Here’s this week’s installment of our director-to-director interview series. I am really excited and inspired by the great conversation that has resulted from these spotlights and the #2amdir hashtag. Thanks, all, for reading and contributing!
Meet Kate Powers
Hometown: Buffalo, NY
Current Town: NYC
I am a freelance director; I go wherever the work is. It is a great privilege to be invited into communities (and often homes) across the country, to get to know a community while I am working with a company that is resident there. That said, I would love to find my artistic home.
1. What attracted you to directing?
As a director, I have the opportunity and the responsibility to decide what story we are telling and how we are going to tell it. In collaboration with my playwright (if s/he’s living), designers and my actors, I choose which elements of the story we’re going to foreground with our staging and our design, with the ways in which we communicate with the audience.
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 started my undergrad career as a Directing major at Carnegie Mellon; that program was in its infancy and we were the bastard stepchildren of the drama department. I transferred to a liberal arts college with a theatre program. I received my Master’s degree not in directing, but in Shakespeare. I felt that my vision of the way I wanted to tell the story was pretty coherent, so I wasn’t that keen on an MFA in directing; I am grateful for the immersive, intensive training in Shakespeare and his contemporaries that I received at the Shakespeare Institute. The only drawback to this decision is that a lot of academic theatre people don’t see the value in an M.A. rather than an M.F.A., so it has been tougher to find teaching gigs to supplement the erratic income that is a directing life.
3. Which director (or other theatre artist) (dead or alive) has had the greatest impact on you as a director?
Harley Granville-Barker, Gerry Gutierrez, David Leveaux, Stephen Wadsworth, Megs Booker.
4. In your personal library, what is the most indispensable text on the craft of directing? Or, alternately, have books/practical guides proven unhelpful?
Michael Shurtleff’s Audition, David Ball’s Backwards and Forwards, John Barton’s Playing Shakespeare and Harley Granville-Barker’s Prefaces to Shakespeare.
5. How would you characterize/describe your own directing style?
Years ago, I assisted a director who had the actors on their feet in the afternoon of the first day of rehearsal. One actor (you’d know him) stopped the director at one point and said, “I’m sorry; I have no idea who I am, where I am coming from or where I am going.” The director said, “You can figure that out later; I’m not really interested in that stuff.”
My jaw clattered to the floor like a dropped saucer; isn’t that the director’s job? To help the actor in whatever way she can to tell the story of the play? To create an environment in which to explore? To answer questions and, when the answer is hidden, to honestly say “I don’t know; let’s figure it out together”?
6. If you had to substitute another noun for rehearsal, what would it be? Why?
Play. It’s called a play.
7. To block or not to block, that is the question. Do you block before rehearsals begin, in the midst of rehearsals, or not at all, and why?
I spend a lot of time at the table before we get on our feet; the actors have a lot of information about their characters by the time we begin to move. I stage entrances and exits; I stage fights or intricate moments like, say, the final scene of Cymbeline, where 23 different characters have to speak, but in the course of a two- or three-handed scene, I prefer to discover, in concert with the actors, the movement that best tells the story.
8. What quirks, habits, rituals, etc. (if any) inform your directing process?
An actor with whom I collaborate as often as circumstances will allow says that he can always tell when I am about to stop the scene, because I stand up. Apparently, I cannot direct while seated.
9. 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?
Shakespeare is homebase for me. One of the challenges when working on these plays is that I rarely have a full company of actors who are versed in the material, so there is a substantial teaching component that often accompanies directing Shakespeare — getting everyone up to speed on pentameter, scansion, you vs. thou. Then there is the ever-present challenge of finding true clarity in the storytelling, getting the hell out of the way and letting these amazing, rich stories reveal themselves to the audience.
10. What is your fondest directing experience/memory?
I started a little baby Shakespeare company a bunch of years ago. It’s a familiar story: we borrowed space from an actor’s workplace to rehearse, we wrote to our parents and friends to raise money, we wrangled with the City for permits; I carried rapiers and daggers on the subway. On the evening of our first performance in Bryant Park, we arranged the chairs and waited. Five minutes before we were supposed to start, no one was there. I walked around the park to the big fountain, where 150 people were sitting on the lawn, waiting for the Shakespeare play. I redirected them to where we were set up, and suddenly we had a full ‘house.’ Three young woman sat in the front row weeping as we neared the climax of the action, and I thought, “I’ve moved them.” It was the first time I was aware of my ability to affect people through my storytelling.
11. What is the most challenging work you have directed to date? Why?
My work with prisoners offers a deep bench of challenges that range from simple, ie. ‘they’re putting on a play but they’ve never been to the theatre,’ to profound buried emotional damage plus the attendant healthy prison instinct to keep your emotions veiled at all times to gender issues, racial issues, etc., to ‘how do we get the props cleared into the facility?’, to random things just go wrong in a prison, to finding a way that I can stage a play that will speak to the general population of incarcerated men.
12. What advice would you give to a young or aspiring director?
Cultivate patience. See plays. Read plays. Assist directors whose work excites you. Assist directors whose work appalls you. Just keep going.
13. What is your current directing project?
I am directing a production of Tracy Letts’ Superior Donuts at Sing Sing Correctional Facility, a maximum-security prison north of New York City. In June, I will direct Sandy Duncan in Steven Dietz’s Becky’s New Car at Theatre Aspen; in August, I will return to one of my favorite theatres in the country, the American Shakespeare Center, to direct A Midsummer Night’s Dream. (I love it when I have more than one thing to say in response to a question like this.)