Here’s this week’s installment of the director-to-director interview series.
Meet Julieanne Ehre
Current Town: Chicago, IL
1. What attracted you to directing?
The first play I directed was THE SALIVA MILKSHAKE by Howard Brenton when I was a senior in high school. One day, while I was in the middle of rehearsals, I was at home listening to a Talking Heads song and an entire movement sequence began to take shape in my head. The next day, I sought out someone from the dance group at school and asked her if she would help me choreograph a movement sequence in the piece. We used masks and created an entire dream sequence with dancers and actors with the Talking Heads song playing. That early experience — of analyzing a text, layering in my own vision and then seeking out talented collaborators to aid me in realizing an idea — encapsulates what attracts me to directing. Directing involves risk, articulation of a strong point of view and intense collaboration — all of that is exciting to me.
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 attended a liberal arts college that didn’t have a particularly strong theater program and I chose to major in anthropology due to my interest in human behavior and culture. And although I sought out other training, when I began my professional career as both an actor (at the time) and director in Chicago, I felt ill equipped to compete with those who had attended intensive theater programs as undergraduates. After deciding to quit acting and focus solely on directing, I applied to MFA programs in Directing and attended Northwestern University. Going back to graduate school and taking time to focus on my craft without the pressures of raising money or getting reviewed was definitely helpful to me as an artist in terms of having a more formalized training but I don’t know that it’s hugely impacted my career other than giving me some connections and a more informed way of working.
3. Which director (or other theatre artist) (dead or alive) has had the greatest impact on you as a director?
It’s hard to pick just one, so I’m going to name two… I lived in New York for a bit and trained with the SITI Company and did a composition workshop with Anne Bogart. Learning Viewpoints, studying briefly with Anne and then reading her books has transformed my rehearsal process and me as an artist. The second director I would name is Robert Falls who I studied with at Northwestern. Bob once offered me a seemingly simple piece of advice: look for ways to be deep in my work rather than clever. I think that every theater artist needs to be reminded of that almost daily. We’re under so much pressure and that can lead us to seek approval and make false choices. But we need to get those VOICES OF JUDGEMENT off our shoulders and dig deep into ourselves, the text, and our collaborators — that’s ultimately where the most innovative and most powerful choices come from. A desire to please is what kills us as artists and yet it’s a constant struggle because ultimately you want your work to have an impact.
4. In your personal library, what is the most indispensable text on the craft of directing? Or, alternately, have books/practical guides proven unhelpful?
INDISPENSABLE: Peter Brook’s THE SHIFTING POINT.
5. Defend/Describe the importance of ‘the director’ in contemporary theatre. (Has the director’s place/status changed in the time you have been directing?)
Everyone works differently and certainly there’s no single recipe for making art or theater. There’s an inventive group in Chicago called Theatre Oobleck whose mission involves working without a director and creating work as an ensemble. So I can’t really argue for the necessity of a director, one can certainly create great theater without one and terrible theater with one! However, I will say that I believe that many group processes benefit from strong leadership — and that doesn’t involve a “my-way-or-the-highway” approach. The best directors are great collaborators and encourage outstanding work from their actors and designers but they do so by being inspirational leaders. Collaboration is key but a director must point the way forward, s/he must have a map and be able to point to the direction that the group is going — we have to know where we’re headed in order for the best collaboration to take place. Great leaders, and great directors, make us believe that we are capable of what before didn’t seem possible.
6. How would you characterize/describe your own directing style?
My directing style changes depending on the project, especially when I’m working on a new play vs. a classic text. I spend a lot of time before a project begins doing research, taking walks, re-reading the play, looking at images and dreaming and looking for inspiration to get my creative juices flowing. I think very visually and looking at photographs or paintings is a large part of my process, so is just reading the newspaper and being in touch with what’s happening in the world. Sometimes I come into design meetings with a clear point of view, other times, I’m operating more with what Peter Brook calls “the formless hunch” — I have an idea where we’re going but it hasn’t quite taken shape. Discussions with designers about the play are one of my favorite parts of rehearsal because that’s when the world of the production really starts taking shape. My productions lean more towards metaphor than reality — I don’t know that I’ve ever directed a play with a realistic set and I try to have as few props as possible. I want to keep the focus on the actors’ bodies and work with set designers who can create a powerful image rather than a lot of brick-a-brack. My husband always asks me when I’m in tech if I’ve included a “Julieanne moment” which I can’t quite describe but know what he means — movement, music and a poetic gesture that digs deep into human consciousness.
7. If you had to substitute another noun for rehearsal, what would it be? Why?
Trust. Rehearsals are a time to build trust so that we can take enormous risks in our work and be unafraid of making strong choices. The worst theater situations I’ve been in have been when someone brings an abundance of fear or personal baggage into the rehearsal room. The rehearsal room must be a sacred place that is full of trust and love. That doesn’t mean that we all have to be best friends and go out for drinks together and it also doesn’t mean that we always have to agree with each other — disagreement leads to strong and well thought through ideas. It does mean that we respect and trust each other as artists in order to take that creative leap into the unknown.
8. 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 really wish that word would be erased from theater vocabulary! I’m going to “block” the actors implies that I’m going to keep them from accessing their impulses which is the exact opposite of what a director should do! I tend to do physical exercises and keep things open so that the actors are empowered to create their own staging. Then I come in and edit, or set the staging very specifically based on what the actors have created. I can’t really see what the staging needs to look like in my head outside of rehearsal — I need to look at the actors’ bodies moving in space and then the staging starts to take place for me.
9. What quirks, habits, rituals, etc. (if any) inform your directing process?
10. 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’m drawn most to work that is unrealistic. As Blanche put it in Streetcar Named Desire: “I don’t want realism, I want magic!” I go to the theater to be transported into another reality — I love fiction, I love being immersed into imaginary worlds. Artists such as Simon McBurney and Theatre de Complicite or Robert Lepage or the poetry of Tennessee Williams transport me to another universe that is similar to but not my own. That’s exciting to me. I used to devise my own pieces and then I moved to directing classic plays because I felt that I more often found magical opportunities in creating work or in classic plays than in a lot of contemporary playwriting. I love working with living writers but for me the challenge is finding writers who are willing to think outside the box and audience members who are drawn to untraditional texts.
11. What is your fondest directing experience/memory?
I don’t know that I have one memory/experience that stands out the most. I would say that projects where there was a willingness to make bold choices among my collaborators have been the most exciting to me. I love working with designers and talking about the world of the play — those early meetings when we’re bringing in images and sharing ideas and the world of the production is taking shape are often my favorite part of the process.
12. What is the most challenging work you have directed to date? Why?
The most challenging work I’ve directed is THE ORESTEIA. Because it’s THE ORESTEIA! Making a Greek text accessible to a contemporary audience and figuring out how to handle the chorus and create the Furies was super challenging and amazingly rewarding.
13. What advice would you give to a young or aspiring director?
Be fearless. Don’t expect anyone to give you opportunities — expect to make your own opportunities. Believe in yourself.
14. What is your current directing project?
Currently I’m directing/producing a reading of a new play by Jennifer Barclay called EAT IT TOO and directing as part of a One Minute Play Festival at Victory Gardens Theater in Chicago.