A version of this article originally appeared in SDC Journal, Spring/Summer 2021, Vol. 9 No. 1, and is reprinted here with permission from Stage Directors and Choreographers Society.
Recently, I sat in the gallery of a sound studio at RTÉ, Ireland’s national broadcaster, as the sitzprobe for the production of an opera I directed was conducted by maestro Tim Robinson with our crack cast and the national symphony.
This is always a joyful moment for the director. The time-pressurized rigors of the “stage and piano” tech and the “stage and orchestras” lie imminently ahead, but in those moments the responsibility lies completely with the conductor, and the director can sit back, as if at a private concert, and let the music, played and sung with consummate skill and feeling, come blazingly to life after the piano reduction of the rehearsal room. In a tea break between acts, I spoke to Tim about how joyous I found it, and he said, “Well, having such skilled players and singers makes my job easy.”
This is how I feel about American actors, who consistently bear out for me the axiom that a director can only be as good as the actors they are working with.
In recent years, I have been privileged to work with Sandy Robbins’s company, the REP (Resident Ensemble Players), which, like PlayMakers Rep at the University of North Carolina or ART at Harvard, has a strong association with the University of Delaware. There, in past seasons, I have directed productions of Juno and the Paycock, Waiting for Godot, The Seafarer, and, most recently, The Crucible.
The company comprises a permanent ensemble supplemented by freelance actors hired in from around the country, and a salient feature is that many of these actors were trained by Robbins in the well-loved Professional Theatre Training Program (PTTP) training program at the University of Delaware, originally founded in Milwaukee in 1976 and moved East in 1988. Robbins is an inspiring artistic director and teacher/mentor, recently honored with the John Houseman Award for his services to the American theatre, and he attracted to his company highly regarded regional theatre actors who trained with him and made their names around the country. These include Steve Pelinski (the Guthrie in Minneapolis), Elizabeth Heflin (the Alley in Houston), Lee Ernst (Milwaukee Rep), and Kathleen Pirkl Tague.
It has been my great pleasure to work with these and other highly skilled members of the Robbins company and associated artists who are engaged for individual shows and seasons. I can say, hand on heart, that as a director, having these acting forces—combined with first-rate stage management, the very best of technical resources, and unrivalled scenic, costume, and prop departments—has allowed me to do, under the most supportive conditions, some of my best work in the theatre in recent years. From Robbins and his associate artistic director, Sandy Ernst, on down through the organization, “no” is not a word in the REP’s lexicon.
The REP is not unique in the American theatre landscape. I know this not just from hearsay but also from direct personal experience. (I had, for instance, six great seasons at Milwaukee Rep under the inspired artistic direction of Joseph Hanreddy.) But it epitomizes all that is best in the American theatre and offers me, as a director, actors who prepare meticulously for every role, are fully focused, highly skilled, and, once they trust the director in question, fully committed to delivering on their vision for the play in rehearsal.
You might argue that all this is, or should be, axiomatic. But I have found that in places like New York, Chicago, Toronto, London, and even Dublin, actors are pulled in many different directions—a filming day here, an audition there, a voiceover almost anywhere—so that the focus of those precious rehearsal hours (usually 120 in the room total) can be diluted to their detriment. There is something laboratory-like about working in a great regional theatre with consummate professionals dedicated to a shared vision and a collegial commitment to ensemble playing.
In addition, like it or not, the viability of theatre production in larger cities like New York, London, and Chicago can be dependent on “star names” that can go above the title, resulting, more often than not, in outcomes that are artistically less coherent, satisfying, successful, and impactful. Conversely, when productions from theatres like Steppenwolf or Britain’s National Theatre or my own theatre, the Abbey Theatre (e.g., Dancing at Lughnasa or the Fiona Shaw/Deborah Warner Medea) come to New York with intact ensembles, the results are, more often than not, thrilling.
In late fall 2019 I was in Delaware for casting and design meetings, and my visit coincided with the REP’s season opener, August: Osage County, directed by Jackson Gay. To come back to my opening simile, it was like watching a great orchestra at the height of its game. There wasn’t a note out of place. Decrying, as I do, recent trends in the Irish theatre away from text-based drama, this production simply renewed my faith in theatre and its power to move.
For a foreign, English-speaking director, the American regional theatre offers the following to me: artistic freedom; support for, and fidelity to, the vision I bring, from everyone associated with the theatre I am working in (all hands, sometimes 100-plus people, show up on the first day of rehearsal for the director and design presentations); acting talent to die for; and unwavering support from above and below. Therefore, it is not fanciful to say, from my experience at least, that the American theatre, in its regional manifestations, is a true director’s theatre.
I am, of course, grateful for all this, and curiously humbled by it. Too often when you combine the role of artistic director and director, as I have done throughout my career, you lose sight of the joy of the rehearsal room, of the totally absorbing pursuit of the devil in the detail, or, to appropriate Wilde, the unrelenting in full pursuit of the unattainable. The politics and the personalities, the deadlines and the budgets, the public facing encounters, the media scrutiny—all serve to distract from, even to dilute, that energizing kinetic transaction in “the room” that is at the heart of the best theatremaking.
A former artistic director of the National Theatre once told me that he forewent breaks from the rehearsal room to avoid being hijacked by administrative staff if he stepped outside—this was after I’d told him that I was once so assaulted by urgent matters requiring my attention on a tea break in the Abbey corridor that I literally forgot which play we were rehearsing for the first five minutes back in the room.
But when, in my American rehearsal room, I am quietly reminded by my stage manager to pay attention to an overlooked sightline, or asked by a carpenter to adjudicate on the precise tilt of an anti-raked bed in the opening scene of The Crucible, or watch an actor in his 60s try to scale a high wall to escape the increasingly vociferous lunacies of Lucky in Waiting for Godot, or observe an incomparable props master like Jim Guy line a drawer with just the right personal period bric-a-brac that only the actor playing Arkady in A Month in the Country will see, or witness the father of American sound designers, Michael Bodeen, finesse a sound cue, caress it even, or marvel as lighting designer Matt Richards, already knowing where the light will fall when we move to the theatre, ask that an actor come two steps downstage in order to be in it—to experience all this is to be reminded of the joy of what we do, the collective care and expertise that goes into it, the building of detail upon detail to achieve something at once architectural and evanescent. It is to be brought back again by my American colleagues to the joy of theatre, and to experience afresh something which for the quiet creators is a credo and for the audience is a feeling that, in spite of all, art matters.
And nothing could have underlined that more poignantly than the absence of live, in-person art we have all experienced for the past 15 months or more.
In mid-March 2020 I had only been home in Ireland for a few days when the news came through that further performances of our recently opened production of The Crucible at the REP were to be cancelled as theatres all over America closed their doors. In the production of Miller’s play, after the climactic courtroom scene, I had the five girls, led by Abigail, walk to the front of the stage and sing the hymn “Abide With Me” first to and then “at” the audience before they disappear from the play. It was a powerful moment. Now, the morning after the production was cancelled, the actors were allowed into the theatre to collect their belongings before dispersing, and the five girls got into costume and sang “Abide With Me” one last time into the empty auditorium.
Hearing about all this as I sat at my kitchen table in the Irish countryside, I was moved to think that a work of art, particularly a work of performance art, is both completed and validated by the audience who witness it, and when, for whatever reason—the force majeure of plague in this instance—the performers are denied that consummation of the performance, the result is at the very least unsettling. And so the young women singing into the empty auditorium became, for me, the enduring metaphor for the abandonment of our production just as it was taking flight.
In the opening of Auden’s powerful poem on the death of Yeats he writes that
For poetry makes nothing happen: it survives
In the valley of its making where executives
Would never want to tamper, flows on south
From ranches of isolation and the busy griefs,
Raw towns that we believe and die in; it survives,
A way of happening, a mouth.
I believe in the idea of poetry (or in our case, play) being “a way of happening,” “a mouth.” Whether in one of those raw regional towns or cities or on the Great White Way, well-crafted art captures all the glory and vainglory of being human, and it is our privilege as artists to be a conduit to what Auden called “ranches of isolation” and “busy griefs.” When those conduits are blocked or frustrated we feel it keenly. All our careful mediation, our channeling of the author’s intentions, is denied us, and we long to complete the circle. So the singing into the empty auditorium becomes a powerful expression of our frustration and—it seems not an over-statement to claim—our sorrow. It is the song unsung, and I believe that like a lost soul the abandoned work flaps and clatters in the upper stratosphere until all the elements can be assembled again and the performances can be completed.
If there is a caveat, a postscript, a quibble in all of the above, it is this: Why, beyond the few celebrated exceptions, is the regional theatre so invisible to the national media and the producing elites in the larger cities? The theatre I have been writing about here at the neck of the Delaware isthmus is 40 minutes from Philadelphia, an hour from Washington, D.C., and less than two hours by Amtrak from New York City. But for all the attention it receives from these places it might as well be on Mars. The loss, I would argue, is theirs.
Ben Barnes (he/him) is an Irish theatre and opera director and a former artistic director of the Abbey Theatre. His memoir of his time there is called Plays and Controversies.
Creative credits for production photos: The Crucible by Arthur Miller, directed by Ben Barnes, scenic design by Bill Clarke, costume design by Mattie Ullrich, lighting design by Matthew Richards, original music and sound design by Rob Milburn & Michael Bodeen; Waiting for Godot by Samuel Beckett, directed by Ben Barnes, scenic design by Kristen Robinson, costume design by Andrea Barrier, lighting design by Matthew Richards, sound design by Eileen Smitheimer.
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