As I sat at last week’s session of The Shakespeare Forum, watching performers present monologues that led to highly supportive critiques from some 50 gathered peers, I was bombarded by thoughts.
Most immediate, of course, were my reactions to the presentations. While the format was for everyone present to feel free to ask questions and make observations, I spoke only once in the two hours, a single query limited to seven words. I might have engaged more, but as a newcomer, I was uncertain as to how to best frame my comments in this protective environment. Consequently, I became contemplative.
I had, needless to say, my own responses both to what was performed and the recommendations that followed. While I am no critic, I can be highly critical, but this was no place for the snap reactions that come upon seeing a finished show. I was watching people test their talents, as others sought to teach and learn from the conversations that ensued. Yes, I wanted to tell one woman that in an audition, it was highly unlikely that she could clutch the wall as she did; I wanted to share with one man that by his posture and position, I had guessed he was about to perform something from Hamlet even before he spoke; I wanted to debate some of the suggestions as wrong-headed. But that was what I wanted to say in the moment, out of habit, not necessarily what anyone in that room needed.
My thoughts turned to my unfortunate tendency to verbalize perceived flaws first; then I began to worry whether I was watching too intently. I have an unconquerable tendency to furrow my brows when I concentrate, which I have often been told makes me look angry when I am anything but. The last thing this room needed was negative expression of any kind.
As suggestions and admiration flowed, I wandered back to my two collegiate efforts at directing, which no doubt had all the finesse that an untrained, unschooled 19-year-old (who looked angry when thinking) brought to the table, which is to say almost none. Yes, at that age we’re all learning, but how brusque I must have been, how unsupportive, in pursuit of the production I saw in my head.
When the Forum group, as advised, snapped their fingers in support of statements they heard to express concurrence without interrupting to verbalize agreement, I realized that I had no idea whether this was a common practice in theatre courses and workshops, or whether this was something unique to The Shakespeare Forum. What else do I not know about performers’ education? This was simple; surely there were processes more profound.
I even was thrown back to the extreme awkwardness of my high school years as I realized how many in this group came regularly, and knew each other well, fostering safety. I was once again the awkward outsider, unsure of how to act except when with my own friends. Yet my discomfort was surely nothing compared to those who came to give voice to monologues, perhaps for the first time in front of others. Did I have that courage, as I did, irrepressibly, in my high school performing days?
Finally and most importantly, I realized how long it had been since I was “in the room,” that is to say, an actual rehearsal. As someone who chose theatre as a profession based on my love of the form, and my deep desire to play some constructive role in it, I was reminded as I sat on a folding chair in a basement room south of Canal Street that as my career advanced, I had extraordinary opportunities to see productions, but that the actual process of making theatre had become distant. I was reminded that for as much as I may know about the business and even perhaps the art, I’ve never been schooled in nor benefited from the practical experience of speaking the language of the classroom, rehearsal room, the audition, the performance. I was a stranger in my own land.
This week, Michael Kaiser of The Kennedy Center wrote of his belief that arts managers are frequently too content in their jobs to be creative, and I challenge that assertion on the grounds of sweeping generalization. While I have no doubt that, as in any profession, there are those who are always growing and learning and those who find comfort in the status quo, arts administrators are always grounded in creativity, namely the work they support. Do some grow too complacent? Perhaps. But the ever-changing financial and entertainment environments virtually dictate that creativity is at the forefront of administrators’ and producers’ thoughts, as they struggle the sustain the frameworks that allow for production.
But rather than sweepingly and publicly castigating an entire class of arts professionals, I find it more constructive to offer a suggestion to ward against any potential stagnation, because of last week’s experience: namely that arts administrators must find the time, on a regular basis to get back “in the room,” namely the rehearsal room. It’s thrilling to work on behalf of great productions, but the core of what we are a part of is there within the drab beige walls, the mocked up scenery, the conversation, the camaraderie, the repetition and the revision. That is one essential part of the administrator’s continuing education, sustenance and success.
Even within a construct aimed at developing actors’ skills, not leading to any particular production or even necessarily to a better audition piece, my visit to The Shakespeare Forum, unexpectedly, unintentionally even, showed me some fundamentals of theatre, my chosen profession. I have no doubt that this would hold true in music, in dance, in opera, and so on. As administrators, we try to create simulacrums of this integral work – the master class, the open rehearsal, the invited tech – for our audiences, for our donors, for the media, to stimulate their knowledge, their loyalty, their generosity. But as insiders, we have access to the real thing. I urge everyone to use it.
I, for one, can’t wait to get back in the room again. I look forward to seeing you there.