Did you ever just have one of those whims? I should try red lipstick. How about baked chips instead of fried? Maybe, I’ll go blonde?
Why don’t I try directing a show?
I have lots of whims, and I try about 50% of them, you know, the small ones, like the red lipstick, which for the record, was not one of my finer moments.
Anyhow, several months ago I posted on Facebook something to the effect of “I think I’d like to give directing a try.” I had spent several years performing, and it is without a doubt my first love, but often while performing I found myself thinking about the production aspect of theater and feeling increasingly like this was something I’d like to explore further.
So after posting this, I received a message from my good friends at Connecticut Theatre Company, where I had just performed in Gypsy. They were looking for a director for their fall production of Young Frankenstein. I just sort of laughed and responded, “well, I was thinking of starting with something small like a one act straight play, not a full length musical,” to which Duane, the executive director of CTC, responded “Go big or go home!”
I kind of shrugged it off. I was in no way prepared to direct a full length musical, but Duane had insisted I wouldn’t go it alone. He would join me on this journey. Well, that was a slightly different story. I had just worked with Duane on Gypsy and I not only respected him artistically, but I liked him personally, and I knew he was someone I could not only work well with, but also someone I could learn from.
I wasn’t familiar with Young Frankenstein, so I began my research the way any self-respecting scholar of the arts doeson Wikipedia. I also borrowed the original film and soundtrack from the library. When I heard the song “Deep Love,” I was sold. I mean an irreverent musical, chock full of sexual innuendo, it’s like it was written just for me. So I messaged Duane that I was “in,” whatever that entailed, and thus began my directing journey.
The first surprise of the directing process was how much pre-production work goes into a show. “You mean I can’t just show up and tell people what to do?” Not only did I need to become familiar with the script, but I also needed to have some sort of vision of how this was going to play out in three dimensions. To be honest, the script was terrifying. There were so many scene changes and special effects. The broadway production, which I’m sure had a huge budget, had a “monster” of a set. (that joke never gets old). Well here at CTC, we are off off off Broadway, so our budget is not so huge. Trying to figure out how to present this piece with limited resources, while still doing justice to do it artistically, was challenge number one. Luckily, Duane’s years of doing just that, came into play. He and Michael Bane, technical director and vice president at CTC, figured out a set design that was relatively simple and utilitarian while still being visually pleasing. We also, talked about how to accomplish the special effects in the show and came up with a game plan. After this discussion, I began to feel a bit more at ease.
Next came the audition process. This was the first time I would be sitting on the opposite side of the audition table. Having been to numerous auditions myself, it was my intention to make the process go as smoothly as possible and to make the auditioners feel as comfortable as possible. Whether or not this was achieved, is not for me to say, but I sincerely hope so. I never understand the need for some directors to be intimidating. Auditioners are nervous enough without any extra incentive.
Then finally, the rehearsal process began. The first read-through is always interesting. Some people know each other, some don’t. Those who are familiar with one another catch up by speaking in a hushed whisper, as if they are in a library. The newcomers quietly look around trying to feel out the other people and the theater company. I was really tempted to come in wearing a beret, holding a megaphone, and barking ridiculous orders in a fake British accent. I didn’t. Instead, I nervously welcomed everyone to the cast of Young Frankenstein and then read over the rules and expectations of CTC. (womp womp) Despite, my anti-climactic entrance and the quiet first read-through, the cast warmed up to one another in almost no time at all. I of course, fell in love with them immediately. I can’t help it. I have a strong maternal instinct and now these people were all my “children.” I know what you’re thinking, ‘how can a woman who can’t possibly be a day over 29, think of a cast filled primarily with adults as her children?’ Well, in the theater, we have a little thing we call “willing suspension of disbelief.” The first disbelief you need to suspend is that I’m 29 and then go from there.
I, now find myself well into the rehearsal process and becoming more comfortable. The weird thing about directing is in some ways it’s more stressful and in other ways it’s less stressful. I have no lines, songs, or choreography to learn. That’s a nice break, a very welcome break, for someone who has gone from show to show to show this year.
However, I’m there at every rehearsal and sometimes after rehearsals and sometimes meetings. I also feel this tremendous pressure for this show to be great, and not just for my sake, but for my cast’s sake….you know my “children.” I worry about those things, that will not be mentioned here, that can go wrong last minute. I worry that I will say the wrong thing or do the wrong thing. Most of all, I worry about what I always worry about, whether I’m performing, or in this case, directing, I worry that I will let people down. However, I know that if I let all these worries inhibit me, I will never achieve anything. So I’ve decided to risk it and “go big” and direct Young Frankenstein, and it’s been an awesome experience thus far, and it promises to be a spectacular show!
Susan Smith has appeared on stage across Connecticut in such productions as: Gyspy (Connecticut Theatre Company), Hello Dolly (Castle Craig Players), The Crucible (Hole In The Wall), The Wayside Motor Inn (Saybrook Stage Company) and Equus (Connecticut Heritage Productions), among others.