New Book Provides a Compelling Sense of Direction
by Max Farber
Directing can only be learned by doing it or so goes the common gospel.
The conventional wisdom is that the aspiring stage or screen director must go it alone, dependent entirely on hard-earned, self-driven experience. There is, after all, no teaching that can convey the creation of TRUE ART, so one can barely hope for any straight guidance from seasoned outside sources.
And yet Notes on Directing, an important new book on the subject, achieves nearly the impossible by articulating the presumably unteachable. To coauthors Frank Hauser and Russell Reich, directing is as much a craft as an art, and why not? We humans have been performing and storytelling at least since our cave-dwelling ancestors enacted the hunt before the rest of the tribe. In the thousands of intervening years, haven't we learned something about tendencies of actors, and about perceptions and behaviors of audiences? Can't we identify some common traps and ways of dealing with them or avoiding them altogether?
Such time-tested observations, tips, tools, and advice often as applicable to the screen as they are to the stage are what this book delivers in spades. By combining their distilled wisdom with that of generations of top scholars and artists, Hauser and Reich have created for students of directing, according to actress Rosemary Harris, "a slim, quotable classic" in the mold of Strunk & White's The Elements of Style or Sun Tzu's The Art of War.
The comparison to Strunk & White doesn't end there: these coauthors are also a former teacher/student duo. Frank Hauser, now retired and living in London, is a long-established and respected British stage director who got his start in the 1940's and who worked with or taught the likes of Sir Alec Guinness, Richard Burton, Sir Ian McKellen, Dame Judi Dench, Kevin Spacey, and many other luminaries. In the late 1980's, he took on Russell Reich, one of his American students, as an apprentice. While Reich later went on to direct at Harvard and Circle Repertory Company in New York, early on they worked together in Chichester, England, on a production of Robert Bolt's A Man For All Seasons. (That show later moved to London's West End with Charlton Heston in the lead as Sir Thomas Moore. Heston ultimately adapted the production into a made-for-television movie with the same cast.)
Notes on Directing is largely Reich's compilation, based on and inspired by twelve pages of notes Hauser handed to him during rehearsals. Reich kept all of his mentor's original notes, supplemented them with additional observations of his own, and added the comments and quotes of other artists past and present a good portion of whom were themselves students, colleagues, or teachers of either Hauser or Reich.
This collected material has been organized into a well thought out though deceptively compact volume. One hundred and thirty numbered headings provide pithy insights, each followed by explanatory commentary and supporting examples. The book also has four appendices, including an original acting exercise called "The What Game," an unconventional reading list, and an index.
By turns witty, confident, and self-effacing, Notes on Directing has the cumulative impact of a long apprenticeship to a great master.
As the book succeeds in demystifying the elusive craft of directing, it simultaneously raises the larger question of why it needed to be "mystified" in the first place. Here is the sort of utterly useful information students of directing would kill for: how to talk to actors ("prompt the actor to focus on how he wants the other person to feel"), how to control the audience's gaze ("if it moves, the eye will follow"), how to love a script you don't particularly like ("better to focus and build on the play's virtues than attempt to repair its inherent problems"). The book also delivers sensible, widely applicable, and no-nonsense advice on running rehearsals, getting a laugh, understanding the script even the very nature of being a director: "Actors and others will follow you even if they disagree with your direction. But they will not follow you if you are afraid to lead."
The quotes of other theatre artists are no less insightful and valuable. The book paraphrases Chekhov ("Never hang a musket over the fireplace in Act I unless someone gets shot in Act III"), shares Jack Lemmon's advice on acting drunk ("Don't slur"), and a favorite quotes playwright David Ives' wicked response to critics (" pity these poor souls who know every secret of writing, directing, designing, producing, and acting but are stuck in those miserable day jobs writing reviews").
Along the way, we also read about the best direction Paul Newman says he ever got, and Sir John Gielgud's single word of advice to young actors. Rather than give these gems away here, any serious student of directing is likely to want a personal copy, to thumb the book's pages and find these pearls alongside many others that might speak most directly to individual interests and concerns. Any one of the book's teachings can alone be worth many times the price of admission.
Not that the notes are beyond debate. The authors themselves acknowledge this, claiming it "is not a book of instructions." They encourage the reader to wrestle, struggle, even hate the notes if they must. "Our hope, though," Reich writes, "is that the reader will have nearly an impossible time ignoring them." Similarly and sensibly, the book acknowledges that certain notes may contradict each other, but the participatory challenge remains: "No doubt this [contradictory material] will frustrate purists, but just as any director must choose his or her tools and tactics every moment of each rehearsal, the reader will have to discern when to apply a particular truth, and when to be alert to its exceptions and contradictions."
This is a sensible and assertive book, at times shamelessly dogmatic and always practical. With a firm grounding in what has come before, it dares to declare what it regards as truths in dramatic art. The irony of the book is that by aiming at the finer points of the craft, its guidance is more likely to serve art than would the converse approach. (And the book itself, as an object, embodies that same love of craft; it's quite fine to see and hold.) Notes on Directing challenges more newly established perspectives on the relative difficulty of communicating how a successful production is made, and how directing might be taught. Apparently, if the complimentary jacket endorsements by Dame Judi Dench, Edward Albee, Sir Ian McKellen, Jerry Zaks, and Sir Richard Eyre (former artistic director of Britain's Royal National Theatre) are any indication, the book may signal a new and welcome clarity of thinking in how emerging directors can go about plying their craft.
Anyone who has ever uttered the infamous words "what I really want to do is direct" should be ready to put his money where his mouth is. Notes on Directing provides solid, straightforward guidance on what to do when you don't know what to do first or next. It delivers what all directors need to know, and what every actor, scriptwriter, and audience member wants them to know.
Permission to reproduce any portion of this document for reviewing purposes is freely granted by the publisher and copyright holder.