This week, we were deep into the process of getting the play on its feet, having commenced the blocking and staging process half way through two and having laid the foundation for all this through table work and research in the first one and a half weeks. This being the most quintessential (but by no means the most important!) facet of directing, it was here that many of the major curiosities I had going in to this process were being responded to. Namely: what is the most efficient and effective process for getting a scene from words on a page to action in the empty space? What is the best order to do things in?-actors playing first, or giving direction first? Is it best to interrupt a scene to give a note if inspiration comes or to let the scene run through? How much do directors know about the end result of a scene before working on it, and how much is just discovered through play? In response to these curiosities, there were a number of insights I gained from watching Jen work.
The first of these was the importance of structure. With each scene, Jennifer would commence with sitting and reading the text with the actors in that scene. This would be followed by a few questions about it, such as ‘what has just happened’ or ‘how much time proceeds throughout’. After which, the actors would perform the scene and Jennifer would then allow inspiration to flow through her mind in providing insights as to how to orient the scene towards its greatest potential. Here, she would oscillate between overarching notes for the whole scene and notes for specific lines. Having given these notes, Jennifer would generally allow the actors to perform the whole scene again before re-clarifying her previous notes or giving new notes. Occasionally, however, she would pause the actors mid-scene to introduce ideas. For each scene, we would generally go through this cycle of performance then amendment around five times before moving on.
Observing this it was clear that a lot of directing is about having ideas in the moment. The nice thing about this structure, was that it provided the best environment for Jennifer’s imagination to flourish, as before she had to introduce any insights or ideas, she has already seen the actors perform the scene twice, maximising the amount of stimulus her imagination could receive before reacting.
A further insight I gained was into how Jennifer introduced ideas, after having seen the actors perform. Sometimes, she would have a specific piece of direction, such as ‘infuse a sense of reluctance into this part of the text’, ‘we need more tension here’ or ‘be more judgemental in that line’. Often, however, she would simply ask questions. In this sense she had an idea of what the scene might need but not a fully formulated answer and was actively discovering this in collaboration with the actors. Using the actors, their creativity and their knowledge of their characters to develop the scene as well as her own maximised the level of creative energy in the space thus allowing each scene to develop further than it might have done otherwise.
A further thing I witnessed was the use of games to get what is needed out of the actors. For example, in one scene, one of our lead actresses sneaks up on the other. Without giving too much away, the sneakee had good reason to believe that she would never see the sneaker ever again in her life. Jennifer wanted the sneaker to indulge this fact to a certain extent, and desired a dash of mischievous energy within the sneaker’s character and the scene as a whole. After having given this note, and seen the actors attempt to apply it, she instructed them to play the game grandmother’s footsteps. This is a game where one person must sneak up from a distance and touch someone else who is facing a wall, but must return back to the start if they are seen moving by that person who can turn around as much as they please. Putting the text aside, and putting them in a scenario where the mischief was real, allowed them to import that energy so much easier when they returned to performing the scene.
Probably the most important take away from the week was the importance of intentions and objectives; this was the note that Jennifer would return back to more than anything else. As reductionist as it might seem, It became clear that drama basically a bunch of people in a space using their words to do things to each other, in order to ultimately get something that they desire. Scenes fall flat when lines are lacking in such intention and they fall askew when the intention is slightly misplaced. With all the right intentions in place, however, the scene becomes elevated to its greatest potential. Thus, much of Jennifer’s work consisted in filling in such absences or swapping out certain actions for more appropriate ones. This side of directing being so technical, for some this might take some of the attraction out of the discipline. For me, however, this only confirmed something I was already aware of going in, namely that directing is an incredibly multidisciplinary craft. For me, therein lies a large part of its appeal.
Three down, one to go. Now we are really getting down to the crunch! Next week should be a blast indeed!
Mountains runs 22 March - 7 April 2018, Studio