INTRODUCTION BY JOHN CLINTON EISNER, LARK PRODUCING DIRECTOR...
This blog focuses on what our community members have to say about where we’re headed as a society and the tools we’ll need to get there. Each month, we invite a guest essayist to share a unique perspective on the role of live theater in the twenty-first century and what the field has to offer society as a whole.
Our guest essayist this month is Daniella Topol, a New York-based freelance theater director (formerly the Lark’s Artistic Program Director) whose recent work shows both her dedication to fresh new voices and the breadth of her relationships to theaters in the field: Nicki Bloom’s "Tender" (Summer Play Festival), Susan Yankowitz’s "Night Sky" (Power Productions/Baruch Performing Arts Center), Leslie Ayvazian’s "Carol and Jill" (EST), Caridad Svich’s "Instructions for Breathing" (Passage Theatre), Jakob Holder’s "Housebreaking" (Cherry Lane), Trista Baldwin’s "Forgetting" (Workhaus Collective) and "Sand" (Women’s Project), Sean Hartley, Kim Oler and Alison Hubbard’s "Little Women: the Musical" (Village Theatre), Judith Thompson’s "Palace of the End" (Epic Theatre), Sheila Callaghan’s "Dead City" (New Georges), Stanton Wood’s "Snow Queen" (Urban Stages), and Susan Bernfield’s "Tiny Feats of Cowardice." Current directing projects include Sheila Callaghan’s "Lascivious Something" (Women’s Project in association with Cherry Lane), Susan Bernfield’s "Stretch" (People’s Light and Theatre Company), Maria Irene Fornes’ "Sarita" (Fordham University), and Sheila Callaghan’s "Water" (or The Secret Life of Objects), a multi-media epic about floods.
Daniella approaches play-making from multiple perspectives. She is an imaginative director, visionary producer, and thoughtful humanist. She balances vision with steely determination. She knows how to work collaboratively with people of all stripes to discover, with them, the essence of what they need to know—and makes that knowledge and the credit for its discovery theirs. She is a diplomat through and through, but always honest, outspoken and direct. You can count on her word as well as on her good taste. Just ask anyone who has ever worked with her—or for whom she has worked—and they'll concur.
In the essay that follows, Daniella considers her own struggle to bring her vision and exceptional critical capacities to the table without stepping on other people’s toes and to fully participate in the creative process throughout the stages of play’s development. To my mind, she is exploring the treacherous frontier that exists between all collaborators—a landscape of complex ideas and inexpressible emotions that requires careful listening, trust, respect and, finally, conviction, to navigate successfully. Daniella asks the question that finally confronts every artist in any collaboration: “What is the essential role that I can play to shape the work at hand?” Or, more specifically, “Why am I working on this project with these people?”
We look forward to reading your responses to Daniella—and to one another!
Taking the time to imagine...
by Daniella Topol
Developing new work is such a tricky thing for directors! We don’t want to invade the writer’s process of discovering his/her play but we want to be there to support, respond, and question how the play is progressing. We want to be present and loyal to the writer and his or her vision, but cannot be naïve in presuming that we will be the one and only person to bring the project in hand to fruition. What is a director to do?
A few years ago, I was developing a musical that was commissioned by a fairly large and well-known musical theatre organization. I had worked tirelessly with the writing team on the dramaturgy of the piece. For YEARS. Now it was time to plan for the production, including choosing a director. The producing theater had high-profile candidates on their short list. Fortunately, the writers were advocating for me. However, when the theater asked them why they wanted me, they could only speak to my contribution to the dramaturgy on the piece. In all of our work sessions, we had never discussed what the production I would direct would look like. To be perfectly honest, I hadn’t actually ever thought about what my production would look like or feel like. The piece had never seemed “ready” enough for me to include my vision in the conversation. What followed was an “interview” of me by the writing team where I outlined how I would direct the production. I bristled at the idea of interviewing for a project in which I had been involved for years but I went ahead and did it. We soon realized that my vision of the piece matched theirs (not surprising, but still affirming), but, sadly, the production was cancelled when the theater closed its doors because of the economic downturn.
While the whole process of settling on me as as the project's director turned out to be a moot point, I learned a valuable lesson. Why not take the time to envision a production at every stage of developing a play?
Supporting the dramaturgical development of new work is NOT directing new work. Of course we all know this. But sometimes, in the early stages, it feels the same. Maybe directors should carve out more time to imagine what our ideal world premiere would look like, feel like, and move like. What is the ideal space? Who are the ideal designers and actors to realize this vision? If we take the time and space to imagine in this way, even in the very very early stages, we can then discuss what we imagine with the playwright and find out if we share a common vision for the trajectory of the piece. The director’s role then moves beyond simply responding to the script and working “in service” of the playwright. If directors only work dramaturgically or as facilitators in the early stages of a play’s development, why should playwrights then advocate for us to direct their actual production? Who wants to hire a facilitator to direct a world premiere? Who wants to hire a director that has just been “in service” to a playwright?
I am not implying that directors should not do whatever they can to realize the writer’s intention. I am only saying that a director’s work developing new plays could be much more proactive than just responding to what is on the page. We can take the space and time to conceive and imagine the possibilities of a production at every turn. We can make sure to created a rehearsal room filled with a spirit and a theatricality that not only explores the text but also the possibilities of how the text can best be realized in space. We can discuss our vision, ideas and impulses with the playwright so that every step in a play's development is part of a larger vision of realizing an ideal production.
My favorite part of being a director is when I know I have an upcoming production and I can scheme, dream, and plan for it with the playwright, designers, and producers. Why not start that process in the early stages of a play’s inception? Worst case scenario, we scheme and dream and the play does not ever get the world premiere production that it deserves, or it does, but with another director at the helm. Both of these scenarios can be heartbreaking for a director, but, was it really so bad to take the time to imagine?