On Directing: Family, Fun, and Feeling

If there’s one thing I’ve learnt about the process of putting on a play throughout this project, it’s about the scope of the work the Director does. Going into the Behind Summer and Smoke project, I knew that the Director was responsible for the vision of the play, but I had no idea what that encompassed. About three weeks before opening night of Summer and Smoke, I sat down with Mary-Ellen Perley, the Director, to talk about the play and the process she goes through. Our 1 ½ hour conversation will be published in two parts – this article will focus on Mary-Ellen’s process, and the next article will focus on Summer and Smoke specifically.

One of the questions I’ve asked all members of the production team was: ‘how does the audience know when you’ve done a good job?’  Mary-Ellen’s response focuses on her collaborative approach to directing, saying, “they don’t know that I’ve done a good job. They know they’ve enjoyed the play. They know that for two hours of their lives, they’ve lived in another time… Unless they’ve had directing experience or have been involved in theatre, then they might say, ‘you’ve done a good job.’ But again, it wasn’t me that did a good job, it was all of us working together that did a good job, that breathed life into those words that took them off the page… [all of us] made the characters live and made the people sitting on the other side of the fourth wall care deeply. What I want the audience to walk of Walterdale saying is, ‘I cared. Those people meant something to me,’ or ‘there but for the grace of God, go I,’ or ‘oh my God, I know what that feels like. I’ve been there but I came through it,’… I think one of the most rewarding things is when an audience has really been moved there’s dead silence when the lights go off, and then the applause. That’s that moment when the audience is trying to pull back because they really have entered that world. It takes them seconds to go, “alright this was just a play.”

One of the things Mary-Ellen did right from the beginning of having Summer and Smoke chosen as part of Walterdale Playhouse’s 2012/2013 season was put in an effort to make the entire team – both the cast and production crews – feel like a family. Mary-Ellen tells me, “one of my actors said to me the other day that he was so happy to be in the show, he felt it was a family – that all the actors were very supportive, that the team was very supportive. And he said one of the reasons he thought it was like that was that ‘you opened up your home and we all got together and had a party and celebrated together.’ That was a very conscious effort on my part. I thought, “I need to get them all in one place, all at the same time and not necessarily because it’s the play” so we watched The Music Man … it was a good feeling because the production team was there, most of the actors were able to make it. We played games, we talked, we laughed, we watched the movie, we had a good time, and I think it brought us all together. Putting on a play is not about any one person. I don’t think any one person can take the credit – it’s a team effort… and everybody has to buy into that. They have to recognize that “the play is the thing… it’s not the actors, it’s not the lighting, it’s not the set designer, not the director, not the stage manager, it’s the play. It’s the story you’re telling the audience – that’s got to come first.”

When I asked Mary-Ellen about the process she went through to direct, one of the things that stood out to me was how much research she did, especially about the playwright, Tennessee Williams. Mary-Ellen told me her extensive background research allowed her develop an understanding of Tennessee’s intent, saying, “The research helped me to understand where he was coming from when he wrote that play…. I think that was important for me to understand so when I came to work on the play with my concept and my ideas and my vision I felt like he was never very far away. I don’t know if that makes sense, but I felt connected to him and to his work and to his words and I knew I wanted to be as truthful and sensitive to what I thought he was trying to say as I could possibly be.”

Back in October at the first read, Mary-Ellen stressed that she believed in actor’s intuition. At the time, I didn’t know exactly what actor’s intuition was, but as early as some of the first rehearsals I found out that it was about letting an actor, once they’ve tapped into the essence of their character, act on the impulses their character would have in the situation they are portraying. Mary-Ellen explains to me, “I have always said to my actors don’t second guess yourself, if you have an impulse to do something do it… If you shut that impulse down in the actor they don’t trust themselves and I want my actors to trust themselves… the words are coming out of their mouths, and they’re having that moment with the other actor who’s also feeling something… I’m just watching.”

On a final note about Mary-Ellen’s directing process, I ask her what her favorite part of directing is. Her answer came quickly: “the learning… I’ve learned continually through this process. Every rehearsal I’ve learned something about myself, about my actors, about the play, about the set. I’m about to go into a big learning curve with my sound and my lighting, then we’re going to layer the costumes on that…  I’m about to go into a technical learning curve that I’ve never been in before because when I’ve directed, I’ve designed my lighting and my sound and my set and costumes with input from my actors but my fingers have been in all of those pies in a small scale. Now, this is a full-fledged play with a proper lighting designer, a proper sound designer, set designer, costume designer etcetera and I’m having to learn from them… and I’m excited about that.”

Up next: Part Two of my interview with Mary-Ellen, where we talk more about the play, Summer and Smoke.

Read more in the Behind Summer and Smoke series.

–          Jenna Marynowski

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