Over on the Nytheatre i, Martin Denton asked a question about what playwrights need from reviewers. Quite a bit of the theater blogsphere and theatrical reviews have a great deal to do with the writer, which is in stark contrast to film reviews, where the actors and directors hands are very clear and often most reviewed and commented upon. Writers are the lifeblood of theatre, and it's wonderful to see them (us) given so much weight.
That being said (and inspiried a bit by Superfluities), I'd like to turn the subject to reviewing direction. In my reviews for nytheatre.com, I find this is one of the most difficult aspects of watching theater to elaborate upon. Unless you're reviewing a well-known director with a distinctive style (Peter Brook, Robert Wilson), it can be hard to know how much of what you're watching can be credited to the success and failure of direction.
For example, in watching a new play that presents relatively conventional themes (let's say a relationship play about dating) how much of what is working can be attributed to direction as opposed to successful writing or solid performances. Because we're often watching relatively unknown talent, it can be hard to say whether or not the director is getting performances out of actors that would otherwise flounder, or if the script is being raised above its potential on the page, or if the direction is just putting band aids on dramaturgical broken legs. It takes a leap of imagination and some educated guessing, often, to see where the direction is apparent, where it's invisibly working magic, or where it is falling apart.
Sometimes failures of direction are obvious: everyone is clumped upstage, the actors all seem to be in different plays, there's too much shouting or too little sound, etc. Things that leap out.
But what if a scene is working wonderfully, and the scene is relatively simple? It's easy to say that the actors made the scene work, but not being the rehearsal room, who is to say that every thing happening on the stage wasn't the result of a truly gifted director making the actors and the play work at their highest level?
There are exceptions to this: often when seeing a play with a long shelf-life the direction is obvious. Watch any Shakespeare play and the director is the true star of the show. How is the play cast? What version of the text are they using? What interpretations are we seeing of these classic themes?
But with a new play, interesting ideas can be failed by lack of imagination, and simplistic ones can be improved upon by creative staging.
As a director myself, I've added and subtracted in small ways to plays I've been a part of, in order to iron out edges or create a sense of urgency on the stage that might not have been natural on the page. At times, directing my own work, I've encouraged intreprations of characters that might not be readily apparent by simply reading the text. The results were partially my work, and the results rarely wind up reviewed as such.
I'd love to hear what directors out there think of their experiences with reviews, of how much of their work appears on the stage. I'd also like to hear from anyone who has written a review and felt stymied as to how the director has factored into what they have seen.
- Matthew Freeman is a Brooklyn based playwright with a BFA from Emerson College. His plays include THE DEATH OF KING ARTHUR, REASONS FOR MOVING, THE GREAT ESCAPE, THE AMERICANS, THE WHITE SWALLOW, AN INTERVIEW WITH THE AUTHOR, THE MOST WONDERFUL LOVE, WHEN IS A CLOCK, GLEE CLUB, THAT OLD SOFT SHOE and BRANDYWINE DISTILLERY FIRE. He served as Assistant Producer and Senior Writer for the live webcast from Times Square on New Year's Eve 2010-2012. As a freelance writer, he has contributed to Gamespy, Premiere, Complex Magazine, Maxim Online, and MTV Magazine. His plays have been published by Playscripts, Inc., New York Theatre Experience, and Samuel French.