Lessons, my season in review.

So the 2013-2014 Season has officially ended, and it was pretty satisfying for me as both a director and as a producer.  Along with producing, I had the chance to direct 5 shows at various places this year:  A remount of Ernie, the post-apocalyptic love romance adventure boom, the heart-wrenching Sweet Mercy about Rwanda, the gorgeous and funny End Days, and the world premiere of the terrific 10:53.   I’ve been organizing my desk and office, putting away old notebooks, clearing the remains of this season away and preparing for the next one, and it’s been fun.  Lots of reminders of lessons both learned and RE-learned.  Lots of stuff I did right, lots of things I did wrong, and lots of things that may take time to figure out which category to put in!

*Having fish onstage can be a fun but distracting choice.

*Make sure, as a director, you get everyone on board about What The Story Is About.  Once you do, just remind them to check in on that with every decision.  Then let them do their thing and see where it goes – that’s one of the fun parts!  (Well, *I* think it’s one of the fun parts!)

*My kids will never, as long as they live in my house, be too old for me to wake up in the middle of the night and hug.  Especially when I’m directing a show about something like the Rwandan genocide.  Hell, we’ll see what the future holds – ten years from now I may be driving to their houses after rehearsal to wake them up and hug them anyway.

*Do your job.  Let others do theirs.  If you’re not getting what you want, chat with them.  Don’t jump in and do it.  (Or, if you have to jump in and do it, be sure to talk about WHY with them, because just doing it and not explaining it is kind of a dick move.)  Made this mistake this year, regretted it.

*Keep It Simple.  Man, this one comes back every time.  What’s the story about?  Tell that.  Got the opportunity to add bells and whistles?  Neat.  Do they HELP?  Do they CLARIFY?  Do they make us CARE and CONNECT?  Do they move us viscerally?  If so, YES.  If not – rethink.

*Not everyone will agree with every choice… AND THAT’S OKAY.  This was, is, a frequently re-learned lesson by me.  Listen, I don’t mind admitting that I’m just as egotistical as everyone else.  Probably more.  When I like something, the idea that someone else doesn’t can be both baffling and offensive to me.  The challenge is to not take any of that criticism personally.  This is a thing with me because, well, I’m Italian and Scottish and if I feel I’m being wronged my impulse is to launch myself on top of people shouting “I don’t care, you SUCK, eat a bag of D!@K $!!” in a full out Berserker rage.  Not surprisingly, over 22 years or so in my career, I keep learning that this is not the best response.   The proper response, of course, is to pack away the ego and shut up, and realize that most everyone cares about their stuff as much as you care about yours, and different ideas can and SHOULD co-exist so, seriously, shut up and appreciate the differences in the world.  This year I had one instance of berserker rage that I really really regretted, and then several moments of shutting up that made me think I may at some point be comfortable calling myself a grown-up.   (Not eager to do it, mind you, but comfortable.)  The lesson of co-existing ideas really was spelled out nicely for me this year, though.  In fact, see below…

*Lesson from the gorgeous play End Days: Different ideas can and should co-exist. The play was about religions, lifestyles, but it can and should relate to everything.  Everything.  Do your thing, and shut up just because someone else wants to do theirs.  This was a good lesson for me this year.

*Mosquito netting can look REALLY amazing onstage.  (Nice choice Milly Parker!)

*Coolest effect all year: A simple bit of dust falling from the ceiling when, in the story, the upper stories of a building collapsed onto the ceiling of the set.  A little bit of talcum powder in a tiny tube, a crew person backstage blows in the end of the tube and the powder falls through the shaft of light as the sound effect of the crumbling building echoes.  Simple, gorgeous, and always got a great reaction from the audience.  (Nice choice Janine Woods Thoma!)

*Transitions.  Lots of plays are episodic and need scene breaks.  Don’t forget – if you give the audience a minute to drop out, they will.  So use every opportunity to tell the story, even if that means inventing the story between scenes.  Sometimes you need actors to change costumes.  What happens in the world of the play while they’re gone?  If the choice is between “Sit in black and listen to music while actor changes costumes offstage” or “Explore what happens in the world of the play while the characters are offstage, and do something to support the play until the actors can come back on”, choose b. Just make sure it’s not contradicting the “Keep It Simple” rule!

*Talk with actors.  Simple direction.  One of the best moments all year:  Working with a fabulous actor, I said “It feels like you’re getting really worked up, I think it’s just a simpler conversation.”  She said “Yeah it does!  Why am I all freakin’ out?!” – and that was all it took, she took that scene and it became one of the most simple, moving beautiful moments we had all year.  I have to remind myself of this on exactly EVERY show.  I’m chatty, I’m Italian, I’m a storyteller, and I need to shut the hell up and give simpler direction and stay out of the way.  In years past (and at moments this season), I could’ve made that direction go on forever as I got deep into examples and analogies and what we’re feeling as an audience and blahblahblahpleasegodmakehimstoptalking.

*You can tell the coolest, most fabulous story, and some people will still want nothing more complicated than an episode of “Everybody Loves Raymond”.  You know what, that’s fine, I like that sometimes too.  But don’t forget, for every person who wants JUST that, there is another person who NEVER wants that, and a person who wants that today, but something more substantive tomorrow.  You can’t please everyone every time, but getting them to trust that coming to see EVERYTHING is worthwhile – that’s the goal.  To keep a small professional theatre going, you need to create that relationship with a couple thousand people who say “You know what, we’ll see every production this season.  Two out of six may not be the kind of show we normally like, but we trust this company enough to tell us well done stories, so we’ll support them.”   And then, in turn, you need to follow through and make EVERY MOMENT engaging and committed and professional and follow through on your obligation, because those people are your patrons.  They’re why you’re making theatre.  Respect them.  Take that journey together, or get a different job.

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