Directing the Braggart Warrior

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Murphy’s Law Revisited

Probably most people who read this column—all three of you—have never had the privilege, the excitement, the frustration, the anguish, and the exhilaration of directing a play. Some might even ask, “what the heck does a director do?“  The answer:  Mostly he or she worries a lot because the director is responsible for putting the many aspects of the play into an understandable, coherent, and, hopefully, entertaining artistic whole.

Acting, interpretation of the script, music, sound effects, sets, lighting, costumes, and props all contribute to the finished product, but they all begin with the director’s concept and knowledge, although the actual creations of the individual parts fall to experts in the various fields. Then the director makes certain that all the parts fit together into one unit. The finished product can be the source of great pride, wishing for more time, making excuses, or unfortunately sometimes just plain old embarrassment.In 1963 and 1964 I was teaching full time at a high school in Downey, California, while also working for my masters degree in theater at Cal-State, Long Beach. I was the first person to go through the newly formed and accepted program when I came face-to-face with a primary example of Murphy’s Law:  “If anything can go wrong, it will.”

I wanted to direct a modern, small cast play as the final requirement for the degree, leaning toward Tennessee Williams’ The Glass Menagerie. The faculty nixed my proposition, informing me that the play must be of classical origin with at least a moderate sized cast. We finally agreed on Miles Gloriosus, or The Braggart Warrior, a Roman comedy from about 200 B.C by the playwright Titus Macius Plautus. (The play formed one-third of the 1960’s musical comedy A Funny Thing Happened On the Way to the Forum.)   We  needed a modern English translation for the contemporary American audience.

A faculty member who taught Latin at Long Beach volunteered and wrote the translation. While he was a delightful, kind, gentle person and a fine teacher (I was told), he did not know beans about what is funny to an audience. So I had to spend a great deal of time re-writing with the timing, rhythms, and actors’ abilities in mind. Then things got worse.

My chief advisor and chair of my committee, a man I considered also a friend, was to handle all the scheduling and other administrative details with the university. He had some “minor” surgery scheduled near the beginning of the process. When the doctors performed the surgery, however, they discovered inoperable and advanced cancer, giving him just a few months to live. Obviously my need to schedule time and space for rehearsals, performance, and other mitigating factors became quite low on his list of priorities. I now had to handle those details from fifteen miles away and with no formal credentials.

One of a director’s first jobs is to meet with set, costume and lighting designer(s) to discuss the style and needs of the show. Such factors as basic colors, time period, or important set pieces such as an entrance to the kitchen, a window that lets in sunlight, a desk with a telephone, or whatever. I met with the set and costumer designer assigned to my show, went over the basics, and we agreed to meet in two weeks with him presenting preliminary sketches. When I went to the university to meet with him, I could not find him, so I asked some theater students if they had seen him. The reply came, “Oh, didn’t you hear?  He died last week.”  The young man was 23 years old, obviously a shock to everyone. After a week or two, I was assigned another designer.

Designer 2.0 and I went through the same process with an agreement to meet in two weeks. He phoned me a few days later to inform me that he had had an interview at Disney Studios and they offered him a full time job on the spot. We then went to Designer 3.0. This one worked out well, thankfully. Indeed, she not only did a fine job with sets and costumes, but we dated for a few months after the play.

Now it was time to cast the play. I had auditions scheduled for Monday and Tuesday, November 25 and 26, 1963. Those who were around at that time may just remember that Monday, November 25. Only one thing seemed to happen in the United States that day: we buried the assassinated President John F. Kennedy. All schools, most businesses, and just about everything else came to a standstill in that time period. So I had only Tuesday for tryouts. That Thursday, however, was Thanksgiving, and many, if not most, students simply went home for the holiday. I had five men tryout for seven male roles. I spent Thanksgiving weekend re-writing again.

Because of my chief advisor’s medical condition, no one bothered to inform me that the main stage play directed by a faculty member needed more rehearsal time, so they added two weeks. Those two weeks coincided with my first two weeks of rehearsal, and my two male leads were in the other play. Just try starting rehearsals without the main male parts.     

One week or ten days before the play was scheduled to open, my leading lady came up to me after rehearsal and said, “I decided I don’t want to do this, so I am leaving.”  I now had just a few days left, but I had no female lead. Two summers before I had directed a musical for junior high students at a community center. The center director’s daughter, then a high school student, was my assistant and she was now a stage hand on my production. I told her she did not have to do it, but if she wanted the part it was hers. She accepted, learned the lines and movements quickly, and actually did a better job than the original lead probably would have done. Hey, at least one good thing happened.

My advisor was well enough to come to one of the two performances, although he had little positive to say. When he told me that the play was not really working, I told him, “I don’t care. It is done and that is all I care about.”  He understood. That was the last time I saw him alive.

I naively thought that once the show played, it was over and I would be anointed a Master of Arts. The faculty committee members informed me that I needed to write it as a thesis, including what problems arose and how they were solved. So I wrote some more, all this in the days of typewriters, not computers with word processing.

So I wrote, included pictures and the script, as well as the analysis. I then presented the finished copy to the committee and a copy to the library at the university. The library refused it, however, because I had done their copy on 10# onion skin paper and they wanted 9#. Not only was all this B. C., Before Computers, it was also Before Copiers. I took all 200+ pages to a blueprint printer, paying $.25 per page in 1964 dollars. Fortunately, the library accepted that copy even though it was 20# paper. I gave them the copy and they accepted it exactly five minutes before I would have started losing academic credits faster than I could make them up.

 Did I ever want to say, “The hell with it,” toss the script in the trash, and forget the whole business?  Of course I did. Often. Recently I read some philosophy that San Antonio Spur’s basketball coach Greg Popovich gave reporters regarding his star player’s injuries and the team’s 0 – 3 playoff standing against the Golden State Warriors: 

 Circumstances are such that we could be in a totally different position right now. That didn’t happen. It’s called life. Slap yourself, quit your crying and move on.

Fifty-three years ago I, nor anyone else, heard of Popovich, but his advice seems as relevant to problems with directing a play, coaching a basketball team, or anything else in life where one experiences setbacks. After five decades the tragic, as well as the simply frustrating, events of that four month period remain in my mind as clearly as the NBA playoffs of 2017.      

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