Friday, February 14, 2014

800 Words: The ABC's of the Marriage of Figaro - Directing


“The degree of lightness or darkness is often initially dictated by the theme, but never to the extent that I would ever want the one totally to exclude the other.
There’s an old acting maxim, ‘When playing a miser, stress his generosity.’ The same is true of writing a play, or indeed of directing one. The darker the subject, the more light you must try to shed on the matter. And vice versa.
A few years back, when I was again directing at the Royal National Theatre, we did a hugely successful revival of Arthur Miller’s tragedy, A View from the Bridge. I think I’ve rarely laughed as much in a rehearsal room as I did during the early rehearsals, as we searched both for the light, the genuinely legitimate moments of laughter - we found lots - and for speed. Our version apparently ran about thirty minutes shorter than a recent New York production had done.
Conversely, when we came a few months later to my own ‘comedy’, A Small Family Business, the search was on for the darkness that lurked behind the cheery family exterior. (It’s actually a comedy about greed, blackmail, adultery, prostitution, organised crime, sexual deviation, murder and teenage death through drug addiction - though we never billed it as that!)
No play worth its salt says nothing at all. It would actually be very difficult to achieve this (though I’ve read some in my time that do come very close). We often dismiss our light comedies and farces as trivia with nothing to say. With the successful ones, this is generally untrue.”

- Alan Ayckbourn, The Crafty Art of Playmaking

So writeth Alan Ayckbourn, a condescended to writer of comedies if ever there was one. But since August Wilson died, he’s probably my candidate for best living playwright of ‘straight’ theater in the English language. Not that I’m at all qualified to judge, but he’s the only long-active playwright I can think of whose intelligence feels more made from human feeling than a passion for jigsaw puzzles. Whether it’s the violent and surreal boardgames of Americans like Mamet and Albee, or the intellectual teasers of Stoppard and Frayn, I’d be hard-pressed to find another living English-language playwright whose work can consistently move you rather than impress or disturb you. Neil Simon perhaps, but he’s so associated with the mawkish that maybe he’s too bound in our minds with high school accessibility for any of us to judge him fairly.

And yet, the truth is that Ayckbourn is just as jigsaw-puzzle-ish as the rest, and such is the reason that theater today is so impoverished compared to various types of film - in which the greatest talents can make far more money. He’s no genius sent from the heavens to give us divine art, he simply writes well-made plays as though taken from a schematic in a handbook in which you see all the gears of the plot turn precisely as they have to - every character reveals their motivation at precisely the right moment. And yet onto his Swiss watchmaker like mechanical precision is grafted all the vagaries of the human heart. The only problem is that you still see the gears turning, and his characters never quite jump off the stage in the manner which genius, true cosmic genius, should.

Nevertheless, what makes Ayckbourn so great, and he’s toweringly great, is not his skill, but his feeling. Many people like to say that you can always separate the art from the artist. I wish, oh god how I wish for my own sake, that that’s not true. But the type of human being an artist is thunders so loudly from the work that if you read them perceptively, you can garner virtually everything about the artists’ life - their passions, their moods, their compulsions, their religion, their fetishes, their loves and hates, their self-opinion, their opinion of others. Like any family member, friend, or lover, a great composer or writer or filmmaker or artist is someone in whose company you have to spend a lot of time, and the more time you spend, the better you know them. Warts and all, for such a relationship to be meaningful, you have to justify to yourself that this person’s quality is worth the investment of time.

Like any close relation, an artist has to sympathize with our faults without absolving us for them. If anything, the close people in our lives fill in the blanks and weaknesses which we ourselves have - and some of us have many. We let them into our lives so that they may complement (not compliment) us and make us more complete. And with their strengths, we gain admittance to doors of perception we’d never have without them, and they us. But if they share weaknesses that we do, or fear we do, we begin to find them grating, tiresome, and get queasy in their company. To be around them is to be reminded of what we dislike in ourselves, and that is a difficult matter.

So it is with intimacy, so it is with art. Some artists - Mozart, Shakespeare, Rembrandt, Jean Renoir, Sondheim, perhaps a dozen or two others I can rattle off (make your own list obviously) - are so cosmically perceptive that we can never get to the bottom of them, even if they seem to know everything about us, and, tangentially, everything about everyone we’ve ever met. Like some people in our lives we're blessed to have, we can never tire of their company. But we can’t help wondering when they will tire of us, because while they seem to know us completely, we can never truly know them. They’re simply more perceptive, - they give everything to you and seem to need nothing in return. You’re forever grateful for it, but you always left wondering why it is the way it is. The understanding of all humanity seems at their fingertips, and we make up just a small speck of the humanity which lies within them.

But even if there’s no getting to the bottom, there is nevertheless the question of what is visible at the surface. Is Hamlet’s delay to murder Claudius due to inaction or circumstance? Is he mad or feigning madness? Does Hamlet really love Ophelia? Is Polonius a shrewd operator or an incompetent old fool? Did Gertrude know about Claudius’s plot? Is the Ghost really an apparition of Hamlet’s father, a demon from the beyond, or the collective madness of people in a decadent court?

Whether any production ever answers these questions, the questions remain in the text, perceivable to anyone who reads it closely enough (and you don’t have to read it particularly closely to find any of those). But whatever the answers, a director of Hamlet must ask one question before any other - what interpretation would be the most engrossing, entertaining, moving, provocative, and memorable interpretation for the audience. Picture the theater filled to the bursting, and then picture what would make them laugh most, cry most, squirm most, be most in awe. Is your perception of what that will be correct?

The answer is as close to 'certainly not' as human error can bring. Even if a director is talented, perceptive, humanly generous, knowledgeable, and persuasive, there will be an infinite void of possibilities he’ll never see in the play, hopefully a slightly smaller infinite void than his actors, but there is no guarantee of that either. But even if a stage is packed with recreative geniuses - Trevor Nunn directing Brando and Meryl Streep? - there is yet another infinite gulf between the director’s perception and the actors’. But it is a director’s job nevertheless to plunge headlong into all those voids and swim in every one.


What is a good director’s job?

Some, usually a director, would allege that a director is an autocrat, who thinks of the members of his cast as cattle - movable and audible props that go from one place to another as nothing more than a useful object within their brilliant conceptions, and enforce this conception as time goes on, by coercion if necessary.

Others, usually an actor, would allege that a good director is an enabler, who simply gives motivation and context so that the actors can better glisten on stage and enlighten the audience with their brilliant conceptions and personages.

A third, hopefully wiser archetype, would allege that a director has no set job. The closest analogy would probably be to a gardiner. A director’s job is to respond to the needs he sees at any given moment on stage to ensure the production’s growth. Of course the director has his conceptions and opinions, but he also lets his conception grow wherever he sees organic growth which diverges from his conception. But just as he gets out of the way when he sees quality growth, he has a responsibility to intervene when there is too little, and even when there is organic growth, he occasionally needs to prune the plants if they are obstructing other plants.

But a director is not dealing with plants, he’s dealing with human beings. If he sees something in a certain part of the production that can be improved, it is his responsibility to persuade them to adapt it as best he can the manner which he believes could show improvement, but he nevertheless may well never persuade them. If the actor, or musician, or technician, disagrees with him, then his job is to form another from the infinity of options that are satisfactory both to him and to them. A director’s job is neither to impose a conception nor to accept one, his job is to ensure one. Through ceaseless reading, ceaseless research, and… unfortunately, ceaseless challenging.   

This third model is infinitely more challenging model than the other two, because the second half of the director’s job is also to make sure that the various parts of the production work cooperate well together for the best possible result. And no matter how many times people say that creative tension is important to ensure a good result, it’s simply not true. The optimal result is achieved through people of different talents fusing together, united and working undisturbedly in a common goal. All happy productions are happy in the same way. All unhappy productions are unhappy in different ways.

The first model is perfect bluff, and relies on the insecurity and self-doubt of the director’s collaborators so he can undermine their self-confidence - there are no end of directorial demagogues who bully their way to the top of their profession. The second model is perfectly ass-kissing, and there are no end of directors who rise to the top simply by flattering the egos of their collaborators. It is perfectly possible to achieve a good result with either of these two models, but it’s much harder. The first model necessitates human beings surrendering parts of their individuality, the other necessitates collaborators willing to be so fully human that they compensate for the director’s limitations.

But the third model is easily the most difficult, because its rewards are only honest rewards, and it can take a terrible psychic toll. For doing this, you could easily be thought either an autocrat or an enabler, because in a sense, you are both. Everything about the job of directing is an inherent contradiction, and one that no doubt takes a lifetime of experience to balance if one ever does.


There is something truly horrible about an artform with rules so codified that it can be reduced to teaching it in academies and textbooks. The walls have been built, the bars have been set, and all that awaits is the prisoners to come and lock themselves in their cells. And as a result, individuality can be crushed, and people who truly burn with creative desire have to find other, more flexible, cultural mediums through which they can express themselves, or else they’ll occupy their time repressing other people as they themselves were once repressed.

None of this is to say that modern conservatories killed classical music and drama, or that film school killed film, or that art school killed visual art. And yet, it can’t be denied, none of these forms have been anywhere near as popular to the public since academia took them over. Perhaps academia itself is a symptom of decay, an onanistic creative parasite that devours vitality and fitness with a false desire for understanding. Once an artform is so popular that it becomes an unassailable fact of life, it becomes the establishment. And the establishment has only one interest - remaining the establishment.

There is no set model for what art is - whether it’s theater, or music, or visual arts, or cinema, or food. Except perhaps through neuroscience, you cannot quantize quality in art, you can only qualitize quality. It is ultimately fruitless to say 'A is greater than B', because there is no objective way of proving it. There is no 'greater than' in art, there are only infinite 'types' of greatness. Even if Shakespeare and Chaucer created more words in the English language than any other writer and created character development as we now understand it, they would not be the best English writers because of it. If they remain the greatest writers in the English language, it’s because of how those words and characters they developed affect us. All you can say is ‘this is good/bad because...’ The closest to quantizing which art has is the concept of metaphor, which is the way our brain’s right side does mathematics. When we make comparisons in the ‘real’ (phenomenal) world, we say that ‘A is like B...’. But after you make such a syllogism, you have to say ‘A is like B because...’

Every time you try to reduce art to a formula, it will evade your grasp. Art is as disciplined an ‘art’ as any military campaign, and without some kind of order, it is meaningless. And yet, once an artistic order exists, it exists to be violently broken into as many pieces as possible; if only so it can be reassembled again in a completely different manner, and then broken again just as violently.

...The game continues….


This staging of Figaro will, hopefully, have breaks in the narrative, violence unsought in the libretto, music which is not part of Figaro’s score, and far more sex and raunch than is asked for. Is it avant-garde, or is it just intellectual bullshit? The truth is that I have no idea, but I came up with the best staging I knew how to do after loving this score for nearly twenty five years and reading nearly as many books.  

I’d like to think that I love traditional opera as much as anybody my age in the world. It has accompanied me through many great moments and gotten me through many more terrible ones. It got me up in the morning, and it sung me to sleep. But traditional opera is traditional opera, and if you’re going to go by traditional models of what opera is, you need to do it in traditional spaces, with a traditional orchestra, and traditional recitatives. There is no sense in preserving tradition if all the aspects for which tradition has been preserved are gone. If there is a huge stage and a refulgently large orchestra with weeks of 8-hour rehearsals to be performed for connoisseurs of the tradition, then there is hardly a more magnificent experience in the world. But if you do not have these aspects, and I might have thought differently had we preserved a few more traditional aspects, then you have make as complete a break with the past as you possibly can - lest you be compared to the greater tradition and inevitably be found wanting. If you’re going to do an untraditional presentation, then it has to be untraditional with capital UNs.

A staging of Figaro must have five levels to it:

1. Comic farce.
2. Tragic consideration of life’s frustrations and emptiness.
3. Political commentary.
4. Erotic Bodice-ripper.
5. Fairy Tale (this is an opera after all)

No matter what happens on the stage, and no matter how much any element dominates this opera at any given time, all five elements must appear on the stage simultaneously.

Furthermore, as a presentation, we are doing the first ever ‘traditional’ classic opera in Baltimore’s preeminent independent rock space. There are four elements which this staging must possess

1. The company has to present the opera in all its greatness to an audience who’s never heard it before and barely heard Mozart.
2. The opera must be rendered in such a way that removes the audience’s preconceived notions of opera’s inherent stuffiness.
3. The opera must appeal to knowledgeable opera goers who are coming to a small production, looking for new angles to a piece they already know well.
4. In order for the new opera goers to enjoy the production, they must think that we are flustering the oldies, even if we’re engaging them just as much.

This staging has to be so untraditional that If even the people who know it best are not thoroughly opened to new possibilities by it, then it has in some sense failed. And yet it has to be so traditional that a new audience emerges simultaneously with a reasonably complete understanding of the opera’s fundamentals. And yet the opposites are equally true. If there is too little respect for tradition, then the opera buffs will be offended. If there is too much respect for tradition, the opera novices will be bored.

I have done what I could to make a thoroughly traditional, untraditional staging. A staging that is, I think, completely grounded in reverence for Mozart; the greatest talent that has ever graced this earth, perhaps in any of the arts; but also completely grounded in disrespect. To do justice to an infinite gift requires at least a small suggestion of infinity. The audience has to be made aware not only of what happens, but also what doesn’t happen, what ‘could’ happen, and what ‘might’ happen. If opera wins people to its cause, then we (or perhaps I) get one attempt to make them aware of the infinite possibilities which opera has to offer.

How many times will I ever get to direct The Marriage of Figaro again?

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