By Avra Sidiropoulou
204 pp. Routledge
Reviewed by Amy S. Green*
Directing a play is no small feat. A director will choose, inherit or devise the script; research the context, content, style and themes; conceptualize the translation to the stage; communicate that initial concept to the playwright(s), designers, producers and actors; and inspire and collaborate closely with the artistic team to bring the evolving production to fruition. The director must lead and listen, teach and learn, and cheerlead and critique with courage, tact and love.
No wonder aspiring and even accomplished directors seek guidance, mentorship and support at every stage of the staging. The directing shelf is already rich in classic volumes like Stanislavski Directs, Peter Brook’s The Empty Space, Jerzy Grotowski’s Towards a Poor Theatre and Anne Bogart’s A Director Prepares, as well as directors’ memoirs, anthologies (for example, In Contact with the Gods? Directors Talk Theatre, Delgado and Heritage, 1996), scholarly monographs and directing textbooks.
Directions for Directing: Theatre and Method is Avra Sidiropoulou’s contribution to the catalogue. It begins, pragmatically, with the premise that directing is “an aspect of theatre that relies on a series of practical skills and strategies that can be taught” (2). She takes a comprehensive approach and breaks down the director’s task into six chapters: Inspiration; Interpretation; Method, Leadership and Collaboration; and working with Text(uality), the Stage and the Actor. It is a wide lens, and the author packs in a trove of information gleaned from published, archival and primary sources, including interviews with directors based in New York, Athens and Japan. Her points of reference span the history of Western theatre, from Aristotle to Kerkhoven, from Oedipus Rex to Death of a Salesman, from Tadashi Suzuki to Thomas Ostermeier, and beyond. There are also practical exercises and a web companion (to which, unfortunately, I did not have access).
Sidiropoulou bares her ambitions in the Introduction: the book is “not just for the director (young, amateur, or experienced), but also very much to the broader community of actors, dramaturgs, set, costume, lighting, video, and sound designers, and choreographers; in fact, to anyone directly or indirectly involved in the theatre” (2).
That’s a lot of folks, with a lot of divergent backgrounds, knowledge bases, needs and interests; the author tries to meet everyone where they are with an encyclopedic database of the history, theory and practice of directing as the central engine of the theatre-making process. It reads like an MFA thesis but at 201 pages, that is both its virtue and its flaw.
The sheer quantity of information about theatre here is impressive. The minimally theatre-literate reader will be introduced not only to the scope of the director’s craft and the names and ideas of some of its major practitioners, but also to those of allied theatre artists. There’s a section on the history of acting and actor training, and there are others on playwriting and each of the design fields. A student or novice director will appreciate the survey of directorial challenges and responsibilities as well as the practical exercises that punctuate each chapter and transpose theoretical notions into concrete actions.
For the working director, there are insights gleaned from the perspectives and working processes of such luminaries as Vsevelod Myerhold, Arianne Mnouchkine (Théâtre du Soleil), John Collins (Elevator Repair Service), Peter Sellars and Declan Donovan (Cheek by Jowl), some of whom Sidiropoulou interviewed for the book.
The comprehensive approach raises interesting questions about directing in the twenty-first century. For example, is directing a single project when applied to such diverse genres, settings and media as devising a play with an ensemble, building a work of “physical . . . site-specific and immersive theatre” (34), assembling a virtual performance with “cyborg, android and robot” characters (34), and putting on a Shakespeare play? Each would seem to require significantly different skills and training.
Or, what are best practices in eliciting or portraying emotions on stage? The author reminds us that Stanislavski called for emotional memory, but, today, the actor should focus on physical activity (169).
For all these merits, I would love to say that as a teacher, scholar and working director, I thoroughly enjoyed the book. But that’s not true. In trying to be all things to all readers, the volume takes on a rather confused identity. In some areas, it is overly intellectualized; in others, too basic. So, is it a textbook or a monograph? A handbook or a critical history? I’m still not sure.
I struggled to figure out who would find themselves welcome in its pages and found myself trying on different reader perspectives. I probably couldn’t assign it to my undergraduate students for fear that they would be frustrated and confused by the jargon-filled language. Could I really expect them to make sense of “exigently teleological” (94), “diegetic (stage directions)” (100), or “polysemus lines of narrative” (141)?
Graduate students might be more comfortable with the terminology and, perhaps, not be put off by “pictorial and multimodal metaphors” (45) or the assertion that “characterization has taken a turn for the abstract, leading us to non-human/a-human/post-human dramaturgies, in which the materiality of the performer’s body is no longer relevant” (100), but left unsatisfied by the whirlwind survey of everything directing instead of a deeper dive into each subtopic.
As a scholar-practitioner, I experienced those disappointments as well as impatience at having to wade through the primer on the history of actor training (166-67), the recap of The Poetics (92-94), the ABCs of blocking (139-40), and instructions for breaking down scenes into actions, units and beats (96-98).
No doubt Sidiropoulou genuinely set out to inform and inspire, yet, despite (or because of) her reverence for the complexities of the art form, her extensive research and dense narrative ultimately make the book daunting and a bit of a chore. I don’t know that I’d have had the courage to stage my first play if this had been my introduction.
*Amy S. Green is an Associate Professor of Applied Theatre and Interdisciplinary Studies at John Jay College of Criminal Justice and the City University of New York School of Professional Studies. She is Associate Artistic Director of Nora’s Playhouse in New York City.