on directing

1.

In August of last year, I was hit by a car while on holiday in Berlin. A few months later I was having coffee with a friend when he mentioned that he’d heard some interest from Liz in a play I’d written (and later re-written during my time at NIDA) called Home Invasion. I was uncertain, but this friend insisted: I should contact Liz. Why not? What was there to lose?

Directing this show has been a terrifying process, but one I’m intensely thankful for. It has meant that the past two months of life have flown by; that I’ve had a series of rehearsals and script edits to occupy myself with instead of twiddling my thumbs and waiting to return back to NIDA with an increasingly paranoid sense of impending doom. It has also forced me to find my feet once more; to become comfortable inside a rehearsal room instead of stuck behind a MacBook.

Ostensibly, this play is about obsession. Obsession over an idea, a person, a televised music competition. But in another sense, it’s about more. It’s about ruined aspirations. About reaching out and getting close, as close as possible, but not close enough. About dreams and expectations. And humour. It’s also about humour because nobody wants to be yelled at for an hour and a half, least of all me. It’s also about cracking open the numerous obsessive elements rooted deep within my personality and asking: why?

Last year I studied under playwright Stephen Sewell, an inspirational and extremely opinionated man.

“I always think,” Stephen said. “If you have something to say, just say it. There’s no point faffing around; if you have a point to get across, then why not save us all a great deal of time and just get it across?”

And this is what was different the second time around, as I wrote the version of the script you’re about to see: I was not afraid to say what I needed to say, to yell it out loud if necessary. This play is about the relentlessness of feeling like there’s a chance, no matter how small, that you just won’t make it; that you’re not good enough. Seems appropriate for a NIDA student who almost died.

So, I think: why not? What is there to lose?

I’m not sure I could think of a more caring, more dedicated group of artists with which to reintroduce myself to the world of theatre. Thank you.

2.

And I am 21, and it is early December of 2009. I am standing in my parents’ kitchen, the hot brown linoleum sticking fast to the naked soles of my feet as I wait for my father’s gargantuan silver coffee machine to heat up and get to work. As I wait my mobile phone begins to ring with a number I do not recognise.

“Hello?” I answer. It’s probably a telemarketer.

“Hi Chris,” a woman’s voice replies warmly. “It’s Yvonne calling from student theatre. Just calling to say we loved your application and if you’re still interested we’d love to have Marat/Sade as part of our season next year.” I had, perhaps a month earlier, pitched to direct Peter Weiss’ Marat/Sade as part of their following season, and she, apparently, liked my pitch.

“Oh!” I say. “Yes. Sure. I’d… I’d love to,” I say, holding on to what little tranquillity hasn’t escaped my body as the conversation comes to an end. My voice wavers as I reply, belying the intense waves of excitement overcoming my body.

“We’ll have a meeting with all the shows in the season, but ‘till then there’s not much else to do, so just enjoy it!”

We exchange pleasantries, and hang up. Inside my head rings out a shrill, high-pitched scream of excitement.

And I am still 21 and it is late August of the following year, in the thick of Marat/Sade rehearsals as winter violently and persistently continues to tighten its vice grip on Melbourne. I am on break from rehearsal, standing with a selection of my cast, all huddled together like a smattering of early-20s aged Emperor Penguins, rapidly inhaling and exhaling smoke from my second menthol cigarette.

“Break’s supposed to have ended a minute ago,” Lucy, our stage manager, comments drily as she sticks her head out of the rehearsal room and into the cold. “Pack it up and move it in.”

An image of how much work we have left to do flashes through my skull – a lot, but thankfully we’re only a few weeks into rehearsal – and how much more rehearsal we’ll need to make everyone actually turn up. I blanch, and rapidly inhale the rest of the cigarette; flicking it to the ground, stamping on it and selecting another.

“Five more minutes,” I say.

“We’ve only got an hour and a half left –“ Lucy begins.

“I’m the director, and I say five more minutes.” I snap back, grabbing the arm of a nearby cast member who’s packing her cigarettes away as I do. “No, it’s okay,” I say. “We have five more minutes. Smoke another one.”

Perhaps it’s a flash of kindness. Probably it’s the intense mania in my voice, but Lucy shakes her head and quietly returns into the room.

“Five more minutes,” I mutter to myself as I smoke contentedly.

3. 

It is half a year later and I am 22 and riding on a high after the opening night of another show I’ve directed, a particularly well received King Lear. The room is abuzz with positivity and excitement, and I’m onto my third mug of wine and feeling like this feeling could or should last forever.

So good,” a voice nearby says, and I listen in despite myself. “And like, it wasn’t even a good Shakespeare company show,” – the Monash Shakespeare Company have been renowned for putting on atrociously rendered misunderstandings of William’s work, coupled with sloppy direction and dramaturgy – “it was just a good show.”

I beam, and refill my cup. It’s been a long text-based three months, with each scene and each character’s movements across the traverse stage plotted out and relentlessly rehearsed time and time again, but it’s been worth it.

4.

And I am 23, now, in early 2012 mid-notes session in rehearsal with a small collection of students for what has been dubbed the “Caulfield O-Show.” In general it’s been a complete hell of a time, owing predominantly to the fact that I thought I’d be “fine” to work with a particularly petty ex-boyfriend of mine instead of swiftly removing him from the cast when he removed me from his life.

“I can’t hear your line,” I say. “And we need to hear it as it’s not only one of the important facts about the campus, but if nobody hears what you’re saying they won’t be able to follow the plot.” The plot itself is incredibly simple, so for an audience member to not be able to follow it, he’d have to be speaking incredibly quietly.

The ex-boyfriend surreptitiously rolls his eyes and crosses his legs. “Yeah, I just – it’s just not really in my character to do that.”

A million vitriol-filled responses flit through my head as I reel in disbelief, thinking: it’s a pretty damn simple concept: you’re on a stage? Cool. Great. Then you need to be heard.

“Babe,” my friend Suzanne snaps in before I can, clearly displeased at the level of disrespect shown and wanting the rehearsal to just be over. “Do us all a favour and just take the note.”

5.

And perhaps some six months prior to the above incident, I am sitting in a rehearsal room with the above ex-boyfriend (who at this point was just the boyfriend) and a host of other actors for an independent show I’m directing. This is perhaps the third or fourth time we’re going over a scene, and I sit, scrawling down notes as they come up with every right (or wrong) intention each actor delivers.

Wrong, I think as my pen hovers anxiously above the paper. Wrong! That’s the third time I’ve had to say not to do it in that way.

I move the pen down and begin to write the note, but something stops me halfway through, and quietly, grumpily, I think: If they’re not going to get it right now, maybe they just don’t want to. How many times do I have to say something? What’s the point?

6.

And though I’ve been immensely thankful for the process of Home Invasion keeping me busy, it is also the process that has brought me to the realisation that I have zero desire to continue directing. Not through any grand and dramatic actor/director confrontation or bump-in incident, but quietly, calmly:

I sit in our rehearsal room (a friend’s shed kindly lent out to us) some ten minutes before rehearsal is due to begin. Probably it’s the brain injury anxiety – certainly it’s the manner that I’ve found so much harder to switch between thinking like a writer and thinking like a director – but I realise that I’m having to mentally prepare myself for each rehearsal; to focus on each scene ahead of time and think about how I’m going to address it.

It’s no longer a joy, but work – and that’s not necessarily a bad thing, but I’m recognising, as the process continues, how I’m having to drag each slice of investment out of my brain and think of how I wrote it; what I was trying to reach and show about humanity, what parts of myself the play surreptitiously exposes to the audience whether they know it or not.

So, where does that leave me now? More prepared to continue to hone my practice, and aware of what I want and need to do. And completely unprepared to make any grand statements like “I’ll never direct again” (and really, gives a shit either way?) because there’s a good chance I will, at some point.

But for the moment, I’m burnt out with not much left to give, in that respect, and slowly but surely I’m learning the greater good and quiet joy of being able to say “no”.

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