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Wednesday, January 13, 2016


There's a reason it's called a “Company.”

Company n.
1. a number of individuals assembled or associated together; group of people.
2. companionship; fellowship; association.
3. a number of persons united or incorporated for joint action, especially for business: a publishing company; a theatre company.

The middle word in #2 is critical: fellowship. In theatre companies, well, at least the theatre companies I inhabit, fellowship is paramount. I bring this up because of a recent incident in a newly forming company producing its very first production. One actor was given (poor) direction by someone other than the director (a fellow actor and coproducer). When he demurred, for valid reasons (he was not comfortable with the suggestion), he was then set upon not only by the non-director but by three other actors. In essence, he was shamed and bullied. And the inexperienced director stood by and let this abuse happen.
My first urge, perhaps because I'm male, half-Italian, and a Leo, is to get all up in y'all faces about protocol, respect, and professionalism. And who knows? Maybe I will later. But for now I’ll take a breath and concentrate on another element of a good theatre company: safety.
When I direct or teach playwriting or stage directing, I make a non-negotiable rule on the first day that the rehearsal room, classroom, or studio we use is a safe zone. At no time will any student disrespect, belittle, or coerce any other student for any reason. Of course, the teacher is equally bound by this rule. I stress this emphatically. And I enforce it. Or I would, if I'd ever had to. I've never had to.
Classrooms and rehearsal rooms must be places where artists can feel free to take risks, try unsure choices, and explore the boundaries of their craft. One cannot do this with consistent expectations of success. Students, actors, and writers fail. Face it, everybody fails.
In our over-protective world where kids get trophies for showing up and are told they are each very special, we diminish the possibility of reaching new heights. The farther you stretch, the farther you fall when (if) it all goes kerflooie. It's a law of nature. But if you don't stretch, you never achieve. Risk is an inherent factor in some things. Fear is part of creative work.
Therefore, when members of my class or company take a chance, they know that they are in a cohort that will be there to sympathize, critique constructively, and respect their chance-taking. They are in a safe zone. Because only in a safe zone can you genuinely make unsafe choices. We are there for each other all the time.
This is one reason why cast parties can be full of tears. Over time you build close relationships with your cast and crew mates. You've depended on them, cheered them, and enjoyed every minute onstage and in rehearsal with them. Because they had your back and you had theirs.
So when this is transgressed, as it sometimes is, my hackles stiffen and my canines grow longer. I've seen directors who run their shows with harsh words, disrespecting actors and crew, treating the entire company with disdain. Personally, I'm too old to put up with that kind of self-indulgent, megalomaniacal horseshit. No role is that good to pass up. But I'm more experienced and much less unsure of myself these days; in younger days I might have been the abused.
So when I heard of this instance within a new company with which I had become associated, I was taken aback. It wasn't so much the instigator's actions that appalled me, but the fact that others allowed it without objecting. (To the actor who was victim of this abuse but chose to not follow the improperly given and, as it turned out, somewhat childish direction, I give all kudos; he did not knuckle under to the pressure from his fellow cast members. More on him in a minute.)
In every pack there is an alpha. And this alpha was part of a new company that had had no experience in running a production. The thrill of being in the driver’s seat overwhelmed them, and being young and without supervision, they ran amok.
It is a strict rule in theatre companies that no one but the director gives direction to any actor at any time. To have a producer override the director shows disrespect for both director and actors and sows the seeds of anarchy. A company that is not secure cannot produce good work. Everyone needs to agree upon and follow protocols. And when an actor says, “No, I do not feel comfortable with that direction,” that must be respected. There are ways of working direction out and coming to an agreement. When an actor tells me that she’s not comfortable with something I’m asking of her, I back off simply for two reasons: the actor may instinctually know the direction is not a good one for her character, and even if she pursued it, her lack of faith in the proposal would more than likely result in a half-hearted attempt that failed, wasting valuable rehearsal time.
I always talk about these instances with my actors. There comes a time, late in the rehearsal period, when they have to know better than I what's best for Willy Loman. Why put a particular actor in a role if not to have that actor particularly bring it to life?
Back to safety. Not all of us are on Broadway or a tour or in a big regional. Many of us do this for the sheer joy of it in a community setting. I can't overstress the need for safety in the rehearsal room and classroom. These writers and actors put their egos and asses on the line, and regardless of success, they must be in a place where they are ready to do so again. They must be among allies who will respect their instincts and choices, whether they be good ones or not.
Back to the actor in this situation: He and some others came to me later. Understandably, he was severely upset, not just because he was an object of shame and group derision but because this disrespect came from people he had worked with in acting class for several semesters (not mine) and had thought of as friends he could trust and depend on.
This young actor learned a very hard lesson. The one positive element is that now he knows how to behave in a similar situation, knows his rights as an actor, and knows what protocols need to be observed. He'll do much better work, be more self-assured, and be able to invest in his cohort more effectively from now on simply by knowing how to react should a similar situation arise.
We go through some hard and painful lessons in this journey. Taken unawares, it's difficult to step in, play Parent, and shut down the session, especially when you have never had to do so before. This is one instance I wish hadn't happened. But now we have an actor who can be aware they he has to look out for his fellow company members, and perhaps help them become equally respectful and supportive. Can you ask for anyone better to work with?

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