Monday, June 27, 2011

Firing on all cylinders

I'm rehearsing a show these days. I'm the director.

I love directing. It's challenging. You get to work closely with a bunch of interesting, creative people. You get to help them be successful. Sometimes you have to negotiate, but you, the director, get the final say--at least until the show opens and things start to go their own way.

My job as director is to make sense of things. To make sense of the script, of what's behind the script, and of the bigger picture suggested by the script. And to make sense of all the details suggested by the music, if it's a musical (as this show is). You start with words and actions on paper, written by someone  you've never met (at least in this case). You try to understand and think about and pretend all kinds of things that make those words and actions seem real and truthful and believable.

It's not at all like life.

Oh, the goal may be to create something lifelike. What's up on that stage is based on a lot of observation of life. But it's not at all like life.

I know this because this afternoon I went directly from four hours of rehearsal to life. A family backyard birthday gathering. At rehearsal I'm the person in charge, the person who is working full-speed ahead, millions of neurons firing in the brain at split-second intervals.  I try to fill up songs with action: "Food, glorious--also wonderful, fabulous, magical and beautiful--food." March here, march there, march in a semi-circle, march to the front, to the back and up on the table. The song from "Oliver!" is sung by children, workhouse orphans, wan and pale. I have delightful, cooperative children in this show, but they  jump up and down and lose focus when I stop to think. Stress hormones to the max. We moved on from there, to other scenes and a dozen new problems, many of which I had spotted and solved days ago as I prepared for this rehearsal in my backyard. Which isn't to say that the solutions worked when executed by actual people.

When I write, I work at sentences until they match some higher ideal of rightness in my head. When I direct,  I work at scenes and manipulate actors until what I see seems right and smooth and brings clarity in the story. I look at things hard, and then I change them.

Cut to the birthday party: points to me for realizing that I needed to be self-observant and careful and quiet until I wound down a bit. Because what I really want to do is bark orders at people, change the way they're sitting, tell them what to say and laugh too loudly. I am sparkling and commanding, articulate and running the conversation, with knitting needles clicking furiously. The sock on the needles may have saved me. Somehow as the fingers speed through the  twenty stitches on a needle in something under forty seconds, the mind falls under the control of that hypnotic rhythm.

I wanted to control the family story. To control the stories of everyone there. People are struggling in their lives--sisters, brothers-in-law, nieces and nephews, grandmas, significant others and my own children. I want to shape their stories and their struggles and who they are into something that gets resolved and that means something. But on this summer evening they're happy playing bags, or sawing apart a downed tree branch, or showing off the innards of an old upright piano. I want clarity--why do we do these things? To what end? Is everyone okay? Where will it all end?

Not at all like the stage.

It's a summer night. Later there will be a bonfire. The lawn stretches out into gray-green as the sun goes down. The games end. The bugs come out. The young folks relax in their chairs, and the old ones go home to their beds.

And we face tomorrow with the same lonely questions we had at the beginning of this day.