One of the assistant directors interviewed me today for a college project, and one of his questions was about “voice”. “How do you cultivate a voice?” I thought that was a really interesting question. I’ve gotten the assignment as a writer to “write the blurb for the back of your novel”, which is the closest I’ve come to attempting to articulating voice. But as a director, what do I think voice is?
A playwriting friend of mine, Tammy Ryan, suggests that all artists have their “stuff”, topics that they keep coming back to again and again. Themes that intrigue them, that they will never fully uncover. And for directors, this relates to the themes of the plays we choose.
But is this voice?
Then there is aesthetic. The WAY you choose to tell a story. They kind of plays I am attracted to are either hyper-theatrical or hyper-realistic. This comes from the need to put something on stage that is unique only to the theatre and could not be done in film/tv, and in my opinion this means highly abstract worlds or incredibly realisitc ones where you believe you’re in the room with these people. But “I do both very abstract and very realistic plays” is hardly a definition of voice. Try putting that on you back-of-book blurb.
So I began to think of artists I think of as having a clear “voice”. I think of Mary Zimmerman: mythological, large cast, big and pretty – aha! It’s a Zimmer piece. Or Sarah Ruhl: poetic language, off-kilter humor, sex and death – aha! Ruhl. Or John Doyle’s actor-musicians. I connect voice to a fingerprint, something about the work that is the calling card of that artist.
And yet isn’t our job as director to interpret what the play wants to be? Or at least listen to our feelings about what the play wants to be? Doesn’t that mean letting the words of the playwright dictate what the world wants to be, and in essence being a middle man between the text and audience?
For me this asks a much larger question about whether the director is an interpretive artist or a creative artist, an argument that is being had quite heatedly right now in regards to copyright. Does the director interpret a text as a conductor interprets a score, or are they in fact creating something out of nothing, much like a painter with a canvas?
Certain directors have a more clearly defined fingerprint and are more clearly a creative artist, a painter of ideas. While others work in many styles and aesthetics, letting the text dictate their world, and jumping from aesthetic to aesthetic.
Perhaps voice becomes more apparent as your body of work grows. However, I think the only way to cultivate voice is to keep prying into a text or idea until you’re deeply emotionally connected to it, until you know why you’re telling the story and are consequently able to communicate that to your collaborators and then your audiences.
Perhaps voice is simply your “stuff” coming through while you were busy focusing on something else. Is it the job of the director to actively cultivate voice?