It’s my impression that a lot of the newest ideas about directing theater come from dance and a kind of choreographer’s aesthetic and book of tricks. A lot of good has come from this and I have a lot of respect for much of the dramatically visual work onstage today. I want to offer an addition, not because I think it will be revolutionary or in an attempt to replace any work that exists now, but to complicate our relationship with the strange and nebulous function of the theater director.
To get to it: I suggest the analogy of the Orchestra Conductor. The job of the director is to guide the disparate instruments into a complete work. Could an excellent orchestra play without a conductor? Of course, and so could a bad one. But art is not economics, and though the violinist can do what’s best for her, and the timpanist what’s best for him, this might not be the best for the music.
The genius of Bop is the squeak of the saxophone. Suddenly, this sound that was an unfortunate accident of the construction of a given instrument – something to be avoided as it didn’t exist in any other instrument – was seen for what it is: an inherent aspect of that instrument, an opportunity to exploit, a virtue. This was Brecht’s genius too. Suddenly the false teleology toward naturalism was called into question. We don’t need to pretend a stage is not a stage, that actors aren’t actors. Let them be entirely exactly what they are.
We say an actor’s body is his instrument, but we’ve not, I think, really realized how accurate this term is, and we’ve failed to extend this term to its most necessary point. An enterprising conductor, under constraints of budget or time or by virtue of a grand idea, can assign written parts to different instruments. Casting is the finding of the instruments to play parts. And, importantly, every actor is a different instrument. The Leading Man, The Ingénue. These have value like Treble and Bass. But whether it will be a cello or an oboe, these are the more interesting questions.
The effects of this analogy are not complicated. First: an end to the infantilization of actors. They are not clay to be shaped, models to be positioned, but artists. The conductor is an example of another guide of performers who each entirely inhabit their own creative space. Second, and this is the key point really: the choreographer in dance is the playwright for theater. Directors who behave like choreographers are forgetting that much of this job has already been done. The conductor interprets the music – even in a drastic way—but doesn’t feel a need to re-write Beethoven’s Fifth every time he does it. Let’s lean into the facts of the trade and exploit its inherent challenges and liberties.