In June of 2014, I directed (and also designed sound, costumes, and publicity for) Dearly Departed at High Springs Playhouse in High Springs Florida.
I was invited to direct this show by talented Gainesville playwright-director Leroy Clark, with whom I had worked on his challenging and emotional play Outburst, based on the experiences of gay rights advocate Rodney Wilson. At the time it was offered to me, I had no idea how many personal challenges I would experience in the year between my accepting the offer and beginning work on this show. This tale of a dysfunctional family dealing with their patriarch’s death is surprisingly realsitic, but laced with dark humor and darkly situational comedy. Authors Jessie Jones and David Bottrell satirize Southern hospitality and modern materialism while tapping into the deep-seated fears and taaumas associated with death.
The play was produced at High Springs Playhouse, which I had worked at previously, but I knew very few of the regulars, and had to cast a show with ages spanning 20 to 90 and persoanlities as different as night and day. I was thrilled to have a splendidly ethnusiastic group of women audition, and as usual, it was difficult to say no to any of them. Yet the ones who landed the roles were so breathtakingly similar to how I imagined the characters when they read, that the show basically cast itself.
The rehearsal process was driven by my Pirandello-influenced approach to character creation as a feedback between a living character and a living actor. I asked the actors to share what they thought abut their characters, and to tell me what the important things were that they said and did. I discovered this process somewhat organically, as I felt very invested in the play and very fond of both the characters and the actors. After the first couple of rehearsals, I received these emails from a couple of cast members:
“I really enjoyed the practice today. Thank you so much for your input and your direction. I’m certain that you are aware I have never done this before, and I am open and certainly appreciative of anything that you can tell me, and any advice that you can give me to make this production be what you want it to be. Since I am the new kid on the block, I am honestly open to whatever I need to do, and what things I need to do to be a good actor.”
“I was telling [folks] tonight how much I liked the rehearsal today: the direction you gave, the chance to discuss my thoughts about my character, and the food for thought you gave me. I think it’s going to be a fun run.”
As part of my philosophy for CerridwenWorks, I wanted to add a dimension of social consciousness to the production that had a real-world effect. So I recommended to the Board of the theatre that the show proceeds go to benefit a hospice, and to offer talkbacks after each Sunday matinee. We ended up raising several hundred dollars for Hospice of the Nature Coast.
I met several challenges through this process that were essential to my learning, if painful to deal with. I had a cast member take offense to some of the textual content given by the playwrights, and had to balance my desire to do right by the playwirght with my concern for the actor’s comfort. In the end, I changed a couple of curse words but did not change a racist comment; you can adjust the language more than you can adjust the character.
I had spite and jealousy emerge among some members of the theatre, and found it more heartbreaking than the usual clash of egos. While sarcastically appropriate for a show with dialogue that is primarily bickering and passive aggression, there was a certain weight to these incidents that reminded me that the otherwise magical theatre cannot solve these human foibles simply by its inspiration to get along. I very much learned to not “take it personally”—even if it was at times.
I was very grateful to have a pleasant production team that got along…however, I could not find a costume designer or sound designer, or marketing director, so had to wear all those hats. Previously, I had cherished the opportunity to show all that I could do, and gladly wore multiple hats. In this case, doing all that while directing and feeling both internal and external pressure to prove myself was exhausting, and put me in the uncomfortable position in which, as all the productivity and entrepreneurship bloggers note, I appeared to be more of a big-hat director than a team player. Even though the show turned out beautifully and I did get “all my stuff done,” I knew I would never again be able to simply take on an extra role if I couldn’t find anyone else. Volunteer-run theatre should not have to impose such demands on any one person (nor should any theatre).
All the same, I wept with happiness at both opening and closing, and at each of our (many) full houses). I don’t plan to direct another show soon, as I want to develop the applied, multi-genre, and educational aspects of my artistic endeavors, and at this time, I am more interested in avant garde or experimental theatre, cabaret-style shows, and new play workshops.