Directing Your Mind’s Eye

The message remains loud and clear, as I work my way through Richard III for the first time, that I should see a performance.  Shakespeare was meant to be seen, not read, as the old saying goes.

Let me ask the directors in the audience a question. You’re given a play to direct that you’ve never seen, read, or experienced before. What do you do? Do you immediately go off and find somebody else’s directorial vision of the play, watch that, and then say “Oh, ok, that’s how that’s supposed to go?”

Or would that completely mess with your ability to develop your own vision for the story? Sure, there’s research that can be done – but if you’re a completely empty vessel, isn’t there a very real danger of filling yourself up too much with other people’s ideas and not leaving enough room for your own?

See where I’m going with this?

If all you want to do with a Shakespeare play is to say, “Well, I’ve seen it, I know what it’s about. Check that one off the old bucket list,” then sure, go do that.

Thing is, I wouldn’t really be here doing stuff like this web site if that’s all I wanted.  I want to be so intimately familiar with the plays that I have my own movie running in my head. I want my own opinions, that I can answer by quoting the text – not by saying “I like how Richard Burton did it.”

I’m pretty sure I’ve said it before, but I’ll say it again – when you see Shakespeare, you’re seeing one interpretation of what it could be.  When you read it, you’re opening up the possibility of all of them.

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4 thoughts on “Directing Your Mind’s Eye

  1. Funny you should ask. A decade ago I was handed RIII to direct, having absolutely no experience with the show, ever. Never seen, never read. So I read it aloud. Then I read it again. I found themes, I looked for tiresome repetitions, I looked up the FSQs in my Bartlett's so I didn't leave any out. I read the history, and also read the Henry VI plays to see what led up to it. I did NOT see another production, and I certainly did NOT watch any of the films. I wanted to own it. And so I worked with my actors, discovering the scenes. Some of the scenes direct themselves in that show. Some very much don't. I had a great Richard, a wonderful Elizabeth and Richmond, and a fantastic Buckingham. Together we got it up in three weeks, and it was (and remains) the biggest hit that theatre's had.

    I'm with you halfway. Reading the plays does open up the possibility. But at some point you've got to make a choice and see how that choice works out. The next time you do the show, you can make a different choice. But in theatre, making choices is part of the craft.

    If you want to read and bask in the language, great. But you make it sound limiting to see a production. As a director, it may be. As an audience member, it's always inspiring – even a bad production can lead you to a better understanding of the play, through negative examples. I've walked out of theatres furious at a show, and it just makes me want to do the show myself, and do it right!

    By the by, if you get a chance, see the Kevin Spacey RIII that's on tour right now. My friend Andrew Long is in it, and it's touring the world. They're on their way to Hong Kong next week, but will be in the States later this year. Can't wait.

  2. Thanks David :). I think you're completely right that "at some point" you need to see how certain choices work out. If you're directing, you can make the choice – if you're just in the audience watching, you get to see how somebody else's choices work out.

    I also like your emphasis on how you "certainly did NOT" watch any films. I think that when we say "go see it" too often we forget that it's not always available to run out and see a live stage show, and sometimes a movie version can appear to be the next best thing. But the movie version of a play can drastically depart from what you would have seen on stage, and put the emphasis on far too many bits that are entirely the creation of the director (and special effects crew!) rather than the writer.

  3. I agree with David. Read out loud, read again, read again. And although the plays were meant to be spoken, not read, in addition, I make it a point to try and familiarize myself with any literary analysis available. It doesn't mean I'll follow it to the letter–or at all. But it goes without saying that history and background is important. Many times ideas, or those occurring from a major detour on an opinion or idea, can be inspired this way.
    Lastly, I'll go through the text with a pencil in hand to score the many salient acting/directing clues (verse form, meter, metaphor, alliteration, et al) embedded in the script. Again, these may be referred to technically as "literary notes", but in effect, they're great dramatic clues as well. Many of them would have revealed themselves simply by reading the text aloud. Others take a little detective work.

    Although I have been handed the kernel of a preconceived "concept notion" by a producer in one case (I'm the one who had to make it work) I also agree–I would never want to see another production or film of someone else's concept of the play first.

  4. We have group readings of the play – we get together some people and some beer and divvy up the parts. It's fun and takes a long time, because we spend time going back and marrying up the bits that fit together, looking things up, etc.

    However, when possible, I do love to see a show on its feet before we put it up. Not too close, I like for the details to fade, but for example, we did Two Gentlemen of Verona, and saw another company's rendition in the months before – it did not inform what we DID do but it did inform what we DIDN'T do. Not to say it was a bad show – far from it – but seeing a text you have studied on its feet just brings some things into focus, I think.

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