Cody Nickell is Gulfshore Playhouse’s Artistic Associate. He will be blogging every Tuesday throughout the 2014-2015 Season.
It is sometimes hard to know how in-depth or detailed or substantive to get in these blog posts. They are meant to be a behind the scenes look into what goes into making a play or the many and varied things that are part of the life blood of a nonprofit regional theatre. And with a readership that includes industry professionals and the laity, it is difficult to gauge what details to include. “Was that over-explaining? Not enough?” And ultimately, above anything else, these should be compelling and interesting short pieces of writing. I have on occasion used this platform to hold forth on something I feel very passionate about, but generally I try to give an occasionally humorous, occasionally heart felt general account of what my previous or upcoming week might entail. After all, I am a representative of this institution, and this is not a personal blog where I can take on all the burning issues inside me.
But there are some things burning inside me this week. Working on Katori Hall’sThe Mountaintop has been a provocative experience and I would like to reflect on that.
A few weeks ago I went to New York and DC to finalize casting for the show. It had been a few months since I had heard the play spoken aloud, and several national news stories had broken that made me hear this play with new ears. That phrase, “Hear a play with new ears” is one that gets bandied about by critics and makers of plays with some frequency, and hearing it run through my head as I typed it, I realized that while it is apt in this case, it doesn’t even begin to convey the depth of feeling I experienced in hearing Ms. Hall’s words coming out of the mouths of actors.
I can feel myself trying to gloss over some of the details of what I am writing about, I guess in an attempt to things light or moving forward…but that is not the point today. So bear with me.
The main news story of which I am referring to, though by no means the only one, is the recent and ongoing events in Fergusson, MO as a community struggles in the aftermath of the shooting of Michael Brown, an unarmed teenager, by a police officer. Without getting into my personal thoughts and feelings about the events (though if you have read this blog with any frequency or know much about me, you might be able to guess), they have made working on this play relevant in ways that can be quite moving and a little overwhelming at times.
As a theatre maker and storyteller, I often strive to be a part of work that holds relevance to our journey as humans on this planet. For most of my career I have been a freelancer, so mercenary concerns occasionally overrode my wishes in that regard, but mostly I have been lucky to have worked on projects and with artists that really have something relevant to say. Now that I have the extreme pleasure and benefit of working full time for a theatre, one that invites me to the table to be a part of the discussion about season programming, I feel a stronger onus to make sure that I am fighting for works that I feel are relevant. And when we discussed this play as a possibility for our season, we saw its relevance.
But now this play is really relevant. And the circumstances that make it relevant are saddening and troubling and frustrating and unfortunately all too familiar. And in the rehearsal room I feel quite a bit of pressure to “get this right,” which is not always the best motivator when making art. And I know that the actors who are bringing these words and characters to life are also feeling pressure. We have discussed this, though perhaps not as much as we should have. And that is going to be what I do when I walk in today. I want to make sure that conversation is happening enough in the room. And I want to make sure that I am not leading the conversation. I want to listen more than I talk.
I feel great about the work that we are doing so far on this play. The character development and emotional work by the actors is going superbly well, and I have been proud of the way that I have tackled the technical and physical pieces of this production. But I need to step back and make sure we are dealing with the relevance, and that needs to happen without scripts, and without characters, but with human beings in a room talking, expressing themselves, and being heard.
Sometimes it is much better to listen than to talk. As a director I need to allow this play and these characters and these actors to tell their story to me. I need to open myself to the room and let go of any pressure that I may feel about having to say the right thing at the right time. This play will do that work, and if I am doing my best job, anything I need to say will become clear if I listen closely to the story that Katori Hall and the two brilliant actors tackling these roles are telling me.