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

As a playwright, to what extent is taking care of the director or actor — and ultimately the audience — an agenda? As a director, how does this agenda differ?

The audience comes first. Shakespeare never lost sight of the fact that his first job was to entertain.

Production shot of Stendhal’s Le Rouge et le noir
Julien (Lucas Wells) takes Louise’s hand
(Krista Adams Santilli) while Marie (Jessica Myhr)
senses something happening
© Hunter Canning

It is impossible to separate this entertainment business from the actor’s task. The playwright has to give the actor motivations and objectives to play, or the play is, as Stalin put it when he was a music critic, “muddle instead of music.” If you’re dealing with a play in which the writer hasn’t supplied motivations, you and the actor have to make them up. Outsiders sometimes think that a play is made of dialogue. But there is more to it: the dialogue exists only to give expression to the motivations and objectives. Beckett proved this by writing the play, Act without Words.

As a writer, I don’t pay much attention to the needs of the director. I always hope that the director will pay some attention to what the play needs.

As a director, the tasks are very much the same. You want to make the play interesting and entertaining for the audience. A big part of that is making sure that the actors can be seen and heard, which sounds self-evident, but…

The director also has to figure out what the playwright wants and not substitute his or her own ideas, as sometimes happens in Shakespeare (and frequently in opera).

There also exists the demonic and demented director who says, “Who cares what the playwright wanted? I’m going to use his play as a vehicle for my own ideas.” I have twice seen Henry V done as an anti-war play, once with the Chorus played by three women. I speculated during the first act, how was this possible? Had he planned on producing Macbeth, and cast the Three Witches, and then changed his mind when it was too late?

As a contemporary Shakespearean, what are some of your tools — or “palettes” (to borrow from the metaphor of a painter) — when approaching a particular Shakespeare scene or character?

I have only one tool, which is, if you don’t know what the scene is about, have the actors read it to you until you begin to get a glimmering.

Directing Funny House of a Negro, one scene was a compete mystery until we tried having the actors saying the lines while doing whatever they felt like, and one of them did something which suddenly made the whole scene clear. If the actors don’t know what the scene is about, and you think you do, have them read it to you until they get a glimmering. Your own opinions may change as you listen. If you can’t figure it out, ask the actors. On more than one occasion, when I had no idea, the actors told me what the play or the scene was about. They have to inhabit the characters, so they get closer to the character’s ideas. Once you have some glimmering, your job is to make what happens in the scene clear to the audience.

Does it get harder each time when staging a new Shakespeare production?

No. Some of his plays are more complex than others… If the director listens to the play and the actors, eventually things will become clear.

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