I am fortunate enough to be hired on a pretty regular basis to Direct/Co-Write/Dramaturg the devised work of comic performers who do not employ a 4th wall AND who recognize the necessity in having an outside Director/Co-Writer/Dramaturg—henceforth called DCD, by me in this blog post and then, probably, never again by anyone.
So I thought it would be neat to explain a bit about the process, my background and philosophy, and more useful stuff about the DCD lifestyle, in case it's mysterious. Mwahahaa! Whether you're looking to bring in a DCD for your performance work, or are yourself considering the not-particularly-lucrative DCD career path, here are some of my very own DCD concepts for your perusal!
1) YOU NEED ONE YOU NEED ONE YOU NEED ONE. Let's get this little lecture out of the way. If you create theater of any kind, you need some sort of DCD. When I was in the straight-theater world, nobody thought about putting on a show without a director. It was like, DUH. So I'm not sure why, in the world of devised performance, some folks got it into their heads that they can cut corners and leave out... um.... the most important thing? No way, pal. And you can't DCD your own show either. It's too damn many hats to wear, and everything suffers. Performers need to wear the performer hat, and unfortunately, they have to wear the producer hat at least at first because they have to get people to come see what they do. That's enough hats! You can do some of the DCD legwork on your own, for sure, but ultimately, bring in SOMEONE or a few different people to see what the eff you're doing before you go public with it. Outside eyes are the only eyes that can really truly see.
2) STORY. Ever heard this maxim? There is no story in a clown show. The clown is the story.
Obviously, complete hooey.
Well, it's slightly true.
But it's sort of bullshit.
The truth is, yes, any compelling comic performer should already be a story—by which I mean, a compelling character has a narrative buzzing around them that an audience can sense, can get curious about. But that doesn't mean that the story doesn't also need to be PLAYED OUT. We might see the story buzzing around the clown, but in a full show, we need to go on the ride. The ride is a story arc, a question to be answered, a lesson learned, an adventure taken.
If I'm any good at DCDing, it's at least in part because I've spent my life being a story addict. My childhood books have layers of ancient peanut butter stains from being read over and over again (over sandwiches). Scary stories kept me up at night, romantic stories consumed me. I'm one of those people who often narrates my day-to-day life, just to myself, like a lunatic. I've taught high school English and facilitated classic book clubs and written 3 novels and watched way more movies and television than I feel like counting or admitting, from a wide range of eras and genres. Since I was young, I've obsessed about how stories are constructed, what their agenda is, what the conscious and unconscious choices of the author reveal about their times, their environs, themselves. Stories are everywhere, and if you're like me, then you see stories hanging off of every tree limb and sign post, like the forgotten entrails of your friends after the zombie apocalypse.
A massive foundation of stories comes in handy when you're trying to make a new one.
3) THE FOREST AND THE TREES. Let's break down a show this way: you got a forest, and you got trees. The forest is the overall story; the trees are the elements that make up that story. A show needs to have trees—parts, elements, bits, micro-stories—and it needs a forest: a journey, an arc, answers to questions like "what's it all about" or "why did you make people come see this in the first place." But just because you have, say, 55 minutes of trees does NOT mean you have a forest.
I have worked with artists at all different stages in their processes. Usually, they have already done some work on their own: they have bits, they have a character, they have a concept. What I often notice is that a performer comes to me with trees, sometimes a lot of trees, but when we start to chart out what the forest is, we come up short. We see that the trees all have a similar dynamic, or tell the same micro-story within a larger framework. Sometimes I notice that performers have spent a lot of time making the same tree over and over again in slightly different shades, and that's cool, but when it comes time to make a full show, the same tree over and over again does not a forest make. Or, perhaps more to the point, it makes one repetitive-ass show.
I use index cards a lot in my process. They're super useful both for noting what trees we may already have, and what we may still need to complete a full story arc. We put all the trees on separate index cards. We ask questions of each tree: what new purpose is it serving, what theme does it reinforce, what does it reveal, why do we love it. Those questions often lead us toward bigger forest-type discussions: what are the show's aesthetics, values, lessons, investigations? What do we have, and where are we headed? Forest and trees, man. That old chestnut has never let me down.
4) TABLE SESSIONS. I work with performers using a combination of "table sessions," (as in, work sessions with writing utensils over beverages at tables) and studio time. Table sessions are when the performer(s) and I can think about the forest, switch index cards around, write things down, talk about areas of the show we need to develop further, set goals for studio time, deal with feelings of panic and/or inadequacy, all of it. We talk talk talk and play with index cards and drink hot enticing beverages and talk more. Talk is important, as are hot enticing beverages, and table sessions are the times when the performer can wear the co-writer/co-dramaturg hat, and give feedback on the whole process. There must be space for talk in a development process, which brings me to—
5) STUDIO TIME! Here's a common DCD-less pitfall: performers go into the studio for studio time. They have material they have to develop, so they spend studio time talking big concepts and trying to figure stuff out. They end up spending way too much time talking and way less time on their feet working. They get a little stage time in and call it a night, exhausted. Sure, it counts as a rehearsal, the same way walking to the refrigerator counts as exercise. It's just not the most effective exercise, or in this case, rehearsal.
Remember when I said wearing too many hats is bad for a performer? It's more than bad. The quality of the material you develop will be nowhere near as good as it could be if your studio time is weighed down with discussion. You know what studio time is? It's a fucking workout for your show. It's when somebody warms you up and gets you going and gives you games to play and side-coaches you as you play them. You play play play and invent invent invent. That's it! And that shit is videotaped! Filming improv is the most important tool performers have. Not necessarily every rehearsal or every minute, but every time we're trying to work something out or develop material, we tape that shit. So many times, something awesome happens, something clicks into place, and if there's a camera on, all you have to do later is watch and transcribe. BAM! MATERIAL DEVELOPED! Smooth it out later.
Inspiration is, as I'm sure you know, one of the worst assholes out there. It's hard to pin down, it's hard to predict, and it's inconsistent as fuck. If you talk too much, it flees the scene. It needs more than anything to be protected, to have a safe and carefully curated space to do its strange ghost-pony dances. Table sessions are a way of separating "think/talk time" from "create/play time." They should be separate, if you want that ol' asshole inspiration to come haunt ya in the best way.
6) MONEY!!! One of the reasons, I know, that a lot of devising performers don't use a director is because usually, directors cost money. Not always; you can trade outside-eye work with friends, or find someone who is beefing up a resume and wants the work... but yeah, sometimes you have to pay. Myself, I charge hourly. Sometimes I consider going to a flat-rate model based on the size of the final project, because taking on an artistic project is not an hourly kind of job. You think about every show you work on even when you're not working on it.
But if you're balking over spending money on a director, perhaps costing you a few grand, at most, allow me tell you about the show I once spent over 15 grand on. It was the first Butt Kapinski show, 12 years ago, when Butt was performing with 3 other guys. The show had a set designer, a sound designer, a lighting designer, a video designer, a costume designer, two week-long artist residencies, 2 years of rehearsing in Brooklyn spaces, rented theater spaces, a producer, all the usual show production costs, not to mention the performers and director who didn't get paid. I footed the whole bill. Mostly, I was so glad that something I wanted to make was getting made. I had lucrative work those 2 years and was able to spend that kind of money.
Where is that show now? Totally dead (rest in peace). I have absolutely nothing to show for it. We did about 12 performances of it, and then never again.
On the other hand, I have a lot of show for it. I learned a ton about how shows get made and what's needed to make them. I learned a lot about what I didn't want to do for the future. And I get to say to people, you're worried about paying me? Let me tell you about the time I spent 15 grand. Don't pity me, just congratulate yourself that you're not spending anywhere near that, and you're getting a show that will hopefully last longer than mine did.
Making a show is NOT a science—it's totally different every time. There are moments during development where I doubt my abilities to pull it together, I lose faith in the vision the performer(s) and I once had, I wonder if it's all crap. We all do. But mostly, it's a magical, mystical process. Watching performers give birth to an art baby—a baby that you have doula'd and midwifed and kinda a little bit fathered too... it's so powerful. It goes up and there's response and you see the relief on the performer's face—the hardest work is done—and the determination to keep going and refining and working...
Making a show is a marathon, and it doesn't ever seem to quite stop. That's a cool thing about art. And life. Something is always growing—even if it's tiny, a dream, a notion. Something always has the potential to bloom.
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