Thoughts on Feedback

I’ve been spending the two weeks since All in the Timing reflecting on the run, which in all honesty was uneven, with two standout nights and three… less great, though not bad, performances.

To be fair to my actors (and my stalwart and lovely crew), to some extent the more difficult shows were due in part to the absurd nature of the play, which does ask a degree of knowledgeability from its audience.

Without the willingness to follow the cast and the text down the rabbit hole, the level of potential comedy, which needs that connection, cannot be as high. Still, it is fundamentally the job of what is on stage to invite the audience to take that leap, and commit fully to the experience regardless.

A reviewer from the Camden Review came to our punchy opening night performance (luckily), and rewarded us with a short and sweet review – praising the energy and hilarity of the performers and the overall exuberance of the show.

Positive feedback is always nice to hear, and in the somewhat paternal role directing gives, there is a kind of pride, too, in reading praise of your actors.

And, as a creative person who (at least I hope) is always looking to improve, constructive criticism is, if not as welcome, certainly mindfully attended to; in some cases it’s easier to hear as it validates one’s own perceptions of whatever failings may have occurred and gets another view on the possible causes and solutions.

One of the difficulties as a theatre-person, where the audience is such an integral part of the experience of a performance, is choosing how to absorb and handle different kinds of feedback.

There were kind words after each performance, but the level of enthusiasm varied pretty much in line with my views on how strong the show as a whole went on that particular night.

Likewise, there were thoughtful observations and critiques from knowledgable friends and colleagues whose feedback was valuable in both its reflection of some of my own evaluations, and thoughts on how to improve future performances. There was only one really sour and seemingly pointless critique, which essentially boiled down to ‘you didn’t do it how I would do it’; hardly a conversation starter whatever the topic, and not something as a director that you can take anything from. And this in turn was balanced by dear and encouraging friends finding all sorts of flattering and overly generous things to say about my work while handing me large glasses of wine.

More than anything, hearing other perspectives creates a more rounded, complicated, and specific idea of ones own thoughts and opinions. The point of which is to do better, to get better, at the craft.

If I was just doing this for a bit of a jolly, I wouldn’t be so demanding of my actors, or of myself. And to get better, one needs to honestly think about what worked, what didn’t, and how I can make fewer mistakes and more creative felicities.

The question I find myself asking to that end is: who is a play truly for? I direct and act because I find it satisfying – absorbing and essentially interesting. Asking who these characters could be, finding out how different actors can express different relationships and emotions and idea, the plasticity of the entire experience is hugely fascinating to me.

Exploring the possibilities and making decisions about what is the most effective expression to create a particular tone or thought is, pretentious as it may seem to say, illuminating. It’s an examination and portrayal of humanity and ideas. In this case in its more quirky and bizarre iterations.

But WHO is it all for? Is it for the audience? The actors? The author? Me?

The director is a proxy audience, and pushes the actors (and tech) towards creating a particular series of thoughts and emotions – but what I seek to inspire in people and what they feel – is it the same? Can it be? And if we posit that it’s the journey, not the destination, which is important (as cliche would have it), then surely it is the actors and their relationships with their character(s) and each other that become the most important.

I am suddenly reminded of a children’s book called Zen Shorts in which a panda discovers (among other things) that the most important person is the person you’re with, and the most important thing is the thing you are presently doing. I think that holds true with theatre – while you’re rehearsing, it is the actors you’re with who are the most important people, and the scene you’re working on and exploring that is the most important thing; when performing, the audience becomes the most important thing.

In all honesty, and zen koans notwithstanding, I don’t feel that AITT was my best work. Everything, of course, can always be better, and I’m not sure what I could have done differently.

I did confess to a director-colleague of mine that AITT was not the play that I wanted to put on at this moment in time. I was holding out for Trojan Women (which I am so keen to do) and Romeo & Juliet. My director-self is apparently in high-tragedy mood.

So a comedy, even one as dear to me as AITT, didn’t have the muse behind it. Also, she pointed out the merits of having an AD, which I was sadly lacking, and who would likely have helped a great deal with the issues of authority I found myself contending with. I forget too easily how much it helps to have a like-minded person reinforcing your thoughts and ideas to people, especially the more self-conscious and risk-averse, who have to hash it all out.

Lastly, I think I did at one or two points, go against a gut feeling to keep the peace or smooth a relationship. I’m not sure that it was necessarily the wrong thing to do, but problems arose when I ignored my instinct. Directors are not dictators, but you do have to have a stubborn adherence to your own vision. Respect for your co-creative people is very important, but respect for yourself and your ideas equally so.

And with only a couple of weeks off to rest, it’s right back in the thick of it with a Shakespeare project. But I have a co-director, and my cast couldn’t been keener, so I think this will be quite a different animal.

And then? I have an overwhelming desire to play Kate in Taming of the Shrew. Any takers?

 

What a night

Well it all came together. The dress rehearsal Sunday night left me stunned – whether it was being in the theatre and having all the tech, or the immediate pressure of knowing this was the end of rehearsals, or if it was just amazing timing, the actors’ energy suddenly jumped, and their was a real palpable feeling of being an ensemble, not just a bunch of people in the same play.

Opening night was a blast. The audience was really engaged and, thankfully, held a lot of loud laughers, so the cast was really able to enjoy a lively response to their zingy lines and physical humour.

There’s still room to improve – there always is – but what they’re doing now is head and shoulders above where they were last week. If we can keep this energy and focus and enthusiasm going, there will be a lot of fine shows to be seen.

It’s this feeling – this joy – that we do all this for. For hearing the audience enjoy what you’re putting on for them, and seeing the actors relish the performing.

What fun.

Opening Night Approaches

Well, it’s nearly here.

 

As I anticipate the madness of tech and dress rehearsals over the next couple of days, and the anxiety of opening night, I find myself reflecting on the nature of different types of theatre. This is not a professional production, though I hope I hold myself and my lovely actors and techies to a professional standard.

It’s that standard that I wonder about. With amateur theatre, of course, people are doing it for love and for fun, not because it’s their job. As both a director and an actor, I wouldn’t begin to know how to separate the two. I don’t know how to do anything without trying to make it the best it can be – and I think there’s a real shame in the snobbery that insists that things aren’t likely to be good if they aren’t expensive. That’s the same mentality that assumes only Oxbridge types are sufficiently equipped to run or do anything. It’s the same mentality that thinks since nurses get paid less than doctors they must be less important or less skilled.

No, money is rarely a good reflection of true value.

With art in particular, what makes something good (or not) is passion and dedication. This affects amateur theatre when it comes to time and energy. Everyone involved in this play has other, admittedly more important things to do – we have jobs and/or families that require our attention, and of course must take priority. This doesn’t mean that amateur productions are destined to be half-assed, only that there is more to contend with.

I was speaking with a friend (and fellow director and actor) yesterday, at another amateur production. Over the course of our conversation, I wondered if perhaps the standard to which I held my actors and crew was too high, too demanding, for the world we were in. The people involved are doing this for no other reward than the task itself – is it unkind to push them, to expect as much of them as I would of professionals?

From my earlier directing experiences with this particular company, I have found it rewarding, though certainly difficult, to help less-trained performers do professional quality work. I have also found a significant amount of push-back from people who find my methods too stringent – I’m sure they don’t necessarily realise all the implications, but the take-away message from those complaining is that what I’m asking is too hard, and I’m not letting them relax and have (enough) fun. (I must defend myself somewhat; people are not despondent and enslaved to some maniacal obsessive, there is plenty of laughter in my rehearsals, but I don’t settle).

So then the question becomes, is it right to hold an amateur team to lower standards, to push them less, to train them less, so that the process overall feels less intense – or does that do them a disservice, knowing that when the show arrives, the result will be merely adequate?

What is the super-objective?

I work, or have done so far, holding to the idea that the whole point is to push for excellence, to push people out of their comfort zone and make them reach for things they didn’t necessarily think they could, or even should, do. I believe the best theatre happens when people are striving.

But is it wrong to try to get the ‘best theatre’ from amateurs? I don’t know. I don’t know that I could change my style even should I decide it would be morally correct. For me, pushing myself, working hard at theatre, while challenging, isn’t unpleasant – it’s the bit that I like. Work and play, for me, are the same. I get the impression from some that I work with, that is not necessarily the case for all.

For this play, of course, the rehearsal period is almost finished, and the proof of the pudding will be in the eating.

But for the future, the question remains. How much should one manage expectations; how hard do you push?

All in the Timing

Yesterday we had the first rehearsal for All in the Timing, a play by American playwright David Ives. I’m very excited to be directing it – even just doing a read-through we were all bursting into laughter. A very promising beginning indeed, and a really lovely cast.

We’ll be performing from March 31st to April 4th at the Lion and Unicorn in Kentish Town (lovely pub theatre, amazing food), if you’d like to mark your calendars.