This past week I began a new director-to-director interview series on 2AMt. Here is the first profile (Meet Michael Leeds), just in case you missed it. The objective of this series is twofold: (1) to create more dialogue among directors (2) to provide more insight into current directing practices. Profiles will be posted on a weekly basis.
Meet Mark Fossen
Hometown: I grew up all over the place, but (though it’s been a while) I still consider Chicago my hometown.
Current town: I am a freelance actor and director in Salt Lake City.
What attracted you to directing?
After leaving Chicago, I put directing aside for a long time. Without forming your own company, it can be hard to convince someone to “give you the keys” to a show. I continued to act, but never found the opportunity to direct again …. and then ended up leaving theatre for almost a decade. I’ve just been able to start directing again in Salt Lake and couldn’t be happier. I’m still definitely in the early stages of my directing career, though.
I think directing makes the best use of my particular set of talents. Though I started as an actor (and still act), directing immediately felt “right”. It allows for an application of deep thinking, and allows me to hide behind the curtain. I’d much rather sit in the audience as an unnoticed director than be on stage.
Did you receive academic and/or practical training in directing? And how has (not) having this formal education/training shaped your directing career?
I trained at Columbia College Chicago with Terry McCabe and Sheldon Patinkin, and I am currently in the Plan-B/Meat & Potato Director’s Lab in Salt Lake with Tobin Atkinson and Jerry Rapier. That training has been invaluable because it’s a chance to think about the process of directing outside of the inevitable compromises in the march to opening night.
Which director (or other theatre artist) (dead or alive) has had the greatest impact on you as a director?
Two directors have been huge influences in my life at two very different times. Sheldon Patinkin at Columbia College was more than a teacher or mentor – he was a father figure to me when I sorely needed one. His love for his actors and students never got in the way of telling them what they needed to hear – Sheldon would call me on the carpet then bear-hug me after, and I think of that in the rehearsal room every day.
Since I moved to Salt Lake and became friends with Plan-B’s Jerry Rapier, he’s been an influence in a new stage of my career. Acting for him and watching his process opened doors for me in both craft and art. He just has such incredible discipline and control and communication; he has taught me a lot about the value of simplicity and stillness in staging.
In your personal library, what is the most indispensable text on the craft of directing?
The book I go back to again and again is Jan Kott’s Shakespeare Our Contemporary. I suppose it’s not strictly a directing text, but it’s the first book that really opened my eyes to the possibilities of Shakespeare and theatre in general. The way he can look at Shakespeare and find something so utterly modern and original is continually inspiring, and that clear thinking applies to far more that just Shakespeare.
William Ball’s A Sense Of Direction, David Ball’s Backwards & Forwards and Peter Brook’s The Empty Space are other texts I reread frequently for inspiration and grounding. I’m a voracious reader and a theory junkie, and I think it all fits in there somewhere – even an obscure Arden Shakespeare footnote can inspire ideas.
Has the director’s place/status changed in the time you have been directing?
I don’t known that the director’s place has changed in the time I’ve been directing, but I do see differences regionally as I’ve travelled around. Some communities are more director-centric than others. In some, the director is a manager and traffic cop … in others, the primary artistic vision.
How would you characterize/describe your own directing style?
I’m definitely a hands-on director, active in the rehearsal room and very specific about what I want to see. I need everyone involved to have a voice, but I think it’s the director’s job to make sure all those voices are telling the same story and that can mean talking about specifics and beats and moments and subtext. I think there’s a difference between acting coach and director, and the director needs to be able to say “that’s a great choice … but it’s not in the story we’re telling with this production”. Hopefully, I keep the balance between that specificity and allowing creativity … but it’s a balance I’m always very aware of. I’m also, probably (to my detriment), a “heady” director. But again, I’m conscious of always trying to find balance there.
What quirks, habits, rituals, etc. (if any) inform your directing process?
Does “intense insecurity” count? I do know I joke a lot. I’d much rather give a note as a joke than anything else. I’m also pretty obsessive about schedule – I’ll repeat the “roadmap” of the next few days at least twice a rehearsal. As an actor myself, I love knowing where we are and what’s coming next.
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?
Though I have done some work on new plays, I find myself drawn right now to classics: Wilde, Williams, Shakespeare, Miller. The challenge that excites me there is trying to see these works clearly, scraping away any preconceptions and responding to them as a new play. I feel I need to question every response: am I blindly accepting some “conventional wisdom” about the play? Or, worse, rejecting something solely because it is “conventional wisdom”? Am I reacting honestly and with an open heart to what’s on the page?
What is your fondest directing experience/memory?
I know it’s cliche to say “my last project” but … my last project is my fondest experience. The Glass Menagerie at The Grand Theatre was simply a perfect process with a better team than I probably deserved. It was really the first time I felt that I had no excuses – my vision was on stage and there was nothing to hide behind.
What is the most challenging work you have directed to date? Why?
It’s really been the series of readings of works-in-progress I’ve done through the Director’s Lab. It’s a very pared-down style. Music stands and blacks and no movement. So when all the obvious tools are stripped way, what’s left to do to communicate your vision of the script? It becomes about very slight but specific adjustments, and really opened my eyes to the fact that those are what’s most important – not whether you’re setting Moon For The Misbegotten on the Moon.
What advice would you give to a young or aspiring director?
Realize what the job entails and sharpen your skills. The job is about communication and leadership and organization, in the same way that acting is about speaking and moving. Ever talk to an actor who “feels it” and can talk endlessly about the character … but never is able to get it on stage? Often we directors can think that the Big Ideas are enough, but they aren’t. We need to be able to execute them, and we do that by enabling our collaborators to do their best work. If you can’t communicate and inspire, all your Big Ideas are for naught.
What is your current directing project?
I am currently in pre-production for A Midsummer Night’s Dream this August, and in the very early stages for a March 2012 project.
Sidenote: I love the impetus behind this series of interviews because I love talking to other directors about directing – not about actors or producers or the next gig, but about process. Many playwrights have groups they meet with, and the Plan-B/Meat & Potato Director’s Lab has been invaluable because I have found a group of directors that I completely trust to come in at look at rehearsals or talk things over with. We can meet for brunch in a “cone of silence” and discuss everything and genuinely support each other. Hopefully, these #2amdir discussions can become an extension of that.
Thanks for sharing, Mark!
Our Directors’ Library to Date
David Ball, Backwards & Forwards
William Ball, A Sense Of Direction
Peter Brook, The Empty Space
Harold Clurman, On Directing
Jan Kott, Shakespeare Our Contemporary
Larry Moss, The Intent to Live