This week I had the privilege of working as a director with a writing team on their religious comedy Sons of Man; raucous, zany, hilarious. After several email exchanges and one coffee meeting I was able to prod and poke the writers towards adjustments, cuts and additions to the script that would be needed in order to make the piece fit the space, time and other requirements of its performance. I was, I hope, respectful of their creativity and their work and gave them ideas and sign posts without telling them what to do. A rehearsal draft was produced and we got to work.
I've never directed a piece by a living playwright who wasn't me. I've either done things like Shakespeare or my own works and so this venture was very new to me. I spent quite a lot of time worry about stepping on people's toes. When you put your name to anything you want it to be the best it possibly could be and to be perfectly honest I had ummed and aahed with bits of this one. Not because it was badly written but because it wasn't the way I would do it and sometimes I can be a wee bit arrogant and it takes me time to see someone else's method is just as valid. So I entered rehearsals insecure in my own skills and ability to handle the script and rehearsal room, sure that one or two moments didn't work but unsure whether they needed to change. I found having the writers in the room for the early rehearsals helpful, as actors questions could be easily answered and little changes made with the writer's approval.
This all changed in the afternoon. The writers left. I was solely in charge. I was calling all the shots. In the end I only changed two things. One line which for me just diminished its character's story arc, and one physical joke which didn't click for me and my actors no matter how much I wanted it to because the writers really loved it.
The piece went on stage and the writers were sat nearby as I watched. I find whenever you work on a comedy you feel nervous and tense until the first couple of laughs, then you can relax into it and enjoy it. And there were laughs a plenty. There were even laughs at jokes that I had forgotten were funny because I had worked with the script for so long! And so I relaxed and began to watch my new writing friends out of the corner of my eye. They stiffened at the line change. They noticed but I couldn't know if it was good or bad. To be honest by the time the physical joke happened I was absorbed and enjoying the piece too much to pay attention to the writers' reactions. I guess it must have been a pretty good piece!!! In a brief chat afterwards the writer seemed happy enough with the work. They mentioned the joke but not the line. They were disappointed but not surprised it had gone - after all we had discussed it before.
But I came to realise the pressure a director feels, which I had forgotten in my focus on writing. As a director you have been entrusted to raise someone else's baby, but they want it back at the end and it to have been raised exactly as they would have if they could. And I've reflected on both sides, writer and director and come to the realisation that as a writer you have the moments in a play that make it yours, and then you have the moments that are there because they're needed but if someone has a better idea you're happy for them to be replaced. The problem is, you don't know what a moment is until you're watching it on stage and it's changed.
And all this got me wondering, when a play is performed how much is it the writer's work and how much is the directors? Who can really take ownership? A Shakespeare play may be billed as Kenneth Branagh's Much Ado, but is that because Shakespeare's dead or Branagh has left such a fundamental mark on the creative process that the finished product is indisputably his too? I'm not sure there is fully an answer to that.
But I have rediscovered the joy of directing, learnt how as a writer I can help a director out more (rather than being antagonistic for fun but that's another post) and remembered that this theatre malarkey is fun. I mean where else do I get to teach a female Jesus how to hit the Virgin Mary in the balls with a baseball bat?