My first month in the Kenan Directing Fellowship at ACT.
By Samip Raval
Why did I apply for this fellowship in the first place?
I assisted John Langs during my senior year at UNCSA on a production of The Mystery Of Edwin Drood by Rupert Holmes (based on the unfinished novel by Charles Dickens), during which he also taught classes in acting and directing. I remember this time being a pivotal moment for me because while he was challenging our class to continue deepening our practice, he was also helping us bridge the transition from a conservatory-college experience to working in the professional arena.
I’ve been most excited about returning after four years to once again work with John because he is a true pursuer of story. It sounds like an easy thing to do, just tell a story. But John is always on the hunt for something deeper. And it’s his constant search for deepening the craft that made me want to immerse myself in this pursuit.
My first ACT show, Bad Apples.
After being given a tour of the theatre and meeting the ACT staff, I dove right into rehearsals for Bad Apples, a rock musical about the 2003 Abu Ghraib prison scandal in Iraq. It follows the love story between three soldiers working in the Iraqi prison. It explores how institutionalized torture was instructed from higher ranks of government to American soldiers, who were forced to commit these acts on Iraqi prisoners. In the end, the pile of crime all fell on those few soldiers, or a few “bad apples,” who were simply following orders. It investigates how our government communicated clear instructions to troops “to do what was necessary” to extract information from alleged terrorists while denying any sort of responsibility for it in the public eye.
Although the play was inspired by these true events, playwright Jim Leonard created a fictional world for the sake of paving a way for entertainment and empathy to the theatrical experience.
Lessons learned from assisting John Langs on Bad Apples:
Emily Penick, the Fellowship director, asked me to record some reflections on my first show of the fellowship. Here I’ll describe just a few of the highlights. The following are notes, observations, reminders, and some questions in here too, to carry on to the next rehearsal process.
This play has been a reminder that pushing audiences into risky territory is an artist’s job.
I could see how everyone on the creative team, and in the company, were all carrying a kind confidence that was daring the audience to embark on a specifically dark, emotional, disturbing, and strangely funny adventure.
How does lifting a juicy piece of journalism into the realm of fiction serve the theatre? And how does the musical genre of theatre reveal something about this story that couldn’t otherwise be done in a straight play? I think confronting this difficult and disturbing subject matter in a musical offers and even challenges the audience to confront a rich concoction of feelings based on our country’s current history. I can’t speak for anyone else, but as I worked on this play, I came across a lot of sorrow, shock, guilt, amusement, and more feelings that I’m still processing. You could hear from someone who has seen the show that it’s about the Abu Ghraib prison scandal and easily walk away from that synopsis thinking, “No thanks, this is not for me.” But I think challenging plays don’t really live up to their goals if they don’t actually challenge us, if they don’t really test our nerves, our levels of comfort. It’s rare to come across a piece of theatre that is asking people to dive into an experience with every drop of empathy they carry.
In the end, I think Bad Apples is revealing a story of people who are left in the dark. It asks us to imagine our troops being thrown into situations with impossible expectations with deceptively minimal instruction. The point of view of this story isn’t asking for permission or an apology. And it’s never telling the audience what to think, but constantly asking questions, allowing them to do their own bit of work throughout the night. And if you treat your audiences with the respect they deserve—trust that they can handle what you’re throwing at them—it can be quite rewarding for you, for them, and most importantly for the story.
When you have a lot of work and very little time, work slowly.
It’s easy to give-in to the idea that you’ve been defeated by the lack of time, before you even begin the task. But what does it look like if you really, to the best of your ability, use every minute you have? This means holding everyone accountable for working the clock (including yourself as director) at the top of the list.
The rehearsal approach that I believe was the key to the success of this production, was trusting that we could work slowly through the play; working meticulously so that everyone was constantly uncovering details about character and action. John began the table work by spending an hour working through the first scene with the actors. “Every action has a target. What is your target with this line?” he’d say. “What are you trying to change in the person you’re talking to?” John worked at a pace that always kept the room moving forward, and in a way where everyone was engaging thoroughly in the work.
Because John knew this play in his heart and bones, he always knew what was coming up next in the story. What comes before and after the scene you’re working on? It’s an incredible thing to know as the director because it keeps the play breathing and reminds the actors about transitions, so they become familiar with where they’re coming from and how they get into each scene. It keeps everyone in the room on their toes.
Try everything. Everything. Even until opening night.
As a creative engine you want to be as greedy about your time as possible. Try everything. Don’t be afraid to try an idea that you may think will flop. On the second preview, a night before opening the show, Jim and John decided to cut a scene and song (a cast favorite!) from the play. They wanted to see if it would keep the story moving forward more cohesively. “You may be losing some entertainment value, but for the sake of following a clear story, let’s try it.” And they did. And they learned from this new edit, as did the cast, that it actually worked. It made the second act more smooth and true to the story.
This was a huge lesson because sometimes we fear what happens when we meddle with our favorite moments. I learned that if you feel passionately about shifting around your playground, you have to give that instinct a chance. Trust that your cast will remember it, that your designers and stage managers, who have already built so many cues around it, will be able to manage and retain the information. Be greedy about the opportunity to experiment. This was a lesson that even until opening night, anything can change.
The character with the fewest lines should be just as important to a director as the character with most lines.
As a director it’s important to give detailed attention to the people in the cast with smaller roles, to those actors who, for that reason, may believe their parts don’t require as much depth. This investment goes a long way because it teaches the room that each person is a part of telling the story, and even if a character has two words in the entire play, they’re still as important to driving the bus as any principal character. In the end, it challenges each actor to bring his/her complete selves, to the work. With this particular play, in which most actors are playing multiple parts, it’s especially key to differentiate, from inside out, how each of their characters are different.
As the director, if you can show your cast that you’re paying attention to the smallest parts of the storytelling, details that can so easily be forgotten, it reinforces the expectation that everyone on the team has a responsibility to uphold.
Keep the material fresh in the room.
Find different ways to inspire your cast. Our dramaturg Sherif was constantly bringing in information, literature, articles, images, and video about Abu Ghraib and the people this play is based upon. He dedicated an entire wall of our rehearsal room to posting his research, and I always saw members of the cast reading and taking in new information.
Always keep digging deeper
Don’t settle on your first directorial “draft” of the scene. Don’t come to answers too quickly. Give the scene a first draft or sketch. Let the actors go home and absorb the work they did. Then come back the next day and hit the scene, song, or choreography again, encouraging new discoveries, new things you may not have gotten the day before. Slowly and surely, the scene will grow. But let it do just that. Don’t be so quick to settle on one idea of a scene, because the moment a scene freezes, you’ve killed it. Be open to new ideas. Just like the writer has probably lost count of how many drafts of the play he or she has written to get it here, hopefully you have meddled with a scene enough as a director to let it live in a place where it’s always evolving, even if the shifts are microscopic. No moment of theatre is ever the same, so why try to force anything to become permanent? Crafting a scene with intention and room for genuine impulse to shine through is the ultimate goal, and will ultimately keep the play breathing and living once the director is gone after opening night.
These are just a few observations that I’ve taken away, and I think the process will keep informing me on future projects. The next play I’m assisting John on is Dangerous Liaisons. I look forward to taking more of these snapshots of invaluable teachings on the next project and share a little more about what goes on behind the scenes.