Describing avant-garde theatre to uninitiated readers is a daunting task. Providing plot summary and character description is often of little use since so much experimental work lacks not only a linear narrative spine, but also psychologically coherent and analyzable characters. Even more daunting than reporting on a finished performance is the attempt to document its making. Having no conventional, printed play text with which to compare the rehearsal work, the observer must try to decipher a developmental process that typically seems involuted and confusing, and to imagine the often unarticulated goal toward which the director and actors are moving. In rehearsal, it is almost impossible to know which choices are inconsequential and which will prove decisive for the completed piece.
Susan Letzler Cole’s Directors in Rehearsal.- A Hidden World is the result of four years of documenting the developmental processes of 10 eminent avant-gardists: Elinor Renfield, Maria Irene Fornes, Emily Mann, JoAnne Akalaitis, Elizabeth LeCompte, Richard Foreman, Robert Wilson, Liviu Ciulei, Peter Sellars and Lee Breuer. Most of these directors cut their teeth in the experimental theatre of the late 1960s and ’70s, and remain committed to producing visionary, audacious, often controversial work. Eight of the ten are either playwrights themselves or noted adapters and arrangers of others’ words. As a result, Directors in Rehearsal is focused more on the making of alternative play texts and performances than on the staging of classic plays. Cole’s vignettes provide a fascinating look at the working methods of some of America’s most compelling theatre artists, and will be of enormous value to those hoping to understand how these figures exercise their highly individualized visions and styles.
Cole documents in considerable detail how the directors communicate with and coach actors, how they approach blocking and text work, how they deal with the physical elements of production and how they articulate their conceptions and goals. The book is dotted with statements by the directors that enhance and clarify one’s understanding of their work: Robert Wilson uses painterly terms rather than a language of motivation when he coaches actors (“deliver one line with a very |hot texture,’ the next line with a |cold texture'”); Emily Mann insists that Execution of Justice is not the story of Dan White but “a collective witnessing”; Irene Fornes remarks that a character is rendered “whole” not by piling up details by keeping something “mysterious” and “a little bit beyond our reach.”
Given Cole’s obvious sympathy for nonnaturalistic theatre, it is hardly surprising that her most compelling chapters focus on artists who challenge “the Method” and the conventions of psychological realism and who elaborate a mise-en-scene that does not simply and predictably illustrate a text. Especially noteworthy are her glimpses of Fornes’s remarkable skill at fostering a kind of dynamic immobility in her actors, an “active stillness,” by urging them “to find that hollow, that space inside you, that place where I am when I write”; Akalaitis’s fascination with the “mechanical” and the “utilitarian,” and her “avoidance of interpretation” during the early part of the rehearsal process; Wilson’s coaching actors with kinetic rather than psychological language, and his technique of creating structure not through naturalistic dialogue but by postulating “lines of force on the stage” (like “a diagram of a tennis match”); and Breuer’s proficiency at “splintering” the title character of The Warrior Ant by using multiple impersonations: narrators, singers, dancers and puppets.
Throughout the book, Cole attempts to play the part of the dispassionate observer and is disinclined to take a strong interpretive stand on any of the pieces. This strategy of presenting the material in a relatively unmediated way works with those directors who most rigorously articulate their goals and methods (Fornes, LeCompte, Wilson and Sellars), but the chapters dealing with other artists are weakened by the author’s reluctance to provide conceptual frameworks. Too often an overview of the piece and of the director’s strategies, if present at all, is reserved for the last page of a chapter rather than used as a way of helping the reader get a handle on some admittedly difficult and obscure theatre pieces. One feels at times abandoned by the author, unable to make sense of the myriad details she has faithfully recorded.
A more serious problem, however, is Cole’s reticence to identify the directorial concepts of those three directors who are shown working on classic plays (Renfield, Fornes and Ciulei). Particularly disappointing is her approach to Fornes’s brilliant and groundbreaking production of Uncle Vanya (which I saw). While Cole astutely analyzes its “active stillness,” she misreads Fornes’s most striking and significant interpretive choice: Yelena, for once, was characterized not as a shallow coquette, as the instigator of male rivalry and emotional excess, but as a scapegoat – an especially discerning character who is consistently disfigured by being made a screen on which Vanya, Astrov and Serebriakov project their own ambitious and inflated desires. Cole in passing notes Fornes’s “directorial disruptions of literalistic readings of the playtex,” but fails to understand that the director’s disruption is not an abstracted or willful trespass but an energetic challenge to the received cultural tradition, i.e., an important feminist rereading of Chekhov.
Cole’s inattendance to the cultural or political resonances of directorial choices is particularly problematic given her subjects, almost all of whom are renowned for transgressive and polemical work. What is a reader to make of the extraordinary level of hostility generated by Foreman’s Birth of the Poet, or of Breuer’s reconceptualization of the solitary epic hero as a multiplicity of subjects? Only sporadically does Cole offer an interpretive guide.
These inconsistencies – Cole’s uneven attention to directorial concept, power dynamics in rehearsal, and the significance (cultural and otherwise) of directors’ choices – prevents the book from being as incisive than comprehensive as it could be. Directors in Rehearsal too often reinforces the notion that the work of the avant-garde is hermetic and elitist – more a mystical rite and a comprehensible social practice. Only intermittently does Cole seem to acknowledge that simply documenting rehearsal is not enough, and that the writer who would illuminate the process of making experimental theatre must, in effect, psychoanalyze the activities of director and actors, second guess their choices, and articulate that which they prefer would remain unspoken.