Gypsy Rose Lee, "Gypsy" (Act II, Sc. 5)
Everything is not about you.
We’re born to be individualists; sometimes living a myopic existence where we’re the single planet in our universe and those who encounter our world are debris and satellites pulled into orbits to circle around us. Objects to be used and/or discarded when needed.
It’s a selfish behavior that is limiting. A better mindset and practice of daily action would be to not think of yourself as the center of the universe but as a "universalist,” i.e., being aware of others' needs while existing in a space shared by many. Knowing that what you do and say, no matter how major or minor, will affect the lives of those with whom you work, engage in friendships, pass as strangers in an audition studio hallway or on the street. As a universalist, what do you offer to the world instead of living by the short-sighted mantra, “What does the world have to offer me?”
Far too often when we need something, particularly in theater, the focus is on “I.” A director wants the set designer to create a rolling staircase that doubles as a boat, a lighting designer wants additional instruments, a costumer wants a better budget, an A.S.M. wants a Phillips head screw driver, an actor wants a wig than makes her face appear thinner, etc. Whenever we need these things the “I” becomes foremost and we forget the “You” from whom we’re seeking a result to our need. That’s got to change. Especially in our collaborative art form. No one got anywhere or anything on their own. There is always an assist of some sort. And if you’re seeking that assist with just a “Me, me, me, want, want, want” attitude then you’re not-not-not going to get-get-get very far with your ambitions, needs and desires. Think first about what the other person needs. Who is helping you? What can you offer them in exchange or, more importantly, share? This isn’t bribe time. This is a time for consideration of someone else's needs as well as yours.
If I’m directing a show and I have a vision for the design, I can’t (as I foolishly did early-on in my directing days) tell the set designer: “This is how the design exactly has to be.” I’ve just cut off that person’s participation. I minimized their input and creativity. I’ve also been a jerk. The better approach would be for me to say: “I keep getting this sense or feeling of such-and-such for this production. How can this challenge be solved?”
OK, before you get ahead of me and roll your eyes, I’m not suggesting that if you need something as simple as a screw driver that you inanely approach the technical director or stage manager and sweetly coo, “I’m having difficulty inserting a Phillip’s head screw into the arch support by not having the proper tool. How can we solve this challenge?” (Slap!) No, in those simple instances of needing something instantly you ask for it in a polite manner that hopefully your mother taught you by asking “Please” and “May I?” The instances of need and consideration I’m talking about are in the collaboration process.
The best examples of what not to do and how to properly proceed is by examples of our past; both the successes and failures. And so opening my closet and rummaging through the skeletons let me give both what would be the politically incorrect and correct approaches to getting a solution to your want(s).
The Wrong Way to Get Your Way
I was directing a production of a musical that I've personally lost joy for because revival, high school and community theater productions have turned it into a theme-park-pastel-puke-fest. The piece has become far removed from the original source material, which was written during the Great Depression. My tastes being a bit dark, I wanted to bring back to musical a touch of Depression-era flavor. When I first spoke with the set designer, I told him exactly what I wanted. So much so that I sent him crude digital drawings that I pixeled on my computer detailing my vision for the set. Big mistake. There was coldness on the phone in response to my “suggestion.” Several weeks later, without having heard from him again, a model of the proposed set was sent to my office. It was everything I hated about the show. A cartoon. I was miffed because I had not been listened to. But was I listening to him? No. My bullheadedness prevented such sanity. The telephone exchanges that followed the model’s arrival grew short and strained. I kept pushing for what I had drawn. He continued to push the cartoon. Neither of us was listening to the other. The situation had deteriorated to such a low point that we went into rehearsals without a set plan. The set designer was flown in early for an emergency meeting so that he and I could get something done. In the end the set was a drab disaster. Had I not charged forth with strict, detailed sketches but instead given the set designer themes instead of thesis and had the set designer been open to ideas beyond his preconceptions the end results may have fared better.
The Better Alternative
Years later I was asked to direct “The Scarlet Pimpernel” at the Barter Theatre. I still had scars from the theme-park-puke-fest experience and was giving up on the asinine practice of uncompromising control. As I explored the various script versions of the show, I kept getting a single haunting thought in regard to design: 18th Century paintings. I knew not what this meant for the production. Not being anything remotely close to an art scholar, I was soon scouring the halls of the Metropolitan Museum of Art on Fifth Avenue and the Internet looking for an answer. In my first conversation with the set designer, Richard Finkelstein, an extremely brilliant man and designer, I expressed to him my general idea and that I didn’t know what it meant but to please look at some works of Fragonard I had found to be of interest-- particularly his, Renaud dans les jardins d'Armide. By letting Richard’s creativity run on a notion and not a command the final design was glorious.
Whenever you desire something, it’s best to consider the needs of the other person from whom you’re asking to fulfill your request. With Richard, his need to be himself and create was what I offered and in exchange he returned a design that fitted mine and the production’s needs.
When in a collaboration don’t make your approach with “It must be this” or “I need” but rather a “How can we?” and “What are your thoughts?” No one likes to be bullied or steam rolled over. Especially when creativity is involved. Work as a team not as individual players.
Now for those people in positions of authority (directors, department heads and managers), this does not mean that you impede yourself by having every decision you make become command-by-vote or mandate-via-polling. Hell no, then nothing will ever be accomplished. You must judiciously take into account the opinions of others. Objectively weigh the input that is in contrast with your ideas and then make the decision that you think is best for the overall production and not just for your interests. That’s collaboration.
Be bullheaded and you may find yourself in a similar situation that I found myself in on the final dress rehearsal of my Great Depression-era musical. The producer’s wife, playing the leading lady, was being pushed around on stage atop a 10 foot-tall rolling staircase that had no railing for her to hold onto! The set designer was so pissed that his original design had not been considered that he had the mobile stairs built without safety rails. His reasoning? He cited “design aesthetics.” It was only Lady Luck that kept the producer’s wife from falling off the stairs as she was spun in circles. Her wide, frightened eyes told the backstage story.
Paul Russell's career as a casting director, director, acting teacher and former actor has spanned nearly thirty years. He has worked on projects for major film studios, television networks, and Broadway. He is the author of "ACTING: Make It Your Business – How to Avoid Mistakes and Achieve Success as a Working Actor." For more information, please visit www.PaulRussell.net.