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I'm an NYC-based director, and this is an outlet for my various musings about theater and about the city of New York. Sometimes the subjects run together, sometimes they are entirely separate, but between the two they comprise the most fitful, most intense, most trying love affair of my few years. They fill my head, my heart, my mouth every hour of every day; they could fill a book.

Tuesday, June 1, 2010

Baba Post-Mortem

This post is long overdue, but I never reflected at all on my most recent project - a piece called "Baba," by Marcus Harvey, a one-man autobiographical show which told the story of the author's lifelong struggle to accept the absence of his father, who walked out when he was just a baby.

I was asked to direct in a desperate, last-minute request, after his original director had to suddenly leave the piece due to a family emergency. The whole deal was done in less than 24 hours - he offered me the job without even having met me, I accepted without having read the script. The experience could have ended in complete disaster for both of us. But, as luck would have it, Baba turned out to be one of the more rewarding creative experiences I've had since moving to the city.

I was terrified when I first accepted the project. I've never been a big fan of the one-man genre to begin with, and this one seemed particularly daunting. In addition to examining the effects of fatherlessness, it also, I believe purported to examine themes of "black male identity." I could not think of three things I knew less about than being black, being male, and being fatherless.

Upon meeting Marcus and reading the script, most of my apprehensions disappeared immediately. Marcus was warm, inviting, and refreshingly open to collaboration and suggestions, which I found to be pleasantly surprising given his closeness to the work. And as for the work itself, despite being a very specific story of one man's very specific journey, it was transcendental in the way all good stories should be. It spoke to a universal human condition: the need for, and often inability to attain, love and acceptance from those around us, and the difficult journey to look to ourselves and find that love and acceptance from within.

In my last post-mortem I mentioned my idea for a new experiment: to remove the ego from my work and stop worrying about what I will do to make the work interesting, resonant, and unique. Dispense with my need to put my creative stamp on a project. Do the work and have faith that the end result will be interesting, resonant, unique, etc. simply because I have done the work and done it honestly. Baba proved a perfect project to test this hypothesis.

I could see from the first reading that I was needed. Marcus desperately needed an outside eye to give the piece rhythm, structure and texture. The piece was rich with decisions to be made and ways to make myself useful. I did my best to provide what I could and, ultimately, I know it was better than it would have been without me. At the same time, it was never my show, it belonged to Marcus. It was more than easy to avoid claiming creative ownership of the show, it was impossible to do so. I didn't make a great play. I only helped Marcus make his play great.

It turned out to be a liberating difference. I never felt the need to prove myself, I never felt the pressure of walking into a rehearsal thinking, "What am I going to do today that will be amazing?" I simply came to rehearsal to watch, observe, and respond. And the play, I think, did not suffer for it. I went into the project with the intention of making Marcus's story as polished and as compelling as it could be, and I'm pleased with the end result. From this point of view, from the end-product perspective, the experiment was a success.

But there was a price to pay for the loss of creative ownership. While it gave me perspective and a new-found openness to the process, it took away a little of the energy and excitement. With me as just the helper-elf, I had trouble feeling the spark that usually ignites within me during a really good project. I couldn't have worked harder for Marcus but somehow, in some way, I was less invested. I was less thrilled when a breakthrough happened in rehearsal, less disappointed and perplexed with choices I had made weren't working out. And although this is, I'm sure, the very same thing that gave me the objectivity that made the process so smooth and well-realized, it also took away a little of what makes me love directing. I wasn't as nervous on opening night, and, when Marcus took his final bow, I wasn't as proud.

I suppose I shouldn't be surprised that the creation of art has turned out to be such a resolutely selfish endeavor. It's always been about the need for self-expression and thankfully for the rest of us, some people have the knack for expressing really, really good shit. Not me, I guess, but some people.

But the question is: is it worth it? I've always said it's about the product, not the process, so, by that logic, whatever attitude helps me make the best art is the attitude to have, right? Even if that attitude makes me love it a little less?