Interviews with NYC's Indie Theatre Directors

Festival Shorts: Director Fest!

PCTFpicThis is a special post to celebrate all the directors of the Planet Connections Theatre Festivity. My theatre company, Articulate Theatre, has its first production (Dragon) in the festival and this has been my first time directing for a festival environment. I wondered what other directors -fellow newbies and seasoned vets- thought about directing for a festival. So, I asked them two (plus) questions:

Q#1:  What has been your greatest challenge and your greatest accomplishment while directing in a festival environment?
Q#2:  What advice would you give a fellow director about directing a festival production?
Bonus question: What’s your favourite NYC spot for inspiration?

Here are their responses!

Joe RaikAshley MarinaccioTom SlotMarcus YiJoan KaneMichael CriscuoloSarah M. Chichester

Joe Raik, Director of Catch the Spider
Level: Seasoned

A#1: Festivals can prove especially difficult for several reasons. Primarily, the limited time afforded to each production in the theatre, on the stage, in rehearsal and tech as well as during the run of the show. The nature of festivals is several shows, done by different companies, occupying the same space for an extended period. A sort of hyper-repertory. That can be challenging for a lighting designer who has to build over fifty cues without getting to move or focus a single instrument. Or a scenic designer who must always be thinking in terms of what we’ll be able to store and what we can load out with us every night. It’s the nature of the beast and it’s always an adventure. I believe that in any production, for a festival or otherwise, the primary job of a director is to make certain that his or her cast, design team and production crew are fully prepared for what is to come. The readiness of a production on opening night should be the chief concern, beyond any other artistic goal. Any time I can help my team achieve that preparedness with a degree of success, I have done my job. Any time I can help them get to the point where they all feel ready, I feel a sense of accomplishment.

A#2: This type of theatre is entirely about community. All the challenges and stresses that go along with putting up a show right alongside others do not overtake the incredible rewards of being involved in such a communal artistic effort. My advice would be to treat the members of the other companies you encounter, as well as the festival staff, with the courtesy and respect that you would show your own artistic team. Consider that you are all working toward the betterment of your art and the enrichment of your community, and you will have a terrific experience. As for the challenges of limited time, limited space and limited resources, as well as the countless other snafus that you may encounter along the way, if those things lead to disappointment or to regret, try to keep things in perspective. Learning experiences are successes in their own right. You have knowledge and experience now that you can use in future endeavors. And think of what the great director Peter Brook said: “Thank God our art isn’t permanent. At least we’re not making more junk for the museums.” Indeed.

Bonus: Every artist in New York should have a place they go to people watch. My favorite are the places that cause endless amounts of aggravation. Busy intersections, tourist traps, delayed subway cars during rush hour. It’s in these spots that you see a certain incredible side of humanity that most outside of New York are, thankfully, spared. Also, I’m going to let my nerd-flag fly for a second and plug the Drama Book Shop on Fortieth street and Eighth avenue. Like so many others in our field, I have spent many hours aimlessly browsing the shelves there, shifting from one section to the next, drawing stares from customers and staff… and often walked out with my next project in my hands.

Ashley Marinaccio, director of 9mm America

A#1: Our greatest challenge also happens to be the greatest reward of doing festivals – lack of time in the space. It’s incredible to see what people can do with limited budgets, time and tech. There is so much room for creativity. There is camaraderie that’s developed with other artists and within the community because everyone has been given the same resources to play with and you can’t help but appreciate what’s being created.

A#2: I have found that organization is key to having a successful experience. I have an incredible stage manager who literally has every minute accounted for so no time is wasted. Because there is such limited time to tech in the space before the show, everything – from actor’s backstage blocking to building and striking the set is meticulously timed out. Each time I do a festival it becomes less stressful because I know what to expect and can relay that to the performers and tech team from the beginning so there are no surprises. We have our actors show up to the space in full makeup and costume so they can set their props, center themselves and go to places as soon as we are allowed in the space. Timing is everything. Festivals have taught me how to make quick, strong choices and work efficiently.

Bonus: Prospect Park is my favorite place in NYC. I don’t get to visit often but forget I’m in the city when I’m there. For daily inspiration (or a quick fix) I like to stop by Petsmart in Union Square and pet the cats and kittens at Kitty Kind. I work near Union Square so it’s a quick fix. The organization and volunteers are incredible. I visit at least once a week. I love seeing the cats go to good homes.

Tom Slot, director for Farewell to Sanity and Other Irrational Constructs (Or I’m Not Crazy But My Shrink Thinks I Am)
Level: First Festival

A#1: The greatest challenges when working in a festival environment are working against time restriction, especially in the terms of use of the space. With a normal production, you have several days in the space before you open where you can tech the show, load in all set pieces and props, run cue to cues, etc. With most festivals you only have one day to tech the show in the actual space, and it usually doubles as your load in time. You also have to strike your entire set at the end of each performance and resemble it before the next show (which in the case of Planet Connections is 15 minutes before and after). When working in these conditions you have to forgo fancy sets and concentrate on designing a show that can be thrown up and taken down in a matter of moments. However, in the end, I found this to also be my greatest accomplishment for this production. Once you realize that you won’t be able to hide behind colorful sets and lighting effects, all you have left to work with is the actor’s performance. I really lucked out with this show and ended up with a fantastically talented cast. Working with them, we were able to really dig into each scene and find the raw emotion and comedy that sells the show. Farewell is a long show (running two hours and twenty minutes), but the performances are so strong and believable that the time fly’s by.

A#2: Be organized. Be prepared. Assemble a great cast and crew. With these three things in place you can focus on creating the art and not get lost in the details. There are always curve balls that come up with each production, but working ahead of time and getting as much done as early as possible helps cut down on headaches during production time. Having a great stage manager and assistant director is a must (shout out to London Griffith and Victoria Grazioli). You can’t do everything yourself and having a strong team to back you up allows them to take some of the heat of you.

Marcus Yi, director of The Procedure
Level: Seasoned

A#1: The greatest challenge and accomplishment is the same for me. Creating work that is bare technically and set wise, and yet being able to tell an effective story with sometimes just a table and 2 chairs. You quickly realize the most important part of the play is the actors re-creating it every show. If the show works in a barebones situation, the show can work anywhere.

A#2: Have realistic expectations. This is not Broadway. Be prepared, patient and flexible. Always have a plan B or C. Things will never go as planned and unexpected surprises happen all the time. Light and sound boards will malfunction, stage hands don’t show up, the horrible possibilities are endless. However, If you can roll with the punches while being nice to the people around you, the show tends to go better and so will your experience.

Bonus: My living room. The name of my company is called Living Room Theater because it produces everything I create in my living room. I think being creative, for me, is when I’m sitting on my couch with a cup of tea.

Joan Kane, director of What Do You Mean
Level: Seasoned

A#1: In the 2011 PCTF I directed The God Particle, the second in an evening of three one acts. That meant that instead of having 15 minutes to install or remove the set, sound and lighting for each performance, I had about a minute on each end. I coordinated the lighting and sound with the other two shows and Starlet Jacobs won the Outstanding Scene Design award for an elegant set made of three elements, a floor cloth, a park bench, and a streetlamp. That show also won the Greener Planet Award for Costumes some of which Cat Fisher hand crocheted out of plastic bags.

 A#2: Keep it simple. Do not try to do too much. Make sure you are organized and that the show is well rehearsed, especially the transitions. Within that, make sure you create a unified production where all the elements of a show are honored and balanced with each other. Try to avoid blackouts.

Bonus: I have two, the Highline and the Hudson River Park. I find being at either relaxing and creatively stimulating.

Michael Criscuolo, director of Fix Number Six
Level: Seasoned

A#1: I’ve directed in several festivals – including the Sam French Short Play Festival, Dominic D’Andrea’s One-Minute Play Festival, and The Brick Theater’s Democracy Festival – and the greatest challenges always involve resources. Where are we going to rehearse? Where are we going to find costumes, props, and set pieces? How much time to we have? And who’s going to pay for it all? Because, it doesn’t matter how small a show one is doing, it always ends up costing more money than anticipated. And somebody has to foot that bill. On the other hand, the greatest accomplishment, for me, is always getting a fantastic cast of actors. Festival productions can sometimes be difficult to cast because not everybody wants to do them. But, I’ve been extremely fortunate, in the past, to work with fantastic actors like Jennifer Harder, Daniel Kublick, Michael Mraz, C.L. Weatherstone, Kate Kertez, and Rasha Zamamiri, to name but a few. My current production, Fix Number Six by Jerry Polner, also features an absolutely stellar cast: Moira Stone, Adam Lebowitz-Lockard, Arthur Aulisi, Mateo Moreno, Colin Chapin, Victoria Anne Miller, and Alyssa Simon. I’m totally in love with them, and the production would not be as successful as it is without them.

A#2: Don’t use your own money to pay for it. Partner with either a theater company that can financially produce the show or an independent producer who can do the same thing. Spend as little of your own money as you can, and let others serve as the actual producers so that you can focus primarily on directing the show. Organizational management can be a fatal drain on a director’s time and talents. Also, find a really simple script to do, in terms of set locations, technical requirements, cast size, and so on. The simpler the script is in all of those areas, the better (unless you’ve got a deep-pocketed backer and money is no obstacle). There will always be monumental challenges to overcome with even the simplest of scripts, but one can stack the deck in their own favor by choosing a project that keeps those elements as simple as possible.

Bonus: New York, in general, is my favorite spot for inspiration. I exercise quite a bit outside whenever the weather is nice, and when I’m engaged in physical activity like that, my brain tends to relax and go more into intuitive mode than logic mode. Once that happens, and I’m outside absorbing everything that’s happening around me, intuitive brain starts making all kinds of connections that logical brain is too staid to make. And that, my friends, is when the magic happens.

Sarah M. Chichester, Director of In Loving Memory
Level: Seasoned

A#1: My greatest challenge is that the timing is very limited. Especially because In Loving Memory is apart of the staged reading series, we only a half hour before the reading starts to both tech the show and open house, so you have to keep technical elements extremely minimal even if it’s a script that requires sound. However, as this is my third year of being an artist in the festival, this challenge has inspired me more and more to find other creative ideas that in the past had worked out better then utilizing technical requirements.

A#2: There are two things I would suggest. Try to keep your production as minimal as possible. Working within a rep lighting plot and a very short amount of time in the space really makes your resources limited, and can slow down your show (it also brings the focus more on the script and the actors). Also to see as many shows in the festival as possible! In Planet Connections it’s not only free for theatre artists involved, but it’s a great opportunity to support your fellow artist’s work and to network with people you find you may want to work with from seeing those shows. I saw about ten shows last year, and I’m working on three other shows in this year’s festival asides from In Loving Memory because of the shows I saw last year that I loved and talking to artists involved afterwards.

Bonus: It’s typically on the subway in transit. It’s the main parts of my day that I can relax and just think freely so the ideas can just come to me whenever they do. It’s also at TKettle on St. Marks place, because when I’m in the city all day, I usually plan the work that I need to do for my shows there while having bubble tea.

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