Proof: in retrospect

In summary: I’m so glad I took a chance on this project, it was a hell of a learning curve but I got through it, and I can’t wait to do it again.

From my initial offhand comment as an audience member at the Pocket Theater – “oh hey, I could finally do this wacky project idea I’ve had in mind” to the final bows, this project lasted about seven months, including just over two months of rehearsals, and the performances stretched over ten days. (And I was still doing science during this time! I had a journal article accepted and I submitted another during the production period.)

Around the three month mark, after auditions but before rehearsals, I finally had the bright idea that perhaps I ought to read a book about directing (Thinking Like a Director, see June for details). I’m still kicking myself that I didn’t think of it sooner, but as it turned out I managed to follow its advice on the pre-rehearsal portions of the process pretty well entirely by accident. That advice was essentially “pick a script you really like, because even the best actors can’t overcome a crummy script” and “pick actors you really like, because even the best directors can’t overcome actors who don’t take direction or just weren’t right for the part.” The rest of the book was mainly variations on letting the actors own their roles and not over-directing it.

Proof isn’t a perfect script, but it’s a damn good foundation for a production, especially for a newbie director. It beautifully captures natural family dialogue and relations, and tackles important issues in professional mathematics and stereotypes of mental illness (and mathematicians/scientists with mental illness). But it stumbles on uncritically accepting the link between mental illness and genius, and there were a few segments where the dialogue was a bit tortured (33 and a quarter days, but every day is a year, and the number of weeks gives the smallest number expressible as the sum of two cubes two different ways, really??? Who counts that???). Plus it only has four characters, which means I only had to keep the arcs of four characters active in my head, monitor the progress of four actors and make sure I was giving them the direction they needed (and not overdoing it), and most importantly coordinate the schedules of four busy actors.

The biggest theme of directing for the first time was about the transfer and ownership of of responsibility. In all the other positions I’ve held over the years, I had complete responsibility for the final execution of my job – to consistently perform my role as directed, or to make sure that light turned on at the right moment, or to ensure that every single thing on, above, and behind the stage happened when and how it was supposed to. As director, I have responsibility for the execution of nothing (well, other than that I ran the light board for practical reasons), but the existence of everything. I have to be able to defend why I made every single decision I made as a director, or why I supported that designer or actor’s choice. This distinction was the basis of how I conceptualized my job.

It was really hard to let go of feeling ownership over the actors’ performances and not over-directing them, because their job was my job for so long. I had the benefit(?) of not having any designers and just dealing with the not-really-a-set set design and music and costumes myself, so at least I only had to work on (eventually successfully) letting go of the actors and not everything else too. As the production went along, and the actors grew more confident in their performances and I in my directing, I got better at not overdoing it. In retrospect, I was a little too involved in what should have been the actors’ process at the beginning, though I was fortunately never the kind of micromanaging director specifying individual hand gestures or acting choices as I’ve chafed under myself. This is almost certainly because I was an actor myself. Once I was able to settle into letting go, and my confidence in doing so was bolstered with repeated practice and rapid improvement by the cast, I think I found a groove. But every production is different, so I’ll need to find that again next time.

I got my start in theater (in 1994!) as an actor. It’s been a meandering road from exclusively performing (typical for kids, there just aren’t many opportunities for crew or design work before high school), through a technical theater program as a high schooler where I started to dabble in crew positions and got exposure to design but still mainly acted, to transitioning from still principally acting in my early college years to exclusively stage managing by the time I graduated. I’ve been extraordinarily lucky that my theater experience and formal education has exposed me to the principles of every area of design, the demands of technical work in the shops, the organizational and political demands of stage management, the silent dependability of the run crews, and the philosophy and practicality of acting. I was extremely fortunate that I completely by accident ended up with a pretty comprehensive curriculum in my combination of school and community theater, with the exception that I was formally introduced to design rather late. (In any case I stink at design, I can’t do a sketch worth the paper it’s on, so it’s not like I was missing my calling.)

Now I’ve finally landed in the lap of directing (and dramaturgy, I did all my own research) – and I’ve got the bug. I know what I would like to do for my next production, and it’s just going to be a matter of figuring out when and how. After I get two independent directing gigs under my belt, I’m hoping to coordinate with a small community/amateur theater so I can start scaling up. Someday I would also like to get some formal education in directing for theater (and perhaps film, though it is not at all the same practically or philosophically). Self-teaching can only take a person so far, especially in a field that depends heavily on team-sport processes (like design and production timelines, for example) that you can only learn by being mentored and watching others and doing it yourself with supervision.

Scientists who have training and are active in the arts are, disproportionately, successful scientifically. Creative professionals who have training in analytic or research-oriented fields are also, disproportionately, successful creatively. I credit my creative training and skills with a huge amount of my successes and ability in science, and my scientific training for my successes in theater. I can’t wait for my next show.

And if you’re looking for a director, you know who to call! (Not ghostbusters. This time.)

One thought on “Proof: in retrospect

  1. And the show was the best! Thank you for your posting. Very interesting take on your journey. Looking forward to your next project.


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