In the Hall of King Alcinous

A few weeks back, in this space, I offered  a piece about story-telling, an activity which has become central to my life.  I ended by leaving my readers with what screenwriters call a cliff-hanger.

That was in late May.  I might have imitated those TV writers who follow a cliff-hanger with three months of suspense, but there are risks in that.  Sometimes, the producers of a TV series will leave viewers hanging over the summer, only to find that, by September, their audience has moved on.  

That’s a risk I’d rather not take.

So here’s my next episode:  I’m going to study directing.

From the time I first set foot on stage, I’ve never strayed far.  The theatre can be a disappointing – even heartbreaking – place, but it can also be magical.

For an audience member, disappointment often comes in the form of an evening spent struggling to stay awake through a bad play, or a good play badly performed.  I’ve been there.
A month ago, at Richmond’s most established theatre, I wasted three hours on the “world premiere” of a play so utterly inane that I can only hope it was also the “world finale”.

But a month earlier, in a tiny space, I saw some of the same actors in a devastating production of August: Osage County.  It was the best thing I’ve seen on a Richmond stage since I reviewed the Virginia Museum Theatre’s Fanny - starring Fred Hazeltine - for the Thomas Dale High School newspaper (The Muckraker) in 1967.

For actors, too, the theatre can be disappointing.  Directors won’t always cast you in the role for which you know you are perfect for.  But once in a while, a director will offer you a terrifying challenge for which you never dreamed you were ready.  

In my case, that role came in my third year as a professional actor.

Macbeth.

Thanks to an extraordinary director, I performed this huge role with credit, but I’ve spent sixteen years wishing I could take another crack at it.

In my experience, theatre’s disappointments are the price you pay for rare moments of transcendence.  Those soaring moments come when actors dig deep into their souls and bring a well-written character vividly to life.  

A great performance can be an amazing thing to watch on film, but in person, from the audience or from a few feet away onstage, it can be unforgettable.   

And when that happens, while the actor collects the applause, it is usually the director who made it happen.  

In the first place, the director sometimes gets to choose the play.  Usually, the director selects the cast.  Get those things right, a good script and a strong cast, and you’re probably not going to end up with a stinker.

But a great director can also forge a group of actors into an artistic team.  

A great director can challenge the actors, individually, and collectively, to go beyond an acceptable performance and enter the world of genuine art.

A great director can create the conditions in which actors make magic, and audiences are transfixed and transformed.

The problem is:  There aren’t that many great directors.

There aren’t even that many good ones.

In my experience, great directors are a lot like great teachers.  They don’t tell you the answers.  They ask the questions which inspire you to dig deep for your own answers.  Like the magical helpers in a fairy tale, they offer you a key or a clue, but leave the rest to you.

When I began rehearsing Macbeth, I found it impossible to connect the character’s amazing speeches with his dark deeds.  Do butchers - even Elizabethan butchers - really talk like that?

My director, Gail Deschamps, offered me a clue.  Macbeth is a Celtic warrior-poet.  A great poet.  When he speaks, he’s not reciting something he composed in advance.  He’s more like a great jazz musician – say, Miles Davis.  He starts speaking, and his words begin to create a world.

And as that world takes form in his imagination, he walks into it.

I remember how that clue unlocked many speeches, particularly the dark invitation which begins with Macbeth’s haunting two-word description of twilight:  “Light thickens.”

That speech became one of my two favorite moments of the play.

I want to be able to do that for other actors.

So, this September, I’ll be in Staunton, beginning a two-year MFA program which will, I hope, turn me into a Shakespearean director.  

I hadn’t expected to be going back to school at the age of 61.  But there’s wisdom in the old question:  If you’re too old now, when will you be a better age?

There are many great roles for an older actor.  They’re still on my list.

But there comes a time to accept the role of leader.  

It’s time for me direct.

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