Jane Anderson knows it’s time to let go
AS I write this, I’m well into the third week of rehearsals for my new play at the Geffen Playhouse, “The Quality of Life.” As the playwright, I would have ducked out by now to let the director and the actors work out the nuts and bolts of interpreting the play. Maybe I’d get the occasional phone call from the director wondering if they could possibly add or cut a line. But mostly I would rightfully be asked to disappear so everyone could mess around with the text in peace without having me hunched in the back of the rehearsal room wringing my hands.
This time, though, I’m also the director, and when I’m in the room with the actors, we’re all keenly aware of the presence of the playwright. I try to take deep breaths to calm that other creature down. Occasionally I’ll excuse myself and go to the ladies’ room to give myself a couple of bitch slaps because I absolutely must protect the actors from myself.
There’s a very good reason why writers should be barred from the room: By the time playwrights get to rehearsal we’re at a completely different stage in the process from the actors and the director. We’ve already made our way through the terror of creating something out of nothing. And we’ve done it in the privacy of our notebooks and computers. No one was there, staring over our shoulders as we wrote perfectly dreadful pieces of dialogue or let the play meander off in the wrong direction.
Writers are free to blunder without fear of judgment (unless you count our own internal critics, who are unfailingly harsh). Getting lost is part of the creative process, and actors must have freedom to wander and explore. This applies to the theater director as well, especially if he or she is working on a new play that’s never been decoded before.
I know that in my early years as a playwright I made my poor directors crazy. I couldn’t understand why they didn’t instantly grasp all the intricate layers of subtext that I built into the lines. I’d heave great sighs and loudly scribble notes. I believe that once I even got up and paced. I was incredibly rude, and I know that if I were the director I would have banned me from the room.
Clearly I don’t recommend that playwrights direct their own work. And if you believe that your script is inerrant and you’ve envisioned how every line should be delivered, then you’re in for a miserable time. Your actors will end up despising you, and your production will be mostly unwatchable.
Working in film and television helped me to develop a cold, clear third eye. It also didn’t hurt to be a writer-for-hire on some truly banal projects. It took the preciousness out of the process so that when I went back to writing for the theater, I had been relieved of the misconception that every word that I wrote had been blessed by God. By the time I started to direct my screenplays, I had developed an absolute ruthlessness when it came to cutting and rewriting my own work. And having once been an actress, I also understood what it’s like to have an intrusive writer or director stomp the life out of your performance. In other words, I’d been humbled enough by the business to know how not to make an arrogant fool of myself.
For the actors, there are, of course, advantages to having the playwright double as the director. I know that my actors appreciate having direct access to my head. There are times when they simply want to know what I meant by a line, and I’ll fill them in if I sense it’ll help them solve a piece of the puzzle. It saves time in rehearsal and cuts down on their frustration factor. Sometimes I feel uncomfortable explaining too much, and I’ll say, “Well, what do you think that means?” like some Freudian shrink. The actors hate that; if they ask, they want to know. They’re thinking of making the deadline of opening night and they don’t want to waste energy going down the wrong rabbit hole.
The advantage for me, as the director, is that I don’t have to spend hours in preproduction doing research on myself. I don’t have to study my oeuvre to get a feel for my “style.” I don’t have to read the script over and over, making copious notes, breaking the scenes into beats. I already did my homework during those nine months of emptying my veins over the keys of my computer.
What’s curious is that I really never thought twice about directing my own screenplays because in film there’s a tradition of the writer-director as auteur. That’s not as common in theater. We do have theater auteurs, such as Richard Foreman and Robert Wilson. But they’re experimental visionaries whose work integrates multimedia elements that go beyond the straight narrative of a play. David Mamet, a film auteur himself, has been known to direct his own plays -- but rarely the premiere production of a work. He’s mostly left that daunting task to someone else. Why is that?
I think the answer lies in the fact that your typical auteur is, by nature, a control freak, and the creative process of the film medium feeds that fire. Film directing is about refining every frame, every move, every breath your actors take. You shoot your scenes in small, micromanaged beats. You have the ability to tweak and shade an actor’s work, take after take after take. The way you light an actor, the type of lens you use, the angle you choose all determine how an actor ultimately comes across on the screen. Then, of course, once you get in the editing room, you have even more control. You can shape a performance however you want, cutting together reactions and looks and even bits of accidental brilliance that you captured after you said cut but secretly kept the camera rolling. Another film director once told me that he actually altered one of his star’s reaction shots with CGI. He didn’t like the way her face moved, so he moved it around digitally. A film director can make a bad actor look good and a good actor look bad. We take their images and hold them captive to do whatever we want with them. No wonder so many film stars are hopelessly neurotic and no wonder so many film directors are insufferable megalomaniacs.
BUT the theater director is a different kind of animal. He or she has no control over a production once it’s up and running. Maybe the pace, the tone, the style of the play have been set, but the performances will always be in a state of flux. The actors run the show. As they should. They’re the ones who have the relationship with the audience, not the director or the playwright. Once the play opens, it’s their baby -- and most auteur types are not terribly comfortable with this idea.
I don’t think of myself as a deeply controlling person. But I’ve been told that I am by my beloved family. And I have been dubbed a film auteur, so I suppose I must be one of those people. And yes, it took a degree of personal hubris to think that I was even remotely qualified to direct the premiere of my own play. But I also knew that this would be a wonderful exercise in humility. I’m humbled by the fact that I must eventually release the reins to this profoundly talented company of actors. There’s no postproduction for me, no editing or sound mixing, no color-correcting for the DVD. And when the run is over, the set will be struck, the cast will disperse and all that will be left are some dog-eared scripts and the knowledge that something remarkable happened on that stage.
It used to be, when I was still just the playwright, I’d sink into a dark hole whenever one of my plays closed. Maybe that’s what drove me to seek out the permanence of film. But coming back to the theater as a hyphenate means that I have to cede control of my work twice-fold. It’s the ultimate lesson in letting go.
So here’s to living in the moment. And here’s to the magic of the stage and the beautiful impermanence of it all.
Anderson’s plays include “Looking for Normal” and “The Baby Dance.” She won a 1993 Emmy for “The Positively True Adventures of the Alleged Texas Cheerleader-Murdering Mom.”
‘The Quality of Life’ Where: Geffen Playhouse, 10886 Le Conte Ave., WestwoodWhen: Opens Oct. 10. For schedule, see geffenplayhouse.comEnds: Nov. 18Price: $69 and $74Contact: (310) 208-5454