Directors Lab West – The Global Effect

When I applied to Directors Lab West (DLW) I was still living in London and preparing the move back to Los Angeles. I really needed something to look forward to as I was heartbroken to be leaving a city and people I love. Thank goodness I got into DLW – it was an intense 8 days but it’s given me a new forged enthusiasm and energy for my career. Just what I needed.

This year’s them was The Global Effect, which seems fitting to my life at the moment as I reintegrate back in to American life. Having lived in London where international theatre is in abundance. While there, I was continually defending and promoting LA theatre, and now that I’m back I’m trying to explain that low pay, poor work/life balance, questions over ways to engage audiences and worries/anxieties over theatre and criticism aren’t so unique to LA.

What an intense 8 days it was.

I immediately made friends with a carful of out-of-towners as I don’t have a car, but I know LA so served as GPS and tour guide. This group became my sub-tribe of the labbies. After introductions to the program by Ernie Figueroa et al we made our way over to LA Stage Day a great way to start the week. There, I saw so many familiar faces – it definitely felt like a huge welcome home party. The theatre community here is why I profess my love for  LA theatre everywhere I go. This city is full of passionate, talented and collaborative artists.

I’m not going to go into great detail over the Lab, but here are some highlights from my experience.

It’s not all about the art:

Because I also wear a producer and administrator hat, I am so pleased the Laura Zucker (Executive Director of the LA County Arts Commission) gave a quick speech on arts management and how arts practices can and do inform our management: Collaboration, flexibility, the creative process, deadlines, the opportunity to make mistakes. As she says, “Like many of you I was not chosen, I was drafted.” I fell into producing/management because I simply wanted to do what ever it took to make a show happen.

Contracts contract, contracts. Because I’ve spent most of my professional experience in London, I really need to learn about all the rules here. It’s confusing and infuriating, but also nice to know we have structures to protect ourselves. From what I’ve gathered though, we really need to update the various union contracts to reflect contemporary needs.

I’ve written about it in the past, but “Audiences” still seem like some mythical legend with people asking “how do we get them?” Although I’ve argued that theatre makers should focus on making quality work first, then engaging audiences second I think I need to make a point of clarification:  Yes making great art should come first, but if you don’t take the time to let your communities know that you are there and have something that might interest them, you’re limiting your great art.

This is why I was so excited to hear about the consensus organizing work that Seema Sueko is doing at the Pasadena Playhouse. With this she takes the needs of the theatre and sees where there needs of the surrounding communities meet up. It’s a huge amount of work, resources, and time. And the groundwork must be laid down way in advance. It makes me wonder if smaller companies should re-think how they produce a production (e.g., choosing the play a year in advance to allow time for community research and organizing). It’s certainly something I want to try out with smaller companies with less time/resources to see what’s possible.

How to do the art:

We spoke with a variety of established directors. It was nice to see how the other half lives, however I would’ve loved to have more detailed stories of how they started. However, pretty much everyone echoed Nike and said, “Just do it.” Which seems obvious to me. But the question is – for how long? How long to we just do it? Put on our own shows? Work on next to no pay? How do we advance? I guess, just keep doing it till someone takes notice.

Collaboration is the heart and soul of theatre. Jessica Kubzansky at Boston Court talked about how she works with her team. We also got to chat with four designers about their relationship with the director. But collaboration isn’t enough. You need to follow your interests, only then can you bring out the best ideas of your team, your actors, and yourself. We also met many performers who are following their own passions and are making some extraordinary work. And that’s because they…

Take risks and embrace theatricality. Risk is something I’ve talked with a lot of artists about. Most agree, if there isn’t an element of risk, then why do it? Also, some of the risk lies in fully embracing theatricality. It was brought up a few times that theatre is a unique medium – it’s different from film and other storytelling forms – thus how can we as directors make each moment theatrical? I definitely struggled with that when I was younger. In college I got marked down in a directing class because my scene was too “stagey”. Well it was too stagey, but that’s because I was trying to do something with a realistic text (and now I know to avoid those).

Race, Culture but not Class:

Because of the theme, the subject often turned to appropriating cultures (we even had a session about it). Here in America, as the land of the melting pot or salad bowl or whatever current metaphor we’re using, things always come back to race. As a country established by immigrant, slaves, and the destruction of Native Americans – we are acutely aware of how race plays a role in our historical story. Thus when it comes to staged stories privilege becomes prevalent. In the US we talk about race a lot but never talk about class. I had made a comment saying I identified as a minority because I was poor. I then had to defend that comment. If we want to talk about privilege, if we want to talk about stereotypes, voices that aren’t heard, and assumptions of power then we really need to discuss class. Rant semi-over.

Basically be thoughtful about your art and don’t be an asshole.

Go International:

Most directors, artists, and company of note have done work internationally. So just do it.

Let’s not forget what it’s all about:

Fun. Play. Imagination. If you don’t have these elements in everything that you do, then get out now. I was so pleased to hear Jessica Kubzansky talk about using silly games for warm-ups and introductions. I loved seeing the energy and enthusiasm of Chil Kong as he walked us through his process for Herculean project 3 Hamlets. We often talk about meaningful engagement, how theatre is transformative, why it’s so important. And we tend to use serious language – but what about fun? Maybe that can be next year’s theme.

Speaking of fun – perhaps the greatest aspect of DLW was when my new-found sub tribe and I walked into a Professional Pole Dancing competition. Audience engagement – check. Theatricality – check. Passion and technique – double check. Fun – all the checks. It was by far the best things we saw/experienced all week. All because we left ourselves open for the unexpected.

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