I’ve been thinking a lot about the gap between what people expect of a director and what I am, when I show up in the room. I’m thinking about this especially because I recently was writing an application where I had to answer, “How do you execute your artistic vision?” and everything about that question felt just wrong to me.
I don’t execute anything (or anyone). I listen. I don’t have A Vision (maybe I have a few clear pictures, here and there). I have questions. Am I even a director?
The director that question expects is not one I want to be. I meet actors, sometimes, who have worked with those kinds of directors, and they expect me to tell them exactly what to do. They think that’s what it means to “take direction well.” Meanwhile, I’m asking them questions and it’s not a guessing game where I have an answer in mind already. Getting them to believe that can be difficult. I think directors who Execute A Vision can damage the artists they work with.
When I think about my presence in the rehearsal room or production meeting, I’m not like a CEO. I’m like a midwife. I had midwives with me for all of my births, and the more I think about their model of care, the more I see my own model of artistic creation.
A midwife listens. I once asked my midwife if she does cervical checks during labor. “Not usually,” she said. “I can tell how things are going by the mom’s voice.” In the rehearsal room, I’m monitoring the situation in the same way, gathering information from how the space sounds, how people sound together, where shifts in intonation tell me someone has an idea on the cusp of emerging. I used to direct only by ear; learning to look at the stage and think visually was a deliberate process, and took years.
A midwife waits. My favorite thing about midwives is that they are patient. They trust the process. They don’t try to hurry things along. I try hard to be like that in rehearsal; I don’t always succeed. I get nervous and feel pressure from outside sources. At my best, I’m patiently walking alongside my collaborators, trusting our work.
A midwife is present. My friends whose babies were delivered by doctors describe that experience as being one where the doctor showed up for the final big event. For each of my births, the midwives were right there, the whole time, and stuck around for a few hours afterward to make sure we were okay. They sometimes didn’t do much; they were just there, speaking occasional words of encouragement, maybe asking a question or suggesting something new to try that might help relieve pain/stress/blockage. Often, that’s how I work, too. Deeply present, giving the actors space to listen to their inner impulses, asking a question to guide the next bit of their exploration, reminding them to breathe, assuring them that they’re doing great, that they’re being brave, that they are not alone.
A midwife gets consent. The midwives I worked with made sure I knew that I was the final authority on how my children’s births would go. They gave me information, but I made the decisions. They asked before they touched me. They asked my husband how he wanted to be involved, and asked me how I wanted him to be involved. In rehearsal, I ask permission often; I need to do it more. In the past couple years, I’ve massively expanded my understanding of consent. It’s not just getting permission to touch someone’s body, or to ask someone to touch someone else’s body. It’s being clear about an actors’ control over their internal process; I’m not going to tell them how to do their art. It’s never demanding that people use their personal trauma to create character trauma. It’s accepting the fact that I’ll never know more about what is going on onstage than actors choose to tell me (this is the hardest one to accept, but I do accept it). When I work with actors who have not been respected in this way before, constructing a culture of consent is hard. Directors have so much unearned power ex officio, people don’t believe us when we say, “You can say no to me.”
A midwife knows when to step in and take over. Midwives are experts in the process. So are directors. The sad truth is that there are times when a birth doesn’t go as expected. Good midwives know when to stop waiting and step in. They have a toolbox of options for situations, and they know when to deploy them. I step in when things are going off the rails, too. Sometimes I trust the process too much and let things get too out of control; I learn from those experiences. I’m learning to hear when I need to step in.
A midwife cares for the whole community. I’ve heard people say, “As long as you have a healthy baby at the end, that’s what matters.” Midwives say, “The mom matters, too. So does the co-parent. The siblings. The grandparents. The community.” I remember once hearing a midwife affirm a mom who was telling a story of a birth that didn’t go the way she had hoped, where her physical autonomy was compromised, where she was injured and took a year to fully recover. “But I am grateful the baby is okay, and that’s what matters,” she said. The midwife took her hands, looked her in the eyes, and said, “No. The baby matters, but so do you. Your pain matters. Your body matters. Your heart matters. Both things can be true.” Nearly all of the actors I’ve worked with would say that I was invested in them, as artists. I want to make a good show, yes, but that’s not “all that matters.” I have seen shows that were excellent, but left the cast destroyed. That’s not worth it. When I’m working with actors or designers, some part of my process is about how to support that artist in their growth, beyond our show together. Some part of my process is about creating our partnership, for the work we may do in the future. This show, right now, matters, but the people and relationships matter more.
So that’s me, sitting quietly on the side, murmuring words of encouragement, naming when something works, suggesting another approach to try, asking a question, waiting for stories to be born.
It’s birth, not execution.