Here’s the next installment in the director-to-director interview series. A big thanks to all who have participated in the series and to all who have been participating in the directing conversation on Twitter with the #2amdir hashtag!
Meet Bries Vannon
Hometown: George, Iowa
Company Affiliation: Creator/Director of The Nine; Literary Manager & ensemble member at Signal Ensemble Theatre.
1. What attracted you to directing?
Sometimes I think of things in my brain that I want to see on stage and then, when I can’t find anyone putting them on stage, I’m bold and/or ridiculous enough to do it myself. That’s really it — I initially fell into directing out of a sense of ‘Why isn’t anyone doing this? Someone should do this!’
2. Did you receive academic and/or practical training in directing? And how has (not) having this formal education/training shaped your directing career?
You know, not really. I have a theatre degree from a small Iowa school, but the program was soooo young and perfunctory and I was soooo completely unaware of what I wanted out of life that I really didn’t get much in terms of theatre training in any regard, much less directing, in which I had one basic level course. I joke around a lot about not knowing what I’m doing and making stuff up as I go along, but I’m not sure if people ever realize just how much truth there is to that.
In terms of my ‘career’, my utter lack of training has relegated me to the D.I.Y. side of the tracks because no one’s gonna take a chance on a director that answered these first two questions as if he just stepped foot on a stage for the first time. But on the artistic side of things, I think it’s been a huge help. Without a specific ‘method’ drilled into my head, I direct on instinct, personal taste, and a unquenchable need to see what others are (and aren’t) doing with their own work.
3. Which director (or other theatre artist) (dead or alive) has had the greatest impact on you as a director?
Everyone who has ever directed me has left some sort of impact, whether it’s a lesson in “How To” or in “Dear God, Never Do This” (often both in the same production). But to name names, Ronan Marra, David Cromer and Don Hall are probably the biggest contributors in terms of techniques/ideas I’ve yoinked.
As far as directors I haven’t had the pleasure to work with yet, I think Dog & Pony Artistic Director Devon de Mayo’s work has had the largest influence — it brims with a vitality and unapologetic demand for engagement that assumes a willing and intelligent audience from the start. The variety of experiences that an audience is able to have at her shows is not only miles wide, but it’s very much dependent on what they *want* and *choose* to experience. Love it love it love it.
4. In your personal library, what is the most indispensable text on the craft of directing? Or, alternately, have books/practical guides proven unhelpful?
Along with being woefully undereducated, I’m also woefully under-read. I actually haven’t read much of anything in the How To Direct vein. I’m far more interested in and influenced by art theory than I am technique. If you want specific examples, Artaud’s The Theatre and Its Double and Amos Vogel’s Film as a Subversive Art were pretty big, but honestly my shelf is mainly full of books by and about other artists who were striving to approach art in a new way: Dada, the Oulipo, the Vienna Actionists, Situationist International, etc. The more I can expand my idea of art, the more I can expand my idea of how to create it.
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?)
It seems as though most contemporary theatre in America falls into one of two categories: playwright-driven or director-driven (also devised work, I guess, but that’s a whole different kettle o’ fish). Either the director aims to present a production as true as possible to what the playwright has written or the director aims to present a production that fully embodies whatever it was that drew the director to the play in the first place. Both are equally valid, but I definitely fall on the director-driven side.
However, I also don’t think the director-driven approach necessarily means ‘fucking with’ a play, which is an unfortunate wedge that gets driven into playwright/director relations. It certainly can be done that way, and sometimes to great effect, but a director-driven production can also be characterized by its subtlety. To put it in Chicago terms: you’ve got Sean Graney, largely known for his reorganization of the classics, what with 90-minute Comedy of Errors and panda masks in the middle of Edward II, the sort of work that can completely retextualize a script. On the other hand, you’ve also got David Cromer, whose most widely-received work has been a different sort of reorganization of the classics, usually referred to as a revitalization. But his work is also largely achieved through directorial choices, whether it is the disarmingly casual reveals and terminations in Our Town or the oppressive proximity of Streetcar.
Both of these men illustrate the importance of the director to me: the director as translator from page (or thought) to stage. And just as in language translation, the best of the best is not realized in literalism, but in finding an equivalent poetry on each side of the fence.
6. How would you characterize/describe your own directing style?
Loose. I come in with very strong ideas, very deliberate choices and a very clear idea of what I want the final product to look like and then I watch as all of those morph in to something completely different and even better as multiple hands and minds get a hold of them. I ask my actors to ‘play’ a lot, by which I mean just kick back and go (physically, mentally, and emotionally) where the piece takes them. The absolute first and foremost quality I require in my work is honesty: reactions and relationships that look and feel like real people, no matter the level of realism in the piece. It’s a lot harder than it sounds, but if you can get that, the rest is cake.
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?
This really depends on the show. I have a picture in my head of what everything looks like and where everyone is headed before rehearsals, but only use it as a loose foundation. Sometimes we’ll build blocking as we go along, sometimes I abandon it completely in favor of a small handful of marks that need to be hit throughout the course of the show.
For The Nine, Part One: Eric Bogosian’s subUrbia, strict blocking wasn’t a possibility, simply because the nature of the reverse round staging meant we wouldn’t know where we’d be most visible to the audience until the start of the show (any side of the ’round’ might have been more or less heavily populated on any given night). So for most of the script, we set a few markers and I let the actors take it from there with only guidelines on the amount of movement needed in specific scenes.
8. What quirks, habits, rituals, etc. (if any) inform your directing process?
I move a lot. I get very excitable and walk and pace and play with my hat and never really sit still. There’s just a constant surge of energy as discoveries are made. I do pre- and post-show speeches for each part of The Nine which are completely imbued with that same energy — if you’ve seen those, they’re only a slightly exaggerated version of me during rehearsals. And if I do say so myself, they’re the most contagious speeches you’ll ever see before or after a show; I couldn’t hide my excitement if I tried.
I’m also REAL big on final music cues. Soundtrack design in general is a huge interest of mine, but the final music cue (or decision to not have one, because that should be a decision, not a default) is the absolute most precise two seconds of any show’s life. You can ease people into a world you are creating or allow them to ease in at their pace, but once (if) you have your claws in them, it’s infinitely harder to ease them back out. That final music cue is the exit from suspended disbelief and it’s up to the director/music designer to keep the door from hitting the audience in the ass on the way out.
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?
I think I tend to fall into two categories. The first is formal experiments — this is what The Nine is all about. I’ll get my mind set on a new way of doing things, a ‘what if’ of sorts (what if we did a show in the reverse round? what if we didn’t translate? what if there were no actors?), and then find a way to work within and use those limitations to not only put up a great god damn show but also to hopefully expand ideas about how theatre can be made, both for myself and others. On that end, it’s just all an experiment, a way to poke around in the corners and see how far they go.
When I’m not experimenting, I lean towards what I call ‘slice of life’ theatre — quiet plays that, rather than being driven by plot, live fully within the lives of a handful of characters. It’s the work of Annie Baker, of Franz Xaver Kroetz, of Randall Colburn, of some Enda Walsh. It’s the films of Harmony Korine and the best of the mumblecore movement. It’s the most humane work on the planet, providing unattractive or confused or dangerous or downtrodden characters with nothing but clarity and respect and asking us as an audience to not look at what they are doing or what is happening to them, but at who they are. To me, there is nothing more compelling than that.
10. What is your fondest directing experience/memory?
I’ve written three different stories in this space and all of them sound trite as hell after I’ve gotten them out. So instead, I’ll go with the usual cliched answer — any moment I see some discovery, some spark of life, some new territory that I hadn’t planned for. Any moment the art rears up and proves itself to be so much larger than me or my ideas for it.
11. What is the most challenging work you have directed to date? Why?
Every part of The Nine is a new challenge for me. These are concepts that I’m staging because I haven’t seen anyone else try them, so I obviously have no experience with them either. But despite having directed in the reverse round in Part One and having recorded an entire show, pressed it to vinyl, and then rebuilt everything around that recording in Part Two, the biggest challenge has been directing my own words. My writing very much matches my speech, and it’s been a huge hurdle for me to teach my ears that others aren’t going to match my speech patterns, that the script *doesn’t* have to sound like it does in my head to be effective.
12. What advice would you give to a young or aspiring director?
Oh god. I hate this question. I don’t have any answers. I’m both young and aspiring myself — I haven’t figured out shit. Ummm… here goes nothing:
Do everything in your power to find other people in your community doing the work you want to do. If you find them, work with them. If you don’t find them, look again. If you still can’t find them, do it yourself.
See art and lots of it. Not just theatre, either: see live music, dance, performance art, go to museums, watch films. Learn what you love and what inspires you and constantly be looking for more.
Find and walk that fine line between being kind and being rigorously demanding both of yourself and others. Don’t be a dick, but at the same time, if you or others aren’t making the best fucking art you or others can make, it does no one any favors to pretend otherwise.
NEVER EVER talk down to your audience. ALWAYS assume they are as smart or smarter than you.
If you’re reading an interview with some unknown director from Chicago and the dude is spouting off presumptuous advice to young and aspiring directors and you disagree? Don’t follow it. Trust your gut.
13. What are your recent/current directing projects?
I recently directed for The Nine, Part Two: Radio Silence, which will ran from May 6th-21st at The Right Brain Project in Chicago. There was a lot of playing around with sound in this evening of radio/radioesque short plays: Samuel Beckett’s Words & Music, the world premiere of Chicago playwright Paul Rekk’s Peculiar Way, and Jean Cocteau’s The Eiffel Tower Wedding Party. You can find more info at www.theninechicago.com.
I will also be directing the Chicago premiere of Sheila Callaghan’s We Are Not These Hands for The Right Brain Project in November 2011. This will be my first time directing for The RBP, and I’m verrrry pumped. Keep your eye on www.therbp.org for more info as that draws near!