19 September 2006

directing a play, for better or worse

Some of you may be aware that over the last month or so I've been directing a play for the Pittsburgh New Works Festival, a showcase for one-act plays from around the country that has the dual purpose of hi-lighting local theatre talents. I am not local theatre talent, but desperate times call for desperate measures, and I was asked to direct, partly because I am a local film talent, and partly because I had an opening in my schedule[1].

I'd never directed a play before, but I was happy for the opportunity because it allows me an chance to get better at directing actors as well as direct something I didn't write, which I believe is an important step in the maturation of any director. Being a writer/director is all well and good, but I think to truly become a filmmaker, you have to be able to interpret someone else's script just as well as you can interpret your own. Speaking strictly in terms of directing, it's harder, as you only have what's on the page as reference. You know little to nothing of the backstory or genesis of the work beyond what you can glean from the script and whatever extra information you can get from the playwright himself.

Also, there's a rather large chance that the script may be below your normal standards of writing, especially in a format such as this, where the pool of available plays is limited and largely mediocre.

Thankfully our play, Lucas Levya's Death on Flagler, was better than most of the plays in the festival. Brimming with coarse language (by our count, one character says "fuck" 136 times in less than 30 minutes) and a cameo appearance by a buffalo, it fell out of favor with certain directors (one of whom is also in our cast) and fell to us with the 12th pick. Not bad for the play we had ranked 5th. At least, that's what we thought.

What you have to understand about the New Works Festival is that of the 50 or so scripts available, there were only eight or nine I would have even considered doing, so to be ranked 5th in that group isn't as impressive as it first sounds. The problem with Death on Flagler, besides the title, is that it works very hard to undermine itself multiple times in the third act, something that wasn't readily apparent on first glance[2]. So, it took some work to maintain a dramatic build in spite of these roadblocks, but that's precisely the type of challenge I was looking for: working with actors to find an optimal way to present a script, even if that meant tweaking lines for a better effect. Thankfully, our cast is probably the most talented in the festival.

What's a little scary for me as a director is the lack of an editing process. I'm so used to being able to tweak things in post-production that I'm a little flustered at times when that isn't an option. Take, for example, something as simple as the lights up at the beginning of the play. We have music[3] playing over house lights, which go to black, then the play lights come up and the music fades out. This would take me maybe an hour to do on film and I'd get the exact effect I wanted every time, but now I've got to rely on two people in a booth. For a perfectionist like myself, this is not an easy adjustment. There's also the tendency of actors to do things differently from one performance to the next, which is part of the appeal of theatre, but again not something you can fix in post.

But the most important adjustment? Yesterday I'm in the booth for a tech run and after a minute or two into the run yell "cut!", only to find myself looking at several bewildered stares. Turns out in the theatre you don't say "cut", you say "thank you". My response? "Check the gate and run it again."

Anyway, all of this is to say we open on Thursday and run through Sunday downtown on 9th street. So if those of you in Pittsburgh want to see a play with a motherfucking buffalo, feel free.

[1] More the latter than the former, I think.

[2] To be fair to Levya, this play hasn't been performed before and the problem is the type of thing that often doesn't manifest itself until the play is on its feet. This is all part of the organic theatre process that those of us in film find hard to understand at first.

[3] Mostly the Roots, which will be a surprise to people who watch my films. When in Rome.


andyhorbal said...

I can't tell from the New Works website: what time and where is this theater? I'm not sure what I'm doing this weekend yet, but I'll definitely see if I can't make it to a performance...

lucas said...

the theatre is on the corner of 9th and Ft. Duquesne Blvd (?, the one along the river) at Cappa (the arts high school) next to Dowe's. really close to the Harris.

the schedule is:

Thurs & Fri 8pm, Sat 5pm & 8pm, Sun 4&7

individual seats: $10

andyhorbal said...


lucas said...

i'm here to help.