CREATING LIFE ON STAGE: A DIRECTOR'S APPROACH TO WORKING WITH ACTORS by Marshall W. Mason
Early adulthood is when human beings are programmed to form deep and searching relationships with peers that will sustain one through life. In historical periods when people died at age thirty, that was about all the time there was to get things figured out and organized anyway. Friendships that form at fifty or seventy are quite different, deprived of the shared and often intense experience of college, military or... the stage. Maybe if I’d gone to seminary at age twenty instead of forty, I would have formed that crucial team-feeling with fellow-clergy, but as it happened I was in college “doing theatre” in those crucial years and then in Browning, Montana, intensely involved in reservation life.
Now I’m looking back to pick up some of the threads of Northwestern University and life at Annie May Swift Hall, a sort of temple for some of us. I google names from then and thus found Marshall W. Mason’s new book, “Creating Life On Stage: a Director’s Approach to Working with Actors.” I haven’t seen Marshall since 1961, but his name has come up in the larger media and among friends. I still feel the tie.
It occurs to me that I know a number of directors from that time period. Stu Hagmann went to Hollywood and became rich as a director of television and commercials, but that’s different from being a stage director. The three stage directors-to-be that I knew were Marshall, of course; Laird Williamson who has been both an actor and director at the Ashland Shakespearean Festival in Oregon; and Rollie Meinholtz who has also been a professor at the University of Montana in Missoula. They are quite different from each other. Marshall was a tall, wound-up Texan in those days. Laird has become almost monk-like in his intellectual focus and drive towards essentials. Rollie -- an open, intelligent, penny-whistle player who often works with his wife -- is just over the Rockies in Missoula.
But this is supposed to be about Marshall and his book. If I were either to be directing high school productions or teaching a college class in “how to” direct, this book would rarely leave my hand. It’s full of check-lists and specific advice about very detailed matters, plus many cautionary tales of successes and failures -- each explored with good humor and honesty in order to make a point. It’s what I’d call a “grace full” book in theological terms: that is, grace comes with forgiveness and inspiration, preceded -- of course -- by hard work and experience. Grace meaning those fabulous “highs” when the play rises up into intensity and transformation beyond anything the actors and director had hoped for.
Marshall divides his plays into “beats,” meaning coherent scenes with a natural beginning and ending, usually related to someone entering or leaving the set. He stages and rehearses in terms of these “beats.” This is a concept I’ve used with liturgy except that I’ve called them “elements” and emphasized the importance of “articulation,” meaning how one gets from one element to the next. It’s also useful in terms of “rhythm,” another of those terms that is meaningful across art forms but most often thought of in terms of music, like “beats.” I’m just beginning to understand how to use these in writing, both in the logical steps of nonfiction and the narrative flow of fiction. I see very little writing about this basic consideration, either in criticism or in “how to” books.
But what strikes me more than anything else in this book is the emphasis on just plain decent behavior: not abusing or berating people, keeping people aware of what’s going on, making sure the rehearsal space is sanitary and that people have enough time to eat their lunch. Because Marshall has worked in a repertory company which he founded and guided, he knows the importance of good will, relaxation and trust. Esp. in the movie world, these are often replaced by money, power, and extortion of one kind or another.
In a play the focus is on the text. The performance is guided and evaluated on the basis of whether it supports and illuminates the text that it uses. In a movie -- esp. lately -- much is invested in audience expectation, actor personality, violent moments, extremism, and “bits” that might be “beats,” if anyone had it straight in their heads about the sequence, emphasis and transitions, which are often supplied months afterwards by a film editor who wasn’t included in any other part of the production. Dyslexics who don’t shine in the theatre world, might get along great in the film world.
Marshall, Laird and Rollie are all deeply literate. Beyond that, their elemental decency has been developed over the years into wisdom about human nature without them being contemptuous of those early years back at NU. Marshall refers to his earliest directing experiences. I was in “Trojan Women,” the second play he directed. He was concerned that I only looked Very Worried when I ought to have looked devastated. Today, if I were directing that play, I think I would dress the cast in chadors, totally veiled, because we have seen so many faces paralyzed and distorted by the rictus of war outrage and sorrow that nothing could really compare onstage -- maybe masks. (He doesn’t say anything about me, who was a very minor character anyway, but mentions that play as attracting him because of the anti-war theme.)
The MAJOR MESSAGE of this book is that profound creativity doesn’t come out of the chaotic, traumatic, nearly insane emotional mess of life -- which has preoccupied us since the assassinations during Marshall and my college years -- so much as it does through clarity of focus, trusting and supported risk, and the commitment of community. We learned this at NU from Alvina Krause. She anchored us in certainty and example and it has not just been theatre people who learned. These principles of Art actually work in Real Life.