When a theatre director initially considers a new production, he or she usually approaches it from a specific point of view. Then follows the task of translating it from that first idea to the final show. The take on it can be traditional or unconventional, subtle or outrageous, but it should never be boring.
Directors may also choose to change the time period the show takes place in, the location in which it is set, or even the age or race of the characters in order to bring new insights to the piece. Of course, changing or reworking scripted pieces cannot legally be done without the author's written permission. You can only experiment freely with material in the public domain -- that is, works no longer protected by copyright. The plays of Shakespeare, MoliĂ ̈re, and Chekhov, for example, all fall into this category.
All material published in the United States before 1923 is in the public domain. And, in general, American laws are more restrictive than other countries' laws regarding public domain. The rules for works published in the U.S. after 1923 are complicated, and the law has been revised several times, causing additional confusion. You can go to www.copyright.gov/circs/circ1.html for complete details on how to determine what is and is not still covered by copyright in the United States.
So as a director, how do you find a winning concept? Back Stage consulted with a group of working directors to get their ideas on the subject and their experiences from past assignments.
Often a director is brought in to help create a concept for a production that is still being developed. Such was the case with David Warren on "Drumstruck." An "interactive theatrical drumming experience" that enjoyed sold-out engagements in Johannesburg, South Africa, and Sydney, Australia, the show was in effect a concert presented on a bare stage when Warren was brought on board. Now a fully realized version will be making its American debut Off-Broadway at Dodger Stages, Stage 2 (www.drumstruckny.com).
Warren has helmed Broadway revivals of "Holiday" (which garnered an Outer Critics Circle nomination for best revival of a play) and "Summer and Smoke," Off-Broadway revivals such as "Hobson's Choice" (Lucille Lortel Award nomination for outstanding revival) and "Misalliance," and groundbreaking new works like "Matt & Ben," "Barbra's Wedding," and "Pterodactyls" (Obie Award).
The director came to this project with a background in classic and contemporary works that are, in comparison, far more conventional: "The show is literally unlike anything I've ever done before, because it is in fact different from anything else. There wasn't any precedent for it. But essentially, directing is directing, and the craft of directing is the same no matter what the show is. Interestingly enough, what I knew I could bring to the show and how I knew I could make it better was mainly as kind of an experienced director and not as a sort of musical consultant. That area of the show was so strong and powerful from the very beginning. What 'Drumstruck' needed was someone to help shape it and give it something of a dramatic through-line, which it now has, albeit a very subtle one. We also had to figure out how to design the show so that it would feel like a real evening in the theatre and not just a music event. So that's basically been my journey with 'Drumstruck.' "
Warren first saw "Drumstruck" in Australia: "The Dodgers had become very interested in producing it in New York, so they sent me to Sydney to see it. And I fell in love with it. I also felt like it needed me. I sat there watching the show, coming up with ideas. That's all I ever do. It's so rare when any director sees any show and doesn't sit there and just redirect the show. When I don't, I'm always thrilled because that means it's a great production and I can turn that mechanism off and be something closer to a normal audience member.
"But in this case I was specifically sent to figure out what the show would need, so I was clearly in working mode. And I got very excited about the project. Finding the solutions took a lot of meetings with the creator of the show, Warren Lieberman. We had a very intense week of throwing ideas back and forth. By that time I had done a lot of research about the music and history of South Africa, and so I had a lot of ideas about what text there was and how it could be improved and clarified. So we set out to rewrite the text and restructure the show and work through what the design would be."
The director knew that the show's bare-bones story line needed fleshing out in order to appeal to a more sophisticated playgoing audience: "The most important thing was figuring out a concept. I wanted to find out a way to string together the pieces of 'Drumstruck' so that they would add up to something. And one of the ideas that kept coming back to me was the importance of music in South Africa -- it is the glue that connects communities. Music has always served that function in that country. Historically, music in South Africa wasn't simply considered entertainment; it was how communities came together. And when I came to understand that, I realized what was so special about 'Drumstruck': Every night in the theatre, 400 people who don't know each other at all are united by music. Everyone is given a drum to use during the show. So the members of the audience all play their drums together, and they become part of the storytelling on stage. That seemed very powerful to me."
The sense of community he uncovered became the concept behind "Drumstruck." Once Warren hit upon that germ of an idea, the rest came easy: "What happens when you're directing a show is, once you have a basic idea, that idea then informs all your choices. You end up with a forest and not just a lot of trees. So we in effect built a community out of the audience, and watching it take place every night is very moving. To see people have that kind of fun, wild, emotional, cathartic experience with a bunch of strangers is amazing, and people really do walk out elated. There's something so visceral about what audiences go through each evening, because 'Drumstruck' is so physical. They play their drums and go into a 'drum zone,' a meditative place where they can free their minds. It's almost spiritual."
Warren worked with his design team to conceptualize the stage as well: "I suggested that we set the action in a traditional meeting place, and Warren Lieberman said, 'You want a boma.' It was an idea he had originally come up with but did not use. In every village in the bush in South Africa, the central meeting place is this circular fenced-in area called the boma. The fence functions to keep the animals out and keep the people in a protected area. In the middle of the boma is a fire, and people would play music and sing together around it. That's where the community comes together. So I said, 'That sounds exactly right.' Set designer Neil Patel and I began to research bomas and discovered that they're very beautiful. And so I think our set makes the audience members feel as if they're in the same place as the performers."
Stephen Burdman has been directing for the past two decades, and his recent repertoire as artistic director of New York Classical Theatre (www.newyorkclassical.org) has included revivals of time-honored shows such as "The Feigned Courtesans," "The Winter's Tale," and "The Triumph of Love." This summer he has two shows in motion, literally: outdoor versions of "As You Like It" (through June 26) and "Scapin" (Aug. 4-28) that travel from location to location in Central Park.
The unforgettable experience of transporting a play -- and its viewers -- around woodsy locales is what sets this New York-based company apart from most groups: "Almost every show I do involves some integration of design and script -- a concept, if you will. I was very pleased with my production of 'The Winter's Tale,' which relocated a very difficult play into Central Park. In fact, we removed the winter from the play. And our production of 'Macbeth' also left many of our audience members thinking that they were actually in Scotland. Someone even described it [as] like being 'inside a movie.' "
Actually, Burdman hates the word "concept": "I focus on what the play is about, and as a little exercise I try to narrow this idea down to one word. And it is that word that forms the basis for my approach to the play. I have found that giving the actors and design team one word, rather than a concept statement, results in more-cohesive work on the part of my collaborators.
"For example, my current show, 'As You Like It,' is about perception. 'The Tempest' was about trust, while 'Hamlet' was about betrayal. The word I pick is unique to each production, and it may vary as I grow as a person and an artist. However, when I directed 'Waiting for Godot,' I failed in my attempt to get the play down to one word. After meeting for several hours with the dramaturg, we decided that it was six words -- 'searching for the meaning in life.' "
Sometimes an experiment with a classic may not work completely but will illuminate the script for a future production: "I once directed 'Twelfth Night' with four actors in 15 roles. This preceded the well-known Off-Broadway run of 'R&J,' which did the same thing to 'Romeo and Juliet.' Our 'Twelfth Night' was very grad-schooly, and though it was good for my artistic development, more importantly, I learned what not to do. My production in 2002, with a full cast, was much more solid."
Burdman cites three conceptual productions that have inspired him: "A few years ago, I saw 'Brothers and Sisters' from the Maly Drama Theatre [in St. Petersburg] as part of the Lincoln Center Festival. 'Bratya i Sestry' was successful in translating an epic story and personalizing it for the individual without ever losing sight of the big picture. The scenes alternated back and forth between large sequences and very small ones and took tremendous advantage of the audience's imagination.
"Robert Lepage's 'The Dragon's Trilogy' was able to stage events that cannot be accomplished in a traditional venue by using symbolic techniques, such as a chase around a Quebec city accomplished using only shoes and a shoebox. They also 'delivered' a baby on stage -- quite magical.
"Finally, it was the late great John Hirsch who reinterpreted 'Coriolanus' in light of the Oliver North trial in the late '80s. The production starred Byron Jennings at the Old Globe Theatre in San Diego. Dakin Matthews was unforgettable as the Southern senator and war veteran Menenius. Hirsch also made extensive use of television screens by creating mock TV news reports, filmed by an actual TV anchor, that appeared on 50 video monitors between scenes. When Coriolanus speaks to the Romans, Hirsch transformed the address into a press conference with live video feeds."
Burdman advises directors to "listen to how you feel about the work first. Then translate those feelings into ideas and words that can be transmitted to your designers and actors. A concept is only as good as its realization, and many directors have great ideas that need to be integrated on all levels of production, not just the scenic and costume design."
Edward Einhorn has directed for 13 years and lists among his favorite productions "Fairy Tales of the Absurd," "Rhinoceros," and "Richard III." His upcoming projects include directing his script for "Unauthorized Magic in Oz" (a puppet piece being staged at St. Ann's Warehouse) and organizing a festival called NeuroFest. To Einhorn, a director's concept is "an approach to interpreting the text. In an ideal world, a bold concept illuminates the text in a way that a more straightforward rendition might not."
He imposed a stirring concept when he directed Shakespeare's "Richard III": "I had all his murdered victims -- even those he had murdered before the play began -- stay on stage after he murdered them, watching him as outraged ghosts, until they came to him in the dream in the fifth act and finally participated in killing him during the climax. Their presence added to the sense that his fate was the result of the accumulation of his crimes." Some of Einhorn's concepts have literally spread out into the audience: "In 'The Good Woman of Setzuan,' in the spirit of Brechtian alienation techniques, I invited the audience to speak up and interrupt the play at any point if they disagreed with what was being said on stage. I encouraged the actors to do the same, which they did, even to the extent of questioning whether they themselves agreed with that directorial approach. And in Richard Foreman's 'Lava,' I used no actors. I just had an audience, whom I would direct in a performance of the play on the spot."
Kate Marks has written and/or directed many plays in New York over the past eight years, most notably with the Looking Glass Theatre. Her script for "Flyers and Other Stories" is being produced as part of the Midtown International Theatre Festival this July. She also had the chance to stage "The Odyssey" at the Baracke Theatre in Germany.
Marks defines a director's concept as "the vehicle used to tell the story." She feels her most successful application of a concept to a production occurred when she directed "Bumping Umbrellas" by Kymberly Harris Riggs, which dealt with themes of seduction: "To heighten the language and tension in the play, the actors did tango-based movement while speaking the dialogue." The most outrageous or unexpected concept Marks ever applied to a play was when she directed a production of "Romeo and Juliet" "in which our only prop was a rope made out of bed sheets tied together. The rope was constantly changing in form and function according to the needs of the play. For example, as Juliet left the party scene, she walked the rope like a tightrope up to her bedroom."
Ted Sod is a 16-year veteran of staging theatre productions. His credits include the recent run of "The House of Blue Leaves" at T. Schreiber Studio, "Scarlet Sees the Light" for the 2004 New York International Fringe Festival, and "Agnes of God" at the George Street Playhouse. His idea of a director's concept is "something that enhances the text rather than just showing off." He successfully staged the French play "L'Histoire du Soldat" in a church: "We used the venue as a sort of jungle gym. We got into a little trouble with the church group for what they viewed to be sacrilegious behavior around the altar, but I reblocked it and they seemed appeased."
Glory Sims Bowen has been directing for over a decade and has tackled such classics as "The Snow Queen" and "The Tempest" with fresh treatments. She will be helming "Measure for Measure" in the coming months. She feels that a director has the responsibility to know his or her audience as specifically as possible: "Directors need to make a production hit home for the type of audience that will be viewing it. However the director decides to do that is his or her concept. I would approach directing a show differently depending on who may be attending and where it was going to be done."
One of her recent favorite concepts was for Shakespeare's "The Tempest": "We did the play with a lot of gender-bending, which has been done before, but I think we did it in a unique way. For example, we had Caliban played by a whiny, childlike blond girl pitted against a more confident, womanly Prospera. We also made Ariel and the air spirits more prominent by having them on stage the entire time, intertwined amongst the trees. The spirits had numerous dance numbers and created more visual imagery for the play. You would forget they were there. And then they would begin moving for the transitions between scenes. This helped create the spooky yet magical aura of the island."
As suggested by the examples above, no writer is adapted more often than William Shakespeare. The Bard is perhaps the one playwright who has intrigued, encouraged, and even defied directors to come up with ever-evolving conceptual approaches, simply because his scripts seem to work no matter where or when you place them. That is why you might see a version of "Hamlet" in space, "Much Ado About Nothing" placed in the Roaring '20s, or "The Merry Wives of Windsor" set in the South (as in the case of the recent Off-Broadway musical adaptation, "Lone Star Love").
David Warren opines that Shakespeare's plays almost demand a strong concept: "Of course, I think his plays work if you do them in what we would consider a traditional way, although I don't think anyone knows what that means, because they were done traditionally in Elizabethan clothes regardless of the period of the play. I think the plays work if you do them in Elizabethan clothes, or if you set 'Antony and Cleopatra' in ancient Egypt -- either way it works if the concept is strong. But because the plays are so powerful, and so poetic and abstract, they leave a lot of room for high concept. Such a concept would not undermine the play the way it would a more recent script, or a play that is still part of our cultural reference, like Philip Barry's 'The Philadelphia Story.' It would be risible to change the period of 'The Philadelphia Story,' because the play's power comes from the very specific world in which it's set."
Proving his point, Warren updated "Twelfth Night" to great acclaim by giving it a cinematic spin: "I updated it in the sense that I found a physical world for the play that wasn't explicitly where the play was written. I set the show in the 1960s and referenced Italian films, such as those directed by Federico Fellini and Michelangelo Antonioni. That was my one foray into high-concept Shakespeare. For years I had been obsessed with the Antonioni film 'L'Avventura,' and I was thinking about it as I was reading 'Twelfth Night.' I actually had a year to prepare for the production, so I just kept reading it and reading it with no pressure to start solving it right away. And one day as I was reading it, the opening scene from the Antonioni film -- which was set on a barren island off Sicily -- popped into my mind, and I saw it as the place where the shipwreck should take place and what Illyria could look like."
Burdman's proposed concept for "The Comedy of Errors" would take the show to Wall Street: "The play is so focused on the transaction of currency -- and the transaction of love -- that I would like to give it an environmental staging in the lobby of one of downtown's big financial buildings. I would be interested in using an elevator or escalator as one of the entrances and exits." Marks has an athletic take on one of Shakespeare's most produced masterpieces: "Make the forest floor of 'A Midsummer Night's Dream' a trampoline!" And one day Bowen would like to direct "Romeo and Juliet" with Romeo as a good ol' Texas boy and Juliet as a wealthy Arab. But an overall concept would take more time to develop.
Einhorn is inspired by the possibilities offered by "The Winter's Tale": "I would love to take 'Winter's Tale' and split it into its two parallel sections. The first would be a tragedy and the second half would be a comedy called 'Spring Story.' It would be cast among the same group of actors, which tells the same basic tale. The split would happen when the bear runs across the stage." And Sod's favorite Shakespeare works are the later plays, including "The Winter's Tale," "Cymbeline," and "The Tempest." He says, "I would love to do a site-specific 'Tempest.' Staging it on an actual island where the survivors of the shipwreck come onto the shore could be marvelous. Lee Breuer did something unique with helicopters in the park in his 'Tempest' -- but I wish the royals had actually parachuted onto the Delacorte stage."
Not to overlook more-contemporary works, Marks would like to stage "Our Town" with puppets, and Sod would recast "Gypsy" with a black or mixed-race Rose, June, and Louise. "But I don't think the authors would allow it," he laments. So he'll just have to wait until "Gypsy" goes into the public domain -- in 2054.
Advice and Ideas
To summarize, there are many ways to reinvent plays with a directorial concept. Here are just a few to get your creative juices flowing:
- Use nontraditional and multiracial casting.
- Set the play in a different time or era.
- Set the play in a different place or location.
- Change the sexes or ages of characters.
- Stage the show in a unique theatrical venue (outdoors, in the round, or in an unconventional or site-specific space).
These ideas work best when you are inspired by the material you are directing. But what if you are assigned to stage a play that does not prompt a clear-cut directorial concept or simply does not speak to you? You don't necessarily have to take the job, but if you're willing to give it a try, you may want to employ one or more of the following activities to spark your imagination:
- Put together an impromptu reading, offering no direction or guidance. You'll be amazed at what actors can come up with from a simple read-through.
- Read other plays by the same author, which will give you a larger appreciation for and wider perspective on how the play fits into the writer's body of work.
- Go see a different play or movie, taking the ideas of your current project with you to the Cineplex or theatre.
- Analyze other plays by coming up with concepts for them and then see if you can apply one of those ideas to your current show.
- Envision how a famous director would stage the show, then take your cues from that style until you can adapt them and make them your own.
- Place the material in a contrasting genre; see how the script stands up to a Kabuki or film noir treatment, for example.
- Envision the show with an all-star cast, which may help you see it in a new light.
- Ask fellow directors what their takes on the material would be, which will serve as a sounding board and could lead to brainstorming ideas.
- Research what other directors have done with the material in the past, from reviews and online sources.
- Think of the craziest concept you can imagine, something you would never normally consider. If nothing else, it may lead to more-practical ideas.
As for final words of advice, Bowen offers, "Sometimes simplicity is best when it comes to concepts. I also believe that a director's concept should aid the production and make it more accessible to the audience. I try not to get in the way of what the author is trying to say." Marks agrees, reminding directors to "find a concept that serves the story and gives the actors something specific to play." Sod thinks a concept should illuminate the text: "Don't choose something just to be novel. I'm always hoping that there is logic to the conceptual choices I make -- that they come from the text and enhance the world of the play, not distract from it." And Einhorn cautions, "If you aren't interested in the play, don't do it. If you are, use the concept to communicate what it is about the play that you love."