Directors Lab West 2011, Days 5-6

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All this week LA STAGE Times will present coverage of Directors Lab West 2011 with reports from DLW production coordinator Doug Oliphant.  Click here to view all DLW 2011 updates.

Wednesday, June 15 and Thursday, June 16

Directors Lab West Sessions 2011

Each year the Lab chooses a theme around which all its sessions are based and a play around which many group workshops are organized. For 2011 the theme is “Exploring the Bigger Picture”Â and the play The Good Person of Szechwan.

Playing at Being Good

“When I first meet with the director I just want to talk about the play.” ““ Tom Buderwitz, Set Designer

Actress Lauren Lovett in discussion with Directors Lab West attendee Ryder Thornton

Passing the half-way mark in the eightday marathon of Directors Lab West, the directors started day 5 with an exciting session that divided the participants into three rooms.  Each room would have a different director working with either a movement/voice artist (Elissa Weinzimmer, aided by actress Lauren Lovett), a dramaturg (Karen Jean Martinson), or a panel of designers (Cricket Myers-sound, Jeremy Pivnick-lights, Tom Buderwitz-scenic).  The three directors were selected from this year’s participating Lab and represented a range in different directing styles and backgrounds.  The rest of the labbies would observe how the other directors engage with their collaborators in their first meeting for a theoretical production of The Good Person of Szechwan.  After an hour, the directors would rotate to another room and have their first conversation with another collaborator, allowing the observing directors to either follow the same director, see how another director works with the same collaborator, or they could do a combination of these until all three stations had been visited.  I found it very interesting to see how different directors communicated with their collaborators””some would have a very clear sense of how the play should be, others were a bit more flexible and open for interpretation.  As directors, we’re always in the hot seat with everyone looking up to us for answers””this was a great opportunity to see the pressure on another (unless you were one of the three) and observe when communication seems to be working, not working, and how you can incorporate the things that work into your own work.

Gender Bender

“Assumption of knowledge is what is keeping us back, not ignorance!” ““ Lisa Wolpe DLW ’06

Ever consider casting the opposite sex for a production you’ve directed?  Or to take that one step further, have you ever considered casting the opposite sex, but have them play the intended sex?  Well, Lisa Wolpe (LA Women’s Shakespeare Company) and Robert Prior (Fabulous Monsters) are experts in the field of theatrical gender-bending and spoke to the Lab in a session filled with alternative casting possibilities in the context of gender.  Wolpe showed us several video clips of her portraying Shakespeare’s leading male roles where she played the role as a man.  It was fascinating to see and showed how, with a little bit of work, a woman can play a completely convincing man, and be empowered in the process.  Prior showed us some of the work he and his company have created, looking at cross-gender casting as a celebration of the opposite sex and the hilarious but poignant effect it has on audiences.  Both approaches were wonderfully empowering, and it seemed like quotable material spouted out of both panelists endlessly, leaving everyone hungry to continue the conversation.

The Gem of La MaMa and the Diamond in the Rough

“Ellen Stewart didn’t judge people by the quality of their art; she always judged everything by the quality of the person.” – David Diamond

Career coach David Diamond spoke to the Lab and his unique position as a career coach for the arts.  Before launching into career discussion for directors, he talked about Ellen Stewart, a remarkable woman and one who had a great influence on him.  Particularly notable was her belief in the individual over the product””meaning that you could produce a terrible piece of theater, but if she believed in you as an individual, she’d give you another chance.  La MaMa, her theater in NYC, ran under those beliefs.  A show would get a three-week run regardless of how it did in the box office, be it a major hit that could extend and keep running or a complete flop that deserves to close upon opening.  Diamond went on to give the directors career advice, focusing particularly on those early-mid career directors who find themselves stuck in a rut, where they are directing for little to no money and can’t seem to find a way to the next level.  Here’s hoping we can all find our own paths to a happy, fulfilling career in the theater.

Leading the Way

“Your audience will only be as smart as you expect them to be.” – Kate Warner DLW ’01

Thanks to the TCG Conference, Directors Lab West was privileged to present a great panel of artistic leaders from around the country, speaking about the current state of American theater and the direction in which they hope to lead their institutions.  Michael Evan Haney (Cincinnati Playhouse in the Park), Jasson Minadakis (Marin Theatre Company) and Kate Warner (previously of New Repertory Theatre) took turns speaking about their experience as artistic leaders at their current theater companies and in previous positions.  Minadakis spoke in particular about the importance in striking a balance between working at your own theater and guest directing at other institutions.  One season, he recalled, out of the 13 shows his theater produced, he directed 11 of them.  Largely, it’s for financial reasons that artistic directors end up directing so much at their own theaters, but regardless, it’s a trap as a director to discontinue your national outreach and completely isolate yourself from anyone outside your immediate vicinity.  Haney spoke about producing models and how — despite the downward spiral the current subscription model has been taking — Cincinnati Playhouse has retained a strong subscription support.  It has, however, been adapting the newer model of membership, where theatergoers pay a set amount to see any five shows in the season they’d like.  For a lower price, the playhouse offers a “pick 3″ deal where subscribers can pick any three shows in a season — Haney joked that next the playhouse will go to a “pick 1″ model.  Warner spoke on the relationship a theater has with its audience and the difficulty of presenting challenging material for audiences while retaining their interest.  Presenting an audience with dumb material can seem like an easy financial choice, but it’s a model that doesn’t sustain, as it leaves no room for them to grow with you.  We saw a lot of different avenues that artistic directors could choose, and for many of our directors this lit a fire under them and gave them a goal.  Or, in Lab participant Kimberly Faith Hickman’s case, she’ll “never want to be an artistic director in my life.  And if I forget that someday, PLEASE remind me of this day.”

Breakfast with the Board

“There is no mid-career director. There is a beginning director and a working director.” ““ Tom Moore, SDC

SDC Executive Board Members Sheldon Epps, Oz Scott, Laura Penn and Tom Moore spending breakfast with the Lab

Thursday morning got us started eating breakfast and drinking coffee with several board members of our union, the Stage Directors and Choreographers Society (SDC).  Laura Penn (executive director), Tom Moore (executive board member), Oz Scott (executive board member), and Sheldon Epps (previous executive board member), joined by Barbara Wolkoff (director of member services) spoke to the Lab about what the union does for directors and encouraged everyone to take advantage of its resources by becoming associate members.  The SDC defends the ethereal work directors and choreographers create that — if not properly documented and contracted — could be stolen by someone who sees it and later puts up the same production.  SDC settles small disputes such as $750 that was withheld from a Midwest director who created and developed a new show, was told he would receive payment and then was replaced as the project entered production, never receiving a paycheck.  It also defends the work on the other end of the spectrum and is in the middle of a battle for Julie Taymor, who currently is not being paid for her direction she put in on Spider-Man that can still be seen in today’s production.  One lab attendee pointed out that the SDC, unlike the actors’ unions (Equity, SAG and AFTRA), exists to aid its members in career advancement and to support their work.  From emerging director to career pro, SDC has got your back.  You’ll never be told you can’t work on a project””even if that project pays $.57, the SDC will draft a contract.  We should all be thankful that such an organization exists and that  a tangible union represents our intangible work.

Shen Te or Shui Ta?

“I feel like I’ve been in this artistic orgy.” ““ McKerrin Kelly DLW “˜11

Another roundtable discussion.  This time, there was a noticeable difference in how the labbies interacted with each other.  Previously, there was a strong sense of “My opinion is more valid than yours,” and it often led to people butting heads with each other.  Now,  though, almost everyone has been changed in some way by the Lab.  Perhaps labbies have been inspired by a particular session, maybe an artistic leader spoke some essential truths that have never been voiced, or maybe participants found a connection to the other directors in the room.  Whatever the reason, the tone and atmosphere of the room were significantly different.  Labbies discussed their reactions to previous workshops, both in a large group and in smaller groups that focused on specific topics.  Some discussed being young directors and finding their next career step, some discussed their reactions to The Method Gun.  The group came together again and the members of the steering committee opened the floor up for discussion on the structure of the Lab itself and what they could do in future years to improve the experience.  Plenty of ideas were thrown out there, and while labbies remained respectful and appreciative of their experience, they held nothing back. It was pretty clear that the session called “Who The Hell Are You?!” should be moved to a spot earlier in the week, so the attendees can get to know each other sooner and still have some time to engage in meaningful conversations. That session has always been held until the end of the lab to keep the focus on the work and ideas of the room, rather than the resumes of their peers.  But the chorus has spoken.  Check in with us next year to see if the change has been put into effect.

Art Institute Portfolio Show (SDC Open Session)

Open to the current labbies, their friends, significant others, and alum from past Labs, a showcasing of design work was the SDC Open Session this year, taking place in a gallery in Hollywood.  Students from the Art Institute, about to graduate and enter the real world, showcased their final designs for the public, giving us an opportunity to scout designers we may potentially want to work with in the future.  While there were many fashion designers, interior designers, and graphic designers, the main design elements of theater (scenic, lighting, costuming and sound) were absent,  and the session became more of an opportunity to connect with the others at the exhibit and find inspiration in fresh design work.  Be it a deepened connection to peer directors or a style choice a fashion designer made, there’s value in every session.  After all, we are exploring the bigger picture.

Radar LA

I sat down in the REDCAT Lounge before my 7:30 pm show and could feel the room buzzing.  Artists and patrons alike were walking around the lounge with an amazing sense of excitement for the evening’s events.  Both The Car Plays (Moving Arts) and Amarillo (Teatro Línea de Sombra) were playing that night and using REDCAT as their home.  I saw The Car Plays and it proved to be just as clever as I had imagined.  One play in particular titled The Audience by Kiff Scholl I found to be particularly successful and wildly entertaining.  To speak in specifics about any of these plays would be saying too much, but I will say that the best plays were the ones that really took advantage of the car setting and made a world that would not work if the same play were set in a kitchen or anywhere else.  I can’t speak about Amarillo, but filtering through the comments of those who did attend, it sounded as though it was a beautiful, emotional experience that had some wonderful theatricality though possibly suffered from poor translation (Spanish to English).  After both plays ended, theater patrons, TCG Conference attendees, Directors Lab attendees and many others gathered around REDCAT’s bar for an after party that went on for hours.  I couldn’t help but look around the room and see people that I know I’ve seen before, from some other escapade in the theatrical world, though I couldn’t always figure out from where.  That vibe of the room was incredible, as so many theatrical collaborators from around the country were gathered in a single room and above all, it was happening here in Los Angeles.  With everything that’s going on right now in this city, I am proud to say that I am a theater artist in Los Angeles.

Directors Lab West is a forum that brings theater directors together with peers and seasoned professionals for an opportunity to collaborate and grow together as artists. Directors Lab West is modeled after the Lincoln Center Theater Directors Lab in New York City. Like its NY counterpart, the Lab is a series of discussions, working sessions, panels and symposia with some of the nation’s and region’s leading directors, playwrights, designers and other theater practitioners.

Doug Oliphant

Doug Oliphant