“White: a blank page or canvas. His favorite. So many possibilities.” – Stephen Sondheim, Sunday in the Park with George
Even though I can’t draw a recognizable stick figure, I am an artist. The process of staging a show is surprisingly similar to that of a painter creating a painting. The proscenium (or box around the stage) is my frame; the stage is my canvas. The actors, along with scenic, lighting and costume design are my paints, brushes, and easel. The outcome is only limited by the scope of my imagination (as impacted by time, the material, and budget).
Instead of one static image hung neatly on a gallery wall, theatrical staging requires its director to create a continuous series of carefully composed images. I like to think of each consecutive moment as a page out of a flip book; each image not only needs to be visually appealing, but must also move the story along. This is not unlike film, however theatre doesn’t have the benefit of employing a closeup as the audience’s guide. It is the stage director’s responsibility to draw attention to what is of primary importance at any given time. Sometimes this requires an actor to make a bold movement before they speak. Alternatively, everyone on stage can look in the same direction as a subliminal clue. There are many simple tricks to help guide the audience so that they never miss a thing (unless you want them to, like sleight of hand).
Since the author has already supplied the text, my canvas is never truly blank. Also, when working on a show like “Grease”, it is impossible to ignore the audience’s pre-conceptions. That’s where I began — reflecting back on the much-beloved film version, as well as revisiting numerous past productions (its three Broadway mountings, and even my own high school production). Once all of that influential material has been considered (paying particular attention to characterization, comedic rhythm, and throughline), I throw it out the window. No show is worth reviving if it doesn’t say something new, and “Grease” is no exception. Rather than try to emulate the versions that came before, I use them as a loose guide to shape what could be (which is all well and good considering Olivia Newton John and John Travolta won’t return my calls). Even though our audiences are likely to be quite familiar with the show’s plot, it’s best to pretend that no one has ever seen it before — that we are the world premiere. This helps keep the production unique, fresh, specific, and leaves no creative stone unturned.
Preliminary conversations about overall vision are then had with my collaborators in scenic, lighting and costumes. These discussions often focus on theme, period, and style (in the case of “Grease”: teenage rebellion, 1959, and Rockabilly juke joint). From here, we work together to create a rough sketch — the artist’s pencil drawing before any paint is applied. Hazy visions of the show begin to appear in our collective subconscious. For me, this is when the characters start to “talk”. If all goes as intended, they often can “communicate” where and when they might move – which leads me to staging (my favorite part).
At this point in the pre-production process, the actors are still weeks away from the start of rehearsal. In the meanwhile, they are represented by a series of dots or x’s on diagrams in my script. Lines and arrows denote any suggested movement – just like a football playbook. I often use a set of die-cast figurines as stand-ins to help me visualize the mise-en-scène. It isn’t until we are in rehearsal that I know how successful these early staging ideas are. The shadows in my head don’t always behave like real people and an actor has a deeper understanding of their character than I ever will (after all, they are singularly focused while I’m thinking about 20 people). If an actor can’t motivate a bit of business (i.e. find a reason why their character would sit or stand) then we collaborate.
That collaboration is the primary difference between my art and that of a painter; it’s what makes theatre special. I highly doubt that Leonardo da Vinci asked Lisa del Giocondo how she would like to appear in The Mona Lisa. (If he had, perhaps she would have asked for some eyebrows.) Unlike the painter as “The Eye of God”, the theatrical director as auteur stifles the creativity of those around them. In the end, the “painting” is not mine – it is ours… and then yours, but only for a brief moment (if you buy a ticket). We are an impermanent art that must be seen to be believed. Every performance offers a chance for us to strive for perfection. Will we get it right? I don’t know yet. But I can promise you a lot more singing and dancing than a trip to the Louvre.