In For a Penny: Of Olympic Proportions – The Direct Approach

Charles Lewis III, on directing for the SF Olympians Festival.

Pre-show layout for "Hydra" by Tonya Narvaez

Pre-show layout for “Hydra” by Tonya Narvaez

“Cut! That’s a print. Now get that bastard off my set!”
– John Frankenheimer

The quote above from the late film director was reportedly spoken on the set of his 1996 film The Island of Dr. Moreau. Adapted from the HG Wells book of the same name, the ’96 production is one of Hollywood’s most infamous: Frankenheimer replaced the original director, actors shot footage only to be replaced, the weather was hell, the make-up didn’t come out right, the budget and shooting schedule both expanded, the script was being rewritten every half-hour, and Marlon Brando was… Marlon Brando. But it was working with Val Kilmer that drove Frankenheimer to the breaking point. By some reports, the director is said to have gotten so fed up with Kilmer’s diva antics that two came close to a fistfight at one point. So when it came to shoot Kilmer’s final scene, Frankenheimer is said to have followed the last take with the quote above.

Every director, if they make a career out of it, has at least one or two actors whose very names drive the director into a blind rage. I know I do. I started to think of one in particular during last week’s Olympians Fest directors meeting (which was followed by the writers meeting this week). I’d gotten the chance to direct a great script by a great writer, but we weren’t able to get our No. 1 or 2 choices for a key role because they were both in another reading that same weekend (actors may only be cast in one reading per week of the festival). I tried my diplomatic best to work with the actor we got, but he was determined to do the opposite of every direction I gave him. It was a script meant to be read at a snappy pace, but he would drag… out… every… line. His character was meant to focus one way, but he would try to keep the focus on him. In a staged reading, he kept moving so much that he obviously kept losing his place in his script, and I gave the other actors movements in an attempt to appear as if there were any kind of cohesion with what he was doing. It was a shit show and to this day, whenever I see the author, my first instinct is to say “I’m sorry for that reading.”

After five years, 78 writers, 57 directors, some 290, believe me when I say that there are many such stories connected with the festival. On that same note, there are just as many – if not more – stories of festival collaborators who clicked so well that they immediately got together again on their next project. In fact, if you were to survey the Olympians alumni whose work went on to full production, I’m sure at least part of that could be attributed to the chemistry that was developed during the original reading. Having taken part in the festival every year since its inception, and having taken part in every creative role except illustrator (I’ve taken up finger-painting, so it’ll happen eventually), I know there are far more people I’d love to work with than those I wouldn’t.

It ain’t gonna happen.

It ain’t gonna happen.

The role of Olympians director has always been a tricky one because it’s always been the one that’s been hardest to define. It’s a writers festival first and foremost, so the two most necessary elements are writers to create the scripts and actors to read them. In a festival of staged readings, the emphasis will always be on the “reading” portion. So why is a director necessary at all? There isn’t a lot of work that goes into putting a bunch of people on stage to read a script; what’s the point of being a director if you’re not there to inject some stylistic flourish? Quite a lot, actually.

I first directed for the festival in Year 3 and the first thing I remember was how strongly the writers were discouraged from directing their own scripts. As my own script developed, I began to see why finding someone else to direct was so strongly recommended. Writing is a solitary process. Doing it means spending a great deal of time bumping around in your own head. The problem is that the voice in your head will lie to you. A lot. Having the perspective of an additional artistic point of view will enlighten you to aspects of your script not even you had considered.

The problem comes when directors try to make it less about the writer’s words and more about what the audience will see. The impulse is understandable, but it’s also wrong. Those of us who have been with the festival long enough know why there are now rules about there being only 3-5 rehearsals before a reading, why you should never force an actor to do something with which they’re uncomfortable, and why you should never, ever wait until the day of a reading to fully stage a physical assault scene requiring the actors to both move and read while their scripts are in-hand. There’s at least one of those readings every year. We’ve all seen it. Some of us have actually been in it.

If I wrote a list of banned Olympians directors, this guy would be at the top.

If I wrote a list of banned Olympians directors, this guy would be at the top.

“Well then,” you might ask, what can a director do to help out when the emphasis is meant to be all about the words coming out of the actors’ mouths?” Easy: help them understand those words. They’re still actors, after all. They want character motivation and a better understanding of the person or persons they’ll be portraying. Perhaps the more esoteric moments in the script immediately made sense to you and the writer, but an actor will need something more. These are stories based on ancient mythological beings with fantastic abilities. The script is how it makes sense to the writer, the director makes sense of the script for the actors, and the actors translate that for an audience.

And that doesn’t require a lot of bells and whistles. The most common staged reading direction of planting folks in front of music stands is used as often as it is because it works. It allows the actors to always have eyes on their scripts, but still turn and react to their fellow actors. Wanna shake it up a bit? You can do like Stuart Bousel often does and eschew with the music stands all together, arranging the actors in the form of an orchestra. You can define the characters through costume (which, like direction, should be simple, but can still be eye-catching). You can take full advantage of the fact that there’s nothing on stage but the actors. Last year’s Hydra by Tonya Narvaez was one of the most memorable because of the atmospheric way Tonya staged it. She wrote a paranormal thriller and set the mood by having the actors lit only by the lights on their music stands (see the photo at the top). Needless to say, we were still talking about that one days afterward.

Simplicity, it makes all the difference.

I had a list of about twelve people whom I’d considered for directing my Year 3 script about Atlas. The one I chose wound up not being on the list at all and she was the one who encouraged me to direct it myself. After I picked her, she wound up having a busier year than she’d expected, so I relieved her of directing duties to make things easier. After failing to find another director whose schedule would fit, I reluctantly agreed to direct it myself – something I hadn’t done since I was in school. I did direct, it went off okay, and I have since directed so much that I actually should put a director’s resume together one of these days.

I’ve also seen my scripts directed by others, but in the festival and out. It’s given me a pretty clear perspective as to what function directors serve in a festival of staged readings: we’re conductors. That’s probably why Stuart prefers the orchestra-style approach to readings, because it makes clear just how everyone fits into the symphony. The writer composes, the actors sing (sometimes literally – again, happens every year), and the directors is there to make sure every single not is pitch perfect for the welcome audience.

Now you’ll have to excuse me, I think I hear the downbeat…

Charles Lewis is writing and directing this year’s Poseidon play. The music he’s been listening to that which plays when Kirk fights Gorn… it’ll make sense when you see the play. For more information about the SF Olympians Festival, please visit SFOlympians.com

In For a Penny: Of Olympic Proportions – Let the Monster Out

Charles Lewis III lets the monster out!

Artwork by Cody Rishell

Artwork by Cody Rishell

“There should be a place where only the things you want to happen, happen.”
— Maurice Sendak, Where the Wild Things Are

It all started with a car ride. That’s what I was told. During a 2009 production of Aristophanes’ The Frogs for Atmos Theatre’s Theatre in the Woods, that’s when we’re told Stuart first pitched the idea of a theatre dedicated to the classic works of Greek and Roman playwrights. As everyone learns when they’re around Stuart for long enough: he doesn’t pitch ideas so much as give you a heads-up on his inevitable plans.

Within a year from the original car ride, twelve local playwrights were staging twelve brand new plays – each one dedicated to one of mythical Olympians. Less than a year after that, three of those twelve plays had full productions. A year after that, half of the first year’s plays were collected into the first book, Songs of Hestia. Here we are five years on and the festival has produced two books, commissioned work from nearly 100 playwrights, staged readings of some 103 plays, commissioned an equal number of stunning original illustrations by Bay Area artists, and showcased the talents of countless members of the Bay Area acting community.

Not bad for a quirky li’l staged reading fest that started from a drive through the woods. As the festival itself is such an interesting and evolving beast, it makes sense that the fifth year would be dedicated to the monsters of Greek mythology.

I actually thought that I wouldn’t be involved with the festival this year. I’ve been involved with it in one way or another since the first year, wherein I was an actor. I played Prometheus, which wound up becoming something of a running joke when I wound up playing him three years in a row. Why no one seems to remember Stuart playing an incredibly smug and condescending Judd Apatow, I’ll never know? But I digress. After acting in two plays that first year, I wound up cast in seven the next year. The third year I was only in three plays, but I also moved up to being one of the festival’s playwrights with my one-act about the Titan Atlas. I wasn’t the first Olympians alumnus to make such a leap, but it seems appropriate to mention her as hers was one of the eight plays I directed for the fourth year (in addition to writing one of my own).

So yeah, I’ve been in the festival once or twice. I guess I’ve done enough to where after this year’s auditions, potential actors kept sending me messages asking when casting would be announced. So too did potential writers for next year ask me when those choices would be made. I have no official administrative capacity with the festival, but I told them all the same thing: “Just be patient.”

And yet I honestly didn’t expect to take part this year. None of my writing proposals had been accepted, nor had I been picked to direct this year. I auditioned this year as I had every year, but I was thoroughly convinced I wasn’t going to be cast in anything. I mean, I wasn’t cast last year either, so it wasn’t a big surprise that as casting announcement were made my name never appeared. And I took that as one-of-many signs about where my career has been heading this year. I’ve had to ask myself some serious questions about where said career would, could, and should be heading and exactly how I could get there. I was considering spending my October/November taking a small role for a very prominent local company (I mean, one even non-theatre people know by name) and just trying to see whatever Olympians shows fell on my “off” nights. So imagine my surprise when, early in the run for Pastorella, I got an e-mail offering me a role in the closing night show, “Echidna” by Olympians superstar Neil Higgins. (Like Stuart’s Judd Apatow, Neil’s stage directions “character” was one of the most memorable parts of Year 1.)

Surprise… and relief. Unexpected relief. There’s an almost inexplicable thrill to the festival that one can’t really understand unless you’ve taken an active part in it: the surprise of getting to read for characters and plays that can go from comedic to dramatic at the drop of a hat; the amazement that comes from seeing all the artwork on display; the wicked glee that comes from talking about which play will be “that show” this year (you know the one – the stunning misfire that’s talked about over drinks for years to come); the relationships that are made by two auditioners who share a BART train afterward; and, of course, the very experience of watching some of the most enduring myths of the western world become bold new works for hungry new audiences.

Can you believe I almost passed that up?

That’s when something occurred to me: since so many people have an interest in how they can see, support, or get involved with the festival, why not pull back the curtain every now and then? During last week’s opening party, we got to hear the announcement of the writers for next year’s fest, of which I will be one. So in addition to the other topics I’ll be covering in this column, I’ll also spend the next year making occasional updates on the fun/maddening process of putting together this lovely li’l fest of ours. And having taken part from nearly all angles of it, I can tell you that it’s no easy feat.

Over the next year you will hear stories of concepts praised and mocked, of scripts written in haste just to be torn up moments later, of “dream casting” that becomes a nightmare for everyone involved, of Jeremy Cole tracking you down like an angry cheetah because you didn’t reply to his e-mail, of illustrators who were supposed to have finished work a month ago but only have rough sketches, of writers wanting to tear their hair out because in the end there is nothing more stressful than trying to find the right raffle prize for the night of your reading and seeing that said prize is sold out.

But most of all, you’ll see a lot of love. What started out as a fun idea during a car ride through the woods has evolved into an annual highlight of the entire Bay Area theatre scene. And that’s always been the bottom line of the festival – for its audiences, illustrators, directors, actors, and writers – everyone keeps coming back because none of them can deny just how much fun they’re having. And I can’t believe I almost went a year without it.

get-attachment.aspx

Charles Lewis would love to see Stuart return to his role as Judd Apatow, if for no other reason than to see a two-person show wherein Allison Page plays his Lena Dunham. SF Olympians V: The Monster Ball kicked off last night at the The EXIT Theatre and continues tonight with Megan Cohen’s Centaur, or Horse’s Ass and Annette Roman’s Satyr Night Fever. All shows begin at 8pm, all tickets are $10.oo cash at the door, with raffle tickets $5.oo a piece. For more information, please visit www.SFOlympians.com.