It’s A Suggestion Not A Review: Knowing When to Leave

Dave Sikula, on when to skip out.

My first directing teacher began our first class with his philosophy about the craft: “Directing is nothing more than teaching animals tricks.”

(One of my fellow students took that maxim a bit too literally and would throw M&Ms and other treats at his actors when they performed to his expectations. I have neither sunk – not risen – to that level yet.)

I don’t necessarily subscribe to this theory, though there’s some truth to it in that you’re trying to get people (who are, after all, animals) to do what you want them to.

In actuality, if I see directing as anything other than a collaboration, it’d be raising kids. (And let me hasten to add here that I don’t have kids of my own, so I can only speculate what it’s actually like.) You have a group of humans for whom you have to provide and safe and nurturing environment to ensure they have certain skills before you let them go to prosper or fail on their own.

Part of that process is knowing when to cut the cord and let them go out on their own. In reality, once the show opens, it belongs to the cast and the stage manager. (I used to use my opening night pep talk as an opportunity to verbally turn the show over to the SM. It was a formality, but I liked the ceremony of it.) Everyone has to color inside the lines the director has established, but his or her work is done. At this point, the director is, to quote Chekhov, “an unnecessary luxury … not even a luxury, but more like an unnecessary appendage—a sixth finger.” As an actor, it’s nice to see them, but (to stretch the parenting analogy to the breaking point) it’s like a divorced parent showing up. “Oh, it’s them.” As a director, you’re no longer part of the family, so while you can take part in some of the activities, the company has moved on without you (or in spite of you).

The director after opening night.

The director after opening night.

For some directors, the process is simple. After opening night, they’re gone. You may see them again occasionally during the run or on closing night, but mom or dad has gone out for a pack of cigarettes and isn’t coming back. Others like to see at least part of every performance. (I have to admit, in all honesty, that I’ve fallen asleep at at least a couple of performances of my own shows, but still felt compelled to go). Backstage at my current show tonight (in which I’m acting), one actor mentioned he’d worked with a director who came to every performance, four or five nights a week for four or five weeks. That’s either dedication or desperation or obsession.

If I do go to one of my shows a lot, it’s either because I really like it (it happens) or I’m trying to learn from it (still trying to figure out why something works or doesn’t – though I can’t recall either re-directing something or giving real extensive notes once a show has opened) or I’m trying to figure out how I want to video it.

It took me a long time to get to that point, though. I guess that, having acted so long, I really wanted to stay part of the company even after I’d kicked the kids out of the nest. It wasn’t until relatively recently that I’d miss a performance. Even now, I still feel, if not guilty, then intensely curious as to how things are going. (Even as I admit that the reception will be pretty consistent night after night.)

All of this isn’t to say there’s no role for the director after opening. In open-end runs (as in Broadway), many directors go back every so often to make sure that, despite the best efforts of their stage managers, the shows are what they intended them to be. Even though when my wife and I go to New York, we generally fly non-stop, for some reason one year, our return flight went through Las Vegas. When we got to the terminal at JFK for the trip home, I noticed an old guy (even older than I) typing away furiously at his Blackberry (that’s how long ago this was). I kept watching him and watching him, and finally turned to my wife (who hadn’t noticed him; she’s not as much of a people-watcher as I am) and said, “That guy looks like Hal Prince.” I paused and suddenly realized it was Hal Prince, whom I was now determined to meet.

Between him checking his phone and asking the ground crew about the flight’s status, he was constantly occupied and I didn’t want to interrupt him. He finally took a break and I rushed up and introduced myself and thanked him for his work and told him how it had influenced me. He told me that was a nice way to start the day (it was, like, 8:00 am), we talked a little shop, and then parted. He, being in first class, was seated on the plane before we were, and as we filed past him, he and I exchanged pleasantries. I kept trying to figure out why he was going to Vegas when it hit me that he was probably going to check up on the production of Phantom of the Opera that was running there then. That’s dedication. (Of course, if I were making Phantom-director money, I’d be dedicated, too …)

My buddy, Hal Prince

My buddy, Hal Prince

I mentioned in a previous post that I think a director’s main job is to get out of the way of the writer, but his or her second job is to get out of the way of the actors and realize that, once those lights come up on opening night, it’s time to realize that the kids have grown up and we need to start a new family. The old one will still be there, but they’re busy raising kids of their own.

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