Hi-Ho The Glamorous Life: I Am My Own Director

Marissa Skudlarek is knee deep in an exciting- and stressful- new theatrical role. 

On March 29, I’m having a staged reading of my play The Rose of Youth as part of the EXIT Theatre’s Behind the Curtain festival, and I’m directing it myself — which is a new experience for me. It’s also a fairly stressful one. A one-night-only reading would seem to be low-stakes, as far as these things go — I don’t have to deal with tech or design or blocking — butThe Rose of Youth is the biggest play I’ve ever written. Casting twelve actors and getting them all in the same room to rehearse a few times is challenge enough!

Whenever possible, I’ve shied away from directing my own work. We all know that theater is a collaborative artform, and my feeling is, the more the merrier. I’ve never studied directing, and I lack a director’s eye and instincts. Moreover, as a playwright, I like to be in the room with the director, see how the play is coming together, answer any questions, and make sure that the script is working. But in order to do that, I need to hang back and observe, rather than actively stage and direct the play.

The Behind the Curtain festival came together so quickly, though, that it wasn’t really practical to seek out a director. Besides, I already know that the script works — it was produced five years ago, at my college. Assisting with that production is what gave me the confidence (the brash foolhardiness, more like) to say that I would direct the upcoming staged reading myself.

And now, it’s stressing me out. I’ve already decided that the reading will be very simple — just actors at music stands — which has helped me overcome my concern that I don’t have a good sense for staging and blocking. What really frightens me is that the lack of a director gives me sole responsibility for orchestrating the evening and making sure that it turns out all right. In the other shows I’ve done, I’ve been fortunate to have great directors who’ve made me really happy; nonetheless, in the back of my mind, I’ve always thought “If this turns out badly, I can blame the director.” If you’re a playwright, a director gives you plausible deniability. Then, if an audience member tells you that one scene fell flat? “It was the director’s fault! Totally not my problem!” you say. And then you rush home to re-write the offending scene.

But, with the upcoming reading, I bear all the responsibility for its success — and have no way to make excuses for myself. And that’s scary. Coward that I am, I find myself craving the plausible deniability that a director would afford me. But why, exactly, do I crave this? Why am I so scared of taking accountability for my own work? Shouldn’t I be proud of what I’ve written, grateful for the opportunity to share it with an audience? It’s not very pleasant to admit that I’d rather have someone else to blame if things go wrong. So I am nobly trying to accept the challenge of shouldering all the credit or the censure, whichever it is that I merit.

I also wonder if there’s a gendered component to all of this. Being a director feels like a more public, active (hence, masculine) role than being a playwright. And even though I’m a feminist, maybe I still have an internal discomfort with the idea of taking on a directorial role. I recently came across a quote from Lena Dunham that seems to have a bearing on this: she says that in 2012, she learned that “it’s possible to feel like a creepy, pervy producer even if you are a 26-year-old girl.” I suppose this must be in regards to casting people on her show Girls and asking them to do nudity and sex scenes. While there won’t be any of that in The Rose of Youth (sorry to disappoint you), it still feels weird for me to email men I barely know and ask them to play the romantic lead in my staged reading. I worry that they’ll think I’m coming onto them, because “I want you to play a romantic lead in my show” is exactly the kind of line that creepy casting-couch producers have used on young women for centuries. Plus, I can’t deny that I’m judging these actors on the basis of their appearance and persona, in addition to their acting talent. And it still feels socially unacceptable for a woman to judge, to choose, to solicit a man in this fashion.

But, like it or not, in four weeks’ time, I am directing a staged reading of The Rose of Youth. So I’ve got to stop thinking about cowardice and excuses, and I’ve got to get to work. The Rose of Youth, by the way, is a backstage dramedy about a group of Vassar students and their professors putting on a production of Antony and Cleopatra in 1934. Hey, that’s a good motto for the weeks ahead: less thinking about deniability, more thinking about de Nile.

Marissa Skudlarek is a San Francisco-based playwright, arts writer, and sometime director. She graciously invites you all to come see her staged reading of The Rose of Youth, March 29 at 8 PM at the EXIT Theatre. For more, visit marissabidilla.blogspot.com or follow her on Twitter @MarissaSkud.