Here’s this week’s installment of the 2amt director-to-director interview series.
Meet Justine Lambert
Hometown: Manhattan. Raised in Park Slope, Brooklyn.
Current town: Back to my roots in Park Slope.
Theatre Affiliation: Artistic Director at The Looking Glass Theatre lookingglasstheatrenyc.com
1. What attracted you to directing?
Like so many of my peers, I came to directing through acting. I assistant directed and even directed at first out of a desire to be in the rehearsal room as much as possible. In fact, the realization that directing is about rehearsal, that it permeates rehearsal, that directors are allowed and even required to be involved in every single aspect of rehearsal is what got me addicted. I began to realize over multiple projects that this was indeed my most powerful calling. Discussing in intense detail the text, the acting, the set, and working on the same minute moment over and over became my obsession, my passion. The opportunity to realize one’s own vision didn’t hurt either. I still love to act, but nothing can replace the power of being at the helm, being involved in every decision, every thought. I revel in helping the actors flesh out the meat of their roles while, at the same time, I am thinking about the design elements underlining each choice. Process is my passion, and process taught me that my truest home is in the rehearsal room, not on the stage.
2. Did you receive academic and/or practical training in directing? And how has (not) having this formal education/training shaped your directing career?
Nope, my training was in acting. I did log in many hours in the rehearsal room in my teens and 20s assistant directing, stage managing, assistant stage managing or whatever other job I was allowed to do. Observing and assisting the work of directors became my own training as a director. [Then I learned by doing.] Of course, my acting training has been invaluable as well.
3. Which director (or other theatre artist) (dead or alive) has had the greatest impact on you as a director?
To extend the previous answer regarding training, I’d have to say the artists who influenced my directing most were actually two of my teachers. I frequently call on and directly utilize Sanford Meisner’s (acting) technique and Anne Bogart’s Viewpoints. I’ve also been influenced by Joanne Akalaitis, Meredith Monk, Mary Zimmerman, Lee Bruer, Richard Foreman, Robert Wilson and the late Pina Bausch.
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 love reading about directing and have many exciting and inspiring books, but the single most practical one that I still recommend is Harold Clurman’s “On Directing.” He’s just a smart, smart man and a good writer. He makes it all comprehensible without taking away the art or the mystery or the importance of personal style one bit.
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?)
I think it’s clear that these days a director must have a vision, must be an artist and must have something to say. Gone are the days when being a “mere” traffic cop (even a highly skilled one) will suffice. This shift has simply grown in the years I’ve been in the field. This role of the visionary director had already emerged when I got involved in theatre in my teens, but it wasn’t yet a standard. Since then the assumption has grown more and more that a director ought to put her stamp on a project, not just serve but also interpret.
It surprises me that even now some young directors don’t seem to know this. They’ve put a piece up on its feet and don’t know how to proceed in rehearsal. Sometimes they simply don’t know how to actualize their ideas even though they do indeed have the sneaking suspicion that competent blocking and intelligent line readings aren’t enough.
But then there are some who honestly think they don’t need the 5 or 6 rehearsals left before opening. Typically, I feel that this won’t begin to be enough time because the actual work of directing hasn’t really begun yet. If just getting the piece on its feet were the entire job, a well-trained monkey could do it. In fact, if that were the job the actors could do it without you. Indeed that used to be the case. If only to justify our existence we directors ought to aim for a higher goal. Not all direction needs a complex “concept” involving changing the setting, century or genre. Sometimes a concept is contained in the director’s strong opinion about which character is right or which theme in the play should take center stage. There are levels of interpretation. I typically don’t expect a director to make as overtly strong choices with an original play as she might with a famous old text, but she must approach even a brand new play with a point of view, an opinion.
6. How would you characterize/describe your own directing style?
Passionate and Theatrical. My audience is sitting in a theatre and can see the stage, the curtain, the lighting instruments, the sweat on the actors. Why hide this? Theatre is wonderfully unique in it’s “live-ness,” it’s staginess, it’s theatricality. I like strong staging. I like strong emotion. If it’s too subtle, it shouldn’t be on my stage. Human drama is strong. I see immense power in the emotions of Chekov, for example, even within the understated repetitions and contained, muted interchanges. At the end of my production of The Three Sisters, Masha wailed out her loss at losing Vershinin, wailed repeatedly at a fever pitch. The pain that she couldn’t contain came screaming out in all it’s embarrassing raw power, just in that moment. Up to that moment, she’d been stoic, self-mocking in her tragedy and her ridiculously trapped comedy, but when the loss was upon her, the truth of her heart poured out. I don’t say every moment is wailing but if wailing (or extreme buffoonery) is there in the heart of the situation or character, I will find it.
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?
Always both. I started by pre-blocking in detail with chess characters, on paper, in diorama’s. Now some scenes are pre blocked and some are not. But I don’t tell the actors. I see what they do first, many times. Most blocking comes to me in rehearsal. I see what impulses the actors have then use them, enhance them, inflate them. The twitch becomes a hit, the hint of a sway becomes a full swoon. A small turn away from a disdained character becomes a fully stylized Nazi-esque military pivot.
8. What quirks, habits, rituals, etc. (if any) inform your directing process?
I bring my little dog into every rehearsal and feed her doggie treats throughout while whispering notes in her ear. No, I don’t, I’ve always wanted to do that though. Maybe I’ll get a little dog someday. Mostly I’m all business. Sometimes “business” is an extremely sexy improv involving a version of the mirror exercise, sometimes it’s an exploration of the characters’ pasts that has each actress sobbing, sometimes it’s me giving a lecture about how “I may seem nice but I’m your director first and your friend second so don’t be late and don’t ever, ever, ever even consider missing one of my rehearsals or you’ll feel my wrath.”
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 like all styles of plays — classics, new work, realism, experimental. Sorry for the boring answer. I like a touch of crazy, a bit of wacky, some poetic license … or at least permission to add some of my own to the recipe.
10. How does (your) gender impact your work as a director?
My life’s work is about women in theatre and most directly my mentoring of women directors. I LOVE women. Working with our gender is endlessly inspiring. The toughness of women directors is the best. While men have a lovely “boys’ club” (which I still want to get into) we ladies don’t take crap from anyone. Since we don’t have clubs, everyone is treated as an individual. This is a strength. Nothing is assumed and details don’t get missed due to camaraderie. Then again maybe I’m talking out my hoo-ha. Boys rock too. Married one, gave birth to one, love them a lot, many of them are certifiable geniuses but I love to work with women.
On a practical level in my directing, I always make sure my female characters are not stereotypes. I do whatever is necessary in my interpretations of plays both old and new to create real women on stage. Men can do that too, they just don’t always prioritize it.
11. What is your fondest directing experience/memory?
Well, the sexy mirror exercise and the crying trio of actresses mentioned above were pretty awesome, but I’d have to say my clearest, most exciting “Aha!” moment occurred one time when two talented actors were doing a series of improvisations to flesh out their relationship. In the play, they had multiple scenes together. Although both were talented, the line-readings good, the blocking strong, the scenes stayed flat. In depth improvs where they simply acted out scenes from their past worked miracles. I can hardly explain the change. They lit up. You knew from the way she entered that she was afraid of the kind of things he always told her, you knew he regretted what he had to tell her, you knew how much they cared about each other even though they were in no way a couple or the focal relationship of the play. It was magic.
12. What is the most challenging work you have directed to date? Why?
A musical for which I wrote the libretto titled “Cardboard Moon.” It’s hard to say why this project never came together for me. I adored my creative team and put more resources into the project than ever before. Perhaps the pressure was too high. Perhaps the added elements of the musical format overwhelmed the process. The cast, while brimming over with talent, never clicked together to feel like a true ensemble. The show was fine and fun, the music was amazing, but the gestalt (or lack thereof) disappointed me.
13. What advice would you give to a young or aspiring director?
If you don’t love directing more than anything else in the world, quit. OK, I’m a bit cranky. I give endless advice in my mentoring meetings with young directors at Looking Glass Theatre. The things I think I say the most are “do more”, “show us what you think” and “where is your opinion and how can you let us know it?”
14. What is your current directing project?
My ongoing directing project is having the infinite honor of advising the incredibly talented directors working at Looking Glass, from the first time directors in our Semi-annual Writer/Director Forum to the experienced directors at the helm of our main stage work. Currently, I am co-writing (with novelist and original “Tony and Tina’s Wedding” co-creator Judy Sheehan) a one woman play “Dragonslayer” that I hope to direct sometime in the near future.
Thanks, Justine! Let me know how it goes if you ever get that little dog;-)!