It's collaborative to the extent that the playwright (or producer) has hired the director to tell their story. In order for the director to get the job, he had to have a specific concept of how that story would be told. The playwright and/or producer liked that concept and got the job. Actors are rarely told exactly what that concept is because the director wants to massage the actors performance so that it's organic and intuitive, and not result-oriented: but the director is shaping the performance so that it fits into his concept of how to tell this story per the playwright's intent. That's why the actor gets cast. The actor's audition is their understanding of the work and what they create in the audition is inline with the director's concept of the story which is why they got the job.
I respond as both an actor/playwright. Our job, as actors, is to create behavior based on the character's background and the playwright's intent. We exist to tell the story and support it. If the writing's good and the director is talented at both concept and how to work w/actors. This is an harmonious process. If the director is result-oriented w/out a strong creative process or if the actors are subtly trying to re-write the character based on their personal story, then the process goes awry and the production suffers. I have had amazing experiences as an actor and a playwright when the process works, but I've also had times when it didn't and that feels crappy. Now I don't accept any theatre gigs without having read the script, have a full cast list and director and playwright attached. They don't pay us enough to work with folks who don't honor the process.
So what do you do when you're in a crappy process?
Don't hate me, but here's what i've learned: In theatre, unless it's broadway, a director/playwright you're dying to work with, a role that is sexy, juicy, splashy and exciting to play and will move your career forward because it's a great part (which will inevitably lead to at least a few amazing reviews), Quit. Period. End of conversation. And don't look back. I've done it and the same theatre hired me a couple years later and treated me well, because they knew I'd walk.
It is the only way to work in NYC for a penny an hour and still love the craft. And then target directors/playwrights you want to work with and follow their work like a demon. Show up at readings and openings and share your thoughts about the play and let them know you're a fan and want to work with them. I've done that with some famous directors and playwrights and they call me in all the time and when I invite them to shows they come. Its just a matter of time. And everyone else, I simply do not entertain offers from folks I'm not mad about working with and scripts that move me deeply and will move my career forward in terms of visibility and letting the industry know that I can do a lot more than they've typed me for. There are creative concerns, but business concerns are paramount in theatre because you're basically working for free, so you have to weigh those decisions carefully or you'll end up starving to death in your career and/or growing despondent. Take care of you and your art first. Then the story and the project are considerations. I learned this from Gloria Foster:
"Gloria Foster, instead of searching for fame by trying to be in many different productions, searched for roles in which she would be able to perform at the best of her ability. She once said, "Young people today, I think, are thinking in terms of stepping stones.…I don't know that I ever thought that way. It sounds ridiculous, but I was always thinking in terms of a more difficult role". She won fame by performing her roles magnificently, not by performing the maximum number of roles that she could." Wiki
This description of the process sounds yucky and corporate
The entertainment industry is absolutely is a corp structure. We seem to forget that or we choose not to deal with it and that's fine. Then you should stop reading the rest of this article. But if you're ready to be a working actor for the life of your career, which means taking the business side head-on, then keep reading. Both paths are viable. It's up to you to chose and find joy in the choice.
And that is why we should be making our own work. Look at who funds arts, look at whose work gets produced the most and what messages keep getting repeated over and over again. No accident at all. Sometimes it gets circumvented if a writer has a huge following for their work, then the corp structure is going to give over to the artistic demands because that writer has proven they can put butts in seats. But again, that's a business decision affected by a business outcome.
The good news is there are millions of ways for us to re-create ourselves (thank god for the internet) and tell the stories you want: it ain't easy. I wear 5 different hats, but it's totally possible. Someone asked me at Sundance was I producing movies so I could get a job at a Hollywood studio: and I said No, I'm producing movies that Hollywood studios won't produce because they are stories I want to see." That means sometimes, I won't be making thousands of dollars, but it does mean, I'm always working on the stories I want to tell and making a living which is ultimately my purpose as an artist and human being.
""""One of the most mortifying moments I experienced in my theatrical career was when I was asked to bring the entirely African-American cast of a new musical we were workshopping, a new piece by an African-American librettist and composer, across the street to the Dorothy Chandler Pavilion and up into the plush boardroom so they could perform a song or two for the board of directors. I wanted to say something, but I didn't. For one thing, it would take an invaluable 45 minutes to an hour out of the creative team's limited time together. But... every year we had to do the same old song and dance for the board to remind them that yes, we did do new plays and musicals, so yes, it was sometimes a good idea to expose the board to new voices, to the vibrancy of an exciting work in progress.
You all know where this is going, don't you? I led the team in. The talent in that team! The writer/composer himself and the cast, lauded veterans of the stage and the most promising members of the next generation of acting giants. And there was our board. White, as white as can be, white white white white. And very comfortable. They'd just been served lunch, I believe. My theater spared no expense in pleasing our board and catering to their demands (oh my god, I'm feeling such rage right now! I'm pretty sure we had a staff member who was mostly dedicated to help our richest board members get house seats to shows on Broadway and the West End. But I digress...)
The only black face in the audience seated at the conference table? The only person of color? The head of our education department, of course. My heart went out to her.
The cast sang a song from the show. They did it. And they brought it. Because they were and are professionals. And the very pillars of the Dorothy Chandler Pavilion reverberated down to the parking lot. It was breathtaking.
And I had just been complicit in the remaking of a scene for the millionth time: black bodies and voices entertaining white audiences, an institution raising money on the backs and voices of black bodies.
I was too mortified to apologize to our writer and to our cast, none of whom, I should add, expressed even an iota of discomfort. They were professionals, and they shone. And come to think of it, they'd probably all become accustomed to this scene. "It's just how theater works," they might have thought with a shrug of their shoulders. Or maybe they seethed inside, for the millionth time, when all they were trying to do is workshop a new musical.
Well, I apologize sincerely now to our writer and those actors. I wish I had had the courage to put my foot down. It is not how theater should work.
I quit the American theater on Valentine's Day 2016, so I've been out more than four years now. And honestly I don't plan to return, which is why I can write with such candor.
The heart of the problem, my friends, is with the non-profit structure, which is capitalism on steroids. Who are the bosses ultimately in an American institutional theater? The board of directors. Who are the board of directors? For the most part, those members of the community not with the strongest attachment to the art form but those with the deepest pockets. Often they're really not members of the community. They often just drop in. They are sometimes mere tourists.
It's no wonder that that board meeting was held in the Dorothy Chandler Pavilion. The theater, like most American theaters, had built its board of directors on the old opera model: You get the richest folks together, offer them galas and house seats and receptions and private recitals and showings (for which artists often don't get paid extra, mind you), you pamper them and make them feel more special and entitled than they already do, and then they'll write you big checks to support the kind of art they like, the kind of art they can bring their kids and grandkids to. AND they--not the artists, not the community--get to hire the institution's leadership.
It is a rotten model. Rotten to the core. How can any artistic institution claim to be working for and in the community with that model?
It's got to be torn down. It's got to be reinvented. And I have no idea what the next model will be. I really don't. And no, honestly I don't think government is the solution frankly. Some of the most bloated, self-satisfied, decadent theater I've ever seen was in Germany, where it was almost fully government-funded. Lots of bells and whistles and provocations and completely soul-dead.
I see amazing and galvanizing lists of demands recently being made and posted by theater artists of color. These are vital demands. But they don't address the central issue. As long as the ultimate bosses of an artistic institution remain the community's deepest pockets, nothing will change. Nothing. You'll be putting band-aids on a gaping wound. Sorry, but it's true.
So please figure something else out. Maybe for a few years you just avoid the institutions. You've already started. In the pandemic, so many of you are making amazing art without an institution. Find those who truly adore your work and ask them to fund it. Screw non-profit. Form a corporation and value your art art-making as a resource that profits you, your viewers/audience and your community. I have no idea.
But please don't return to a new version of the old. After the virus, after he's out of office, after police reform and nationwide conversations about race, after, after, after, begin something new. I can't wait to see what it is!”
Words: Pier Carlo Talenti
Video: Griffin Matthews
April Yvette Thompson