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

Deloss Brown and Steve Acunto,
producer for Capolavori Productions
© Vito Catalano

Playwright, theater director, lyricist and librettist DELOSS BROWN has staged over fifty stage productions and has taught a private Shakespearean acting class in New York since 1993. A faculty member of the Goldberg Department of Dramatic Writing at New York University since 1988, he had also taught at the Juillard School. In 1994, he co-founded Cressid Theater Company, which produced Much Ado about Nothing and The Winter’s Tale at Lincoln Center, as well as his own translation of Chekhov’s The Three Sisters. Most recently, he directed his off-Broadway play, The Red and The Black, based on the Stendhal classic, Le Rouge et le noir.

He lives in New York.

How did theater — and in particular, Shakespeare — come to take on such an integral role in your artistic life?

It’s going to be hard for me to say something new and interesting. Most writers accept his status as the best playwright in English as an axiom, and go on from there.

There are exceptions. Here are George Bernard Shaw’s views on Shakespeare:

… Shakespeare’s weakness lies in his complete deficiency in that highest sphere of thought, in which poetry embraces religion, philosophy, morality, and the bearing of these on communities, which is sociology. That his characters have no religion, no politics, no conscience, no hope, no convictions of any sort.

The Daily News, 1905

Shaw thought Shakespeare was incompetent because Shakespeare’s constructions were so different from Shaw’s own. But while he apparently despises Shakespeare’s work, he knew it was supremely effective in the theater, and he lashed out with even more vigor and rage at directors who had no idea what Shakespeare was doing, and substituted their own wretched and inferior notions. Shaw on Shakespeare, which Applause Books has brought back into print, is frequently hilarious.

As for me, I got interested in theater through my parents, who regularly visited New York and brought home programs and original cast albums, and played the songs over and over. By the time I was taken to see Kiss Me Kate at the age of eight or so, I could sing all the songs.

I wrote the class play when I was in eighth grade in Peoria public school, maybe because nobody else wanted to, and then I didn’t do anything at all in the theater for about seven years. I went to boarding school in Arizona and learned how to play polo and (almost) how to rope a calf, then I went to M.I.T. One of my fraternity brothers, Rob Lanchester, was directing Tech Show in 1962. Another fraternity brother, Fred Prahl, was composing music for the show. It’s like the Harvard Hasty Pudding Show, except ours had girls (borrowed from other schools; M.I.T. had only about a hundred women in the student body of six thousand at that point). They invited me to help out.

So I was writing lyrics when I should have been dealing with quantum mechanics. After I graduated, I worked as a chemist for five years, but I wrote lyrics for Jeff Meldman’s Tech Show, and I acted in M.I.T.’s Dramashop club. In 1968, my friend Ellen Greenberg asked me to direct Tech Show. I said I would if I could also write it. My faculty advisors were Professor William Greene and A. R. Gurney Jr. After that show, I knew that I was misplaced in chemistry (I was a danger to science, in fact) and I applied to Columbia in playwriting.

In my last year at Columbia, I was made master electrician of the chief production, and when I graduated I got hired by Joe Papp to be an electrician at the Public Theatre. The best part of this job was when to get assigned to run a show as an electrician. I could spend all day writing, and not have to be at work until seven at night.

I had never thought much about Shakespeare, although working for Joe Papp in the summer I got to see every Shakespeare production in Central Park. In 1979, I got hired by Isaiah Sheffer to teach in a literature survey course at Rockland Community College.

Did you teach Shakespeare there?

No. Dante, Plato, Rousseau… But one of the students wanted to do a project based on Othello for the following year. I told her what I wanted her to research. Othello’s name (which Shakespeare invented) has “hell” in the middle of it, and Desdemona’s name (which Shakespeare got from his source) has “demon” in it. I told the girl I wanted her to try to figure out why, and what this had to do with the play.

Production shot of Stendhal’s Le Rouge et le noir
The King (Keith Herron) worships in the burning chapel
© Hunter Canning

All these may seem trivial… but it’s central to the play’s structure. Every character, even the blameless Desdemona, has a devil inside waiting to take over. In fact the play’s very structure is a confused, foggy shape which conceals a hellish monster. As the play progresses, the monster gets loose and a lot of people die. That’s not all that’s in the play, but it’s the main structure, which Shakespeare repeats over and over again. I didn’t figure this out for myself until I was teaching at Juilliard. This is the reason I find Shakespeare irresistible. His plays are built on clever, complex structures which he conceals, and discovering those, and directing the plays so that the structure is used is absolutely delicious. I’ve had the good fortune to direct eight of his plays.

At Juilliard, Michael Langham gave the master classes in Shakespearean acting, and I taught the nuts and bolts routine classes. The Juilliard students were very smart, and used to ask difficult questions. They came to class one day and asked, “Why does Juliet’s mother speak in rhyme?” They were talking about Juliet’s mother’s speech to Juliet about why she should marry Paris:

Read o’er the volume of young Paris’ face,
And find delight writ there with beauty’s pen;
Examine every married lineament,
And see how one another lends content;
And what obscured in this fair volume lies 85
Find written in the margent of his eyes.
This precious book of love, this unbound lover,
To beautify him only lacks a cover.

(Rom. I.3.81-8)

Understanding why Juliet’s mother speaks rhymed verse is the key to understanding the entire Capulet family.

Incidentally, for Juilliard, I sometimes had to rewrite Shakespeare’s plays to simplify them for our audiences, whom the directors considered incapable of understanding the complexities of Shakespeare. Or I would put in things that poor, ignorant Shakespeare didn’t understand were necessary. Collaborating with Shakespeare — who had no say in the matter — gave me a partial understanding of how clever he is as a playwright, and how much fun he is to work with.

I don’t pretend to understand everything he does. I know that everything that’s in any one of his plays is integral, but I don’t always understand how and why. About a week ago, one of my students pointed out that Othello’s epileptic fit connects him to Julius Caesar, who also had epilepsy. It’s important to the play, and it had never occurred to me in thirty years.

When I’m asked about him, I usually reply that Shakespeare is underrated. Hollywood knows he’s good for the box office, though, and that’s why he keeps getting hired to write screenplays.

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.

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.

How do you renew your relationship with Shakespeare and his world?

If I’m teaching a Shakespeare class, I re-read the play and I also re-read my notes, because they represent what I have painfully learned on my own, or what the actors have taught me, or what the students have taught me.

If I’m directing a play for the first time, I follow the above-mentioned procedure of getting the actors to read until I get some glimmering. If I’m directing it for the second or third time, I look at the director’s script I used previously, and then I get the actors to read until some glimmering.

When working with actors, how do you reconcile physical rigor with a predominantly text-based approach in terms of their interpretation of theatrical texts?

Production shot of Stendhal’s Le Rouge et le noir
Louise (Krista Adams Santilli) and Julien (Lucas Wells) in bed
© Hunter Canning

There shouldn’t be any physical rigor involved, as far as I know. The actor should be so well rehearsed that for him or her, the task should look effortless, and be practically effortless. (This doesn’t mean the actor doesn’t have to concentrate on what he or she is doing, but he/she shouldn’t have to clench his/her jaw, tense his/her muscles, or work up a sweat.) We’re presenting a play, which is largely an intellectual activity which happens to involve the body, especially the voice.

What if the play requires strenuous activity?

Same answer. I saw a play based on Les Enfants du Paradis last week, and it had mime and a lot of gymnastics in it. But the actors were all gymnasts and mimes as well as actors, and when they weren’t standing still and speaking the text, they tumbled about the stage and turned many cartwheels and made it all look effortless (and amazing).

Our production of The Red and the Black had a fair amount of fights and physical violence in it, and apparent bloodshed, but it was — obviously — carefully rehearsed. Nobody got hurt, or worked up a sweat, and Jessica Myhr got to smear the blood on Lucas Wells while she was beating him up during the fight. My motto is: “It’s only a paper moon, sailing over a cardboard sea.”

Do you or your actors look for some sort of a routine or “habits” during rehearsals? I am also tempted to ask how you might allow surprise to thrive without compromising stability during those long weeks of preparation.

I try to cultivate good habits in myself, the first of which is: try to let the actors alone during the exploration of the text. They were generally hired because they were intelligent, among the other things, and the director might as well take advantage of their intelligence. You give notes about the very, very obvious things, like, can the actor be seen and heard — and you’re supposed to be the supervisor of where the entrances and exits are (but again sometimes the actor can figure this out better than you can).

The only time I interfere at early stages is if the actor is doing something which I don’t think can possibly be explained in terms of the play, the text, or the production in general. Eventually the actor will settle down and start repeating things from one rehearsal to the next. Sometimes the actor asks the director for help.

As soon as possible, I try to move to running larger and larger sections of the play and ultimately the entire play. I try to stop interfering in rehearsals, except in the rare cases when somebody is in danger, and I take and give notes. In all this I’m following Shaw’s advice in Directors on Directing. Shaw says that at the beginning of the rehearsals the director will know more about the play than the actors, and that by the end the actors will know more than the director.

Production shot of Stendhal’s Le Rouge et le noir
Louise (Krista Adams Santilli) tries to comfort Elisa (Katie Burton)
© Hunter Canning

About surprise: I try to encourage actors to try out any ideas they have all the way through the rehearsal period. What is the point of having a bunch of good brains in the room with you and not listening to their ideas? They may very well come up with the surprises you mention. I try to be open-minded when somebody comes up with an idea which is better than mine. Mostly the trying-out of new things stops when you get close to performance — but not always, and at least one actor tried new business until halfway through the run of Much Ado — but he wasn’t interfering with anybody else, so I didn’t interfere with him, and after about five performances he did something that got a laugh, which he kept.

For the rest, I don’t worry about “surprises.” I try to remind the actors that while they may be doing what seems like the same old thing, it’s a new audience every night, and they have never seen it before, and frequently the more tame it seems to the actor, the more powerful it is to the audience, because every time the actor repeats the part, it sinks deeper into his or her soul, or bones, or liver, or something, and the character gets stronger, although to the actor it feels like nothing is different.

As a New Yorker, what do you think of the city’s theater scene after September 11? Has the American theater created different platforms for citizens to converse, listen and discuss issues of urgency?

As far as I can tell, the concerns of New York theater weren’t changed by September 11. There may have been theatrical presentations related to it right after the event, but I don’t remember them. Besides, that was eleven and a half years ago, and after it happened, most New Yorkers were in a state of shock. So it’s probable that a lot of the memories from that time got erased, or were never created, including mine. And it’s difficult to make art out of a horrendous, evil, pointless massacre, perpetrated by the criminally insane. There are occasional exceptions. Solomon Volkov, in Testimony, has Shostakovich say that the second movement of his Tenth Symphony, the violent allegro, is a portrait of Stalin, and it sounds like it might be, but the authenticity of Volkov’s book is strongly disputed.

Has the American theater created different platforms for citizens to converse, listen and discuss issues of urgency?

Not that I can see, at least not in New York. The trend appears to be in the other direction. We are about to lose one small venue, The Red Room, and another, Theatre Under St. Marks, is in danger. Both were inexpensive enough that very-low budget, experimental theater could be staged there. The other Off-off-Broadway theaters have all raised their prices.

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