Creative Process / Features

Language Worth Repeating by Jess K. Smith

My notes were a list of apologies that had fallen out of her mouth without hesitation.

Clear direction, followed by “does that make sense?”

Clear direction, diluted by “is that ok with you?”

Clear direction, undercut by “can we try that?”

Clear direction, undermined by something as simple as “ok?”

Here was one of my brightest young female directing students and after fifteen minutes of scene work with her peers she hadn’t given one direction that wasn’t plagued with a qualifier or a question mark at the end, taking away any power she had established in her vision. I looked down my notes and my heart broke a little. It felt overwhelmingly familiar. This type of language plagues rehearsal rooms everywhere and it’s not just in the rooms of young directors. However, it seems to seep into rooms led by women directors far more frequently. It’s a language I find myself reverting to much too often. It’s a language of fear, a language of accommodation, and a language of insecurity. So why is it such a common language for women directors? Why does it feel appropriate to ask permission to direct? Why must we apologize for asserting an idea or feel like we’re somehow imposing on actors with our direction? Why is this our language?

In the fall, a video of an exceptionally articulate Wesleyan University student’s poem Shrinking Women started popping up on news feeds and blog posts everywhere. In her performance at the 2013 College Unions Poetry Slam Invitational, Lily Myers speaks about the culture of women in her family. She stares across the table at her ever-shrinking mother, her ever-expanding father and brother, and she questions what lessons she has been taught and what traits she has inherited. With powerful lines like, “I have been taught accommodation… I have been taught to filter… You have been taught to grow out, I have been taught to grow in… I have been taught to absorb” you hear the crowd reverberating with recognition. She highlights a disconnect between the expectations and assumptions of men versus women in her family. Men are expected to speak their minds, women are expected to make space, and in doing so, shrink. Although she was referring to her specific family, the fact that women around the world responded to it so emphatically suggests just how familiar her story and lineage is. Like my directing student, she’s beginning to identify a history of editing her own power.

What then is the language of power?

While in New York City, I worked with a number of young actors who had studied and/or worked under the direction of a prolific and internationally acclaimed director. He was known for breaking actors down to rebuild them in his image. Throughout the rehearsal process actors would get hurt, feel manipulated, complain of being taken advantage of, and describe a consistently competitive energy within the company. Actors seemed broken and miserable under his controlling hand. However, the show would open and the result was always the same: incredibly precise, experimental, and heavy-handed. The director was the star of every production. You could see his hand in each choice and sense his misogynistic worldview in his treatment of all the iconic female roles. His directing was undeniably bold and not a bit censored. From the process through the product, he had expanded. He had taken all of the space in the room that even in production when he was no longer in the room, his voice was still the loudest. And when it was all said and done, something significant would change about the stories the actors would tell. Instead of the torture and pain, the underlying theme turned to gratitude. They were deeply thankful for the chance to work with such a legend, for the chance to be broken down and built back up again, for the chance to fight for his attention and approval. He never apologized for his direction, his choices, or his words. He has a following. I thought actors respected him in spite of his unapologetic approach, but I’m beginning to think that it may be because of his unapologetic approach. Perhaps feeling as though they have survived him unifies actors. Perhaps they see it as a taste of the true masters of theater. Perhaps all of that work and suffering helps to validate their craft and add meaning to their lives. I won’t ever fully understand, but when I think about this story, which is one of many, I wonder if I could get away with the same or if actors would simply call me a “bitch.” Is this the language of men? Is this the language of power?

She walked into the room, a circle of graduate directing students ready to study her, and she accepted and maybe even inflated with that attention. I was eager to meet her and learn about her journey to becoming one of the most successful American female directors of our time. She was confident, she was smart, she was successful, and she infuriated me. I left the room dejected, deflated. From my perspective, she was powerful and successful because she had adopted a model for working that was inherently patriarchal and sexist and in doing so, she had risen to the top of a male-dominated field. At the top, she wore her reputation as someone “difficult” to work with (a.k.a. “a bitch”) seemingly with great pride. She had earned the right to be difficult, because she was powerful. She earned the right to be powerful because she adopted the language of power from her male peers. She played their game. I replayed her visit in my head over and over, and each time I realized I was getting angrier. Each time, she was becoming more and more reflective of a culture I wanted nothing to do with. I was angry because as a successful female director, I desperately wanted and expected her to be a model for me, but she wasn’t. She had accepted someone else’s system of power and succeeded within it.

I call for a revolution of language. I reject the notion that my options for how to be in a creative process are either nice and accommodating or manipulative and renowned. I believe that the language of accommodation and the language of dominance are both deeply rooted in fear. For the former, it’s a fear of being considered unlikeable and for the latter, it’s a fear of not having control or not owning the best idea. I believe that directing requires great vision, great attention, great awareness, and great humility. It requires egos to be left outside while bold action and outstanding listening enter the room. I am guided by a small piece of text that I return to season after season as a kind of ritual meditation. It’s from the foreword of Paul Woodruff’s The Necessity of Theatre. It reads,

There is an art to watching and being watched, and that is one of the few arts on which all human living depends. If we are unwatched, we diminish and we cannot be entirely as we wish to be. If we never stop to watch, we know only how it feels to be us, never how it feels to be another. Watched too much or in the wrong way, we become frightened. Watching too much, we lose the capacity for action in our own lives. Watching well, together, and being watched well, with limits on both sides, we grow, and grow together.

I return to these words because they are a reminder of how I wish to be in the creative process and a foundation for a new language of power to build from. The balance between watching and being watched calls for empathy and action. When I first read the passage, I was surprised by how revelatory this simple text was. The idea of theater as a place of seeing was not new—it’s the origin of the word itself and a starting place for most theater makers. It was the “If we are unwatched, we diminish and we cannot be entirely as we wish to be” portion that stopped me in my tracks. As a director, as a teacher, as a woman, this felt like an urgent reminder to be visible, to allow my work to be visible, and to allow my language to be heard. This text could easily be adjusted to be about speaking and listening as opposed to watching and being watched and be just as powerful and pertinent to a discussion on language.

I am a director. I am a teacher. The way I lead my classrooms and rehearsal rooms needs to model a new language of power—one born out of the idea that you can be both bold and flexible. We should neither soften our vision nor silence our collaborators. We should be the leaders and have the humility to also be led. Instead of feeling threatened by someone other than you contributing a great idea, we should congratulate ourselves for choosing such brilliant collaborators that make the work stronger. A great idea is reflective of strong and clear vision and trust in your collaborators. And the reality is that regardless of whether or not you are a teacher by trade, you will always be a teacher in the example you set, in the words you choose, in the way you work and the priorities you model. So let’s speak boldly, let’s articulate big huge messy ideas that aren’t yet perfected. And let’s allow them to take up space, not be brushed to the side and excused for being so presumptuous, but plopped right down into the center of the room. And let’s invite our collaborators to articulate great big messy beautiful ideas without asking for permission first or excusing them after. Let’s terrify ourselves with just how bold and articulate we can be. Let’s create a language worth repeating.

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