May 14, 2006

John Smythe      posted 14 May 2006, 08:01 PM / edited 14 May 2006, 08:14 PM

A director’s role, rights and responsibilities

Three recent productions have raised questions about the role, rights and responsibilities of directors. [Warning: Don’t read on if you’d rather not know what happens in The Underpants.]

The Underpants at Circa (Wellington)

In seeking to reinstate some aspects of Carl Sternheim’s 1911 original, and bring out what he felt was already implicit in Steve Martin’s recent adaptation, director Ross Jolly has:

·       made the Kaiser look and behave like a Hitler-in-the-making

·       introduced two rag dolls for Louise to play with

·       had Louise ‘put away childish things’ as she faces her conjugal responsibilities (now that her husband has decided they can afford to have a child), and

·       added a whole new scene where, in tears after the all-too-brief and unromantic bedroom session, she reunites with a life-sized version of the boy doll.

Are these legitimate acts of interpretation or distortions that offend the moral rights of the author?

Hamlet at The Court (Christchurch)

Both theatreview critics – Ron Kjestrup and Steve Austin – assert that director Peter Evans cut the scene where Claudius and Laertes conspire to render Laertes’ sword lethal and back it up with a poisoned ring (to be dropped in the wine). This means that going into the duel scene, the audience is unaware of the life-threatening subterfuge surrounding what pretends to be a bit of sport to reconcile Hamlet and Laertes.

Is this legitimate editing or an inexcusable lapse of judgement?

The Fundraiser at Centrepoint (Palmerston North)

According to comments posted after my review, Cheryl Amos’s first play enjoyed a comprehensive development process before Centrepoint scheduled its world premiere season. But director Kate-Louise Elliott excluded Cheryl from rehearsals and proceeded (with the cast?) to cut and change the script considerably. As I understand it:

·       The device of Andy the caretaker telling the story was removed, so that what was written as a subjective viewpoint was represented as relatively objective truth

·       Material that grounded the playgroup mothers more realistically in a real and recognisable world was removed

·       What was written as a fundraising lingerie party was rewritten as a sex toy party

·       The writer only became aware of these changes on opening night and felt obliged to appear supportive of the production.

Even if there was not a contract that said no substantial changes could be made without the playwright’s express permission, should the director/ cast/ production company have had the right to do such things with a brand new script?

Paul McLaughlin               posted 15 May 2006, 08:02 PM / edited 16 May 2006, 01:26 PM

Rocket scientists need not apply…

Whilst I agree that tampering with the writers’ intentions is a very slippery slope, I also know directors and casts’ are always working towards one aim : giving the punters a great night at the theatre. That’s what all theatre professionals  do, and Circa does it pretty bloody well.  A degree of (script) cutting has always and will always take place, and to that end (if you want answers,  John) I say we must re-instate the dramaturg, who will work with directors on the behalf of the writer/s to ensure that any cuts/interpretations are truly justified.

In my opinion, looking at the writer/director/actor lineup, it is easily the writer who has the most difficult task. It is the job of the actors to (and I must say merely here, as we only speak the lines that have been written for us to say) speak the lines, the job of the director is to make sure we actors don’t make fools of ourselves [and we are supremely capable of that simple task] – not to assume they know better than the playwright.  But while funding issues mean that we can’t even afford vital support like professional stage managers (in the case of Drawer of Knives, playing  @ Circa B…), the likelihood of bringing on dramaturges must be pretty slim.

The multi-award winning [but no-money-making] Albert Speer, directed by David O’Donnell at Bats, WGTN  in 2004 incorporated a dramaturg, and, from my perspective as an actor, I found (Dramaturg) Bronwyn Tweedle’s contribution to the production invaluable.

I have had the privilege of working on several new NZ plays over the last few years, and feel that we must especially honour the work and intentions  of our talented NZ playwrights. To incorporate dramaturges through the whole process of a production (not just the excellent initial support we get via Playmarket) is a possible -but highly unlikely- solution to some of these important issues John. Thanks again for the website, all communication either on or off stage is good.

It’s not rocket science we’re doing on stage, it’s acting. Acting. 

‘ Invent nothing, deny nothing’  (David Mamet)

Ron Kjestrup      posted 16 May 2006, 08:52 AM

“Get on, say your lines, get off”. Can’t remember who gave me that bit of advice – probably some crusty old thespian at The Depot…good advice, though.

It’s an interesting discussion, isn’t it? Actors and directors always interpret the script and usually the playwright writer isn’t involved in the production. Yet – when the playwright is around – at what point should they let go and to what extent should the production mess with their intent.

To my way of thinking it’s always a collaborative process. Actors, designers, playwright and director make the work together. So, whatever they do, it’s always going to be a combination of perspectives. 

I also think there’s a difference between the way we approach a new (realist?) work by a local writer and the 16,546th production of Hamlet. I am completely in favour of cutting Bill’s work. Not because it needed cutting in 16 whatever but because it needs cutting now. It also lends itself to creative cuts and pastes. Some of the best productions I’ve seen included material from other plays, role reversals, modern interpretations of lines. There are only a few purists left who sit and follow the text and they’d be lost in most productions these days and not many audiences want to sit through four hours of theatre these days and not many productions could actually hold them for that long.

My review of Hamlet is used as an example in the original post on this thread and to clarify – my argument there is not so much that cutting the scene messed with the playwright’s intention as with the enjoyment of the story.

Mind you – I’ve never written a play and so have never watched as a production butchered my script…….

John Smythe      posted 16 May 2006, 06:05 PM

Great comments both … I just want to add that for my money actors do much more than say the lines (I know you were taking poetic licence there but the point’s worth making all the same).  They inhabit their roles with all the history, wants, needs, foibles, fallibilities and vulnerabilities that come with them – some of which are consciously crafted by the writers, while others manifest unconsciously, through the alchemy that is play-making. 

A key role of the director is to see what IS as the production evolves, check that against what it needs to BE and ensure everyone conspires to reach potentials that surprise and delight everyone – including the writer! 

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