Here’s this week’s installment of the 2amt director-to-director interview series.
Meet Leigh Hile
1. What attracted you to directing?
All throughout my childhood and about half of college I thought I wanted to be an actor, but the more I pushed myself as a performer, the more frustrated I became. I didn’t know if what I was doing was any good or what I could do to be better. Meanwhile, the idea of directing had been clinking around in my head ever since I had taken a stab at it my senior year of high school. I found that with directing, I had the objectivity that I lacked as an actor. It was no longer about me: as an actor it was all about *my* work, whether or not *I* had performed well. But with directing it was about the piece as a whole; I wasn’t watching myself, I was watching the play. It was an experience that felt much more closely aligned to why I fell in love with theater in the first place – the act of coming together with huge group of people to build something that is greater than the sum of our parts.
Still, sometimes I get frustrated with myself for not having enough “vision,” for not being as creative or innovative as I feel I should be. But when that happens, I remind myself of the reason I became a director in the first place. It’s not about me, it’s not about proving myself as an artist. It’s about serving the play, plain and simple.
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 Sarah Lawrence College, where I received a general liberal arts degree with a focus in theater, an education which has had both its pros and cons. While I sometimes mourn the fact that I wasn’t able to take more directing classes or receive more hands-on experience, I’m deeply appreciative of the unique perspective my education has given me. Because I didn’t major specifically in directing, I was able to take a wide range of courses from Medieval literature to contemporary politics to poetry, all of which has influenced the way I approach a play as a director. Also, SLC’s unique teaching philosophy not only gave me knowledge of the specific subjects I studied, but also taught me *how* to think; it gave me a framework for how to express myself and conduct conversations on a high level, a skill that’s been invaluable as a director.
3. Which director (or other theatre artist) (dead or alive) has had the greatest impact on you as a director?
The answer to that question is without contest a man named Paul Ford – the director of the very first play I was in as a 12 year old kid growing up in Albuquerque, New Mexico. The play was A Midsummer Night’s Dream, and I played Bottom. Paul was the first real artist of any kind I ever knew, and the energy, respect, and integrity with which he approached the theater kindled something in me that still burns today. Spending time in the presence of his passion and artistry changed the trajectory of my entire life. I owe him an enormous debt for opening a door for me and showing me the immense power and joy that comes from telling a story well.
4. In your personal library, what is the most indispensable text on the craft of directing? Or, alternately, have books/practical guides proven unhelpful?
I’m still holding on to a workbook from an amazing theater theory class I took in college. It’s got everything from Artaud and Brecht to Foucault and Freud, from contemporary theories of gender identity to discourse on Aristotle’s Poetics. It’s indispensable!
5. How would you characterize/describe your own directing style?
Tell the story. And try not to let myself or anybody else get in the way of it too much.
6. 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?
Absolutely “to block.” The director has an outside eye that the actors on stage lack, and thus the ability to create a more dynamic and expressive use of the space than anyone on stage.
That said, I never come into rehearsal with any concrete ideas of how the show should be staged. The movement of the play is a collaborative process and should arise out of the performers’ natural impulses, not work against them. And I try not to let it overshadow the rest of the work that can and should be done in rehearsal. Blocking is the start to the creative process, not the end result.
7. What quirks, habits, rituals, etc. (if any) inform your directing process?
A lot of caffeinated early mornings with a lot wandering, free association scrawled in my journals. While I’m working on a show, you’ll find pages and pages of notebooks with random, pointless scribbling that I’ll never look at again. It’s how I organize my thoughts.
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 find I’m most frequently drawn toward dark comedies, the type of play that makes you laugh while you’re there, and think once you’ve left the theater. I like stories; I like a clean narrative structure. Things that are unnecessarily esoteric or without a clear storyline bore me very, very quickly.
9. What is your fondest directing experience/memory?
When I was about 20 and home from college for the summer, I submitted a proposal to direct “Reckless,” by Craig Lucas (still one of my favorite plays) to one of the local theater companies in Albuquerque. They rejected my proposal on the grounds that I was too young and inexperienced. But I was desperate to do the show, so I made the decision to mount the show by myself. It was terrifying; I had never even heard of the term “self-producing,” let alone have any idea how to do it. All I had was my incredible passion for the play, but somehow, miraculously, it turned out to be enough. I don’t think I took a single breath that didn’t have to do with Reckless that summer. And in the end, the show went beautifully – one of the pieces I’m still most proud of – and we sold out every night. That summer was a real turning point for me. I went in thinking, “I can’t do this, I’m just a kid.” I came out feeling like a professional and an artist.
10. What is the most challenging work you have directed to date? Why?
A couple years ago I conceived and directed a play called “What Work Is,” which explored themes of work and identity and was based on the poems of Philip Levine. The play was created by the ensemble, and my first real crack at “collaborative theater.” Every day was basically a blind leap into the unknown, and I spent about the first half of our rehearsal time stumbling around trying to hit on a technique that worked. It was also something I was incredibly close to – it asked questions that had been troubling me for a long time and used language – Philip Levine’s poems – that had touched me in a way little else has. That kind of closeness always makes things all the more beautiful and terrible. The end result was strange and flawed, but also awesome and unexpected. It was definitely the hardest project I’ve ever worked on, and the one I’m the most proud of.
11. What advice would you give to a young or aspiring director?
Perseverance, persistence and faith: everything comes in its own time. Walls that you’ve run up against a million times will suddenly and inexplicably be blown apart on try number one million and one. That goes for both your creativity and your career.
12. What is your current directing project?
I’m directing a short piece for Nosedive Productions called Captain Moonbeam & Lynchpin. It’s a fantastic play by James Comtois that examines the dark corners of mental illness and comic books. It’ll be going up as a part of the Comic Book Theater Festival at the Brick at the end of June. For more info, visit http://www.nosediveproductions.com. And after that’s over, I’ll be participating in the 2011 Lincoln Center Director’s Lab.
Leigh blogs at http://leighscityscenes.blogspot.com