What are the practical steps involved in directing a play or an opera? Here’s what the job looks like for me.
When I begin to direct a play or an opera, I try to leave pre-conceptions and cultural expectations aside, even with a classic text. I stay away from: “This is the way XYZ is always done” or “The movie showed it like this.” Instead, I let the words tell me what to do. The story is my boss, always.
I will talk you through my process, beginning with the selection of material. I’ve chosen a classic story, the fairy tale Little Red Riding Hood, material that nearly everyone knows.
I ask myself: What is the plot? What happens here?
I begin by reading the story a few times and then creating a narrative that I tell, slowly and in detail. I try to speak out loud, even to myself. Here’s how I begin:
A little girl wearing a red riding hood leaves home to take a basket of food to her grandmother. At their cottage door, the child’s mother bids her goodbye and warns her to be careful when she walks through the forest.
I say she leaves; she walks. I keep things active and avoid the passive. What we see on stage is what people are doing. They are active participants in their lives, we are, too, on and off stage: this is the message. Little Red is not a victim. She wants to make her way out into the world. (I’m using the Brothers Grimm version of the story rather than earlier, more grisly versions or more recently sanitized re-tellings.)
As I tell the story, I immediately see a prop list, and costume requirements as well. What does the girl’s basket look like? This choice gives a clue to the style of the production. Is the basket a traditional straw one? Is it a Trader Joe’s shopping bag? What about its size and shape suggest its contents?
It’s important for me to note my first impressions.
As for the hood: I think it must be red. A blue hood connotes the Virgin Mary; a yellow one suggests raingear. I do a little research, as directors do at every step and learn that there is a Swiss version of the story called Little Red Cap. Hmm. My mental picture of the title character opens, and I think about casting. Am I looking for a girl child to play the part, or a young woman? Could the role even be played by a small boy, as Little Fred Riding Hood? What would the audience feel with any of these choices?
I return to the narrative, the story.
A girl goes to see her grandmother, to take her cakes and wine. She must cross through a dangerous forest to get there. She meets a wolf who pretends to be friendly. He suggests she pick flowers to take to grandma. She does, and he leaps ahead, knocks on Grandma’s door, enters and . . . eats her. Illogically, he puts on her gown and cap and gets into her bed in time for Little Red to arrive. When she does, he fools her into thinking he’s Grandma, despite his big eyes, ears, teeth. He eats her, too! Fortunately, a woodcutter arrives, cuts open the wolf, and out comes Little Red and Grandma, both unharmed. They fill the sleeping wolf’s belly with rocks and take him the river, where he drowns. All live happily ever after. This makes it a comedy, or (depending on the fear level) a melodrama.
I jump into the question of genre. This matters in directing.
Genre. Tragedy, comedy, melodrama, farce. A comedy has a happy ending, a tragedy does not. Comedy ends with human rebirth, tragedy with human death. Wolves and dragons do not count. They can and “should” die in drama, at least in melodrama, where tragedy is averted, and comedy wins. Farce is comedy taken beyond the bounds of what’s “normal.” It seems to me that Little Red Riding Hood is a melodrama. As I consider genre, I look at the shape of the overall piece, its structure, tone, and what I want the audience to feel at the end.
I consider character. As I look at each person (or animal) in the story, I try to see a palette of individuals, each distinctly an age, a type, a personality. I know that Grandma, Mom, and Little Red are related. This leads to casting considerations. And, although I imagine a real wolf as I read the story, I will need to find a human actor who can play a wolf. This is a what is called suspension of disbelief. No, it’s not a real wolf, but I must believe it is. This belief – and the actor’s ability to succeed in making this possible — will guide my auditions, call-backs, and choices for casting.
I haven’t even begun rehearsing and I’m deep into this.
Scenery requires suspension of disbelief, too. Little Red and her mother don’t live in a “real” cottage, and yet they must. This does not mean making it look, photographically, like an actual cottage – but it does mean that even if it a sheet strung over a ladder that the audience sees a cottage. To this end, I spend time with the scenic designer, just as I do with the costume designer. As scenic ideas take shape, we pore over drawings, scale models, projections. I have ideas in my head, and I try to communicate them to the designers without being too dictatorial. Directing is a collaborative art at every step.
Costumes are important in Little Red Riding Hood. We are not dressing paper dolls, but real people who will need to move, talk, sing in garments that must look right for the genre, the era, and the scale of production. I want the actors to begin to move in a mock-up costume: this might be simply a corset, or even a hooded cape made from a beach towel.
I also want spectacle, in the sets, costumes, and lighting. Apart from storytelling values, I want the audience to taste eye candy, and to be delighted by the visuals, however simple they may be.
What’s next? I’m about to begin to rehearse.
As I meet the actors for a read-through of the script. I listen and watch and ask and answer questions. I say that I expect everyone to use their bodies (including their voices) from the get-go.
Here’s why. Theater moves.
Theater moves #1. What the audience sees, when watching a play or an opera, is people moving through space. In this way the actors use their bodies to tell the story. The actor may also sing or speak, but it is human movement that fills the audience’s eye. The senses of sight and hearing are the tracks of directing. They work together. Can we understand the story only by watching it? I would hope so.
Theater moves #2. Dramatic performance hopes to move, to produce emotion. The audience comes to laugh, cry, understand this world and/or be transported to another. For me, the question of emotional response is the touchstone for all my decisions. My most important job as director is to figure out what we (me, the actors, designers, writers, musicians) want the audience to feel from watching this story unfold on stage.
As I consider what emotional responses the story of Red Riding Hood might engender, I research the many takes critics and artists have had on this classic tale over several centuries. For some, it’s a tale of rape and violence, followed by vengeance and salvation. For others it’s a coming-of-age story, with the red of the hood signifying the beginning of menstruation. There are echoes, too, of another fairy tale, Hansel and Gretel, where children are sent into the forest by a parent, in this case, to try to lose them forever. The story of Little Red resonates.
Directorial introspection is part of my preparatory process.
I ask myself why I chose this story, what it says to me. I am a grandmother who was once a little girl and a young mother. I also have, vividly in memory, a mother and grandmother of my own. I know cottage life. I live beside a forest, and I like baskets. I have a dog who sometimes, playfully, is wolf-like. I favor the color red.
As I move into rehearsals, I seek out points of personal connection with my collaborators. I begin working with the actors, in a group, in pairs, and singly. A director is often an acting coach, a term that brings to mind the parallels between athletes and actors. Bringing a story to life with the actors is, for me, the very heart of my work as a director.
A funny thing happens at this point in directing, when I begin to see my work as something that has a life of its own, like a child I’ve given birth to. Yes, I need to decide what the idea of the play/opera is, what it says and what it means. But I also stay connected to the production as it takes shape, letting it tell me what it’s about, what its “message” is. Letting it mature and grow up.
A disclaimer: There is always a message in plays and operas, like it or not. The audience goes away thinking of one, that’s how the mind works. And so, I try to stay in control of those possible audience perceptions while at the same time letting the production grow into a life of its own.
As things take shape visually, I shift my focus to the auditory — the production’s spoken language, its sound effects, songs, and music. The howling wolf. The kindness in the mother’s voice. The way, “Grandma, what big eyes you have” is said. The sound of the woodsman’s axe. And what is the musicality in the text? Is the dialogue in rhyming couplets? Are there songs? Is a piano played as Little Red picks flowers in the forest? How do the actors’ vocal ranges factor into the listening experience? Are the scenes short or long? Do they flow together?
We’re close to the show’s opening, and I worry. When something feels wrong at the end of a rehearsal period, it’s most often a problem with the rhythm and pacing of the production itself. This can be a matter of actors picking up their cues, or maybe cuts need to be made in the script. It’s a guessing game at this point, especially if the show is mostly working. Long scene changes are common in opera, but not in most plays. Waiting fifteen minutes for Red Riding Hood’s cottage to become a forest would, rhythmically, flatten the story. Similarly, I wouldn’t choose to do Little Red Riding Hood in a grand theater space. Even the rhythm of climbing stairs to get to one’s audience seat in the balcony is a rhythmic experience in theatergoing.
What about visual rhythm? I return to the question of scene design. I would, if I could, choose a turntable as the principal scenic element so that Little Red could leave home, walk into the forest, meet the wolf, pick flowers, and make her way to Grandma. The turntable can stop for a scene as needed, and at the end take us to the river so that we can catch a glimpse of the river where the wolf ends up. I would finish the story where we started, a reunion at the mother’s cottage. The turntable makes the play circular for me and therefore inherently comic. Turntables are not easy or common, but I would argue for one. The circular experience can become the meaning, the message, as Little Red Riding Hood becomes a play about going out into the world, surviving terror, and returning home. That’s my interpretation.
The final collaboration for the director is with the audience. Throughout the process I have been an audience of one. When the “real” audience comes in to see the production, they are experiencing every level of collaboration, even if the workings remain hidden. The show is now theirs, and I am unseen. Like glue or fishing line or fairy dust, I am invisible.