.

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The second one halted production this past Saturday, right before we started building the set. “Wait Until Dark” is an excellent thriller, and again, wow, do I have a great cast. We were rehearsing in masks in the rehearsal hall, taking precautions, but the darn thing got us, anyway. It swept through the production side of things. It was the right decision to postpone, no doubt. “Wait Until Dark” has moved to a later date. All I can do at this point is hope that the wonderful cast, design crew, and production peeps will be able to do those dates. It’s a volunteer gig, and while folks set aside the time to do the show in early Feb, early May is a different matter.

It’s not a puzzle I can solve/fix/control/bend to my mighty will. It’s a keep your knees bent and give people grace situation.

I used to be terrible at keeping my knees bent and giving others grace, but life has insisted on giving me lots of practice, so now it’s not hard to do.

I’ll tell you a secret; knees bent/dollop of grace is an easier way to go through life vs. fighting for every bit of what you perceive should be yours and/or go the way you want it to. I know this outlook might sound weird, especially if you were raised by parents who expected you to get all A’s, win trophies, never get pimples, and be happy all the time. You know who you are. We are a mighty tribe.

Saturday was an emotional day, as I contacted the actors (17 in one show, 8 in the other) as well as the design teams and crews personally to let them know what the situation was. In every case, those lovely people responded with grace. That’s the silver lining, you see. If you give grace and friendship, you’re likely to get it back nearly every time.

I was still feeling blue, despite the kindness, so I defaulted to doing something that always makes me happy. I baked. I made biscuits. (Side note, I never ever spell biscuits right the first time. I always want to spell it bisquits. Anyone else do this?) I was tired, so did not attempt my normal I-make-all-the-things-from-scratch, Great British Baking show biscuits. Nope. These were Bisquick biscuits (ah, I may have just solved why I spell it the way I do; I’ve spent years of looking at the cleverly named Bisquick box. Score!)

They were delicious. They really are quick too, just “two” ingredients, the mix from the box and milk (almond milk in my case, but it doesn’t matter). 15 minutes to flakey butter-and-honey delivery devices. I would have taken a picture for you, but alas, they are eaten.

Here’s hoping your week is easy, and that if you run into a situation that needs some bendy knees and grace that you find it tolerable, and that people do the same for you. Or that someone makes you biscuits with love.