In this edition of our ongoing series 25 Seasons—25 Stories, we have asked three of our favorite directors over the years to weigh in on what it is that makes a great production and to discuss the lasting effects of that production. Here are Craig Johnson, Michael Bigelow Dixon, and Alan Bailey with their thoughts on the effects of a great production.
Craig Johnson—Director of Season 25’s Blithe Spirit
Let’s start at the very beginning, a very good place to start.
Author; Actor; Audience; Auditorium
Effective theater combines the right play with the right performers for the right people in the right place. The alchemy of these four essential elements make magical theater-going experiences. (Please keep this to yourself! It can be distressing for directors, designers, stage managers, and administrators to hear that we are mere add-ons.)
The pleasure of working at Commonweal is their expert ability to line up the “4 As” (or the “4 Ps”) and then add that challenging grain of sand that creates the pearl. The authors, whether they are classic, contemporary, or both (Jeffrey Hatcher meets Henrik Ibsen), are selected to stir our minds and souls, in addition to touching our hearts and tickling our funny bones. The acting company has the long-term attention of the theater for artistic growth and variety. Audiences know that the show will be intimate and universal so the experience will resonate long after the final line is spoken. And the theater? Well, it just might be the most attractive and comfortable that I’ve worked in—a space whose main street design and lobby artworks are uniquely part of its community but whose thrust stage hearkens back to the earliest amphitheaters of ancient Greece.
Bravo, Commonweal, for getting the priorities right! Here’s to another 25 seasons of essential elements.
Michael Bigelow Dixon—Director of Season 25’s Sherlock Holmes: The Final Adventure
Preparing to direct “A Great Show” at Commonweal Theatre is simple … and incredibly complex. The company’s emphasis on storytelling through the art of the actor informs choices a director and creative team make regarding set, costume, sound, lights and all those things called props. Embracing the company’s mission in that regard is a godsend because it simplifies the work. Basically, it means that the director, designer and others backstage are there to support the actors in their exploration and interpretation, provide a compelling environment, ensure a lively pace, and then get out of the way.
In recent years I’ve directed several adaptations of novels and short stories: Turn of the Screw, To Kill a Mockingbird, and most recently, Sherlock Holmes: The Final Adventure. Fortunately, all were successful, but each proved to be a greater challenge than the last.
Henry James’ novel on stage required two actors to conjure up a half dozen real characters and two ghosts. Light (and lack thereof, thanks to the careful calculations of Jason Underferth) became a major component of the production, so the audience shared in the uncertainty of supernatural possibilities.
Harper Lee’s novel demanded that the adult acting company perform the roles of children. That challenge put the fear of Thespis in me, and yet, with careful planning and a few ground rules, the company performed that play so convincingly that the production set an attendance record.
This past summer, we had the pleasure of creating a production based upon the short stories of Arthur Conan Doyle in a dramatic adaptation written by Steven Dietz, whose Lonely Planet and Dracula had been previous Commonweal hits. Despite recent action films, Sherlock Holmes is a character-driven event – and that’s where Commonweal’s acting company excels. Though the topic is, at the moment, intimidating – given films and TV productions, that actually helped us devise an production that was purely about the theatre.
We focused on games, since that’s how Sherlock himself views the world, and that informed the scenery, the competition amongst characters, and the overall movement toward a win-lose conclusion.
The point I’m getting to is that great shows aren’t necessarily about delivering traditional results. Audiences bring expectations – especially when they’ve read the novels or seen film adaptations. The point is to find ways to use what’s unique to the theatre to engage and surprise the audience. It’s actually easier to undermine their expectations and win them over than to deliver stage versions of novels or film adaptations. That way, audiences get a new experience, a fresh perspective and, hopefully, leave enlivened and energized by the ideas and themes in the work – along with memories of terrific performances. And that’s the effect we’re all going for.
Alan Bailey—Director of Season 25’s The Memory of Water
It’s hard as a visiting director to know the effects of a great show—you leave right after your show opens, so you don’t get to witness the joy it might give to both audience and artists. (On the bright side, though, you leave your perhaps-not-so-great shows with the opening night applause still ringing in your ears!)
For me, then, as a guest director, a great show becomes a very personal memory, a jumble of rehearsals and discussions and those generous early audiences.
I can still clearly see Annie’s ferocious Aldonza and Joe’s hilarious housekeeper in Man of La Mancha from nearly twenty years ago.
Hal and Brett singing “Blue Eyes Crying in the Rain” in A Walk in the Woods—a moment we never knew the audience would latch onto so enthusiastically. Eric‘s rant in Art—and those guys eating those olives. Christine and Carla crying over every sentimental moment in rehearsals of The 1940s Radio Hour—and the whole cast leaning over the banister to wave to the audience at the end of the show. Simon’s sweet and funny Tiny Tim in both A Christmas Carol and Inspecting Carol. Those huge scene-change dances in Harvey. Adrienne’s utter transformation into a dog from the very first rehearsal of Sylvia. The train chase in The 39 Steps orchestrated by four of the most willing and creative actors I’ve ever worked with.
And now The Memory of Water is a fresh memory, and the heartrendingly real work of the cast is with me every day, even two thousand miles away.
Naturally, I’m thrilled when somebody in Lanesboro tells me they still remember a long-ago moment from a show I’ve directed. But it’s the plays I still see in my mind’s eye – those are the effects I cherish from shows that still feel great after all these years.
What show has stuck with you over 25 years? What is that lasting effect for you?