For the last month, I have been rehearsing a couple of times a week for my first play as director, Letters From Everyone. (Well, I say my first play - actually, it's my third. The first was a play that a friend and I wrote, directed and starred in when I was in Year Four. It was a play about Robin Hood, inspired by Robin Hood: Prince of Thieves, and it ran for under ten minutes. My friend and I put it on for our class in our school hall. We didn't have enough actors to fill the play's four roles (?!) so I built the bad guys out of cardboard boxes. I'm pretty sure it didn't make any sense to anybody who wasn't in it. My second play, slightly better, was Judge Dredd (featuring me in the lead role wearing a costume I made myself) and was put on in my friend's living room. But anyway, back to the point...). The opportunity to direct Letters From Everyone arose through Niall Phillips, who I met when I cast him in a supporting role in Life Just Is. Since the LJI shoot we've become good friends, and have been discussing several different projects to work on together. Despite my total lack of theatrical experience, Niall offered me the chance to direct one of the three short plays that would form a part of the inaugural edition of his new writing night, On A Spree, the first venture with his new theatre company Lonesome Schoolboy Productions. The 40 minute play ran twice over the weekend, and despite one or two hiccoughs it went pretty well.
As someone who knows next-to-nothing about theatre, directing the play was an interesting experience for me (and I'm very thankful to Niall, and to the super-talented writer Steven Lally, for letting me have a bash). I was a little flummoxed at first, but luckily my actors were very supportive, very low maintenance, and happy to help me through it. Two different friends of mine asked me on two different occasions what warm-ups I'd been doing with my actors - I hadn't been doing any. I didn't even know my stage left from my stage right, let alone that I was supposed to be doing warm ups at the start of my rehearsals. But luckily it didn't seem to matter to my actors, or to the end result. Ultimately, it seems to me, theatre direction comes down to blocking, performance, lights and sounds - and those were all areas I was comfortable in. At one point Niall tried to talk me out of using lights and sound, saying that he wanted me to keep it simple and focus on the performances of the actors. But to me they were intrinsic to what I wanted to achieve: through them I hoped to find theatrical equivalents to filmic devices - for instance, I tried using a long fade from a fully lit stage to a spotlight on one actress for a moment when, in film, I'd have used a slow tracking shot into her face... whether it worked or not isn't for me to say, but that's what I was going for. For better or for worse, I was attempting to take weapons from my filmic arsenal and transpose them to the stage (while never losing sight of the inherent differences between the two media).
I went into the project with the idea that theatre was a writer's medium. In the film world, that's what we're always told - that film is a director's medium and that theatre is a writer's medium. But that's only half right...
Steve's script was excellent. I felt very blessed to get such a great piece as my first play - all I had to do was not fuck it up. That said, there were three small changes that I wanted to make to it. In film, I would have just made them, but as it was a play I deferred to Steve. I told him my thoughts and he agreed to two of them and suggested an alternative change to the third - which was better than what I was suggesting. So far, so good. But then we hit a bit of a snag: the play was running at 50 minutes. It was supposed to be 40 (actually, it was originally supposed to be 25, but Niall had already okayed it going to 40). So we had to make further cuts (all of which I ran past Steve to get his approval). I suppose, at this point, I was still thinking of theatre as a writers'medium. But the more I thought about it, and the more I thought about the role of the director in theatre and the process I was going through, the more I realised how wrong this view point is. Theatre is not a writers' medium. But it's also not a directors' medium. Theatre is an actors' medium.
Let me try and explain...
There were times in the rehearsal period where we got things perfect. Then we would run it again, and that perfection had gone. This was frustrating for me as, had it been film, those moments would have been captured forever. In film, you rehearse each little moment by itself and then do take after take until it's right. And while it's true that the director is collaborating with his or her crew, it is ultimately them who controls everything. And then they control it again in the edit. For instance, On Life Just Is, Murat and I would sometimes spend half an hour arguing over one frame. Film, therefore, can be understood as a directors' medium through-and-through: even if you fail to bring your vision to the screen, you have the power to control all the elements which might lead to the realisation of that vision, and any failure to do so is ultimately down to a failure on your part (no one said it was easy!).
In other words, in film, the final art piece as it will be presented to the audience is the work of the director and their vision (assuming, for the sake of this argument, that they have right of final cut).
In theatre, however, that power shifts to the actors: in the moment of the actual performance, the moment when the art piece takes its final form and is presented to the audience for which it is intended, it is the actors who control it. If an actor makes a mistake or decides to play something differently from how the director wanted it or how the writer wrote it, then that is how the audience receives it. This isn't a bad thing - it's great for the actors (and why are their judgements any less important than the director's or writer's?). But it does mean that, at the final moment, the director is powerless and, in all honesty, unnecessary. And the same can be said of the writer.
So it's not fair to call theatre a directors' medium, and it's not fair to call it a writers' medium either.
Perhaps, therefore, the only media that can truly be said to belong to writers are literature and poetry.
Of course, these thoughts are based solely on my first (proper) experience of working in the medium, and perhaps I'm totally wrong. If given the opportunity, I'm keen to direct more theatre - I've had a lot of fun working on Letters From Everyone. But as a director (and as something of a control freak), I know I won't be abandoning film any time soon.
One final comment, and another reason why I won't be leaving film behind, is the impermanence of theatre. At the beginning, I thought this was a good thing. If the play was shit, it wouldn't matter because there would be no record of it and I could tell everyone it was good anyway (only those who came along would know any different). So, in a way, the pressure was off. But once the play was over I felt a sense of anti-climax. It was gone and it was over. Post-show blues hit and I felt like it had all been for nothing. It came and it went, and that was that. I know some people who worked on Life Just Is with me got post-shoot blues, but leaving the show behind might prove to be harder for me. With Life Just Is I was straight into the edit so I didn't have any time to even think about the fact that the shoot was over. Even now that the film's done, we're still pushing it. It'll be with us forever, in one way or another. But with this, it's over, it's gone. And that's that.