What did I learn while assistant directing? A deceptively simple question.
Now I love Shakespeare but it’s a complicated relationship that is by no means perfect. There are a lot of things about Shakspeare’s plays that I find difficult to deal with. Part of the reason that I enjoy productions where the context is adapted is because it provides some wiggle room about what is highlighted within the play which can create a more diverse and innovative interpretation. Not that I don’t enjoy a good traditional show sometimes too.
So before I had even moved to Toronto and began my MA, I saw that Hart House was putting on a production of Much Ado About Nothing and from the poster I could decipher that it was going to be sets in the 1940s. I had lots of reasons for applying to assistant direct but two of the most prominent were that I wanted to learn directing techniques and I wanted to be a part of the process of working on a Shakespeare show (especially one set in a different time period).
One of the things I learned right off the bat was how much work goes into the script. The entire script of a Shakespeare play has to be re-examined. Decisions are made ahead of time about what type of story this is going to become and how to facilitate the clearest storytelling possible. What scenes do not service the arch of the story? What jokes wouldn’t land with a modern audience? One of the major questions within this particular production was how to provide agency to women.
From the first conversation with Carly she mentioned that Don John would become a woman. Don John is one of Shakespeare’s more mysterious villains where the root of their villainy is not written into the text. All we really know is her and her brother had been in a fight and they recently reconciled. I think making Don John a woman was a smart choice because, particularly within the framework of the 40s, women were attempting to gain agency but failing to do so. That is legitimate reason to be peeved at the world. It’s reason to be peeved today.
So why change the context for a Shakespeare show? The setting works as a container to help the audience understand the values and ideas within the story. For example, choosing the ‘40s helps us deal with the Hero/Claudio plotline where a woman is publically shamed when her honour is called into question. The values of honour/virtue are pushed back into the container of the ‘40s but the time period is not so far back that we can’t draw the connection between then and now.
The thing that intrigues me about changing the historical setting of a show is the audience will always have their own expectations about what that time period means. They don’t need to be history majors to have beliefs about what the 1940s were. It isn’t enough though to slap a new context onto a show and call it a day though. There needs to be an intellectual understanding about how that context functions within the play and how it changes it. The ‘40s worked for Much Ado About Nothing because it features strong women working to break down barriers in a world where misogyny dictates how women are treated and expected to act. It changed the play because it could no longer function as a story where a wedding solves everything at the end. The last image of the show is Claudio and Hero looking at each other and at their uncertain future.
Adaptation begins with discussion and interpretation but it does not finish there. It is a process that develops in small steps. As Katie Mitchell describes in The Director’s Craft, working on a show “is like building a house in which different materials are laid down layer by layer from the foundations to the roof. The material must be put in place carefully and in a logical order, or the building will not stand up properly (115).” As someone who likes things to be figured out and organized, it can be hard not to want to jump immediately to knowing all the answers. The rehearsal process of Much Ado taught me a lot about leaving enough space for things to grow and breathe.
The beginning of rehearsals was simply about gaining information and asking questions. (What did you learn from this scenes? What is your relationship to so-and-so? Etc…). Rehearsals transitioned to discovering what the expectations of the scene are or what the objective of a character might be. And the final parts of the process focused on the action of the story or the overall arch. I think one of the things that impressed me the most about Carly’s methods as a director was her ability to find the right way to phrase a question that would allow the actor to unlock something important. Instead of telling them the answer, she allowed them to discover things for themselves in a way that made sense to them and that they could connect to. It also made the formation of the story more collaborative between the team.
One of the things that I took away from my first experience directing back at Queen’s and from this experience with Much Ado is the realization the director’s job is not to have all the answers. No matter what show you are working on you may have moments where you are not sure how strong a choice is or if the show is functioning the way you want it to. Katie Mitchell also talks about this and states that “either you will buckle or you will hold your nerve with renewed determination,” and she recommends “try to hold your nerve: it will be better for everyone involved in the production if you do (124).” Nobody goes through a show without being fearful sometimes so why would a director be expected to be in complete control all of the time? Fear is a motivator. It’s good to lean into the fear sometimes and it makes us stronger as artists and people.
Linda Hutcheon in Theory of Adaptation describes how “adapting can be a process of appropriation, of taking possession of another’s story, and filtering it, in a sense through one’s own sensibility, interests, and talents.” Therefore, adaptors are first interpreters and then creators (18).” By changing the context of a Shakespeare play, the material is being reinterpreted. But any time you direct something you bring with it your own beliefs and life experiences that influence how you interpret the material. Directors interpret the material and then create something new from it.
Overall, I am very lucky to say that my first experience assistant directing and working on a Shakespeare show was so positive. I was lucky enough to be a part of a dynamic group of individuals and able to learn from an amazing female director. I was also lucky enough to work on a Shakespeare show that was intellectually thought-provoking but also incredibly fun to be a part of. Lucky lucky lucky. Not enough words to describe how grateful I am to have been a part of Hart House’s Much Ado About Nothing so I’ll just end here.
Mitchell, Katie. The Director’s Craft. New York: Routledge, 2009. Print.
Hutcheon, Linda. Theory of Adaptation. New York: Routledge, 2006. Print.