I’m excited to join my friends at the Pigeon Creek Shakespeare Company once again, this time for Richard III. Except that I won’t exactly be joining them for a while.
I don’t have a place to stay in Grand Rapids for the full rehearsal period. It’s my own fault for bringing my entourage with me when I work out of town. I love the life that I have built, but it makes everything more complicated. Honestly, I think it’s a miracle that we’ve made it work for so many other shows, and I’m beyond grateful to the people who have made that possible. I’m surprised, on some level, that it took so long for it to not work.
Over the past few years, Katherine has floated the idea that we could work on a show via Skype, and I have consistently changed the subject. It doesn’t sound like fun to me. But now I’m in a situation where the other option is just not doing the show at all, and that sounds awful. I’ve been thinking about this show for two years. So…we’re trying this.
As luck would have it, my ISP randomly upgraded my internet antenna, making video conferencing an actual possibility, which it wasn’t before. It’s a serendipitous event. And maybe if this goes well, it will help with my complicated life problem. It might open up opportunities that would be hard for me to take on otherwise.
I’ve moved from being grouchy about having to do this, to being nervous, to now being excited and curious. One major help was that a friend connected me to Annmarie, who does counseling and also things like Reiki via video conference. I’ve heard of people doing energy work over distances like this, but I have no idea how that is possible. My conversation with her was fascinating, because if she can shape energy remotely, surely I can figure it out. She said, “I think you’ll learn a lot about directing by doing this. What is it that you need to be present in physical space for?”
Some things are easier to demonstrate or figure out in physical space, but most of it, on the surface, shouldn’t depend on that. Most of my work is talking, at least from the outside. But also, my work is eye contact, being able to lock in on an actor and say two words, but communicate so much more. We will be able to see each other and hear each other, but you can’t truly make eye contact on a video call. It’s always a little off, the way an actor faking audience contact by looking above their heads feels not quite right. I rarely touch actors, but having that as an option for offering just the tiniest adjustment or guidance feels vital. The unnamed and unnamable sense of presence in the room is the thing I’m most afraid of being blind to at this distance. Annmarie said she thought that I’d still have that sense, if I just trust in it.
I wouldn’t even attempt this with another company, but I’ve worked with these geniuses for years. The cast only includes one person I’ve never met before. These actors know me well, they know how I work. We’ve built a nearly magical collaborative sense. Sometimes, in rehearsal, I’ll write a note during a scene and before I can say anything aloud, one of the actors will already be doing exactly what I was going to ask for. I joke that they can read my mind, but it’s only half a joke. Will that work at a distance? Will that deep connection and understanding of each other help our work, or are we so used to relying on it that if it’s harder over the distance, we won’t know what to do?
They also do a lot of ensemble-directed work. They’ll be able to fill in the gaps, they’ll see what I can’t. They’ll help me more than they usually have to. I’ll lean on them in a new way, and that will also change the shape of the work.
I wonder what my presence in rehearsal, a head in a computer, will feel like for the actors. I keep thinking of Krang from the Ninja Turtles. Katherine said, “You’ll be like Nixon’s head in a jar, from Futurama.” I’m curious whether it will feel like this, in practice, or completely different. I wonder if the actors will forget I’m “there,” and whether anyone will think to chat with me on breaks.
Katherine asked if I would want rehearsal to run in a different way because of this. “You’re not just going to sit at your computer for four hours while we do this, right? Do you want to plan to check in and give assignments and then come back later?”
Her question surprised me, because what my gut is telling me is that I want to be there as much as possible, because I can’t quite be there. “No, I think I do want to be present, for most or all of it,” I told her. “I don’t know how it will be different or what will be hard, so I want to start with the template that we are familiar with. As we go, I will adjust it if things feel like they aren’t working, but let’s start with what we know.” The uncertainty–what will I not be able to do?–is both disconcerting and exciting. I’ve learned over the years to hold my plans loosely, but this is a new level.
Annmarie said something like, “Life brings us the experiences we need.” Shakespearean tragedy is so deeply in my wheelhouse, maybe doing this crazy process is the only way I’ll be able to learn the Next Right Thing. It will certainly stretch me. She also said that she thought by doing this, I’ll be able to better understand what it is that I actually even do.
I often wonder what, exactly, my work is, particularly when I’m lucky enough to work with good actors who bring so much themselves. I know I’m pretty good at it, but what even is it? Katherine said something kind of funny on this–we were talking about how the company’s actors grow and develop their art between times when we work together, by working with other people. “We learn a new technique or experiment with a movement system or work with someone really different and learn from them. And you’re learning, too, the whole time you’re away and working with other people. You learn new ways of…talking about things or whatever.” It cracked me up, because she’s a director, too–and a good one!–but when her brain reached for what a director does, she landed on talking about things or whatever. I don’t know that I would have come up with anything clearer in that moment, but I’ve been asking myself that question as I ponder what I will be missing, working this way.
Here’s what I think I do: I shape energy into stories. The people have energy, the space has energy, and the spaces between people have energy. When we have an audience, they have individual and collective energy, and a lot of my work has to do with shaping the actors’ energies to make spaces for the audience’s energy to fill. When I work with a touring company, we also have to shape the company’s energy to be flexible enough to accommodate the energy of a new space. I can’t write four sentences about my work without suddenly talking about our work, because I don’t have anything without everyone else’s energy. I’m shaping the energy with my words, mostly. Talking about things, or whatever. But I think I’m doing more than that.
It all sounds very hippie, and when I try to think empirically about mechanism–what is that “energy,” in a phenomenological sense?–I get tangled up pretty quickly. But it is a real experience, and most people have felt it, in church, in a classroom, in a prickle on the back of their neck when someone is looking at them. It’s my clay. For me, this kind of energy is very tied to space and physical presence. I have habits of mind that relate to entering the space, shedding my outside life and distractions as I walk through the door (this is why I’m 100% crap at small talk on breaks, but personable enough if we go for drinks after–I can’t think about much beyond the work when I’m in the work space).
Even though I come from an old-school, sit-on-my-hands style of directing, in that I always try to communicate using my words first, and ask actors questions to help them find the moments for themselves, I always warm up my body so that I’m physically clear and responsive to what is going on in the space. I have a series of things I do in the car on the way to shed my lifejunk and warm up my voice, to be prepared to be truly present. Since I’ll be…rehearsing from home, as it were, I won’t have that. I’ll need to think about what I will do instead.
We’re launching off into terra incognita. Very few companies have tried this kind of thing. I am lucky to have companions I trust in this journey.