On Directing (and Other Theatre Tangents) Vol. I

Fill a room full of strangers. It’s just strangers in a room. Fill a room full of strangers and engage them in a shared experience: welcome to the theatre.

I am not a director by trade. I took a single directing class in my three years at theatre school. And by the way, in those three years, I took just a single non-theatre course.

Like most things that I’m passably good at, I learned how to direct through curiosity, experience, and investigation. I first cut my teeth in high school directing one acts for a small studio theatre space, eventually taking on lengthier and more ambitious productions on the mainstage.

But I guess I really learned directing from my mother, Valerie Senyk, one of best stage directors I know. She would take me to her university mainstage rehearsals from as early as 10 or 11 years old, even giving me a few of my earliest roles. I learned the job of the director by watching her.

I don’t believe it is the job of the director to get the best performance out of his actor. That is the actor’s job, the professional actor anyways. The director serves as a cautious navigator to help the actor find the right journey. After all, what’s the point of intensive training and years, decades even, of honing your instincts and technique just to have someone tell you how to act each beat?

I don’t take credit for my actors’ performances, unless they’re poor ones. At that point, it’s just bad casting and that’s on me.

The job of the director is to take a collection of performances (hopefully brilliant ones) and string them together into a cohesive and compelling product. The director uses (or should use) a variety of tools beyond his performers to sculpt the product. There are the obvious of those tools: lighting, set, sound, movement, wardrobe. But there are less obvious and equally powerful ones: tone, rhythm and pace, silence, stillness, spectacle. Those are more abstract tools and each director should have his own way of defining and employing them.

As a director, I focus a great deal on spectacle. In the age of big budget VFX cinema, we are a far more visual people than we might have been at one time. I enjoy the bells and whistles. I like boldly coloured lighting and I’m not afraid to request it from the designer. I believe in the importance of a musical score and audio storytelling. The theatre is a medium where the audience can experience elements that may be called “cinematic” in real-time. The most exciting theatre, the kind of theatre I try to make, isn’t afraid to dress up, doesn’t shy away from the accessories, and wears bold patterns. As long as it supports the piece, why shouldn’t we employ the same tools and elements of our bigger-budgeted screen colleagues?

Every aspect of the play should engage and entice. The playwright writes the story and the actors tell the story. This is not enough. Not even close. The good director doesn’t just bring the piece to life; he teaches it to fly. He creates an experience that burns a lasting impression in the audience’s memory.

And that’s really what theatre is: an experience. It’s a cross-section of nearly every artistic discipline carefully crafted and balanced to invoke an emotional and reactionary response, whether it’s light comedy fare, raw, unrelenting drama, and everything in between.

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