Directing plays is a simultaneously fun and frustrating activity for me.
It starts with my trying to convince a group of people, most of whom have never met me, that they should audition for a show they most likely have never seen and, once chosen for the cast, to volunteer to spend hours of their free time memorizing the lines they are given. There can be tongue-twisting phrases, obscure words and, in some cases, an accent to take on.
Then they are required to spend four to six weeks in rehearsals, where they may spend more time watching others perform on stage than they actually get to do themselves.
When they finally make their entrance, I expect them to add actions to their words, making their prescribed gestures seem natural and spontaneous.
While combining speech and movement, they must endure my near-constant haranguing about proper stage blocking, projection and pacing.
I remind them. Loudly.
"Don't look at me, I'm not here!"
"Cheat out! Don't turn your back to the audience!"
"Say it so the old people in the back row can hear you!"
Along the way, I coordinate the backstage crew who add in lights, sound, props, costumes and makeup. It is rare that I do not have to head up one or more of those crews myself.
Dozens of props must be found and purchased or borrowed from those willing to loan them. Google searches for period-appropriate set dressing, hairstyles and outfits are consulted in an effort to convey a cohesive style. Sound cues and music must be decided upon and timed. Lights must be hung and focused.
I take a deep breath and remind myself the actors are giving freely of their time when they text me to tell me they will be late for rehearsal, that they did not get a chance to work on their lines or that they forgot to bring dark socks to wear with their dress shoes.
During the last week of rehearsal, I instruct the actors to don costumes that will inevitably be itchy and cause them to sweat under the stage lights, dismissing or addressing their protestations about ill-fitting items as needed. Wigs, mustaches, long skirts, high heels and other extra clothing add to the character's look and the actor's discomfort — not to mention the heavy makeup layered on their faces and copious amounts of hairspray plastering their scalps.
I nag at them to remember to stand, walk and sit as their character would as they enter onto the set, endeavoring not to squint at the other actors or the audience as they move from the semi-darkness backstage into the blinding glare of the stage lights.
Now, my instructions can be confusing to novice actors if I do not take the time to explain the theater jargon I bark out.
"Don't anticipate lines!"
"Pick up your cues!"
"Hold for the laughter!"
Invariably, the unforeseen happens. An actor loses their voice. The prop gun refuses to fire. A hat inexplicably goes missing. The sight of me throwing up my hands backstage in exasperation happens at least once per production.
Why do I put myself through this? Directing plays — commonly mentioned in the same breath as herding cats — seems like a hobby that perfectionists such as myself would avoid. Not to mention the fact that I am not a leader by nature. I much prefer to follow, creating peace and harmony in the world.
Directing plays has taught me to pick my battles, show grace to others and remember to keep things in perspective.
I choose to direct shows that have value artistically, yes, but that is a secondary goal. My main priority is bringing together a group of individuals of diverse backgrounds and life experiences, getting them to respect each other and work together to create a story.
Opening night is frantic and fun, but the weeks of work that goes into a show before the curtain rises is the real reward — the relationships that are formed and the cast's common experience of going from "how am I ever going to learn all this" to "we did it!"
I direct because there is nothing like seeing people work together to create something out of virtually nothing. It does not matter if there are fewer people in the audience than there are on stage.
I will continue to direct as long as I have actors who, after all their hard work, tell me they want to do it again.