Tuesday, April 01, 2008

Directing like Michelangelo, Directing like Da Vinci

Ancora Imparo ("Yet I'm Learning")
-- Michelangelo
This is a companion piece to "Writing like Beethoven, Writing like Mozart" a blog posting from about a year ago. In that piece, I offered up a couple of observations on writing. This time, I'd like to talk about directing.

I enjoy directing. I enjoy working with actors, breaking out a script like it's my great-grandmother's cornbread dressing recipe, rolling up my sleeves, and dirtying up the kitchen a little bit. I like to think I'm pretty good at it, as well. I've had more successes than failures, at any rate. I haven't heard much complaining from my actors, either. Not even the ones I forced to walk around with those stupid looking puppets last year. (Note to self: make sure I'm not just horribly out of touch.)

MICHELANGELO:

When my wife and I visited Italy, we did the usual touristy things, including going to see the famous statue of David. Huge, imposing statue, that David. He lives in the Accademia Gallery these days, and the grand hall that brings you to the great Biblical king is lined with the Slaves or Captives.

To me, these four Captives are far more striking. They're not as "posed" as David. They feel more alive.

And they demonstrate something wonderful about Michelangelo's work. As he said about another of his sculptures, "I saw the angel in the marble and carved until I set him free." Michelangelo would spend hours just looking at the marble, until he could see the statue inside. He would then chip away everything that wasn't the statue.

And so we come to my first observation about directing. There is a real art in observing the raw materials before you, and chipping away everything that is not the play. You know the old saying about how good directing is 80% casting? It's true. I'd much rather shape a performance, and discover serendipitous little synergies between my vision and the actor's vision, than have to drag a performance kicking and screaming from a recalcitrant actor. It's much more fun to free the captive, so to speak, than to keep plopping spackle on an incomplete form.

DA VINCI:

Da Vinci was a total gear head. He had to know how things work, to the point of performing autopsies to better understand human anatomy, and thus improve his painting. He was an accomplished engineer as well.

I like to find out what makes people tick, what makes dramatic literature work, and how all of this comes together before an audience to move that audience, enlighten and entertain. I read a lot. I watch people. I scribble little notes in my comp notebooks, and refer to them later.

Breaking out a script is part of this. Finding the beats, figuring out why the writer has character A say this, or character B do that. This is all structural, it's all engineering. It also helps me define the skeleton on which to drape the play. Arbitrary and perfunctory choices in other people's work drives me batty. Arbitrary and perfunctory choices in my own work makes me want to crawl under a rock.

The best way to avoid the mediocre is to know what you're doing, inside and out. Even if it's not necessary to know which way the blood flows in order to paint a pretty picture, maybe that extra bit of knowledge will inform your choice of skin tone, or blush; some subtle little touch that will communicate to your audience on a sublime level.

ONE LAST WORD:

Frescos. Paint mixed in with plaster. The way I learned it, this combination would dry fast, so the artist would have to quickly make his paint strokes, pushing more pigment into the wet plaster, and shoving it around like some miraculous technicolor mud. No time to second guess your instincts. All the observation and study leads up to this moment, this here-and-now. The cast is arrayed before you, and they're looking to you. It's time to pick up your brush, and mix the pigment with the plaster.

Well ... it's what I strive to do.
For once you have tasted flight you will walk the earth with your eyes turned skywards, for there you have been and there you will long to return.
-- Da Vinci

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