Thursday, July 7, 2016

New Play, Old Practices: Alex Dabertin on some of the challenges of directing "What, Lamb! What, Ladybird!" for Bad Quarto Productions

Directing What, Lamb! What, Ladybird! is like ice sculpting at thirty-three degrees Fahrenheit. What is normally a process that takes place over the course of weeks gets boiled down to a  decisive moment. Just like Shakespeare and his fellow players, we have only one day to put an engaging and nuanced piece up on its feet. While these staging practices gave rise to some of the greatest plays we know, they are atypical for modern actors and directors.

One of director Alex Dabertin's visual compositions for
What, Lamb! What, Ladybird!
When on a time crunch and in a very controlled space, everything you do will have a genuine impact on an audience. We are performing in a space where the audience is, at most, twenty feet away, although it’s usually closer to two, and so no detail of the performance will go unnoticed.

Every gesture that the cast makes will be noticed, every spoken word heard, and every action seen. In these intimate theatre conditions, the best approach for the director, designers, and cast is to simplify. Simplicity does not mean lack of depth, but often a clearer understanding of the depths of a piece. Only by understanding what is truly important can a director decide what to emphasize, which is especially relevant considering our need to adapt what was originally a one-woman show to suit a five person cast (with the blessing of playwright Charlene V. Smith, of course).

What, Lamb! What, Ladybird! Is a play about love, about one person discovering what love can be, believing that she deserves it. So, then, what lines do the most work in that direction? What costumes or props point us there? Above all, why do they do that work? I also took on the challenge of shaping the play to five people instead of to one, so those questions became more delicate to answer, and the only way to find the answers I was looking for was to work one line at a time.

Asking myself at every line “Why does this help someone understand Juliet and love better?” Then, once I had answered that question, I asked myself “How do I show it?” In another production scenario, I could have played with the whole cast, working with them to discover images. But under these pressure cooker conditions, the director’s role becomes one of planner-in-chief. If I cannot possibly have total control in the moment or let the piece grow of its own volition, I must make sure that everyone is aware of the plan from the very start.

I first concerned myself with the basics of who is onstage and when. Once that was resolved I looked at the props clearly necessary and added what set pieces I thought I needed. This was all done, more or less, in my head as I was editing, as a very first pass.

Once aware of who should be onstage and why, I started diagramming every scene and putting my imagined movements into the script. When I looked at those diagrams, I saw more logistical problems. I worked to solve those, motivating every movement that I could, keeping in mind the readings of the lines my actors have given me. I had a roadmap or the central action of my ice sculpture.

Finally, I was able to turn to the finer points that actually define how the audience will see the play. Some of my well laid logistical plans would not work with an audience. They would be confusing; they had to be changed. For example, I had wanted to use two blocks covered with a sheet as Juliet’s bed, but I also wanted it to be the Friar’s bench (Why did he have a bench? Another good example of audience confusion). I had also devised several movements for the bed, but these also were confusing. As such, everything had to be streamlined.
One of director Alex Dabertin's visual compositions for
What, Lamb! What, Ladybird!

Those changes, ostensibly logistical, have have turned out to be, instead, artistic. Decisions I needed to make because I realized that the audience might be confused by something, the set, the movement of bodies on stage, gave me the opportunity to more precisely lead my audience’s eye and ear. And that is where simplicity came in. I realized that by letting things be only themselves, a bed being always a bed, for example, they gained more weight in the audience’s eye. And in the same way, lines said around those heavier objects gained significance themselves.

By making the story clear, I made the various themes of the play more audible.

Though I have learned an incredible amount over the course of this project, I still have the greatest challenge ahead of me: staging it. But I am lucky in that regard to have a great team on all sides of me to help me make use of what I have learned in the most efficient manner.

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