While following the New Play Convening at Arena Stage in January, I was struck by a comment made about directors in relation to the supply/demand debate. The comment went something like this: directors have lacked opportunities to hone their craft and so have started companies in order to remedy this, thus contributing to the surplus of companies.
Assessing ‘the truth’ of this comment would take up another post entirely, yet I mention it because it got me thinking about who is looking out for the directors of today and tomorrow. Moreover, if there is any truth to the comment, are we necessarily looking out for our craft, for ourselves as directors, if we start a company and travel down a path of self-absorbed artistic solitude, only discussing the work we do with other kinds of theatre artists during a given production, but never with other directors?
Last week on Twitter, after a month or so of thinking on this, I asked folks that follow the #2amt hashtag to offer their thoughts on the state of dialogue among directors and about directing. As people weighed in, it became apparent quite quickly that open and constructive conversation of this sort doesn’t really exist. Whether it be due to ego, insecurity, fear of job security, or something else, directors don’t seem to commiserate and exchange ideas the way that, say, playwrights or other practitioners do. Sure, there are plenty of books by and about ‘great 20th c. directors,’ from Brecht and Brook to Littlewood, Bogart and Landau, that we can turn to for comfort and, um, direction, but wouldn’t it be nice if we could confer with and have more insight into other directors who are practicing this craft right now all over the world? I, for one, think so. It’s time to remove the mysterious cloak that shrouds the majority of directors in silence.
And so, this post marks the start of a new 2am director-to-director interview series that will, in time, be done both in Q & A and podcast format. If you would like to participate, please be in touch! Oh, and, one more thing, last week’s Twitter conversation also gave birth to a new hashtag, #2amdir, so we can start to track micro-conversation relevant to directing.
Without further ado, I give you Interview numero uno. Meet Michael Leeds.
Hometown: New York City
Current Town: Boynton Beach, FL
1. What attracted you to directing?
I began my career as a B’way dancer but soon enough I discovered I was more interested in what was going on on the other side of the footlights as the director and writer and choreographer would huddle and make decisions. Between that and my constantly telling the other chorus boys what they should be doing, I figured I’d better move into directing and choreographing before I got killed.
2. Did you receive academic and/or practical training in directing? And how has (not) having this formal education/training shaped your directing career?
I went to Ithaca College for a BFA in theatre. I was concentrating on being an actor at the time, but there were classes in everything from scene design to theatre history. Theatre history for me was especially invaluable because it exposed me to great playwrights whose work I might never have known. I did get to watch directors close up, some good some not so good, and learned from each what to do – and not to do. When I graduated I continued my acting studies with the great Larry Moss in New York City. Learning the tools an actor needs to help him/her create a character has helped me enormously as a director in working with actors. I then was one of six directors brought in for the first season of NYU’s Librettist program to work as a director developing a show with a composer/lyricist/librettist team. That was invaluable!
3. Which director (or other theatre artist) (dead or alive) has had the greatest impact on you as a director?
Mike Nichols, Tommy Tune, Larry Moss
4. In your personal library, what is the most indispensable text on the craft of directing? Or, alternately, have books/practical guides proven unhelpful?
Harold Clurman’s On Directing and Larry Moss’s The Intent To Live
5. Describe the importance of ‘the director’ in contemporary theatre. Has the director’s place/status changed in the time you have been directing?
I think the director has virtually the same role and importance in theatre that he’s always had. (Film of course is very different). He must have a cohesive vision and the ability to translate that vision clearly to the production team and the cast and inspire them to want to take the journey with him. In essence, I see my role as the captain of a volleyball team. Constant collaboration with me making the strategic choices.
6. How would you characterize/describe your own directing style?
Lots of pre-production work. Lots of research. Very collaborative. I tend to rely on music a lot to help bring out specific moments in a piece. I use to be much more rigid about blocking, staging everything in my head before we got to rehearsals. Now I am much more fluid. I like to watch the actors use their instincts and then help shape it. I also like to get the actors on their feet as soon as possible. I prefer actors don’t memorize their lines before rehearsals (unless the text is so massive they need to get that jump start, and/or it’s their preferred way of working).
7. What quirks, habits, rituals, etc. (if any) inform your directing process?
I am constantly losing my script and my giant jug of water. Also, I’m always moving around the theatre to watch the play from different angles. Consequently, I always pick the row to walk through that is blocked by a ladder or construction and have to retrace my steps or hop over chairs into another row. Annoying but true.
8. What style/type of work do you find most compelling to direct? If you have an area of specialization, what are the unique challenges/needs of directing this kind of work?
I love musicals – especially musicals with heart and bite. I feel my forte is comedy but I also feel my comedic bent is what makes me a good director of drama. Recently, I had a wonderful experience with A Glass Menagerie and it’s one of the pieces I am most proud of. I’m intrigued by any piece that “lives in the grey.”
9. What is your fondest directing experience/memory?
It’s always my most recent work. Right now it’s The First Step – Diary Of A Sex Addict. I love the cast, the humor, the poignancy, and the challenges it has presented because of having to establish over 20 locales with just cubes and lighting, usually in a few seconds. And the musical right before this piece, The Light In The Piazza that I directed for Broward Stage Door. I love that piece!
10. What is the most challenging work you have directed to date? Why?
The First Step ranks up there. Shakespeare’s A Winter’s Tale mostly because I’m a novice at Shakespeare – but would love to do more! And Arthur Miller’s teleplay Playing For Time which is a harrowing tale about a female orchestra in a concentration camp that Arthur gave me permission to adapt when I directed it at the Edinburgh Festival.
11. What advice would you give to a young or aspiring director?
Keep directing! Anywhere! Trust and love your actors – but remember they are not your pals, they have enough friends. Never settle just because it’s the first thing you thought of. See everything. Be discerning – not judgemental.
12. What is your current directing project?
The First Step – Diary Of A Sex Addict. It opens this week. It will run for 5 weeks at Empire Stage in Fort Lauderdale. After that I’m directing and choreographing a new Lisa Loeb musical called Camp.