Tuesday, February 16, 2010

5 questions with PAUL BARNES, director

In a play about asking hard questions through psychiatry, it's only fitting that we ask those involved with DUET FOR ONE some hard questions about their jobs and their personal processes. This is the first part of a series of brief interviews, set to coincide with the opening of the production. My first set of five questions are with Paul Barnes, director of DUET FOR ONE.

Michael Cotey, education assistant : What drew you to DUET FOR ONE and why do you think it is an important story to tell?
Paul Barnes, director: What drew me to DUET FOR ONE was Michael [Wright]'s invitation to direct the play with him and Jacque Troy in the two roles. It's been a few years since I've directed in Milwaukee, and I think this is one of the most vibrant theatre communities in the country...so much interesting work being done at such a wide variety of companies. There is a really healthy interchange of theatre artists who respect each other no matter at which theatre they're employed. Plus, Milwaukee has large, supportive audiences for the full range of work being offered.

But the play itself is absorbing and challenging and addresses some pretty tough subject matter. The question of what happens when what we have worked to achieve all of our lives -- and what has actually come to define us in the world -- is taken from us, never to be regained -- is an important and difficult one to face head-on. The challenges to one's sense of self-worth and to one's faith are enormous, but so important to confront if one is going to hold onto a sense of, as [Michael Wright's character] Feldman puts it in the play, life being meaningful.

MC: Every play must have its own set of challenges for a director. What was challenging about DUET FOR ONE?
PB: DUET has been challenging because essentially, it's two actors, one of whom plays a character who is confined to a wheelchair, the other of whom plays a psychiatrist. So, there's inherent and built-in physical stasis in the play. This means it's incumbent on the actors and the director to find a sense of movement and activity in the play without over-staging and making the production so physically busy that it strains credulity. I am a great fan of stillness on stage and have come to believe that good actors working with a good script can fill stillness if they just trust themselves and the material on which they're working. It's scary, but possible. Actors often like to hide behind excessive movement or business because they don't necessarily trust themselves to be enough to just tell the truth.

At the same time, we're performing DUET FOR ONE in the Studio Theatre, which means the audience will be on three sides of the stage. Thrust staging always presents challenges in terms of keeping actors open to as much of the audience as possible. My job is insuring that no one actor has his or her back to a particular section of the audience for too long -- or during key passages of text. It's the kind of challenge I relish, though -- and at this point, now that we're just about ready for our first audiences, I feel like together we have conquered the obstacles of staging a play that is dependent on two people sitting and conversing in a 3/4 thrust situation.

MC: How do you approach blocking in away that keeps the play visually interesting?
PB: Thrust staging requires playing on diagonal rather than horizontal lines. By placing actors at the corners of the stage, it gives them maximum openness to the most number of people. I also have a lot of faith that actors' backs can be as expressive and as engaging as their fronts, and that much can be conveyed to an audience by a good actor who may not necessarily be facing a particular section of the house. Subtle shifts of position (when an actor is sitting still, as is the case for much of DUET) will reveal the actor to playgoers who might have been deprived of the actor's countenance for a passage of text, and then choosing moves selectively so that the actors do not become "moving targets" (i.e., always in motion -- or so continually in motion in such a way that the audience misses what's being said) but are open to as many people as possible for key moments or portions of the script. Also, the ability to get to those positions in a way that does not seem stagey or improbable is an important part of the work of a director in a thrust theatre situation.

The staging process evolves gradually over the weeks of rehearsal; a key component of the process is working with the actors' own impulses -- and getting them to trust that they can be still for fairly long periods of time, that they don't need to feel compelled to move, and that the eyes of the director are going to serve and support them while they are also serving and supporting the audience experience. In general, I like to do a lot of repetition in rehearsal. I think it helps the actors gain confidence with what they're doing and confidence leads to familiarity and familiarity leads to freedom. Iit also gives me the opportunity to move about the rehearsal hall, checking audience sightlines and making sure that the story is being shared as equally as possible to all sides of the room.

MC: With practices in psychiatry and medicine advancing at lightspeed, how do you feel DUET fares against the test of time?
PB: I think DUET holds up well against advances in psychiatry and medicine since its debut in 1980, mostly because it is not so much a play about psychiatric practices or medical advances, but about the goals of therapy -- which for me, at least, are to help people deal with what seems to be the impossible. Not only to confront what may seem insurmountable and move to a place of acceptance and grace in their lives, but also to move to a place where against the odds they find a way to move their lives forward. That challenge has existed for years and years, and though we know much more about depression and treatment for psychological difficulties now, the hoped-for outcome remains the same today as it did in 1980 and as it did when Sigmund Freud developed the first theories of modern psycho-analysis.

MC: What have you learned from your actors over the course of rehearsal?

I think I've learned from Jacque and Michael what I often learn in rehearsal, and that's if you give good actors good material to work on, and let them do what they already know how to do, you'll get good results. I think there are a few universal truths about directing:

Don't play the end of the scene or the moment before you get to the end of the scene or the moment.

There's much tension in distance.

Don't have such a huge emotional experience yourself that the audience doesn't get to have their own experience.

Avoid playing mood or attitude -- always find the action of the moment or the scene.

The truth can often be found in your acting partners' eyes.

It's always important to find humor in even the most serious of situations -- it's human and makes the characters in the story that much more compelling.

It's also that much more painful when the bottom drops out and a character's most raw emotions and needs are suddenly revealed. Michael and Jacque have reaffirmed these directing lessons for me -- and it's been a pleasure to get to work with them on this unique and challenging play.

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