Today we debut a new column by Bay Area director and actor, Dave Sikula. Enjoy it- and tell us what you think!
What the hell am I doing here?
I don’t mean in a philosophical/existential sense (I’m a firm believer in the tenet that the unexamined life is not only worth living, it’s desirable), but in the sense of what am I going to talk about in this space and why will it be worth reading? (Which I acknowledge is a big assumption in itself.)
The best I can do is give a sense of my likes, dislikes, and (Vishnu forbid) my “aesthetic” (*shudder*).
First of all, let me state my firm conviction that, as much as we love the art form and participating in it, I honestly don’t think anyone’s life has been “changed” by the theatre – other than to inspire them to do it themselves. I can’t imagine anyone seeing a play and suddenly changing their world view; too often writers are preaching to the converted and comforting the comfortable. While politically, I’m a firm liberal, I’d like to see conservative writers and performers make intelligent and entertaining cases for their beliefs. Make me defend my ideas rather than have me nod my head in agreement. (David Mamet’s recent conversion might qualify if he hadn’t become such a hack. He’s forgotten that it’s not enough to just spout ideas; you have to put them in a compelling context.)
Like most of us here – and I’m making an assumption – I make my living with a “real” day job and do the theatre thing as a sideline. I was originally going to write “hobby” there, but that seems too dilettante-ish and not really indicative about the professional attitude I at least try to maintain. I’m proud of the work I do and don’t see it as unworthy of my full commitment. Unlike most of you, I’ve been doing it for more than 40 years, so I’ve seen a lot of things, good, bad, and (unfortunately mostly) meh.
As I’ve grown older, my tastes have changed, which is only natural, but the one thing that’s stayed consistent is something that my high school drama teacher, Doyle Baker, instilled in me: a love of the theatrical; which is to say, those moments that can happen only in a live venue with an audience watching something happening right there in front of them. When I was younger, that translated to “big;” sets, costumes, effects – helicopters and chandeliers; that sort of thing. As I’ve gotten older (I was going to say “matured,” but those who know me will never accuse me of that …), I’ve stripped that “bigness” away into minimalism. What’s the least we can do to get the most across?
Now, this isn’t to say I want to do every show with two chairs, a card table, and a blank flat; it’s that I want to strip away the unnecessary stuff until we reach the perfect amount of setting, props, and overall production to convey what the play’s about. (And there’s even wiggle room there; for my next scheduled directing job, I plan on using a lot of tech, video, and effects. It’s what I think will best serve the play.)
That’s what I feel my job as a director is: to get out of the way of the writer and the actors. To figure out what the former is trying to say and how to help the latter find an organic and personal way to get that same message across. I used to go into rehearsals having paper-blocked everything to death. I soon discovered, though, that I was just throwing that stuff out as actors did things that sparked ideas that made the play better. That’s something I look for when I go to see something; that the company – actors, directors, designers, crew – has really examined the text and are conveying the writer’s intentions. That’s one of the reasons I don’t like it when writers direct their own texts; they don’t always know what’s there. Sure, they get what they want, but they don’t always know what it is that they’ve got. (Not that directors always do, either …)
What I appreciate most is a sense that there’s someone in charge; that someone has said or conveyed “this is what we’re doing and this is how we’ll get there.” They may be wrong, they may be right, but there’s a definition there. (By which I don’t mean the meaning of a word; I mean that definite decisions have been made.) That said, it doesn’t always work. I particularly remember a show at the Magic that was nothing but bold and personal choices and I hated every minute because I thought those choices (and the show itself) were mostly bullshit. (And, yes, the writer was the director – and the main actor.)
There’s a fine line to walk with most shows; I appreciate a good, intellectual production as much as I do an emotional one, but (for me) the best combine both. I’ve seen plenty of shows that went to one extreme while ignoring the other. (Poor Chekhov suffers here. He’s a very funny and visceral writer, but most of the time, we get characters sitting in gloomy rooms moaning about how it’s autumn and they’re not in Moscow without understanding why it’s autumn and they’re still not in Moscow.)
What I want more than anything is a show that’s interesting. I can’t count the number of times I’ve come out of a show either having nodded off (literally) and/or saying “It was … okay.” It’s not that I’m jaded; I see stuff all the time that makes me sit up in my seat and leaves me walking on air. It’s just that those evenings don’t happen frequently enough.
What I hope to do in this space is talk about the hits and misses I witness and use them as a springboard to talk about why I thought they hit or missed (without going into specifics of people and places) and how we can learn from them, in order to make theatre is that as smart, gripping, and emotional as life itself.
Dave Sikula has been acting and directing in Los Angeles and the Bay Area for more than 30 years. He’s worked with such companies as American Conservatory Theatre, South Coast Repertory, the Grove Shakespeare Festival, Dragon Productions, Palo Alto Players, and 42nd Street Moon. As a writer and dramaturg, he’s translated the plays of Anton Chekhov and had work produced by ANTA West.