Interviews with NYC's Indie Theatre Directors

Double The Directors! Carolyn Ladd & John FitzGibbon

In a first for DirectorSpeak, I interviewed two directors for one event. The event is “The Gifted Series” – two shows by the same playwright, Monica Bauer, both solo shows, presented at Stage Left Studio. So, 1 playwright, 2 plays, 1 actor each — 2 directors! The directors are Carolyn Ladd (The Year I Was Gifted) and John FitzGibbon (Made for Each Other). I asked them both a few questions about directing solo shows and working with the same playwright. Listen in as we discuss!

Why directing? What was it that pulled you toward being a director, and what is it that keeps you coming back for more?  
LADD: As a director I love helping actors and singers tell a compelling story and assisting them in opening up a piece of music or a script.  Actually, I am first an actor, and as an actor I’m always exploring the best way to tell my character’s personal story and role in the larger story of a play.  So, when I direct, I enjoy the larger canvas of the entire stage or a score and the interaction of characters in time and space.  Experimenting with how rhythm, space, time, movement, voice and text can be manipulated to enhance the telling of a story is challenging and exciting.  It is a continual process of discovery, and I am never bored.  I enjoy the collaborative process of the theatre very much.
FITZ: As an actor in the business for nearly 50 years, I’ve often thought that the director did not really know what he was doing, or how to give good notes, or how to induce a good performance: so when the occasion comes to direct, and I like the actor/script, I will definitely consider doing it, even if it’s for very little compensation.

How do you decide what to direct?  
LADD:  Because I work primarily in educational theatre, my colleagues and I choose productions that first and foremost excite us, and then we look at the needs of our students as growing artists and what a particular work has to teach them about style, art or life.  I wanted to work with Monica on her production when she approached me, because I believed in her story and what it has to say about risk, courage and following your heart.

FITZ:  Not many projects fall my way and I’m not in pursuit of them.  So when recommended by a playwright to another playwright, as was the case with Made for Each Other, I will take a look at the script and see if it is good or not: I don’t want to be pushing a train uphill, I just want to be sure the tracks are aligned properly and off we go!

Tell me about an incident while directing that taught you a big lesson, in either a positive or negative fashion.
LADD:  A few years ago, I co-directed a production of Gao Xingjian’s The Other Shore, and it’s a play that is more like poetry with loosely connected scenes, and very little plot line.  In the script there is very little that is realistic and the playwright explores something he calls the tri-partite actor. Within the context of the play, we are encouraged to pay attention to the actor as a person, the actor approaching a role, and the character itself.  The way the roles of actor/person/character intertwine with each other, and the challenging text made for a directing experience that was filled with “not knowing” what was coming next, or what the end result would be. That can be a scary place to be in, but also a rich and fertile place.  Directing The Other Shore reminded me that a place of “not knowing” is sometimes the best place to be as an artist.  When I’m directing a play that is more straightforward, I try to remind myself to let go of my initial images of a scene in my head, and just let it be for a while…and allow the process of experimentation and discovery to take place.

Monica Bauer

Monica Bauer

FITZ:  I directed some small children in a summer arts program: we only had a week to formulate a play for them: I found with teaching the basics in acting technique over the course of 3 days, they had all the concentration necessary to perform quite well and with one another: they put together their own plays, created the scenery, and even stage managed the project, all in the course of 5 days.  If the essentials are in place, all the rest flows easily with commitment.

What is your rehearsal process like? Formal/casual, what comes first: text or movement?
LADD:  Text always comes first for me.  When I mine the text – movement, gesture, voice, rhythm and texture all seem to flow from the architecture and energy of the text and the sounds of the language.  My rehearsal process tends to be geared toward as much experimentation as possible until it’s time to make a definite choice and finalize the shape of a performance.  Once the general shape of a performance is set,  I work hard on refining moments to make them as effective as possible.  Structure is very important to me within a rehearsal process, but the structure must allow for experimentation.  I think a very close and communal examination of the text is essential in any rehearsal process.  The process of bringing the text and the characters into a three dimensional world follows, and then comes the refining and polishing – working on rhythm, timing, and all the specifics that enhance performance. I like to call this last part of the rehearsal process “putting the chocolate sprinkles and the cherry on top.”

FITZ:  We read the play first and then read it again: open a discussion on what’s going on: have the playwright in attendance for feedback at this point: I like to have the actors just sit and listen and speak to one another for a few days, so they know and feel what’s happening between them. Then begin to move about: I think the best results will come from the actors after they know what they’re doing: the director then needs just to shape it a bit, depending on how many characters are onstage at the same time.

What would you say is the most important trait a director should have?
LADD:  An understanding of human beings, and an understanding of text.  An understanding of human beings is necessary in order to motivate actors to work together to explore and take risks, as well as to understand character’s motivations and desires.  An understanding of how text and language can become “three dimensional” in space is helpful in finding the wealth of human experience and emotions underneath the text, and in finding expression in time and space.
FITZ: The most important trait?  Perhaps patience: with himself as well: to give things time to grow on their own without unnecessary interference!

In a general sense, what are the traits that you most admire in actors?
LADD:  An ability to know how their role fits into a production – what function their character plays.  I love actors who are focused on really listening to their scene partners and striving for specificity and nuance in their work.  Humble actors who are ego-less and give themselves over to the character or to the story are most inspiring to me.
FITZ: I admire an actor’s willingness to participate in something unknown from which they will reap no monetary gain, for the most part, and still be totally committed.

Are you both working with the same production team for this project?
LADD:  The core production team for The Year I Was Gifted has been the playwright and myself. It is a very small show, and was crafted to be portable to different venues.   Monica chose the music, and I built the sound cues for the show, and lighting has changed according to the various venues where the play is performed.

John Fico

John Fico

FITZ: Monica has written both plays and is starring in her own vehicle (The Year I was Gifted.)  John Fico (actor in Made for Each Other) and I just hired a lighting designer, and he and I formulated the set and costumes. It’s pretty bare bones, but well considered. The focus is on the play and the acting.

What do you do to keep your artistic batteries charged?
LADD:  I sing in a choir, and it’s a great release of a lot of creative energy, and a good challenge for me on a weekly basis.  I seem to have my best creative ideas when I’m either jogging, driving the car, or in the shower, So I try to do a lot of those activities!

FITZ: I see plays and movies and go to museums and have good friends to bounce things off of: there’s so much to see in the city, it’s overwhelming, but in a good way.

What’s your favorite theatre superstition/ritual?
LADD:  My favorite ritual is formal vocal/physical warm up that includes many different techniques that I’ve collected over the years.  No matter if I’m participating in the warm-up or leading it….it is a great transition from the outside world, into the world of the play.  I cherish that process and it’s become like meditation to me.

FITZ: My favorite ritual is what to do when the “M” play is mentioned…  Many young performers are unaware of the traditions, and it’s sometimes odd to introduce them in an assertive way: as they must be done!

What’s the oddest prop you’ve ever had onstage?  
LADD:  Once I was performing in a show in Chicago – Dearly Departed.  There’s a scene where the family of a deceased family member gets together to make funeral plans and my character served corn dogs.  Because we had a vegetarian actor in the cast, she volunteered to make the corn dogs for every performance with veggie hot dogs and she made her own breading.  The corn dogs were very heavy, and somewhat misshapen; one could barely lift them up on their sticks.  Corns dogs aren’t that odd….but there was such a story behind these particular corn dogs and they were never “quite right.”  Most of us had a hard time getting through “the corn dog scene.”
FITZ: I guess the teapot from The Importance of Being Earnest –  the overly attentive props person had glued the top of it on so it wouldn’t fall off, which made it impossible for the actor to open the lid as was required by the script. Ah, well! So much for tea!

Both of you are directing a play by Monica Bauer. How did you become aware of the plays? Did you know her work before this?
LADD:  I met Monica about 9 years ago, I think it was, through a mutual friend. Not long after we met, I started performing in readings and productions of her work.  So, I’ve never know Monica separately from her plays. It was kind of package deal. I’ve known of, and performed in a number of her plays, but The Year I Was Gifted is the first one that I’ve directed. She approached me about a year ago about directing her.  She was feeling very conflicted about continuing with the project, but we tried a couple of ideas out in my living room, and decided to forge ahead.

FITZ: I was introduced to Monica by Robin Rice Lichtig, another fine playwright whom I had the pleasure to work with. Robin thought I’d be good for this piece and I think she was right!

What does your knowledge of the other play tell you about the one you’re directing?
LADD:  I have been following and performing some of Monica’s work since I met her about 9 years ago.  In one way or another, all of Monica’s plays are about people who are struggling with identity and their purpose in life.  Working on Monica’s own personal story in The Year I Was Gifted was exciting to me, because I was drawn to helping her express this transformative event in her life on the stage. The stage itself is transformative, and her story is transformative. I like transformation, so I knew I wanted to delve into her text and see what we could find.
FITZ: That we have a good writer to work with: that it deserves good attention, because it can give good results!

Directing a solo project is a  unique experience. What are the differences in focusing on a single performer, rather than a larger cast?  
LADD:  Because the solo performer is charged with holding an audience’s attention for the duration of a performance, looking for any way to enhance the rhythm and movement of the piece is key.  When a solo performer is skilled and focused, the audience clearly sees far more people on the stage than the single performer.  It’s a magical thing that happens with solo performance, and I get really excited by finding new ways to portray the fullness of an event with just one performer.  Solo performance is so pure and simple, but it has the ability to portray complex events in surprising detail.  The solo performer acts like the lens of a camera which focuses our attention on the important details from moment to moment.
FITZ It’s definitely one-on-one with John: I always try to keep my “mood” at least neutral, so work can flow easily between us; John pretty much has done the same: though he has more allowances as the actor to have a “bad day”.  And then we talk about it a bit and move on.  But he’s dealing with his feelings as he works, so must be treated humanly, first of all; then, with the respect due an artist.  In a larger cast, this is simply amplified and the energies are integrated within the group: and so, as director, one has to be aware of what may be influencing the group in a negative way, and try to confront that, and get back to the work at hand.  My old coach used to say: “Check your watch and your problems at the door before you come into the rehearsal room.”

Both of these scripts deal with equality in our society. How do you hope the audience will take away from seeing the production?
LADD:  That each and every person has something important to say in this world.  That each and every day, each one of us can make a difference in our corner of the world if we just commit to what is right and follow where our heart leads us.

FITZ I hope the audience enjoys the characters and empathizes with them: that will be enough: each person will then process that experience in his or her own way.

Final question: If you could pass along one piece of advice to someone considering moving to NYC to be a director, what would it be?
LADD:  Be a very observant person, and read a lot about everything.  Follow your heart, take a risk, believe in yourself, and most importantly believe in other people and what they have to teach you.   That sounds kind of cheesy, I know, but I think it’s really true.
FITZ:  Be prepared to be gobbled up with no pay for awhile: so, if you can afford to, choose your projects wisely; but be open to what’s out there: there are a lot of very creative people in NYC, and you never know where a project might lead.  Keep your health in good order so you can work well.  And respect those around you and give them the benefit of the doubt.  Perhaps be an assistant director, but only if the person you’re working under is someone you highly respect as an artist.

Excellent! Should be very interesting to see how the two of you bring Monica’s stories to life. Thank you very much for taking the time to answer some questions. Best wishes to you both!


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