I recently worked on a tranche of applications, which included a couple of pieces I read through and immediately thought “this is difficult to direct”.
That being an interesting thought, I wanted to quickly explore why that can be the case. None of these are a reason to not direct something, but they raise challenges.
The piece is well-known
Case Study: La Bohème
Well-known works often come with audience and artists’ preconceptions and hopes, especially where they fall into one of the other groups in this blog.
Audiences who come wanting a melodramatic love story might not want a reflection on the way that the lingering spectre of death hangs over a person. Similarly, performers in a role they have associated with a particular emotional quality, or a prized monologue, may find a director’s reasons for going against that tradition unconvincing.
Difficult, not impossible. Because all this really reminds us of is that a director’s vision ought to be coherent and clear. The flipside to all of the above is that a director’s vision is being compared against something that works; a useful bar to be measured against.
The piece is unusually formed
Case Study: Waiting For Godot
Unusually-formed works often require directorial ingenuity. This is because, where they are unusual, audiences must learn both what the substance of the piece is (as in most theatre), but also the frame in which to interpret that substance.
This is why, for example, audiences who have seen a lot of Shakespeare find it easier to enjoy his plays. They are doing about 50% less work to understand them, since they know how he constructs them.
Difficult, not impossible. The director must unpick why the piece is formed in that way, understand what it offers, and then decide how they use and don’t use those offers. They must then relay that to their team and audience.
The piece is strongly formed
Case Study: The Crucible
Works made with a very clear sense of what they want to be can be the hardest to direct. If a piece insists that it is a didactic work about witch-hunts in a small community, and Character A is a stubborn but virtuous farmer while Character B is a respected but petty magistrate, there is little room for directorial interpretation beyond working out how best to paint in accordance with the numbers.
Another way of framing this problem is to point out large amounts of new writing in which there is only one feasible interpretation, and thus one feasible production.
The problem applies whether we agree or disagree with a work’s values and sense of self.
However, it is not to say that a director need to want to have a Grand Interpretation for this to be a problem for them. Some plays simply feel like the writer would prefer the actors to present as the writer has indicated, and a movement director to tell them where to stand.
Difficult, not impossible. Taking a step back to examine the whole piece and its structure can bring out elements of the writer’s ‘harmony’ that are neglected, and can provide a new lens to interpret the piece or enable the actors to feel they are making choices as creative beings.
Not: The piece is bad
Bad pieces, whether because they are unintentionally messy, have nothing to say, have something to say far less grand than the author thinks, or are obscure for very good reasons, have different problems.
There, the director is trying to ‘fix’ a work, or understand what it was that excited its creator and bring that out.
I would view this as an authorial problem a director compensates for, however, than a directorial challenge a text and its creator make.
I really enjoy directing such difficult works; it is no coincidence that I have recently been enjoying devising a new possible production of The Crucible.
However, I hope that the above offers something interesting to chew on, especially for creators of work as they think about what they can offer a director, and producers considering which works might be an interesting invitation to directors.