Mis-directing the Play: An Argument Against Contemporary Theatre
Ivan Dee, 2001
by Robin Galen Kilrain~
Some people believe that directors rightly operate in a gray area between serving playwrights’ intentions and satiating their own creativity. Terry McCabe is not one of them. To him, the issue is black and white: The playwright is the only creative, in the purest sense of that word, artist in the production mix. Everyone else functions as an “interpretive artist”; forget this at the play’s peril. Starting with the story of explosive clashes brought on between Samuel Beckett and the American Repertory Theatre by JoAnne Akalaitis’ “creative” interpretation of Endgame, McCabe explains what he feels a director’s proper role is — and definitely what it isn’t. Through Mis-Directing the Play: An Argument Against Contemporary Theatre, the longtime director comments primarily on how direction in the past few decades has overstepped its appropriate bounds. Argued with wit and intelligence, McCabe’s challenging opinions, agree with them or not, prove thought provoking.
Intention, intention, intention. The playwright’s, that is. Whether the writer is dead or alive, McCabe urges directors, “Bring the various elements of the production into one clear focus that expresses your best judgment of the playwright’s intentions.” Short and sweet. The more hidden the director’s hand as he or she does this job, the better. Should the text be used as a “found object” or staging take over as the primary emphasis, McCabe feels integrity is lost. As it is when actors receive too little respect, and dramaturgs, too much. (In fact, in a chapter dedicated to the latter, he goes so far as to compare them to designated hitters, holding unnecessary positions.)
Informed by 30 years of directorial experience, both in-house and freelance, and his position as a faculty member teaching directing at Chicago’s Columbia College, McCabe argues on the subject clearly and strongly in Mis-directing — and it has engendered controversy. The book has been condemned in the pages of American Theatre magazine and criticized at a national convention of the Literary Managers and Dramaturgs of the Americas. (Perhaps the designated hitter reference didn’t go over well . . .) As McCabe’s bio as current artistic director of Chicago’s City Lit theater notes, though, the book is used “on three continents” in courses on directing and has endured long enough to become available in paperback, a feat in itself in today’s publishing world. Differences of opinion on the art of direction apparently abound, luckily without diminishing the want for discussion.
To “determine” or to “discover” — the playwright’s, and thus the play’s, meaning — that is the question. The answer, according to McCabe, is definitely to discover. However, he does acknowledge that directors want to get noticed, and that it’s easier to do so “by exploding a play than by interpreting it.” For McCabe, though, staying true to the art of directing means always keeping perspective: Making a play’s “heart and soul clear” should be the ultimate goal. Offering 10 chapters, a preface and an appendix describing how best to do so, he provides both experienced and fledging directors a path that, if followed, should allow them to adroitly sidestep any stinging stagebill denunciations for improper treatment of a playwright’s intentions, such as Beckett’s infamous one regarding Akalaitis’ Endgame.