Directing Shakespeare Video Podcast, Ep. 1
In this video-podcast series, I explain how, as a director, I work on a Shakespeare play before meeting with the actors. After making sure I understand what the words mean, I scan the verse lines to learn what Shakespeare is doing metrically. Then, after analyzing the text in a few other ways, I look at it from the point-of-view of an actor trained in the Stanislavski System. (See: Wikipedia entry for Stanislavski System.)
The video shows the text. I recommend that you watch it in full-screen, so that the text is easier to read. Even then, video compression may cause eye-strain after a while. So I’ve pasted the text, below. You may want to print it out, so that you can make notes on it. Or you could just leave it open in another window while watching the videos.
Part IV: Making It Up As You Go Along
Part VI: Parenthetical Phrases
Part VII: Intention
“Shakespeare’s Metrical Art” by George T. Wright: link
“A Handlist of Rhetorical Terms” by Richard A. Lanham: link
“Thinking Shakespeare” by Barry Edelstein: link
(I don’t mention “Thinking Shakespeare” in the podcast, but it’s an excellent guide to Shakespeare’s language.)
“A Shakespeare Thesaurus” by Marvin Spevack: link
Pronouncing Shakespeare by David Crystal (about how the words were pronounced in Shakespeare’s time): link
“Pronouncing Shakespeare’s Words” by David Crystal (a pronunciation guide for contemporary productions): link
Oxford English Dictionary (hint: check ebay): link
THE SPEECH (from “Pericles,” Act I, Scene IV)
CLE. This Tharsus, o’er which I have the government,
A city on whom plenty held full hand,
For riches strew’d herself even in her streets;
Whose towers bore heads so high they kiss’d the clouds,
And strangers ne’er beheld but wond’red at;
Whose men and dames so jetted and adorn’d,
Like one another’s glass to trim them by;
Their tables were stor’d full, to glad the sight,
And not so much to feed on as delight;
All poverty was scorn’d, and pride so great,
The name of help grew odious to repeat.
DION. O, ’tis too true.
CLE. But see what heaven can do by this our change:
These mouths who, but of late, earth, sea, and air
Were all too little to content and please,
Although they gave their creatures in abundance,
As houses are defil’d for want of use,
They are now starv’d for want of exercise;
Those palates who, not yet two summers younger,
Must have inventions to delight the taste,
Would now be glad of bread and beg for it;
Those mothers who, to nousle up their babes,
Thought nought too curious, are ready now
To eat those little darlings whom they lov’d.
So sharp are hunger’s teeth, that man and wife
Draw lots who first shall die to lengthen life.
Here stands a lord, and there a lady weeping;
Here many sink, yet those which see them fall
Have scarce strength left to give them burial.
Is not this true?
DION. Our cheeks and hollow eyes do witness it.
CLE. O, let those cities that of plenty’s cup
And her prosperities so largely taste,
With their superfluous riots, hear these tears!
The misery of Tharsus may be theirs.
The text is from this online version: link
Colonialists, Magicians, Christians and Fathers
As part of my pre-production prep, I listened to a lecture about “The Tempest” last night. It was from this TTC course: http://www.teach12.com/ttcx/coursedesclong2.aspx?cid=273
(which is on sale!) The lecturer suggested four ways of looking at the play:
1. As a story about Colonialism.
This has become the most common way of reading and producing the play. Modern productions frequently turn Caliban into a native American or an African slave.
The TTC lecturer had some problems with this reading, as do I. He pointed out that Prospero isn’t an imperialist, at least not by design. He didn’t come to the Island intent on conquering it; he was shipwrecked there. His goals were to survive and to escape the island.
Which is not to say he doesn’t use and enslave some of its inhabitants. But you do have to fit the play’s square peg into a theoretical round hole to turn it into an analogy for Colonialism.
2. As a story about a career: that of Magician.
Shakespeare is very interested in trades. You can read many of his histories (and some of his tragedies) as plays about the trade of King: about what kings do right; about what kings do wrong.
Shakespeare sometimes uses a character’s job as window dressing (e.g. Snug the Weaver is never seen Weaving), but more often the character’s jobs are deeply explored. Shakespeare shows lawyers lawyering, politicians politicking, slaves toiling, soldiers fighting, actors acting, fools jesting, etc.
To the Elizabethans, “Magician” was a real occupation. It was related to modern occupations such as Scientist and Scholar.
3. As a story about Christian forgiveness and redemption. For many, the emotional crux of the play comes when Prospero chooses to forgive his brother and the other aristocrats who stole his dukedom and marooned him on the Island. Prospero has the power to murder or torture them. But he chooses to forgive instead.
I don’t think he wrecks his foes on the island, planning to forgive them. I’m not sure he plans to kill them, either. He doesn’t announce his plans. Perhaps he doesn’t know what he’s going to do. But if we decide that he doesn’t initially have a plan (or that his initial plan differs from his eventual course), then this moment between him and Ariel comes one of the key moments of the play:
…Say, my spirit,
How fares the King and ’s followers?
ARI. Confin’d together … all prisoners, sir,
…Your charm so strongly works ’em
That if you now beheld them, your affections
Would become tender.
PROS. Dost thou think so, spirit?
ARI. Mine would, sir, were I human.
PROS. And mine shall.
There are many other ways of looking at the play, but I’m surprised that the TTC lecturer left out a very specific one, because it’s a common and powerful reading:
4. It’s a play about one of Shakespeare’s main concerns: FAMILY.
This is the easiest and most natural way for me to approach the play, and I’m sure it will lead to the majority of my decisions.
“The Tempest” is a play about a father (Prospero) with three children (Miranda, Ariel and Caliban). As in “King Lear,” Shakespeare’s other great play about a father and three children, the parent/child relationships are complicated. The father is at times loving and at times tyrannical; the children are at times obedient and at times rebellious.
One of the reasons I dislike the seeing the play as a mediation on Colonialism is that, to my 20th-Century sensibilities, Colonialists are bad guys. So if I see Prospero as a Colonialist, I must also see him as a bad father. I would be just as uneasy seeing a production that portrayed him as a kindly, good father. To me, the play is only interesting if he’s a REAL father — one with good sides and bad sides.
My favorite moment in the play is this speech about Caliban, spoken by Prospero when he’s alone, upon learning that Caliban has plotted to murder him:
A devil, a born devil, on whose nature
Nurture can never stick; on whom my pains,
Humanely taken, all, all lost, quite lost;
And as with age his body uglier grows,
So his mind cankers. I will plague them all,
Even to roaring.
This is a speech of a man who has tried — maybe in all the wrong ways, but in the only ways he knows — to raise a son. And who has failed.
all, all lost, quite lost;
An Obvious Example
“Once upon a time, there lived a young princess who had a wicked stepmother. Once upon a time, there lived a young princess who had a wicked stepmother. The princess cried herself to sleep each night.”
I need to cut one of those “once upon a time” sentences, don’t you agree? Unless the goal is to write something experimental, something in the style of Gertrude Stein, redundancy seldom helps and often hurts.
What if I keep both sentences but rephrase the second, so it’s not an exact copy of the first?
“Once upon a time, there lived a young princess who had a wicked stepmother. There was once a princess with an evil stepmother. The princess cried herself to sleep each night.”
Who is going to argue with me and claim that this isn’t a mistake? Maybe someone will. Most of you won’t.
Yet many of my friends, people who would agree that these examples are redundant and bad, accept redundancy if the repeated information is coming from two different sources. For instance, they have no problem with a music video in which the lyrics mention a white horse while the image presents … a white horse.
Friends often greet my tirades against redundancy with one of the following two objections: (1) it’s not a problem in this case; or (2) it may be a minor problem, but it’s not worth making a big deal about.
Since I’ll waste most of the words that follow on point one, let me quickly address point two: say I write a poem in which I describe a rabbit as “a cuddly rodent.” That’s an error. A rabbit is a not a rodent. (Many rabbits aren’t cuddly, either.)
So the rabbit bit is wrong, but does it matter? No: not if your main goal when reading is “to get the point.” Okay, a rabbit isn’t a rodent — but it’s rodent-like. The point is that it’s a small, cuddly creature.
Such a reader also doesn’t care if Hamlet says “To be or not to be…” or “To live or not to live…” Same point.
(I am not berating such readers. Rather, I am warning them to stop reading this essay. What follows will seem petty. And that’s fine. I am not a gourmet chef, and I have an immature palate. People tell me that Dominos pizza sucks, yet I love it. When they go on and on about “real New York pizza,” they seem petty to me. If this essay was by one of them, and it was about gourmet pizza, I would stop reading. It’s just not important to me.)
When I read, I do want to get the point. But I also demand elegance. When a work is inelegant, it itches at me like a smudge on a windowpane. The smudge doesn’t ruin the whole window, but it’s annoying. And if it can be wiped away, why leave it there? The view will be better without it.
I don’t want to just get the point that there are mountains outside the window. I want to see the mountains in all their glory — without smudges.
Why Redundancy Is Bad
I balk at redundancy because it’s inelegant. It’s inelegant in the same way that a shirt with both a zipper and buttons in inelegant. It evokes an artistic mind that hasn’t thought things through, as if what we’re seeing is an early draft in which the artist was trying out various approaches and hadn’t yet decided on the right one.
Redundancy also condescends. It suggests an artist who doesn’t trust me to follow him the first time he says whatever he is saying.
My railing against redundancy is itself becoming redundant, so I’ll stop trying to convince you that it’s aesthetically wrong. You either agree with me or you don’t. Let me conclude this point by reminding you of what many artists believe:
- if an aspect of the work doesn’t move the work forward — if the aspect does not provide new information or recast old information in an interesting light — that aspect must be cut.
- “Kill all your darlings.”
Last night, as I was watching a production of “Macbeth” on DVD. The witches entered, and the actors playing them were dressed in rags and wearing masks that made them look more like demons than humans. Still, they looked vaguely female — except they had beards.
Then Banquo said the following:
What are these
So wither’d and so wild in their attire,
That look not like th’ inhabitants o’ th’ earth,
And yet are on’t? Live you? or are you aught
That man may question? You seem to understand me,
By each at once her choppy finger laying
Upon her skinny lips. You should be women,
And yet your beards forbid me to interpret
That you are so.
When I chastised the redundancy (the way the witches looked and Banquo’s description of them), I was surprised at how many of my friends disagreed with me. I had a hard time teasing out the locus of their disagreement: was it point one or two, above? Did they feel that the moment was not redundant or did they agree that it was, but didn’t think, in this case, the redundancy was a problem?
Don’t Blame the Director!
One exasperated friend said, “Well, what’s a director supposed to do? You have to show the witches. Are you going to make them look like beautiful women or something?”
That’s a good point, but it’s also beside the point. A problem is a problem whether or not it has a solution. Cancer is a problem. If it turns out that there’s no possible cure for the disease, it will still be a problem. We’d still be living in a better world if there was no cancer.
(Often in these arguments, placing blame gets muddled up with aesthetics. I often make artistic blunders. When they do, they are blunders. They might be excusable. For instance, I might under-rehearse a play because halfway through the rehearsal period get catch pneumonia and and have to take a couple of weeks off. No one can blame be for that. Still, the play is underrehearsed.)
But It’s True!
Another friend suggested that this moment isn’t a mistake, because Banquo is only saying what someone would really say in his situation. In other words, his words are psychologically true. If you see King Kong, you may well say, “Look! A giant gorilla!” even though everyone can clearly see that for themselves.
That’s true. But it’s still redundant. It’s still inelegant. My friend could argue that it’s necessary redundancy — that omitting it would breach psychological truth, which would be the worse of two evils — but I don’t see how he can claim that the redundancy isn’t a problem because it solves another problem. The horrible side effects of chemotherapy are problems, even though chemotherapy may solve a bigger problem.
(Truthful psychology is the solution to many problems in the theatre. If you get intentions, actions and reactions right, the play usually succeeds. Many young directors and actors learned this useful tool in drama school. And then, unfortunately, it became dogma for them. Dogma is the enemy of art. But it’s always tempting to fall prey to it; it simplifies decision making. “It’s psychologically true, so it can’t be a problem. Let’s move on.”
There are usually multiple psychological truths to pick from, because not everyone acts the same way in the same situation. One must strive to make choices that are both psychologically true and elegant!)
We don’t live in a world in which it’s possible to solve all problems. Life is often about tradeoffs. Still, I don’t see how it helps to pretend that the problems we accept are not problems. Surely, if one is an artist, one must be on guard against problems at all times, purging them whenever possible, accepting them only after weighing all other options. Anything else would be inelegant and lazy.
A Tree is a Tree!
“You’re being ridiculous!” cried a third friend. “If someone in the play describes an apple tree, and the play requires the tree to be onstage, are you saying that the director needs to make it a carrot patch to avoid redundancy?”
Good question. No, that’s not what I’m saying. The director’s first job is to ensure that all aspects of the story are consistent. Lack of consistency is another form of inelegance. This is well-known in Hollywood, where they pay full-time continuity checkers to make sure that the cigarette in the close-up is burned down just as much as it is in the medium shot.
If an audience member hears an actor say “apple tree” while pointing to a carrot patch, he’ll be confused and jarred out of the dreamlike state that, hopefully, the play has lulled him into.
It’s hard to weigh one sort of inelegance against another, but my guess is that, in general, inconsistency is more jarring than redundancy. So if I must choose between the two, I’ll (sadly) accept redundancy.
Still, that doesn’t allow me to relax my guard. I can’t just blithely let all redundancy pass by security without checking its ID. I must carefully examine each redundant item, making absolutely sure that it’s needed.
Maybe, in a specific instance, there’s a way to serve consistency without adding redundancy. There’s no general rule. The only way I’ll be able to maximize elegance is to examine each moment, case-by-case.
In Favor of Redundancy
Redundancy has it’s uses. Let me repeat that: Redundancy has its uses! It can “underline” a point, as Lear does when he says, “Never, never, never, never, never.” Who would want him to just utter a single “never”? Not me.
When presenting something complex and foreign to the modern ear, such as a Shakespeare play, redundancy can help the audience understand key plot and character points that they may miss if those points are only made once.
But I caution directors against that second use. There are almost always better ways — more elegant ways — of making the story clear than by simply repeating information. I will expand on these techniques in another essay, but, briefly, one can use word emphasis and non-redundant movement to help the audience understand what’s going on. (Don’t allow actors to make that jacking-off gesture when describing sex. That’s redundant — and cliched. Gestures should never just illustrate words in the text!)
Remember: for every audience member who is thanking you for making things clear, there’s another who is cursing you for talking down to him. “I get it!” he thinks. “You don’t have to hit me over the head with it!”
Back to Macbeth
So what about the witches? Here are some possibilities: if you want to show them off, maybe because you think the audience will be more affected by the scary costumes than by Shakespeare’s words, then cut the text. You could cut it to…
“What are these? Live you? or are you aught
That man may question? You seem to understand me.”
If you don’t want to cut the text, then obscure the witches. Keep their backs to the audience or make them completely invisible, only “seen” by Macbeth and Banquo. You could pipe in their voices through speakers. There are many solutions that will allow you to tell this part of the story without redundancy, some much more creative than mine.
Redundancy is like the dandelion, which is a beautiful flower. It’s also useful for making dandelion wine. But we must always remember something else about the dandelion: it’s a weed.
I miss designers. I love collaborating with them, but for the past few years, I’ve directed exclusively for a theatre company that performs on a bare stage without sets, props or lighting changes; costumes are street clothes, and there are no costume changes. Paradoxically, this approach has suggested to me new and better ways of working with designers.
The Old Way
In drama school, I was taught to dream up a “spine” for whatever play I was directing. Spines are pithy metaphors for a specific director’s take on a specific play. One director’s spine for “Othello” might be A Deadly Chess Match; another director’s spine for “Hamlet” might be A Heavy Weight Crushing Down On A Tiny, Fragile Flower. You may not agree with those spines, and that’s fine. They are personal to the director who came up with them.
Spines are useful because they can be re-interpreted by designers. Designers of the above “Othello” might make all the costumes black and white or put a grid pattern on the stage floor. For the “crushed” Hamlet, designers might choose intimidating, high-vaulted ceilings and heavy, cumbersome clothes. Spines are a check, to make sure all aspects of production are telling the same story.
I reject none of this. To me, spines are extremely useful tools. They just shouldn’t be the only tools on one’s belt.
At my “minimalist” theatre company, we have two main rules: “tell the story clearly” and “avoid redundancy.” Since our shows aren’t designed, I mostly have to worry about actor redundancy. Actors have a tendency to over explain. They usually do this by riddling their performances with unnecessary gestures. The one I see most often is the “jacking off” hand pump, used whenever a line makes a sexual innuendo.
My stance has always been that if the script is clearly saying something, it’s wasteful and inelegant for the actor to illustrate it. It’s in the words already, and the actor simply speak those words and credit his audience for being intelligent enough to listen and understand.
Just like actors (and directors), designers can be easily hoodwinked by redundancy, especially when designing from a spine. Yes, the spine is what the play is “about,” but do all design elements need to be constant reminders of this theme? Were I in that audience seeing back and white costumes and checker squares on the floor, I’d be jumping up and down on my seat, screaming, “Okay! Okay! I get it already!”
Rule: each element of the production should only convey information if that information isn’t already conveyed by some other part.
Taken literally, this means that if costumes already say that the characters are rich, the sets shouldn’t also say that. We “get it” from the costumes. We don’t need the sets to hit us over the head with it.
Admission: I don’t always take that rule literally. One exception might be when the production team consciously chooses to reinforce a point: “These people are rich! Do you hear me? Rich!” They key here is “consciously chooses.” In general, eschew redundancy and illustration. Use redundancy as a power tool that you pull out on special occasions. If you’re almost never redundant, the audience will prick up their ears those few times that you are: “My word! He’s telling me something twice in two different ways. It must be very important!”
Divide and Conquer
Make a list of everything you want to communicate to the audience. Start with the key plot points, because those are the easiest to list. Add any character information (“Katherine is strong-willed”), mood information (“it’s a dark and stormy night”), thematic information (“power corrupts”) and key factual information that the audience must understand in order to follow and appreciate the story (“Richard is a king of England during the middle ages”).
Check off all items on the list that are explicitly stated (or easily inferred) from dialogue. These check marks are your first line of defense against redundancy. I am not telling you to keep all checked items out of the designs. Rather, I’m suggesting that you keep aware that the more of them that are conveyed by the designs, the more redundancy there will be your production. At best, illustrating a stated point puts that point in the stage equivalent of italics; at worst, it says to the audience, “You’re too dumb to get it from the text.” Do what you will, but act consciously.
Any items that aren’t checked – and the checked ones that you want to “put in italics” – are fair game for design. In collaboration with your team, pick which designer should take the lead for each item. The play takes place at night? Is that the province of sets, costumes, sound or lights? The characters are rich? Which designer is going to take the lead in telling that part of the story?
“The lead” is an important concept, as I’ll discuss at length, below. If costumes take the lead in stating that the characters are rich. That may or may not mean that other design elements augment the work done by the clothes.
Design conferences should be lively, improvisational playgrounds. Once you’ve decided to let the costumes lead the “rich” part of the story, throw that idea away (you can always retrieve it from the trash later) and ask what if? What if we told that part of the story with the sets? The lights? the music? with nothing? What then? What would be best?
Don’t Work Against Yourself
Okay, the costumes are already screaming “these people are filthy rich”; you don’t want to be redundant, but what are you supposed to do with the set? Make it a hovel? No, of course not. These rich characters live in an expensive house. So what set there is should be opulent.
Ask yourself this? If I cut your budget to the point where you could afford costumes but not sets, would the costumes alone be enough to tell the story of wealth? If not, then what contribution do you need from the sets?
(Keep in mind that “telling a story” is usually more of an emotional and sensual form of communication than an intellectual one. Yes, with the costumes alone, the audience might understand that they characters are rich, but will they feel the wealth? Will they revel in it? Will they be intimidated by it? In the theatre, you should strive beyond helping audience just “get the point.”)
If the costumes are enough to convey wealth, then consider minimizing the set (unless there are other parts of the story that the set can tell best, in which case, let the set tell lose parts and let the costumes focus on “rich.”). What are the bare essentials that the set must contain so that the story makes sense and so that they actors can do their jobs? Maybe some furniture and a flight of stairs. Okay, then limit the set to those items.
Fair enough, but there’s no such thing as a platonic chair. You must put some actual chair on the stage. So what chair to you put there to avoid redundancy? Answer: the simplest chair you can find that doesn’t contradict the story.
Rich people own expensive chairs. But there are lots of expensive chairs. If the costumes are taking care of “rich” part, find a boring rich chair. Find one that the audience will notice and then dispense with, choosing instead to focus on the costumes.
Rule: items that must be redundant should be boring.
As a director, you’ll have to be very careful and politic about that rule. Designers understandably don’t want their work to be boring. But just as you don’t want Romeo pulling focus during Juliet’s speech, you don’t want the lights to distract from the sets when it’s their turn to tell the story.
I find it useful to go back the basics from time to time: why are we all here? What story are we telling? How can each of us best contribute to that story? When should each of us (the director included) keep out of its way?
Remember the Spine?
Once all the design roles are cast, bring the spine back into play. The costumes are saying “rich,” the sets are saying, “complicated, maze-like environment,” the lights are saying “mid-winter evening”… but what ties this collage together so that it’s harmonious rather than muddled?
Well, what holds the human body together?
Go back down the list items and ask how each element relates to the spine. Not all items need to push the spine’s agenda (in fact, they shouldn’t, as this would be redundant). But items should never work against the spine – with the one exception being when you purposefully and consciously want to create a feeling of dissonance.
Often, the spine can be key in helping the team choose colors, textures and tones. What colors does A Doomed World suggest? What sounds do you hear when you think of A Carnival of Eroticism?
In fact, the best spines are sometimes expressed sensually rather than as pithy statements. Consider playing a piece of music for your design team – “Puttin’ on the Ritz” or “Paint it Black” – and telling them that this is the spine of the play. Or you can show them a painting, cover them with a velvet sheet or feed them slices of expensive wedding cake.
When they’re deeply ensconced in the nuts and bolts of design, check with them to make sure that you and they agree that the work is still tasty, disgusting, tuneful, discordant or whatever agrees with your sensual spine.
The More Thing Change…
What about scene changes? What about costume changes? What about new lighting cues and sound effects? Most of these questions can be answered with ground we’ve already covered: what part of the Act III story do the costumes need to tell? When should costumes stay out of the way? Etc.
Just as each designer tends to feel, by default, that she should tell every physical aspect of the story, designers also tend to feel that they must tell every temporal aspect. For instance, a costume designer may feel that throughout the course of “The Winter’s Tale,” Leontes changes from a tyrant to a gentle and wise ruler. Should his costume change to reflect his inner change? Maybe so, maybe not.
Is the costume designer leading the story of that change or is that change better told by some other aspect of the production, e.g. acting or text? Sometimes it’s fascinating to see a bad guy become a good guy while keeping his bad-guy garb. It changes the way we, the audience, relate to those sorts of clothes: “Wow! A good guy can wear a black hat!” And it keeps us in mind of where the journey started and how wide the gulf is between then (the clothes) and now (the behavior).
This implies that temporal changes should be included on the original story-point list, and indeed they should! A staged narrative is four-dimensional: it has length, breadth, depth and duration. Which design element or elements should lead each dimension?
My Journey Through Time
I needed to escape design in order to return to it. Now, having lived as a minimalist monk, I feel ready to jump back into the world of muslin, plywood, shadows and music. From minimalism, I learned — really learned in my gut, not just in my mind — the importance of every last item placed on the stage. I learned to respect the audience. I learned to read scripts with care. I learned elegance, which means that “everything must matter.” It means “having fun at the party but not overstaying your welcome.” It means “a place for everything and everything in its place.”
Tell the Story
A young friend asked me how to write original metaphors. He quoted Orwell’s advice: “Never use a metaphor, simile or other figure of speech which you are used to seeing in print.” I’m a huge Orwell fan, and I generally agree with his ideas about writing. Certainly, I admire his push against hackneyed expressions. But I think he was attacking the problem from the wrong angle.
Young directors and actors, just like young writers, worry about “finding their voice.” They shouldn’t. Good writing blooms naturally if you (a) have a story to tell and (b) try to embed the reader into your story. The story must compel you to want everyone to share your excitement. But they won’t unless you get them to see what you see, smell what you smell, taste what you taste and touch what you touch.
Bad writing often stems from one’s attempts To Be Original. I agree with Orwell that one shouldn’t imitate what one sees in print, but I’d add that one should also not try to avoid using prose one sees in print. One shouldn’t care one way or another what one sees in print, because that has nothing to do with Telling The Story.
Being original — or forming any sort of relationship, imitative or reactionary, between one’s own writing (directing or acting) and other, published pieces — has nothing to do with telling a story.
In fact, attempts at originality generally weaken the story, because it’s very hard to complete two goals at once. You’re either trying to be original or you’re trying to tell a story.
If you have just one goal (your story), and you’re clear about what it is, then you’ll follow it straight to its target. If a phrase from someone else’s story is the best type of bullet to load into your gun, you must load that bullet. Otherwise, you’re serving your egoistic need to be original, rather than serving the story.
Instead of “Never use a metaphor … which you are used to seeing in print,” avoid metaphor altogether — until you need it. What’s the point of metaphor, anyway, beyond some vague poetic impulse (trying To Be Original)? What is metaphor’s purpose? Remember, you’re trying to get the reader to smell the shit on the workman’s boots, to taste the diner’s bitter coffee and to feel the cramping of the king’s arthritic fingers.
There will come a point when you can’t convey the sensual details through journalistic, descriptive language (how do you describe a man’s love for his wife this way?), so you’ll need a metaphor. Metaphors are comparisons. When we can’t describe something directly, we compare that thing to something else — something familiar and evocative to the reader — so that he can experience the original idea via a proxy. Maybe readers can’t feel what your protagonist feels when he sees his wife kissing another man, but they can understand what it’s like to step in a bucket of cold, filthy water?
Without trying, your metaphor will be original. It will have to be, or it won’t work. Just remember that the point of metaphor is to make the reader feel. This is similar to the point of song in a musical. Composers make the heroes break into song when speech will no longer convey the emotion. (“I just met a girl named Maria!”)
As for finding one’s voice, it happens when you quit trying. Don’t make the mistake of trying to look natural when you’re posing for a photograph. You can’t do it. But you will look natural if someone snaps your picture while you’re busy measuring out a cup of flour for your muffin recipe. You’ll look natural because you’ll be actively pursuing a goal — a goal other than Being Natural. By telling a story as vividly as possible, your voice will emerge.
Friends tell me that I’ve found my voice — that Folding Chair has a distinctive style, and that they see it in every production I direct. That may be, but it’s not something I shoot for. I just tell stories as clearly and sensually as I can.
By the way, I’m not advocating laziness. I agree with everyone who says writing is hard work. The hard work involves selecting words that advance your story — that engage the reader’s senses. The hard work involves pruning away all those elements that don’t serve the story. This includes ego, trying to Be Original and trying To Find Your Voice. What does finding your voice have to do with the history of France in the Middle Ages? What does being original have to do with fleeing from robots on an enemy planet?
When I write, I purposefully delete phrases that sound “too original.” When I direct, I cut anything that looks “cool.” This is really hard to do, because such phrases are rare and I’m usually proud of them. But I mistrust them, too. I worry that my audience will think, “Wow, what a telling turn of phrase he came up with” or “What a cool bit of blocking from the director!” At which point they’ve lost the thread of the story. They’re thinking about the writer or director, not about the story. The story isn’t me. It’s not about how smart or cool or inventive I am. It’s about a King and his three daughters.
As William Faulkner said, “you must kill all your darlings.” As Orwell said (though I realize he put this in the mouth of an antagonist), “the destruction of words is a beautiful thing.” Murder your darlings; obliterate your beautiful things. Tell the story!
Hi. I’m Marcus.
Nice to meet you. I’m Marcus Geduld, the Artistic Director of Folding Chair. Actress Lisa Blankenship and I founded the company in 2001 and together we produced our first show, “Hedda Gabler,” with me at the helm and Lisa playing the title role. Over the years, Folding Chair has blessed me with the privileged of working with great actors on some of the best plays ever written.
When I’m not in the theatre, I work as a writer, a teacher and a computer programmer. This may seem like a chaotic grab-bag of jobs, but they all have something in common. They all involve creative thought and story telling. (Yes, computer programming is all about telling stories, but that’s a subject for another blog entry.)
In this blog, I’ll share my thoughts about theatre, storytelling and creative activity. And, of course, I’ll keep you up to date on the goings-on at Folding Chair.
Love and xoxoxo,