Thursday, 24 March 2011

Chris Port Blog #143. On Directing

© Chris Port, Central School of Speech and Drama, 1998

  • Introduction
  • The Evolution of the Director (from hegemony to homogeny)
  • The director's role in a collaborative process of realization
  • How the director views the play (as a text or as a pretext)
  • The director as instructor or facilitator
  • Translating the play from page to stage; the semiotics of performance
  • Bibilography


‘To what extent is it "the director's responsibility to develop a style or idiom specific to the theatre within which every element [becomes] a significant bearer of meaning"?’ (Bradby & Williams, 1996, p.15)

The art of theatre, together with the distinct roles allocated to actors and playwrights, has recognizably existed in one form or another for over two and a half thousand years. The role of the director, however, only seems to have become apparent over the last hundred years. It therefore seems reasonable to query the director's seemingly late arrival on the theatrical scene.

The Evolution of the Director (from hegemony to homogeny)

One possible reason for the comparatively recent emergence of the director is that the director's role, or its ancestral equivalent, previously existed in the homogenous social function of theatre. From the religious Dionysian ritual of Ancient Greek drama to the cynical commentaries on social mores in Restoration comedy, theatre may have prodded the conscience of its audience with an accusatory finger, but it did not seek to challenge the existing social order of pre-nineteenth century European societies. In essence, the social function of theatre was to perpetuate the hegemony of the status quo by portraying the common belief systems of its patrons and audiences. However, the fragmentation of European societies into class systems, with an awareness of conflicting interests after the French and Industrial revolutions, destroyed any such single purpose. As the theatre's traditional patrons waned in influence, so a gap appeared between the social function of theatre and the social values of its audiences. This meant that the moral consensus of playwrights disappeared into a variety of (sometimes conflicting) artistic viewpoints, and so in performance there arose a need for the interpretation of playtexts. In Directors On Directing, Cole and Chinoy propose that the role of the director evolved in an attempt to reintroduce a missing unity:

‘The existence of accepted values and conventional modes of action in and out of the theater made the director as a distinct craftsman unnecessary. His basic function is to supply these now-absent values for a segmented society by means of the unifying principles of synthesis and interpretation.’ (Cole & Chinoy, 1963, p.9)

This modern concept of the director did not evolve spontantaneously. Its recognizable transitional stage was that of a disciplinarian (usually an actor-manager like David Garrick or Charles Kean) establishing the primacy of a stage picture usually subjugated to the leading role. In this way, a hegemony of actors, actor-managers and playwrights evolved from the previous homogeny of a social and artistic consensus on the function and conventions of the theatre.

The first recognizably modern incarnation of the director was Duke Georg II of Saxe-Meiningen, whose theatre company toured Europe between 1874 and 1890. As Bradby and Williams note in Director's Theatre, Duke Georg differed from the transitional actor-manager style of director in that he'had the advantage of not being the star of his own productions, so he was able to retain an objective observer's eye' (Bradby & Williams, 1988, p.5). It is this concept of the director as an objective observer, viewing the production from the physical perspective of an audience (as well as the artistic perspectives of the playwright and the actor) that would ultimately separate into the modern variety of definitions on the tasks and responsibilities of the director.

Duke Georg refined all the disparate elements of the theatre (rehearsals, lighting, costume, make-up and stage-setting) into a disciplined process which amounted to an art of production which was'capable of expressing the soul of a play' (Cole & Chinoy, 1963, p.25).

Alongside these refinements in the organisation of theatre, the new artistic modes of realism and naturalism were evolving. Andre Antoine was impressed by the historical verisimilitude of Duke Georg's productions and raised the central question of stage-settings in these new theatrical modes of expression:

‘In modern works written in a vein of realism and naturalism, where the theory of enviroment and the influence of exterior things have become so important, is not the setting the indispensable complement of the work?’ (Cole & Chinoy, 1963 p.27).

This notion of the mise en scène complementing the action meant that the metteur en scène, the director's interpretation of the playtext, might equal the playwright's words in terms of importance. The development of this concept was exemplified in the 1960s by Roger Planchon's avowal of set design, lighting and choreography as 'scenic writing' being the equal of dramatic writing, and found its ultimate expression in Robert Wilson's dispensing with playtexts altogether.

While directors such as Adolphe Appia were becoming increasingly preoccupied with the external mise en scène of stage set and lighting, Konstantin Stanislavski was becoming more concerned with the development of a naturalistic style of acting through the internalization of a character's thoughts, feelings and motives by the actor's identification with a sub-text. This process, elevated by Stanislavski into his famous 'System', meant that the playwright's words were not a target to be aimed at but merely a starting point for the director's interpretation.

While Stanislavski was diminishing at least the surface meaning of the playwright's words by deep character work with the actor, Edward Gordon Craig was experimenting with the possibilities of interpreting plays through the stage set to such an extent that the director might eventually replace the playwright altogether. As he claimed (perhaps somewhat facetiously) during an imaginary conversation between a playgoer and a stage-director:

‘when he [the director] interprets the plays of the dramatist by means of his actors, his scene-painters, and his other craftsmen, then he is a craftsman - a master craftsman; when he will have mastered the uses of actions, words, line, color and rhythm, then he may become an artist. Then we shall no longer need the assistance of the playwright - for our art will then be self-reliant.’ (Craig, 1956, p.148).

Antonin Artaud castigated Western theatre for its reliance on the dull rationality of words and advocated a new theatre based on sensory rather than intellectual stimulation. This proposal for a new theatre, called a 'Theatre of Cruelty' (cruel in the sense that theatre audiences could only appreciate the true euphoria of life through transcending its ephemeral cruelties), also called for a new meta-language of staging which it was (presumably) the director's task to create:

‘This archetypal theatre language will be formed around staging not simply viewed as one degree of refraction of the script on stage, but as the starting point for theatrical creation. And the old duality between author and producer will disappear, to be replaced by a kind of single Creator using and handling this language, responsible for both play and the action.’ (Artaud, 1993, p.72).

While the very different philosophies of Stanislavski, Craig and Artaud might be very loosely grouped together under a desire to rewrite (or dispense with altogether) the surface of the playwright's words with an emotional or sensory meta-language, the theories of Erwin Piscator's Epic drama and Bertolt Brecht's Epic theatre sought to concentrate on language and remove the distraction of emotions in order to use the theatre as an agit-prop focus for intellectual debate and social (Marxist-Leninist) change. While the primary leitmotiv of Brecht's theories as a director was the defamiliarising Verfremdungseffekt, (which in practice meant avoiding any pretence of reality in the acting and mise en scène) Brecht was also concerned at the movement or gestus of his productions. As Hilton notes, Brecht's theory of gestus was based on "the belief that action, especially movement and gesture, is less easily falsifiable than speech, and therefore a sounder basis on which to build ideological teaching" (Hilton, 1997, p.149).

A common concern amongst the most seminal directors of the first half of the twentieth century was therefore that all elements of the theatre should be mobilized to achieve the desired effect (whether that effect is an emotional appeal to the audience's empathy, a stimulating appeal to their senses or a rational appeal to their intellects). It now remains to discuss all the available elements of the theatre, their semiotic possibilities, and the views of various seminal directors and critics as to their role in an essentially collaborative process of realization.

The director's role in a collaborative process of realization

While the role of the director in specific collaboration with the actors is discussed later in The director as instructor or facilitator, it seems pertinent at this juncture to discuss the director's place in the general process of realization. Some directors such as Gaston Baty seem to have advocated the director as a sole visionary, communicating their interpretation of the text to their functionaries. Often attacked as a rare example in France of the director-dicatator, he countered the criticism that he treated great dramatic works only as "pretexts" for his imagination by saying:

‘A text cannot say everything. It can only go as far as all words can go. Beyond them begins another zone, a zone of mystery, of silence, which one calls the atmosphere, the ambiance, the climate, as you wish. It is that which it is the work of the director to express.’ (Chinoy, 1963, p.68).

Baty's claim that the authorship of a play's ambiance is justifiably the preserve of the director rather than the playwright does not in itself render him a dictator. However, there is no hint of any collaboration or work-sharing in such a role. It is the work of the director to express the ambiance (and nobody else).

In contrast, those directors influenced by Brecht's involvement with the Berlinner Ensemble tended to humble their role, describing themselves as co-ordinators in a theatre workshop. Specific famous examples of the collaborationist trend in modern directors are Joan Littlewood with the Theatre Workshop and Ariane Mnouchkine with the Theatre du Soleil. Whether such examples should be taken at face value is another matter though. As in all collaborative processes, the collaboration may lie more in the suggestions made than in the decisions taken, and claims of a harmonious workshop of equals negotiating a mutually agreeable interpretation may prove to be disingenuous. Philippe Hottier has accused Ariane Mnouchkine of deliberately generating a myth of egalitarianism and, as Bradby and Williams note:

‘Hottier's description of the company suggests a group in which everyone plays a role all the time: everyone plays a part at being part of a collective where everything is open and all power is shared equally. In fact, he [Hottier] suggests, every decision of any importance is taken by Mnouchkine; sooner or later the strain of maintaining the pretence becomes too great, and that is when the actors leave. (Bradby & Williams, 1988, p.111).

Hottier's criticism is echoed less cynically by Brook's rumination on his own role as a director. Brook acknowledges that even in collaborative work there is a need for 'authorship', to be the arbiter of differing viewpoints and interpretations:

‘It is a strange role, that of the director: he does not ask to be God and yet his role implies it. He wants to be fallible, and yet an instinctive conspiracy of the actors is to make him the arbiter, because an arbiter is so desperately wanted all the time. In a sense the director is always an imposter...’ (Brook, 1990, p.43).

Brook's suggestion that the director exists as an arbiter in the microcosm of the theatre is reminiscent of Cole and Chinoy's suggestion that the director's role evolved to fill a gap which was once provided by a consensus on the social and artistic functions of theatre.

How the director views the play (as a text or as a pretext)

One of the most obvious elements of theatre which usually bears a meaning is the playtext. However, the meaning of the playtext is subject to hermeneutics , the art or science of interpretation. Specifically in the case of theatre, as Sam Johnson noted to Boswell, "plays only are when they are performed" (Hilton, 1987, p.11). Separate productions of the same play are necessarily adaptations of the original text by their intrinsic differences from each other.

One possible exception to this rule is Brecht's use of the Regiebuch or Modellbuch when devising/writing his plays. Essentially a record of the production in the form of detailed notes, Brecht intended that his model books serve as templates for future productions by different directors. Since the social function of Epic theatre was to provide a forum for the dramatic expression of Marxist ideology, Brecht intended that future productions should faithfully copy the original rather than be rendered useless by another director's possible misconceptions. Thus, in an interview with Wuppertal stage director Winds on the 1949 model book for Mother Courage and Her Children, Brecht said:

‘What indeed would be lost thereby would be the special effects of such a play, which would also fail in its social function. If one had left coach-drivers alone with an auto their first remark would probably have been: "And this is supposed to be something new?" Whereupon they would have harnessed eight horses and taken off." (Cole & Chinoy, 1963, pp.347-348).

Brecht did not regard the detailed prescriptions in his model books as an inhibition to other directors. Rather he saw them as a useful guide or map to enable other dramaturgical travellers to reach the same logical destination. As John Fuegi observed:

‘In his [Brecht's] view the use of a model was not really a limitation on creativity, but rather something that was ecologically sound, the recycling of elements of proven utility.’ (Fuegi, 1987, p.112).

A very different viewpoint is offered by Peter Brook. In The Empty Space , Brook praises those writers who specify the least in their stage directions, the logical implication being that he would admonish those writers [such as Edward Bond] who inhibit the director's freedom of interpretation by prescribing the stage action and nuance in detail. (It is worth suggesting here that playwrights with a specific political agenda, such as Brecht or Bond, would understandably wish to specify the interpretation of their text to avoid any self-defeating ambiguities). In his proposals for a 'Living Theatre' (as opposed to the stale conventions of its opposite, the 'Deadly Theatre'), Brook regards the director's individual interpretation of the text as a creative act equaling that of the original's conception:

‘Some writers attempt to nail down their meaning and intentions in stage directions and explanations, yet we cannot help being struck by the fact that the best dramatists explain themselves the least. They recognize that the only way to find the true path to the speaking of a word is through a process that parallels the original creative one.’ (Brook, 1990, p.15).

Finally, a director such as Mike Leigh devises and directs his own plays only after intensive and prolonged character development and rehearsals with actors. While this approach of the improvised play without agenda allows a writer/director the ultimate in freedom of interpretation, there is a concomittant danger that the production may be viewed as an 'illegitimate' creation. As Paul Clements noted in his account of Mike Leigh's work The Improvised Play after reviewing favourable criticisms:

‘While it may be encouraging to see these remarks as the sign of a great shift in the tide of critical attitudes to Leigh's work, and the work of other deviser-directors who use this method, the fact remains that most criticism doesn't seem able to escape from the idea that improvised plays are some kind of curosity; perhaps not even plays at all.’ (Clements, 1983, p.57).

The director as instructor or facilitator

The director as instructor or, perhaps more accurately, conductor, is best exemplified by Edward Gordon Craig. In his imaginary conversation between a playgoer and a stage-director in On The Art of Theatre he clearly asserts the primacy of the director over his actors:

PLAYGOER: Then you place the stage-director before the actors?

STAGE-DIRECTOR: Yes; the relation of the stage-director to the actor is the same as that of the conductor to his orchestra, or of the publisher to his printer. (Cole & Chinoy, 1963, p.149)

Craig clearly expects the actors to follow the score in keeping with the director's baton.

Vladimir Nemirovich-Danchenko described the dirgctor as a regisseur (in French, a manager of a dance company with varying duties including directing) and postulated three functions: to interpret the play and instruct the actor; to comment on the actor's performance and enable them to improve, acting as a mirror; and finally, to organize the entire production. Nemirovich-Danchenko's approach is clearly that of an instructor assuming responsibility for all aspects of the performance from the acting to the mise en scène (although Nemirovich-Danchenko also goes on to point out that the director's role as interpreter/instructor and actor's mirror disappears towards the end of the rehearsal process, becoming submerged in the actor's performance).

At the alternative end of the directorial spectrum, some director's view their role as a facilitator of the actor's talents, acting as a catalyst rather than a driving force. Probably the best example of the facilitating process is that of Jerzy Grotowski and his Laboratory Theatre. By insisting that the actor strip away all habits of learned skills and techniques by means of the via negativa (way of negation), Grotowski aimed to enable the actor to unleash their creative potential. As Grotowski explained:

‘What resistances are there? How can they be eliminated? I want to take away, steal from the actor all that disturbs him. That which is creative will remain with him. It is a liberation.’ (Bradby & Williams, 1988, pp.124-125).

Peter Brook was greatly influenced by the work of Grotowski and established the International Theatre Research Centre in Paris to develop the idea of a universal theatre and a meta-language of the theatre once proposed by Artaud. However, in The Empty Space, Brook points out the difficulties involved in removing a director's signature from the mise en scène:

‘A director dealing with elements that exist outside of himself can cheat himself into thinking his work more objective than it is. By his choice of exercises, even by the way he encourages an actor to find his own freedom, a director cannot help projecting his own state of mind on to the stage. The supreme jiujitsu would be for the director to stimulate such an outpouring of the actor's inner richness that it completely transforms the subjective nature of his original impulse. But usually the director or the choreographer's pattern shows through and it is here that the desired objective experience can turn into the expression of some individual director's private imagery.’ (Brook, 1990, pp.68-69).

In contradiction to the above examples (and often in contradiction with himself) were the working methods of Brecht. Brecht seems to have alternated inconsistently between instructing his actors on a theoretical approach to problems and then junking theory in favour of a pragmatic approach. As Fuegi recounts:

‘Each day the text would be viewed afresh as Brecht the director denounced (half in jest but half seriously) Brecht the playwright.... Brecht the theorist would openly fight with Brecht the director ... But somehow, out of the cacophony of the Brecht's arguing with one another would come a production that worked as a unified artistic whole as each contributed a valuable piece to the final mosaic.’ (Fuegi, 1987, pp.16-17).

Rehearsals with Brecht the director were clearly a contradictory process. However, given his pragmatic approach, combined with lengthy rehearsal periods and testing of alternatives, it is clear that Brecht happily alternated between instructing and facilitating his actors depending on the results he/they were achieving.

Translating the play from page to stage; the semiotics of performance

Semiotics is the study of signs and symbols. In the mise en scène, the signs and symbols are diverse not only in type (e.g. words, inflections, movements, gestures, set design, proxemics, lighting, costume, props) but also in potential meanings. In Performance, Julian Hilton uses the term dynamic iconography to differentiate the variable meanings of symbols used in the open suggestiveness of the theatre from the fixed meanings of symbols or icons in closed ideologies (e.g. the crucifix in Christianity, a closed ideology, has a fixed meaning - the redemption of humanity through Christ's suffering; the use of the same symbol in the theatre, an open ideology, may have completely different meanings dependent upon the context in which it might be used). The use of symbols in the theatre, with both their established meanings and their possible meanings, is therefore a dynamic iconography. Hilton goes on to suggest that the director's task is twofold: to act as a semiotic designer for the audience and a semiotic mirror for the performer until the performer has absorbed all the potential meanings of their appearance:

‘Any higher level of directorial interpretation must grow out of the action-learning process which it is the director's task to co-ordinate and lead. This makes the director's task a combination of highway codesman, ensuring that “the two hours traffic of the stage” flows freely, and Hamlet's famous 'mirror up to nature', the glass into which the performers look to discover what effect they are having. In that sense, the director functions as audience, stimulating the 'audience' component of the performer's self to a point where the performer no longer needs the external monitor.’ (Hilton, 1987, p.49).

Hilton's definition of the director as 'highway codesman' and 'mirror up to nature' echoes Nemirovich-Danchenko's earlier definitions of the regisseur as the interpreter of [the semiotics of] the play and as a mirror to the actor, enabling them to improve their performance.

However, in his later work New Directions In Theatre, Hilton extended the notion of modern hermeneutics (the art of interpretation or translation) to suggest that the director's adaptation of the text, in terms of semiotic design, does not so much translate as recreate or even rewrite the true meaning of the text.

‘One could go further to propose that application is performance itself, in which the process of adaptation encounters the contemporary audience through whose response we create the 'text for our time'. (Hilton, 1993, p.26).

If, through the totality of semiotic design, the director can effectively 'rewrite' the true meaning of the text 'for our time', then that power must deserve a similar level of responsibility. That responsibility must at least be an awareness of the effect of every significant element, even if every element is not in itself intended to be a significant bearer of meaning. It would be unreasonable to expect every director to be a semiotic genius. However, they should at least be competent enough to avoid semiotic 'accidents' (unintentional meanings which work against the intended interpretation of the play). Also, since it is not necessarily within the power of the director to control every element of the production, their responsibility must be mitigated by events outside of their control (e.g. regardless of the director's design, if the performance does not proceed according to plan then the director should be able to relieve himself of his responsibility if only to the exact same extent as the failure of another to fulfill their delegated responsibility). A director can lead a performer to a great performance but he cannot make him give it. Theatre is a performance art rather than a rehearsal art and the director's responsibilities end where the performer's begin.

© Chris Port
January 1998


Artaud, A. The Theatre and its Double , Calder Publications, London 1993.

Bradby, D. & Williams, D. Director's Theatre , Macmillan Modern Dramatists, London 1988.

Brook, P. The Empty Space, Penguin Books, London 1990.

Clements, P. The Improvised Play: The Work of Mike Leigh, Methuen, London 1983.

Cole, T. & Chinoy, H. Directors on Directing, The Bobbs-Merrill Company Inc., New York 1963.

Graig, E.G. On The Art of Theatre, Theatre Arts Books, New York 1956.

Fuegi, J. Bertolt Brecht: Chaos According To Plan, Cambridge University Press, Cambridge 1987.

Hilton, J. Performance, Macmillan Publishers Ltd., London 1997.

Hilton, J. (ed.) New Directions In Theatre, Macmillan Press Ltd., London 1993.

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