Moving in new directions, with Lemon Live!

Chatting in Zoom with three of the Lemon Live playwright/actors! Clockwise from upper left: Pauline Wright, Matt Cogswell, me, and Scott Sullivan.

Hello, friends. In this amazingly stressful time, I’m taking comfort and even finding joy creating theatre through my studio. Lemon Punch Theatre Lab, via Zoom!

I first pivoted to Zoom pretty quickly in late March, just to remain connected to my colleagues and Lemon Punch students. I had no expectations and was not at all sure how the new platform would work. It sure has its quirks! But since then, I’ve hosted two free microplay festivals, taught two multi-week classes and one movement workshop, and have now spent almost 6 weeks developing the Lemon Live New Play Festival, volume 3, which will go up on Zoom July 31- August 2. The Lemon Live team is brilliant, funny, and incredibly resourceful–we’ve produced two lineups of 7 short plays, for a total of 14 new works that challenge our idea of what Zoom theatre can be. For more information, or to book your tickets, visit the Lemon Punch Theatre Lab “box office.”

During this play development process, I asked one of the playwrights, Haley Dunning, if she’d like to co-direct one of her pieces with me, and it’s been extremely fun to collaborate! She asked me one day for some pointers, and I came up with a list that sums up my approach to theatre directing, and leadership in general, pretty well. So I want to share it with you!

We all need to lead with “what’s working,” rather than, “this isn’t working for me.” If we receive too much negative criticism and no highlights of what is good, we may throw out all of our work, get confused and lose confidence. So I try to always lead with what is working—often actors don’t even realize it, so it’s important to draw their attention to their successes.

In acting, as in writing, we don’t want to simply evoke static emotional states. We want to see/hear real people doing things. Acting is doing. So I talk a lot about thinking in verbs rather than adjectives. Instead of, “She needs to be more sad here,” you might say, “Could you try to mourn the loss?” Or, instead of saying, “I think she’s defensive,” you would say, “I think she might try to defend herself.” You might follow that up by saying, “Hmmm, how do we defend ourselves? What verbs are embedded in that? Does she attack someone? Does she blame another person? Does she deflect attention from herself?” Verbs keep the performance realistic and interesting.

Ask your actors/writers/designers questions. You may have all kinds of ideas about improving the scene, but until you know what your collaborators are thinking, you can’t shape your ideas to suit their frame of reference. Also, in listening to their response, you will learn more about your own ideas and might see ways to refine or improve them. Lastly, when people feel listened to first, they are often more relaxed and willing to listen to you back.

Set a calm tone. If you are frazzled, acknowledge it. If there’s something you don’t know, say, That’s a great question, I will find that out for you! Actors get nervous when they feel the director isn’t calm. The director doesn’t need to have all the answers right away—in fact, they shouldn’t, if they want to foster collaboration and exploration. But you can model a relaxed, interested response to challenges that come up. For example—oh, if we all turn off our cameras in Zoom, something weird happens?! That’s interesting! I will sort that out and get back to you on we’re going to handle that.

Remember that it’s only a play. While many of these scripts give us the opportunity to explore serious topics and feelings, ultimately we are not working not he COVID vaccine or defusing a bomb, so we should give permission for people to be less hard on themselves. We maintain a foundational level of respect and consideration for each other’s time and talent, but we don’t push people when they are uncomfortable. If it’s not fun, why make theatre? Keeping the play in perspective helps you create and maintain an upbeat rehearsal space. And we all need that right now!

So, those are my tips for directing, and for life right now. Give me a holler and tell me what works for you in the studio, whether it’s live in-person or on Zoom!