Here’s this week’s installment of the director-to-director interview series. To date, the directors I have interviewed have been either freelance directors or directors affiliated with a particular company; this week’s spotlight marks a departure and an avenue I’d like to explore more in this series. Suzanne Westfall is a professor of drama at Lafayette College and, therefore, the majority of her directing work is done in an academic setting. (In the interest of full disclosure, Lafayette is my undergrad alma mater, and Suzanne is a dear mentor with whom I first read Shakespeare, Wilde, Ibsen, Strindberg, Jarry and many others. I may never have pursued a life in the theatre had she not so inspired me!) With our field becoming increasingly more institutionalized in the past few decades, ie. there are degrees galore in all aspects of the craft, including ‘directing,’ why not make a greater effort to know the philosophy and work of individuals who are educating the theatre artists of tomorrow?
Without further ado…
Meet Suzanne Westfall
Current Town: East Stroudsburg, PA. Directs at Lafayette College, Easton PA.
Photo: Lafayette College’s 2011 production of Ubu Roi by Alfred Jarry.
1. What attracted you to directing?
Started in acting and stage management. After I was hired as faculty at Lafayette, I needed to be a director. I’d done some in grad school, and while it wasn’t my first love, it was something I had to do.
2. Did you receive academic and/or practical training in directing? Yep. And how has (not) having this formal education/training shaped your directing career?
I had a supportive but very 19th century director in college (the kind that really wants to be an actor), who would demonstrate all the roles and tell us to imitate him. In grad school, studying theater history and theory introduced me to many different directorial styles. Dramaturgy taught me that research needs to be done, that directors need to have concepts and shape shows to reflect that concept. Working with professional designers and tech folks taught me how interconnected all the languages of the stage are, and how to work with sound, color, movement, style, and music to make the whole thing soar.
3. Which director (or other theatre artist) (dead or alive) has had the greatest impact on you as a director?
I’m not big on realism, so I tend to the more abstract folks. Love Peter Brook, of course. And Brecht, Artaud, Grotowski. I love the companies who do multi-media stuff – Ping Chong, Complicity, and such. Just saw Punchdrunk’s Sleep No More installation/performance. Brilliant!
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 not much on “how to direct” textbooks. I work with theory, see a lot of theater, go to concerts, museums, dance, and work from there. Learned the basics of text analysis and rehearsal structures in grad school. After that, you can’t find a book to teach you how to be creative.
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?)
As a specialist in early modern theater I ain’t gonna defend directors, since in my period actors got on just fine without one. I don’t think every production needs a director; if you have time and a good company, working collaboratively and improvisationally is MUCH better. I try to work that way with my casts – encouraging them to contribute as much as possible while I do the “arranging.” In contemporary theater, directors are time and money-savers, since we rarely have the time and space to work developmentally. Generally, I’ve had (and seen) more BAD directors than good. When you work with a good one, it’s a wonderful experience. But all in all, I’d rather work organically with talented artists!
6. How would you characterize/describe your own directing style?
See above. My preferred method is to exploit all the talents of my ensemble, and create a space where they can put all their talents together. Since I direct undergrads, I have to do quite a lot of teaching – basic stagecraft, voice, movement, etc. – before we get to textual analysis/production. I provide the structure for that sort of stuff, do a lot of individual coaching, and shape a piece.
7. What quirks, habits, rituals, etc. (if any) inform your directing process?
None really. I tend not to do the same thing twice in a row. If I’m doing Checkov, I need to do the Stanislavski thang. I rarely start with warmups (since I rarely get a cast to show up at the same time in the same place). I do a lot of table work, since the texts I tend to choose are VERY complex, and I’m a text person.
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 prefer non-realistic, multi-medial work. Surreal, expressionistic – the stuff that is numinous and suggestive rather than plot-driven. The weirder the better. The challenge is often to get a cast to trust me not to make them look stupid. I think realism and naturalism are VERY difficult for students to pull off. I’d rather program a style and get them to stretch their concepts of theater style. Left to themselves, everything comes out sitcom.
9. What is your fondest directing experience/memory?
I have so many – a post-apocalyptic Macbeth with a great cast dedicated to the hard work of that play; a brilliant bunch (half of them now professional actors) for a challenging Balcony (Genet); I was particularly gratified when offended sorority chicks walked out during the lesbian scene! I have always enjoyed fighting the elements for my outdoor productions of A Midsummer Night’s Dream, A Tempest, Antigone: The Riot Act, and my latest – Ubu. By far my favorite play is Stoppard’s Arcadia – I had a supportive cast to speak a brilliant text.
10. What is the most challenging work you have directed to date?
They’re all challenging in different ways. Why? Mostly they’re challenging because I can’t afford good collaborators for design, can’t depend on college folks to build what I envision, and can’t get trained and dedicated actors. Directing for a school that’s primarily known as a science/engineering institution means we don’t attract many talented and dedicated theater folks. So we have to recruit, seduce, and teach our own. I’ve had some fabulous experiences with that, but by and large, I rarely end up with what I hope to achieve from a lack of resources, both human and financial.
11. What advice would you give to a young or aspiring director?
Find a smart company to work with to create new original work. Directing for mainstream tv, film, or stage is intellectually and spiritually bankrupt, though it will pay the bills.
12. What is your current directing project?
Just finished UBU ROI, and have begun collaborating with a visual artist, computer theorist, musician, and dancers on a multi-local “DNA ballet” piece. Should take about 2 years to develop.