BWW Blog: First Time Directing
My first-time directing was all thanks to a Facebook post. It was September of 2019, and my second year of college was just getting started. I was scrolling through my Facebook feed when I saw a post from a theatre friend of mine looking for a stage manager, a dramaturg, and an assistant director. I had been wanting to try directing for a while but I had zero experience with it, and honestly was terrified out of my mind. With a little nudge from my friends I sent an email saying I was interested in being an assistant director. That night I got a response back saying they would love to have me on the team.
I was daunted by this task, to say the least. I was helping create a show with such a powerful message and a unique format. However, I knew this story needed to be told. The play was called "The Laramie Project.". It is based on real-life interviews with real people from Laramie, Wyoming regarding the events surrounding Mathew Shepard's death. It is about a gay man who was beaten, tied to a fence post, and left to die. The story centers around the people of the town, and the attention suddenly thrust upon them when the media swarmed the town. It was done by the Tectonic Theatre Project, and although it started as a play it was eventually turned into a movie. Not only is it a play that talks about LGBTQ rights and hate crimes, but it is also a play that talks about what it means to be human by letting us take a glimpse into other people's lives. It helps you understand what true empathy is. Every word spoken on stage is from an actual person, as the audience is taken into the world of Laramie, Wyoming.
I had never heard of Matthew Shepard, or Laramie Wyoming, before getting the script in my hands. When I read it for the first time I cried my eyes out. Right then and there, my fear diminished due to my overwhelming urge to share this story with everyone who would listen. People needed to know the story of Matthew Shepard, and they needed to know the story of Laramie.
First step: casting. This show has over 60 characters played by only 8-10 actors. We had to find people who could switch between characters, who could bring these real people to life and make them their own at the same time. It was certainly a difficult task, and I took so many notes my hand began to cramp. When it came down to the final decision I learned an important lesson. When sitting on the other side of the table it doesn't come down to if an actor is good enough. Everyone we saw was talented, but when it comes to casting it is about who is the best fit for the role, who will be the best fit for the story you want to tell. It was from standing on the other side of the table that I understood the director's dilemma. When I don't get cast in a show it's not about my abilities, but about the role itself. I understand how hard their job is and that in the end, it is not personal.
Second step: rehearsals. Now the real work began. Four times a week we rehearsed doing readings and blocking. I'd show up there early, every time, and meet up with the director as we exchanged notes and talked about what the next step would be. We would be in classrooms, or honestly any space we could find to practice. I wanted to make sure the actors felt comfortable enough to explore their characters. I would sit down with each actor and work on their monologues with them, and instead of telling them what to do, I proposed questions on what their character might be thinking or feeling during this particular moment and let them explore. Putting together a show takes a lot of trust. The actors need to trust that the director will help them discover the character, and the director needs to trust the actor's impulses and give them a say in the character too. It's a lot of trust and a lot of teamwork. Theatre really is a collaborative process, especially from a directing standpoint.
Third step: tech week. My stress levels were through the roof. We performed "The Laramie Project" in the basement of The Reformed Church of New Paltz. The director and I got there as early as we could to get the door unlocked, bring in all of the costume pieces, and set everything up before the actors got there. As we ran it scene by scene I would be running on the set with a screw gun, putting in nails to the set to hang up the costume pieces. I would sit with the director exchanging notes and deciding what scenes needing touching up. Tech week is all about being gentle with each other. I would remind the actors that they were doing a good job and that we just needed to keep going. Reminded them why we were doing this. That we were a team and doing this together.
Final step: Showtime! I sat in the audience, which was a first for me. Most of the time I am the one on stage, and yet there I was sitting in the very back of the audience waiting for the show to start. I was more nervous than I ever was in my entire life. What if people hated it? What if they didn't understand what this play was really about? What if someone said something homophobic in the audience? I was afraid and I just wanted it to go well. The lights went down and the show began. I felt immense pride and fulfillment during the entire show. People were crying, and laughing, and I couldn't help but sob my eyes out when the show ended. I had helped create this, I had helped make a show that touched people. Audience members came up to say how moved they were by the story of Matthew and the people of Laramie. My friends smothered me with hugs saying how wonderful it was to see a story about our community told in such a raw and emotional form. The show was a hit.
It was that night I realized the true power we have as theatre artists, and that our job boils down to simply telling a story we believe needs to be heard. No matter what your part is in it. I was scared to try my hand at directing but now it is slowly becoming more and more a part of my life as an artist. It's important to try new things in the theatre world because you never know what you will find. In the end, it is all about storytelling, and I found a new way to tell a story. I can tell stories by being a director. At the end of the show, there is a line that still sticks with me this day: "You say it right. You need to do your best to say it correct." I think those are words we all should remember as artists. That when we tell a story we need to do our best to say it correctly. So we can teach empathy to others. If this experience taught me anything, empathy is one of the most powerful things in the world, and we as people need to remind ourselves to have empathy, and actively practice it.