I’ve heard a lot of people say that you should always be questioning what you’re doing and be worried you’re not good enough—I think that’s really bizarre advice. You need confidence to pull off a show, and when you’re directing, if you’re not confident in your actors and your own ability, others will see that and your show will fail.
Being the artistic director of a small theatre company, Bygone Theatre’s Emily Dix has had to play multiple roles, among which directing is her favourite. In this Q & A, she reveals some of her thoughts on what it means to be a director and what it takes for a small company to put on a play.
Tell us about yourself. What is your interest or involvement in the performing arts?
I’m the artistic director of Bygone Theatre, which means I do everything from directing our shows, deciding on our overall “image,” designing costumes, to doing the majority of the marketing/promotions for our productions. I’ve worked in most aspects of theatre (actor, director, stage manager, costume designer, makeup artist, techie), but I think directing is my favourite.
As an performer/artist/director, what is your motivation for doing what you do?
As a director, I love the chance to showcase other people’s talents. I think my greatest strength in directing is casting; I always have talented casts. I’ve always found it easy (and fun) to see the big picture of any project, and so I enjoy getting to build up all the little details and create something entertaining. I don’t believe theatre needs to be life-changing, but I think it needs to entertain. A lot of the time I go and see a show and feel like the director is trying to push some message down my throat, and who wants that? So I try to make my shows fun to watch. Whether they are dramas like Doubt or goofy musicals like Hairspray, first and foremost I want my audience to enjoy watching them.
Can you tell us more about your upcoming production of Doubt: A Parable?
Doubt: A Parable is an award-winning play by John Patrick Shanley. It’s set in 1964 in St. Nicholas Catholic School in the Bronx. The story revolves around Sister Aloysius, the stern principal, and her suspicions surrounding a popular priest at the school, Father Flynn. Aloysius suspects Flynn of molesting one of the boys, and confides in the naive Sister James. It’s a small cast of four actors: Jordan Gray as Father Flynn; Anne Shepherd as Sister Aloysius; Maja Rakocevic as Sister James; and Karen Simpson as Mrs. Muller.
I think a lot of people have seen the movie (with Meryl Streep and Philip Seymour Hoffman), but very few people seem to be familiar with the play. While the plot is essentially the same, I think there is a lot less doubt in the minds of the film audience as to whether or not Father Flynn has done something wrong; the film certainly implies he has. The play, however, is a lot more ambiguous.
With our production, the actor playing Father Flynn has actually chosen not to tell the rest of us what his character has done; I told him my thoughts on it, but even I don’t know what he’s chosen to believe. This makes for a very suspenseful play, and I think audience members will enjoy trying to figure out what has really happened.
Also, I think we have an interesting aesthetic appeal. The play isn’t set in a traditional theatre setting; it feels like you’re in a church, which helps bring you into the action. Our music team has put together great transitions based on traditional hymns and church music, which helps this effect, and the costumes (which were sewn by my mother, Karen Henderson) are very well-made.
We are having an opening night party on Thursday, January 17th at 10 p.m. at Insomnia Restaurant and Lounge, located at 563 Bloor St. W (Bloor and Bathurst). This is open to all cast, crew, and audience members—cheap drinks and some free food!
What do you see as the main challenges for the performing arts?
Time and money. It is insane how many hours a day I put into this show, not counting the actual rehearsal times. Since we are a small company, we have very few people to assign to each task. I have done all of our promotions, and spend on average five hours a day online doing things like tweeting, updating our website, sending out newsletters, and doing featured spots on our actors.
On top of that, we need the time to get things like props, sets, and costumes together, and to plan production meetings and go over costs and venue specifics. Then, of course, there is the actual directing side, where I need to have rehearsals and be available for actors’ questions in between them.
I think any small company would have the same problems. This all takes a lot of time and a lot of money—most small groups don’t have huge budgets, and so we have to put all our time and effort into a show in order to make it successful. It’s hard to get people to work for free, so it’s important that we put on really good shows and that the rehearsal process is positive so that we can still attract talented actors, even without being able to pay them.
Could you share some examples of the kinds of challenges that you have faced yourself as a performing artist and how you overcame them?
I’ve been lucky to have worked with a lot of very talented, positive people over the years. I am constantly surprised at how accepting and supportive 99 percent of the theatre community is. That said, you work with so many different people with so many different skills that at some point you are bound to work with someone who lets you down.
Because theatre consists of a thousand little pieces that need to fit together, it is essential (even for those of us who like to control it all) to delegate some roles to others. I have had stage managers, producers, and actors from various shows not pull their weight or cause a fuss over nothing, and it’s incredibly stressful, frustrating, and counter-productive. At the end of the day, we have to not take any of it to heart, and just accept the fact that sometimes we need to pull something together last minute when someone else hasn’t been holding up their end of things.
I think that’s part of why I love directing—it’s so stressful and exhausting, but it’s already my job to know about every aspect of the show, how it should be run, and who should be running it. When someone drops the ball, it might be stressful, but I know how to get it back in the air, and so I’ve never had a problem in a show that couldn’t be fixed in time for curtain. Of course, the more you work in the community, the better connections you build, and so my more recent shows haven’t really had this problem.
What words of advice do you wish you had been given when you first started out?
In theatre, one of the only certainties is if something can go wrong, it will. When you’re starting out and you have such high hopes for a show, even the smallest setbacks can seem devastating. It’s important to take everything in stride, and always look for the silver lining. That doesn’t mean you need to pretend that, for example, an actor dropping out last minute is a good thing, but telling yourself that this is a good reminder of why understudies (or directors who know the whole script) are important is a way to turn it into a learning experience, rather than something that makes you lose hope and motivation.
I’ve heard a lot of people say that you should always be questioning what you’re doing and be worried you’re not good enough—I think that’s really bizarre advice. You need confidence to pull off a show, and when you’re directing, if you’re not confident in your actors and your own ability, others will see that and your show will fail. However, I think always asking questions and taking note of things, like the different ways actors work, new motivational techniques, etc., will help you grow as an artist.
Are you an actor or director yourself? Does Emily’s experience echo yours or do you have a different take on this work? We’d love to hear from you in the comments!
To learn more about Bygone Theatre’s team and upcoming projects, check out their website. Doubt runs January 17 to 19, 2013 at University College East Hall, 15 Kings College Circle. For more information about the show and where to purchase tickets, please visit https://www.bygonetheatre.com/#!doubt-a-parable/c8d0.