Directors’ Notes for Directors

So, a few days ago, you were sitting in an audition and you realized, “Hey, I’ve been acting for a while; I know how most of this stuff works. I could be a director, because, man I so wouldn’t let that bimbo keep reading no matter how hot she is.” Well, guess what, fictional actor I just invented, you totally can be a director, because directing is so much easier than acting.

Directors never have to get up in front of people…except before the show, when they are often required to make theatre announcements…and during intermission and after the show, when they are expected to schmooze with the audience–especially season ticket holders and big donors…and at every single rehearsal and at auditions…you know what, scratch that.

I kid. I’m sure everyone who’s ever sat through a show or seen a director work and thought, “I can do that,” has quickly realized (on further thought) that directing is hard work, and not for the faint at heart. That doesn’t mean that you can’t or that you shouldn’t. Directing is incredibly rewarding work; it’s a different payoff than acting, but the payoff is huge, anyway.

Directors don’t get the full rush of the audience’s responses; that “Holy cats, they really like me,” moment is reserved for actors. They do, however, get a small piece of every response. When the audience laughs at a joke, or cries out at a scare, or goes dead silent for a deep and heartfelt soliloquy, the director gets a tiny piece of that, and all those tiny pieces add up over all.

A good director doesn’t even need that percentage-off-the-top of audience-love, because he has the satisfaction of knowing that he tied a bunch of performances together into a show, and that is immensely satisfying (it’s also crushing to realize that you failed in that regard). From auditions, through rehearsal, to the final curtain, the greatest joy of directing is translating another person’s words into a world that can only exist on your stage. That’s the ultimate joy of directing.

It does come at a cost, however. Directing is stressful in ways actors never have to think about. A good director has a working knowledge, not only of acting and the script, but of costuming, lighting and sound, and property and set design. A director needs to understand the story and the world created by the script on a level deep enough to assist the actors in properly portraying their characters. And the director is the last person applauded when everything goes right, and the first one condemned when anything goes wrong.

So, I’m going to cough up some hairballs of wisdom for beginning directors, too. I mean, why should actors be the only ones forced to listen to an old man ramble about the way things should be done. Of course, I emphasize that these small pearls only apply to small theatre. I’ve never worked in a large theater, or even one that was allowed to award Equity points, and I fully understand that the difference between the theatres I’ve worked and professional theatres is as huge a gulf as that between professional baseball and beer-league softball.

So watch this space. You might learn something. I’m pretty sure I have.

You’re Not Wrong

Friday, I talked about how the debate on climate change isn’t over, and how the human culpability for any change in the climate is questionable. It boiled down to, the world is huge, and we, no matter how much we want to think otherwise, are very small. There are a lot of us, however, and like ants, we can have a negative influence over comparatively large areas.

The Southwest “Drought” has been going on and getting worse for decades.

Understand that “drought” is not in quotes, above, because I don’t think that those areas lack water or rain. The Southwest States are in dire need of water, and their sources are quickly disappearing. The problem, however, is that these places aren’t suffering a drought. A drought happens when an otherwise wet area suffers a sudden and ongoing lack of rain. That’s not the case with the American Southwest. California, Arizona, Utah, New Mexico, and Nevada all occupy a complex of climate zones known collectively as the Great Southwestern Desert. Those areas never had that much water to spare. The history of Los Angeles is written in the mud of stolen rivers and dry wells. What changed is that, starting in the 1950’s, people started moving into these areas. Phoenix, Albuquerque, Las Vegas and Salt Lake City have all grown by leaps and bounds in the last five decades.

Even more, the rural areas and river valleys of the desert became crowded with farms, as dustbowl refugees and their children found their feet and rebuilt in their new home, a home conveniently clear of trees and scrublines. Almost immediately, these cities began tapping the nearby rivers for the water the sky refused to give them. The Colorado, the Sacramento, the Green, all became dotted with man-made lakes where dams for irrigation and power sprang up. Waters were diverted in canals, sometimes for thousands of miles to meet the needs of a growing populace.

As the trees grew back in the Ohio Valley and the Upper Peninsula, the Southwest Desert became a jumbled network of borrowed resources. By 1990, the Great Colorado River, the monster that carved the Grand Canyon and had a hand in a hundred other striking natural monuments, stopped short of its mouth in the Gulf of California, and has been walking up its bed since. And the problem isn’t just legitimate use. Last century’s civil engineering has left us with a mountain of waste. Lake Meade alone loses more than 257 billion gallons of water to evaporation every year. That number only gets more alarming as you expand it to seepage and evaporation along the irrigation and city supply networks.

Clearly, we can do better. Perhaps the interruption dams currently in use can be replaced with side draw reservoirs like the ones being tested along river valleys in Southeast Texas. Or, maybe fifty million people will wake up one day and realize they have created an untenable situation.

Los Angeles isn’t going dry because David Duchovny has a nice lawn; it was already dry, with an average rainfall of only four inches per year, but twenty million people live there, demanding three quarts of water each, every day. The Edwards Aquifer isn’t consistently low because Texas is in a drought; that drought ended in 2012. What didn’t end is that Austin and San Antonio have more than doubled in size since 1990 and continue to grow.

It’s going to suck, and we’re all going to pay. Food prices will rise as farms leave the flat, easily managed former sea beds of the Permian Basin and Cadillac Desert and return to the less machine-friendly, rolling hills of the Midwest. Cities and towns west of the Texas Hill Country are going to have to face the fact that they cannot survive if they continue growing the way they have. Already, the interests in Northern California and Oregon are balking at Los Angeles’s demand for more diverted water. Nevada and Arizona have been in and out of court since the last century over the Colorado River watershed.

It’s a hard thing for those of us who live in water-rich areas to understand. Our water concerns center around poisoning the supply with exotic chemicals and undertreated effluvia. We, living in and around Houston, live in fear of the day that the EPA declares our neighborhood the next Love Canal, but we can’t really conceive of the idea of the water not being there at all. Because it was never there. Now fifty million people spread across some five million square miles, will have to suffer in the short term, or cause a catastrophe. Because if they don’t learn to use less, there won’t be any more.

The Climate is Falling!

Here’s the deal: If you’re a liberal (and, if you’re still talking to me after last Christmas, it’s almost certain that you are), everything you’ve said or thought about conservatives and climate change is probably a load of crap. There are exactly zero conservatives with IQs high enough to need two hands to count that believe the climate isn’t changing. Of course, the climate is changing, that’s the cost of living in a dynamic system…you know, the sort of system capable of supporting life.

We don't know what we were thinking.

We don’t know what we were thinking.

What many conservatives do question is the assertion that humans primarily (or humans alone) are responsible for all climate-change trends. It’s a gross over-simplification to say that we deny the evidence before our eyes, but it goes a long way to make conservatives look like dumbasses while doing nothing to support you assertion. And make no mistake, it is your assertion that must be supported, because the rules of debate say that, since you can’t prove a negative, the positive assertion is the argument that must self-verify.

But, of course, there’s 97% (or 85% or 162% depending on who you ask) consensus that climate change is real and it’s all our fault! Yeah, but that’s consensus among climatologists, people who have a vested interest in promoting the hypothesis of HCCC and developing means of countering it. If that is a valid and final statement of proof, then the fact that at least 90% of theologians agree that the Universe is shepherded by an omnipotent, omniscient god means that the debate is over; there is a god and he is pissed at all of the atheists out there. I mean, these guys are the recognized experts, right?

See the thing about climate change is that the climate is huge. The earth is huge. Think of the biggest thing you can. I have safe money that it is too small to see while you’re still in breathable atmosphere. By the time you’re far enough out to see the earth in a single view, all but the hugest parts of the landscape are rendered insignificant. Mount Everest? Part of a wrinkle in the spot where India is humping Asia. Manhattan Island? too small to see; that’s Long Island poking off the southeastern tip of New York (and even that disappears in deep space photos). Depending on your screen size and resolution, you probably can’t even see Hawaii.

"I can see my house from up here! Wait...did I leave the back door open?"

“I can see my house from up here!
Wait…did I leave the back door open?”

When you have a huge system like the earth’s climate, you have multiple gigantic influences that must be calculated just to get an idea of what’s driving it. You have the sun’s radiation, the atmosphere’s ability to trap or release that energy, the oceans and their ability to trap various gases (and heat), the continents and their albedo, even the constantly-changing cloud-cover of the earth has an influence on how much radiation we absorb and retain, and, yes, to a certain extent, you have the influence of industrialized society. How big or how small that influence is, and how much it pertains to current changes has yet to be determined.

I can say it has yet to be determined because we still haven’t determined the full effect of the other influences. The sun heats the earth, but the sun is remarkably unreliable in its output, because it’s an explosion, one on so vast a scale that we can barely comprehend it, but yeah, 4 billion years ago a bunch of volatile gases collapsed on a point and we’re living in the ignition phase of the inevitable combustion of those gases.

The truth is, human influence on the climate is probably not all that great. We could have as much influence as the bug you ran over yesterday had on your driving, or it could be something insidious like a ridge in the pavement that, over time forces your car partially into another lane. The only thing that’s for sure is that constantly screaming, “The climate is changing! The climate is changing!” Isn’t even a little useful. Saying that the climate is changing is like telling a swimmer that water is wet. It’s true, but it does nothing to help him avoid drowning.

Secret Lessons for Auditions

 

So, compiled here, are the “Secret Lessons for Auditions” that I posted on Facebook last December plus an extra one to make it an even five.

One

Many times I’ve been asked how necessary it is to come back for the second day of open auditions. The boilerplate answer is, “Not at all necessary.” This is because we recognize that you have a real life and a real job. We even tell ourselves that it isn’t an issue, and we make an honest attempt to remember the day one festivities as well as the day two hijinks.

The real answer is, “Hell, yes!” Unless you’re absolutely certain you nailed it on day one, you want to come back for day two. Even if you did nail it, someone who comes in on day two may have the right chemistry with one of the others, and you do not want to be passed over because Iggy Kroenberg made a kinda cute couple with Juliet, but you weren’t there to look better.

Two

Auditions start the minute the director walks in the door. We watch everything. Maybe in professional theatre there’s some separation between your performance and the person, but down here in the cheap seats we’re looking at who we’re casting as much as what.

We don’t have the time or the energy in an average small-theatre production to deal with problem children, so, yes, we watch everyone like a hawk to see what issues they might present. No matter how many times the middle-aged accountant reading Stanley Kowalski to your Blanche screws it up, you go ahead and treat him like he’s on the money. Believe me, we know who the problem is.

Other things to watch out for in this same vein: Don’t get butthurt if you sense that the director is going in a direction that may not include you, and definitely don’t show your contempt for that direction by putting in an intentionally bad reading. We don’t all know each other, but most of us know enough others of us that word gets around.

Don’t audition to get a part. Audition to enjoy the raw experience of unrehearsed acting and the illimitable thrill of seeing others do the same.

Three

Play it straight. Ignore the blocking. Spit out the words.

It doesn’t matter that you’re holding the worst script since the Dancehall stage allowed lonely dowagers to project their fantasies onto innocent actors. Play it straight! Even if the actor who read the side before you read King Lear as Jack Nicholson in Seven Easy Pieces to uproarious applause and laughter, PLAY IT STRAIGHT!! You’re not there to entertain the other auditioners, you’re there to show the director you can be trusted with a piece of his (her) stage.

By the same token, go ahead and ignore most of the blocking on the page. With the exception of entrances, exits, and actions absolutely necessary to the plot, he’s probably going to change all of it, anyway. We look for interpretation of character at these things, and clumsy, off-the-cuff pseudo-blocking with a piece of paper in your hand gets in the way.

Also, read ahead, have a good idea of what the next line is, and spit out the words. Don’t fret over the proper pronunciation of Aeschylus (Es-kill-us), just pick one that works for you and go on. Be clear; project. No one wants to waste pages of production notes reminding actors to speak up, and the audition stage is one place where we find out if that’s likely.

Four

There are two times when it is appropriate to try out an accent during an audition: 1) if you were born to the accent and have trouble speaking without it, and 2) if the Director specifically requests it.

It doesn’t matter if the character description lists the character as a ridiculous French K-nig-et. If the director doesn’t ask you for the accent, don’t do it. Accents are difficult to do, and they take hours (years, really) to develop and a lot of concentration to maintain. Concentration that can generally be put to better use learning lines and blocking.

If you need further evidence that doing an accent (outside the cases above) is a bad idea, go watch Prince of Thieves a couple of times.

Five

Know what you have on your plate for the entire run of the show. Most audition notices will include at least the production run of a show. Even if they don’t include the rehearsal run, you can usually back up your calendar by six-to-eight weeks and figure it out. Most directors will have at least a preliminary schedule available for perusal at auditions. A good director will have a detailed preliminary with objectives.

Look at the schedule provided and carefully compare it with your own schedule. If you can’t remember your personal schedule, write (or print) it out before you go to auditions. If you have a conflict tell the director.

I have cast actors knowing in advance that I would need someone to fill in for them for one or two shows. I have no problem with actors who encounter emergencies and surprise difficulties in their real lives. I have no love and no pity for people who knew they had a problem well in advance but chose not to speak up.

Director’s Notes

A few months ago, I posted some advice to actors on my Facebook. I called them “Directors’ Secret Hints for Auditions,” or something like that. They were, over all, fairly well received. In the weeks since, it occurs to me that maybe I haven’t done enough, so I’ve created a new blog category called “Director’s Notes.” In the Director’s Notes, I’m going to dole out the pearls of wisdom I have gathered over 20-odd years on and behind the stage.

Mind you, I am an amateur, and my experience is on the amateur stage. Professional directors play a different game and have different rules and expectations. Don’t walk away thinking I’ve given you the keys to the Winter Garden, because I haven’t. Hell, even other amateur directors will probably have different needs than I do. I guess what I’m saying here, is that this is my opinion, and while I’m trying to add in what I’ve observed as an actor or set monkey, as well, ultimately, every director rules their own stage, and if it comes down to a conflict between what I write here and what they say there, they win.

That being said, let’s start this little odyssey at the beginning with

Your Résumé

Vital Data

The top third of your résumé should be filled with the sort of information that directors need to make their decisions.

Your Photo  The upper-right corner should display a 2″ by 3″ photo of you that is clear and recent enough that you will be instantly recognizable (including your current hair length and color). Don’t worry, most publicly-available printers can handle that level of detail. You could pop for the 8 x 12 on the back, but, unless you’re serious about making the jump to professional, that’s a lot of money for a photo the director probably isn’t going to look at.

Your Name This should be pretty large (I suggest 18-24 point type) and in bold. Your name and current appearance are the most important pieces of information you can include on an amateur theatre résumé, and they should both be right there where the director is looking, If he has to hunt around for too long to find out who just made his heart stop in that three-minute reading from Da, he’ll forget how amazing you are and move on to someone else.

Your Contact Information Nobody wants your address. With very few exceptions, the only reason any director cares where you live is if you’ve volunteered to host the closing party.

What they do need is you primary phone number. Unless you’re a luddite like me, that’ll be a cell phone. If you have one, you may want to include a secondary phone number where a message can reach you. Don’t use your work number.

You’ll also want to include a reliable e-mail account. Unless you want to send friend requests to everyone too drunk to say, “no,” when the AD showed up with scripts, this will be the main non-voice contact between you and the director. I advise having an e-mail separate from both your work e-mail and your main personal e-mail. There are plenty of free hosts out there where you can do this.

Your Description Why describe yourself? because there is information a director needs that can’t always be conveyed by your photo. He’ll use this info for a wide variety of decisions (or reminders of decisions he made when he saw you on his stage). This is an objective description, so it’s easiest to keep to quantifiable facts.

I want to say your race isn’t that important, but it can be, if the script calls for a certain race and that isn’t immediately apparent in your photo. Use your best judgment; if someone gets mad because you did or didn’t include your race in a description of yourself, then they’re the one with a problem. Your sex is necessary, however, and is not always easy to discern by a photo (or even a casual live glance).

You must include your age. I mean your actual—right now—age. Don’t tell him what age you “look” or what ages you “can play,” because, I can tell you right now that you’re wrong. Just give them your correct age and let them decide whether you’re Willy or Biff Loman.

By the same token, your current height and weight are also essential. I am 5’9″ and 240 pounds, and no amount of wishing or skilled acting will ever make me 6’1″ or thin (yeah, okay, I can get thin by correcting my eating habits and getting more exercise, but I don’t see that happening). Be honest, with yourself and with the director.

Optionally, you may include your clothing sizes. The director won’t use this for the audition, but the theatre’s costumer will appreciate the advance knowledge.

Your Curriculum Vita

Acting Experience This should be a borderless table listing no more than six roles you’ve performed in the last six-to-ten years. Your most recent role should be at the top, and this is the last role you played, even if you played the punching tree in Pocahontas. The rest can be favorites, or roles you feel were significant in some way, but no more than six.

The role info should include, the year, role, play, and theatre or troupe. The exact date isn’t important. If you played multiple roles, list the one with the most lines or stage time, or just say “multiple” or “various” if they were equally minor (I was the punching tree, but I was also the sitting rock, so maybe…) Be honest. Most director’s won’t be overly impressed with a CV loaded to the gills with plum roles, but they will be put off by obvious bullshit.

Other Theatre Experience If you don’t mind doing background work instead of (or, in addition to) being onstage, list what you’ve done before. You should have at least one entry for each position you’ve held, even if they were in the same show (unless the jobs are closely related–say set design and construction). The only exception is if you were the director. A director has to fill in where he’s needed, and if you ended up running lights for two thirds of a show’s run because your light person couldn’t wait three more weeks to go into labor, you still only get to list yourself as having directed.

Other skills Do you have a good voice? Have you been told this by someone other than your mother? Put down singing. Otherwise, don’t put down any skill that you have not been trained to do or can’t back up somehow. No one cares if you can play “Stairway to Heaven” on your pawn shop guitar; what the director needs to know is if you can play second guitar on “Two Tickets to Paradise” from the sheet music. You can’t choreograph if you haven’t at least taken dance classes, and you can’t juggle if you can’t keep three balls in the air for longer than it takes to say, “Oh, crap.”

Other skills are great, and sometimes (rarely) can be the difference between a great role and “thanks; we’ll call you,” but you have to actually have those skills, or you’re just shooting yourself in the foot. I’ve learned enough stuff to get by in shows because the director was more interested in actors, but I wouldn’t call them “other skills”.

And that’s it. That’s your résumé. If it goes beyond one page, you should edit it down, cut out duplications in the “Other Experience” section, or cut “other skills” entirely. In the end, what you want is a single page that the director can look at and go, “Oh, yeah. That’s the guy.”