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New Directions for Theatre Directors Part II

Date: Nov 24, 2009


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Welcome to Part II of TDF’s two-part feature on where theatre directors are and where they’re going. Today, we’ll hear from two prominent directors about how technology affects their work (and how it doesn’t.) (For Part I, about the changing role of the director’s union, go here.)

At this point, there may be no such thing as theatre directing without digital-age technology.

Take the current Broadway revival of Ragtime (pictured above): It's almost impossible to discuss it without using the phrase "stripped down," since director-choreographer Marcia Milgrom Dodge has pared the musical, about intersecting American lives at the turn of the twentieth century, of the elaborate spectacle that marked its Broadway run in 1998. Yet even this essentially ascetic show owes a debt to the computer.

When she was doing research for her choreography, for instance, Dodge turned to the internet. “I Googled ragtime dances and watched them on YouTube,” she says. “I learned some amazing things from watching old footage of the cake walk, things like that.”

She's quick to distance herself from full YouTube allegiance, however, noting that she specifically avoided watching the many online clips of the show's Broadway run. She says there's "no way" she would have allowed herself to let old footage "do the directing work" for her.

Taken together, Dodge's responses evoke a major tension for the future of theatre directing. On one hand, a flood of new technology, from set designs infused with digital projections to rehearsal blogs that give audience members a peek backstage, has created exciting new opportunities. On the other, if they’re used incorrectly, these advances can drain something vital from the theatre.

Take the increasing trend of filming performances and rehearsals. “All directors want our stuff documented,” Dodge says. “I’m thrilled when it can happen. I’ve been given bootleg tapes of shows by authors who just loved a production. But then, we don’t all of the sudden want to see our stuff on some television show that we didn’t know was happening.”

She notes that by visiting, anyone can see video of finished numbers from her production. “It’s scary,” she says. “Who’s going to stop some choreographer from going out and taking that work and recreating it? I can’t police that.”

Of course, Dodge concedes that she herself has watched and been inspired by movies of dancers like Fred Astaire and Gene Kelly. Still, those artists were compensated for their films, while a contemporary director or choreographer whose work gets spread on the web will likely never be paid.

The technological question doesn’t only apply to copyright infringements and bootleg video. Director-choreographer Karen Azenberg, who has worked extensively in New York and in regional theatre, notes that e-mail has fundamentally changed the way artists communicate when they’re collaborating. “There are more ways of communicating, but we’re communicating with less depth,” she says. “We’re doing a real person-to-person kind of art, and I’ve learned that to keep that connection, I have to pick up the phone or walk into a room.”

Asked for an example of the communication divide, Azenberg says, “It’s absolutely great that now you get to see scenic and costume designs in a more fleshed-out way. Before, you were thrilled if you got to see a color sketch. Now you get e-mailed these unbelievable computer renderings, and you can look up and down and turn it three hundred and sixty degrees. But do you still have a live conversation with the designer to get the even better idea?”

Sometimes, even performances feel like they’re missing a “live conversation.” Productions like the 2008 Broadway revival of Sunday in the Park With George, with its groundbreaking integration of digital and physical scenery, have used technological elements to great effect, but video screens and other technology have made many shows feel robotic, lifeless. “If I want to go to a movie, I’ll go to a movie,” Dodge says. “I’m not that excited about the multimedia event on stage.”

Azenberg has a similar “back-to-basics” philosophy. “I’ve become especially aware of reminding the audience that this is a live event that you can’t get anywhere else,” she says. When she directed A Christmas Carol last year at the Alabama Shakespeare Festival, she included several interactive moments in her production. “I had little kids running through the audience,” she says. “I had ghosts come through the audience terrifying people. We knew that if we could get people to shriek, we’d done it right. And they loved it.”

No two directors are exactly the same, of course, and there’s a wide spectrum of opinions about technology in the theatre. But there’s no denying that the topic itself will be central to the future of directing and of the profession in general.

Mark Blankenship is TDF’s Online Content Editor