It is, perhaps, a measure of what a welcoming place the Drama League is that on my first day as a Directing Fellow I decided to shamelessly fly my nerd flag. Sitting around in a big circle, all of us newly minted Fellows, along with most of the wonderful staff of the Drama League were asked to introduce ourselves and maybe say a bit about how we come to be in this strange business called theater. Here’s a rough paraphrase of (some of) what I said:
I grew up obsessively watching Star Trek: The Next Generation. And I think that one of the reasons I chose to be a theater director is because it’s about as close as you can get (if you were unlucky enough not to be born in the 24th century) to being a starship captain. Think about it: the job is to lead a team of people often from very different backgrounds and disciplines (and maybe planets), each of whom is an incredible expert in their own field but each of whom also, ideally, has some knowledge of and respect for each other’s fields and expertise. And together, you and this team explore the strange new worlds opened up by each new play you tackle, in the hopes of making the sorts of discoveries that will enrich not only you and your team but also everyone with whom you share those discoveries. Certainly it’s about going boldly. And sometimes, when it’s all working really well and you have the right team assembled, you can go where no one has gone before.
All of which is to say, it’s about collaboration, it’s about exploration, it’s about discovery, it’s about process.
All of which have been much on my mind as I reflect on the amazing 7 weeks I’ve just spent at Shakespeare & Company in Lenox, MA – both assisting Daniela Varon on what has turned out to be a gorgeous, powerful and critically acclaimed first American production of Lolita Chakrabarti’s Red Velvet, but – in my final week – attending a workshop for teachers of Shakespeare led by the madcap clown prince of theater education Kevin Coleman.
Collaboration. Exploration. Discovery. Process.
That’s what these seven weeks have been about. In all sorts of ways.
In the education workshop that capped off my stay at Shakespeare & Company I had the privilege of joining a cohort of a dozen or so fellow educators (mostly high school English teachers) in being walked immersed in the Shakespeare & Co approach to teaching Shakespeare to young people. Kevin Coleman has been running the education program at Shakespeare & Co for over three decades and, in the process, has won nearly every award an arts education program can win. And it is all based in the radical but simple idea that the most effective way to explore these plays with young people is to do the plays.
“Doing the plays” in Kevin’s model doesn’t mean turning English classes into production companies, or holding auditions to see which 11th grader is most qualified to play Hamlet or even, necessarily scheduling a performance. Doing the plays means asking students to work through them not like scholars, endlessly chasing down every footnote and meticulously scanning every last iamb, but rather like actors – on their feet, dynamically using the language of the plays to interact with each other. Honestly, the details of this approach defy description because it is such an active, adaptive, in the moment way of working that one literally has to experience it to understand it.
What’s most important though, at least in my opinion, is its aim is to change the equation in which Shakespeare is “literature,” the students are “readers” and the teacher’s job becomes to “explain” the “difficult” language to the students into one where Shakespeare is allowed to be what he is – a playwright, meaning students become actors, dramaturges, designers and audience, the language is active and rich rather than difficult and teachers (or, perhaps, directors) become facilitators of a student (or actor) –centric process of discovering the plays from the inside out.
Collaboration. Exploration. Discovery. Process.
All of which got me thinking back to what made the experience of assisting Daniela on Red Velvet so fulfilling and what, in my mind, made the production so successful.
I had a bit of an 'aha moment' while reading a recent review of the production (yes, I believe that, probably more often than we give them credit for, the critics can help us as artists understand even our own work – or work on which we collaborated – a bit more clearly). Writing for the Berkshire Eagle, critic Jeffrey Borak wrote:
“Red Velvet is about process — the process of making art; of survival in a hard, unyielding culture; of change and transformation. In so many smart and richly imaginative ways, Varon has put all of this together in a production that stands as prime example of theater as a fully integrated form that provokes, stimulates, engages transforms.”
And I think he’s exactly right. Because to make theater is to challenge conventions, to take risks, to boldly go.
Daniela set a high bar for everyone’s work on Red Velvet. But she never dictated. She never micromanaged. She captained the ship in a way that both challenged and allowed everyone involved – from lead actor to lighting technician – to feel a part of an ensemble (or a crew, if you will) dedicated to the same mission and to bring every ounce of their expertise to bear on completing that mission.
Obviously there are – and should be – many differences between exploring Macbeth in a high school English classroom and rehearsing, teching and presenting a professional production of a new play at a major regional theater – and both of those, of course, are ultimately very different than commanding a fictional starship in the 24th century. But the impulses, the processes, the habits of mind, the essential actions that lead to excellence might, I’m now thinking, be more or less the same:
Collaboration. Exploration. Discovery. Process...