Wednesday, October 3, 2012

I liked it, but what was it?: Some Thoughts on Directing Pocketful of Posies

 Photo by Steve Rogers

“I’ll play it first and tell you what it is later.” - Miles Davis

“It’s not where you take things from – it’s where you take things to.” – Jean-Luc Godard

Apologies about the spacing issues.  Blogger isn't letting me correct them.

All right, this is a long time coming.

A few weeks after Pocketful of Posies closed, I was sitting at a bar with one of the cast members.  He said something to the effect of, “You know, I was pretty sure this show wasn’t going to work and might even be bad.  But then, in the end, it was amazing.”

I had those thoughts myself.  Are there directors that don’t?  Are there people who are creating something and have no moments of doubt, no times when they panic that they’re not executing their idea properly or communicating right, and that if they did communicate it right that it was a terrible idea to begin with?  With Pocketful of Posies, I had started with something relatively obscure, made it even more obscure, then asked people to go on a journey with me with very few guideposts and nothing but trust.  My thankfulness for a willing cast and audiences cannot be understated.

About a year before the show, the artistic director of Gnap! proposed that a female company member direct a feminist improv show based on some foreign films from the 60’s, including “Celine and Julie Go Boating” and “Daisies”.  Films that few people I know have seen, belonging to a genre that not too many more people know a lot about.  I, however, am into all those things, so I jumped at the chance.  Women!  Comedy!  French New Wave!  Psychaelia!  Yes…and then I sat down with it, took a good look around, and realized I had no idea what to do going forward.  Gnap! traditionally does narrative shows.  How to make one out of these non-narrative sources?  How to create a format from a genre that intentionally subscribed to no format?  How to get anyone to understand and care? 

To make something out of this disparate set of stuff, I went to the basics.  What is there about New Wave that I could set up as a guide?  Some history: New Wave filmmakers were rejected traditional film forms and rebelled against their reliance on plot.  This is old-school, they said (I paraphrase), keeping the genre of film linked to the genre of the novel.  Film is a different medium, and could be used to create a different experience.  They sought neither to mesmerize the audience with narrative images, nor to encourage the audience suspend their disbelief, but rather made films identified the essential elements that were the film-y-ness of films.  They let the audience be involved in and aware of the process, the glory, and the agony that was movie-making.  They made movies to celebrate what was unique about  movies.  This, more than the specifics of the source material, even more than the very lose idea of a feminist adventure, is where Pocketful of Posies came from.  What if I did that with improv?  What if I stripped away the expectations of the audience and the cast and left only the bare bones of the form?  What if I subverted the expectations of improv to celebrate improv?  What if anything really could happen?

Exciting.  This is the kind of thing that really gets me going.  So now, New Wave improv.  Not a point by point show set up like a specific film or films (which not too many people in my target audience would clearly identify, which is not how New Wave filmmakers made their own movies).  Nope.  I was going to give an improv audience the experience of the New Wave aesthetic captured within the genre of improv.  So… that helped?  It got me ready to create.  I have done all the major improv styles that I know of – short form, Harold and the children of Harold (living room, deconstruction, sliding doors, etc.), narrative.  I love them all.  They all exist in Austin.  I was going to combine them into something that used all of their beautiful bits and pieces to make a new thing, under the very loose heading that we’d follow a pair of female friends on an adventure.  Fingers crossed, time to jump, the net will appear (right?).

I had such an incredible cast.  They came from all the improv styles and everyone brought something completely wonderful.  The analytical plot-makers.  The beautiful characters.  The intellectual commenters who clarified ideas.  The theme-guided move-makers.  The sillies.  And, to top it all off, they were all willing to do this crazy thing that had next to no structure!  The plot-makers learned theme-moving.  The theme-movers learned to be protagonists.  Everyone got to be erudite and silly (sometimes at the same time).  They brought their own thing and mixed it up with the other things.  The whole was even greater than the sum of its parts.  And we used everything.  The show had the loose structure, the larger conventions of New Wave films and of improv, but mixed linear-focused with thematic-focused structures.  Shows broke out into short-form games to emphasize themes, to help the plot, to just have fun.  Much to my delight and surprise, every single show had audience involvement.  We had talked about breaking the fourth wall, about monologues and takes to the audience, but without making audience members feel on the spot.  For the most part I think that was accomplished (although it’s hard to tell for sure if anyone was made uncomfortable).  But even I was surprised how each week the audience became an active part of the show not only by cast encouragement but also by more organic responses to the energy.  

Each week the show got better.  It took a while to get everyone on the same page - I would say, the entire time of rehearsal plus the opening weekend.  I was asked many questions about how to emotionally connect with such an intellectually-based show.  Create a character with wants and needs, and the show will happen around it.  There was anxiety about not having enough of a linear story, and contrasting anxiety about not being willing enough to let go of that same thing.  My advice to this was always the same – you do what you do, and let them do what they do, and from that, this show will come up.  You may not think it makes sense from the inside while it is happening, but in the end it will come together.  The audience builds connections and the others are there to catch you.  There is a delay between those two particular concerns is a pit of despair – there is a) everyone on board with executing a specific structure and joyfully working in that, and b) everyone trusting each other, the show, and the audience completely enough to let nothing but characters and ideas happen long enough for those to become a whole.  Between the two there is a place where nothing happens but confusion and chaos because there is neither enough structure nor enough letting go.  Fear will mess you up every time, make you try to force things to happen instead of letting them happen.  Fear was happening to me, too.  It was at this point when both the cast I and I were possibly thinking something along the lines of ‘OH  MY GOD WHAT IS GOING TO HAPPEN THIS COULD BE THE WORST THING EVER LET'S CHANGE EVERYTHING NOW’.  I had to stay the course.  I'd seen the flashes of what I wanted in rehearsals and I knew it was there, and I (for my own mental well-being and the future of the show) had to hold on to that and act like I had no doubts.  And then… the click.

Opening was a little bit of crazy-town, creating no small exuberance but left some cast and audience thinking “That was fun, but…what was it?”  The second week the cast settled into the show and some tweaks were made – the  click- and by the third and fourth weeks, it had hit the sweet spot.  The last weekend of shows was wonderful.  It was all there, all of the elements, all of the trust - it was like that darts game Cricket.  We'd hit all the elements individually and gotten all the other points, and then finally we hit the bullseye over and over to win.

People ask me, “Did that show look like what you wanted it to look like?” and I can only respond “I didn’t know what it was going to look like because it could have looked like anything.  If you want to know if the show felt like what I wanted it to feel like, then yes, it did.”  It was funny, it was tender, and it was alive.  I go back and forth wondering if I should have put show notes in the program to explain more to the audience what it was all about, but in the end I’m glad I didn’t.  Part of the idea was for people to experience that night’s show experience, to be embraced by the warm hug of improv.  I think explaining too much would have lost that possibility - would have given the audience the guidelines that I specifically didn’t want them to have.

Did I succeed?  Ultimately, for the goals I had for the show, yes.  Always there are sayings and the idea that art should push you, scare you, take you places you've never been before.  I've been doing improv for 12 years and I'm not really nervous on stage anymore.  Sure, sometimes there are butterflies, but it's more excitement.  Directing Pocketful of Posies was the first time in my recent memory that what I was doing that scared me and pushed me to try to be better - better idea-making, better collaborating, better encouraging, better organizing, better clarifying, better leading.  The response I got from cast and audience leaned towards this: “This show reminded me that in improv, everything is possible.  This show reminded me to enjoy the playing and the process.  This reminded me why I watch/perform improv.”

I mean this with my whole heart and vision - I couldn’t have asked for anything better than that.

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