The Demystification of Directing Theatre
by Whit Hertford
Resuscitating what has become dormant and mummified is the journey of a theatre director in our contemporary world. It is the hunt for something new. A director must make what is on a page immediate so that it’s text can transcend the invisible. The destination is that of creating a vibrant new picture. The job is to paramountly interpret. Not always to answer but to unearth ideas, behaviours and conflicts that can make way for a connective tissue to link both performer and audience. To be the conduit that allows for a microscopic view into all walks of life, a canvas unveiled in a shared dark space, where each person - those sitting and those on stage - submits themselves to being challenged. A director is a provocateur of the expected and should be a willing revolutionist to usher in what is unexpected. The ultimate quest of the director is to seek the opportunity to paint words and images that can encourage shared and diverse vantage points of human experiences.
hinterland (german) / ˈhin(t)ərˌland/ - an area lying beyond what is visible or known.
Curiosity is a director’s greatest tool. A director must have a vast and voracious appetite to find new, uncharted ground. The process squarely finds the director gathering information, not only through research, but through living and having a multitude of interests that will coat their specific paintbrush. A director must feel the most alive in the rehearsal room, where the blueprint is played before them: read, look, listen, listen again, think and then lastly speak. When those tenets are bound together with craft and instinct, a director can confidently lead and facilitate the best work from those they create alongside.
I believe my road as director was formed as a child, endlessly in a world of my own creation. Additionally, having a lifetime’s experience as both an actor and writer has indeed informed and prepared me for the role of director. But it was my time in the UK, Moscow, Berlin and Amsterdam during graduate studies that gave me sealant, a front row seat, and an invaluable education to absorb the necessary electric currents of why both classical theatre as well as new, experimental forms can and must present life’s greatest questions.
No spectacle can replace truth. Theatre is a form that craves introspection. There’s no escaping it. The director’s antenna must be tuned to all frequencies, freed of judgement and inhibition. A director must give his greatest asset, the actor, the confidence to present a breathing and bleeding honesty. A director is not unlike a surgeon with their scalpel ready to be decisive. Or maybe still, a treasure hunter who excavates for what lies below the surface. A keen observer and examiner of the human condition.
A director must be immersed, afflicted. Every one of their pores must seep the work, their veins only pulsing when immersed... their heart’s pounding rhythm at risk of coming to a nauseatingly dull lull without it.
Theatre makes me fear being without it and that there would be real danger of my internal heart monitor flatlining without the opportunity to continue the experiment. It is my charge to send the elevator back down to younger minds - to inspire and share my passion with the next generations in the hope that they can find new discoveries and greater truths. Theatre must constantly evolve and reinvent. When the famous character actor, Robert Morley, attended the 1955 production of Waiting for Godot, he knew the landscape had forever been altered and made the prophecy:
"I have been brooding in my bath for the last hour and have come to the conclusion that the success of Waiting for Godot means the end of the theatre as we know it."
All of history’s greatest playwrights were revolutionists and the director must enable this radical abandon to take place. The experimentation must come through play. It must be unnerving. It must look you in the eye. It must be new. Additionally, actors must be endowed with courage to be enough. And that they must function like a tribe. A fiercely loyal band whose soul pursuit is to survive, exist, and protect one another. The director has to establish this very world from day one.
A rehearsal room or classroom can be a cathedral / laboratory for these ideas to evolve, become nurtured. Directing is guiding / teaching, but a director's call is to meticulously marshal energy, a map maker who's teaching must inform as well as serve all the other areas of study and auxiliary offices. At every level it becomes a critical piece of coordination and commitment that the entire ensemble or student body / department be scaffolded (repeated over and over with greater complexity through the lens of all disciplines) to serve the goals of a unified plan. Directors must be a collaborative team member as well as an expert in their field.
Theatre is not merely presentation. It’s a living organism with a skeletal structure and a DNA that must be understood, respected, and allowed to move and rebel... otherwise theatre will grow stagnant and forever occupy it’s place behind museum glass. My form of theatre hops over the velvet rope and smashes the frame, it’s shards flying. Demystifying and redefining what it means to observe and question. To feel the canvas on your fingers. In the words of Brecht,
“Art is not a mirror to reflect humanity but a hammer with which to shape it.” - Bertolt Brecht