The Play is the Stage and the World: Theater Director and Playwright Deloss Brown

What do you like in an actor?

Production shot of Stendhal’s Le Rouge et le noir
Set in the Theatre at St. Clement’s
© Vito Catalano

Since most of what I work on is “text-centered” (as Shakespeare is “text-centered”), the first thing I like in an actor is the ability to speak text intelligently. For Shakespeare, that’s about 80% of the job. The next thing I want is that the actor is able, without distorting the text, to use the text to express his or her own emotions as the character’s emotions.

For example, if the actor is playing Hamlet and gets to say “To be or not to be,” the technical thing the actor has to do is make the antitheses in the speech clear — as he should make the antitheses clear in the first line just quoted. “To be” is not the same thing as “not to be.” If the actor doesn’t do that, the audience won’t understand the speech, and they will get up and go home. Next, the actor, since it’s unlikely that he’s been recently called on by the ghost of his father to murder his uncle, has to recall emotional equivalents in his own life that justify his speaking that text. If the actor does that, he has taken care of about 90% of the job. The rest is mostly technical.

How much of your presence as a director gets reflected — and made visible to the public — in your actors?

None, I hope.

If the audience is thinking about how clever the director is, they haven’t been engaged by the play. One of my colleagues at New York University, Gordon Farrell, teaches that the goal of realism and naturalism in the Western theater is to make the audience think they are actually witnessing real people go through real events. If people tell me afterwards, “Ooh, I loved your directing,” I know I’ve failed miserably. If they say things like, “What wonderful actors! Where did you find them?” then it’s more likely that the production is succeeding. A lot of the director’s work is to encourage — help — “bully” — the actors into making their portrayal of the characters look simple, natural and effortless.

There is both a playwright and a director in you. Which comes first? How do the dynamics of both working processes blend in with each other? And how do you juggle with these two halves?

While writing, any playwright has to be able to imagine what the work will look like when it’s presented, and what effect he or she wants to create. So I’m thinking like a director when I’m writing.

Directing interferes with writing because directing is much more seductive. One gets to work with charming, intelligent people. That’s more fun than sitting by yourself at a desk, wracking the brain to figure out what happens next.

As a director, you have to try recreate what the playwright’s intentions were. With Shakespeare, you may be fairly far along into rehearsal before it dawns on you what those intentions are. If you’re directing your own play, for the most part, you accept the play as written, and concentrate on working with the actors. Sometimes you discover that the playwright has written something impossible or stupid. Actors (or the designers or the crew) sometimes point this out, and you are in fact very grateful to them. Better that you find out the stupid thing in rehearsal than wait and let the audience find it out. When you discover such a stupidity or impossibility, if it’s your play, you can change it on the spot. If it’s Shakespeare, you have to assume it’s not a stupidity nor an impossibility — you just haven’t yet figured out what the playwright wanted.

Directing interferes with writing because directing is much more seductive. One gets to work with charming, intelligent people. That’s more fun than sitting by yourself at a desk, wracking the brain to figure out what happens next. Whenever I’ve been given the chance to direct, I’ve almost always taken it. So I don’t have the output of a Shakespeare, or a Bach, or a John Ford Noonan — although Shakespeare and Bach both directed and performed, and John Ford Noonan has frequently acted. I’ve also spent a lot of time working as a technical writer and a teacher. And I lost ten years interfering with the progress of science.

Where do your characters come from?

Since I usually adapt other people’s work — Stendhal most recently — the characters are handed to me by another writer. I may have to enlarge them, because one has to be more explicit on the stage than in fiction, but the novelist was responsible for creating them.

When I make something up from scratch, it’s usually based on my own experience. So some of the characters are modeled on me, but others are simply people I admire. Sometimes I write about people I detest — but I have to make such people human and sympathetic, even if they aren’t loveable.

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