Getting out of the Way

October 16, 2015 / by Annie Tippe, Fall Directing Fellow


Fall is off to a running start! After a rewarding directing retreat with the Drama League, I dove straight into rehearsals and I am already a week into previews for my first assisting assignment with Lila Neugebauer at LCT3.

Our view from the cabin at the retreat in West Hawley, MA:

I have spent the last few weeks reflecting on what I learned during the retreat, which took place over the course of three days in the Berkshires (Idyllic much?). We had a few projects that stretched me in different ways. One assignment was to prepare a potential production of a Shakespeare play to pitch to the producers of an artistic organization. In our case, we were pitching to the director of the Drama League, Roger Danforth, and the directing mentor for our retreat, Mark Brokaw. Each of the four fellows was assigned a Shakespeare play, and I received Coriolanus. I wasn’t familiar with the play, and it took me a few passes to really find my way in. That “way in” took the form of watching countless videos of patriotic rallies, particularly those featuring politicians eating the local favorite food dish in order to gain populist points and the aura of authenticity. Imagining Coriolanus begrudgingly chomp down on a meat stick in front of a crowd to earn support felt oddly like the right place to start…

Practicing the pitch itself was invaluable. Finding a concept for production that you really stand behind and can get people excited about is key, and I know Roger and Mark could sense the ideas I felt less passionate about. I feel more confident about crafting an articulate emotional and visual picture of a production and getting other people excited about it, particularly after several practice pitches with Gabriel Shanks, the Executive Director of the Drama League. I could think of no better person with whom to share your first impulses, because he can instantly spot the idea you’re obsessed with, and push you to find laser focus and specificity in your discussion of it.

We also had the opportunity to direct a scene from Uncle Vanya, and were encouraged to set the piece anywhere on the property, which offered a barn, vegetable garden, hiking trail and an attic with an active wasp’s nest as part of its resplendent landscape (I’ll repeat, IDYLLIC). The other fellows, Estephanía, Brandan and Sarah did such brilliant, specific work with their scenes. We also had the gift of a terrific company of actors. Working on the scene that Vanya and Astrov share in Act IV was joyful but challenging. The actors were deeply committed and willing to play, but I often found myself getting in their way. I was keen to identify and name Astrov’s struggle in the scene out loud so that the actor and I would be on the same page. But in trying to clarify Astrov’s wants and fears, I noticed I was actually creating obstacles instead of clearing a helpful path for him. It was as if I was asking him to hit certain marks, thus sucking any sense of live-ness or mystery out of his performance. Mark Brokaw sat in on one of my rehearsals and kindly suggested I let go of the need to name every action and allow the actor instead to wade through that grey area, armed with their gut and impulses. Once I got out of the way, the scene instantly started to gain momentum and emotional weight. Both actors were alive in every take of the scene, and I quietly shaped as we went along. Discussion is crucial for my process, but in trying to nail down something murky or layered, I find I sometimes stifle the actors in finding the deeper, darker, more complex impulse, and those impulses almost always trump my initial idea.

My two wonderful actors, David Barlow and Scott Parkinson, working on our scene from Vanya:

   After returning to New York, I started assisting Lila on a new play called Kill Floor by Abe Koogler at LCT3. I have admired Lila’s work with her company The Mad Ones for the last few years. Her terrific taste and sense of humor, as effortlessly showcased in Samuel & Alasdair: A Personal History of the Robot War and The Essential Straight and Narrow, left me in awe. She is one of the most articulate, intelligent directors I have ever had the pleasure of working with, but she gives so much room to her actors to play. Every moment is approached as a curiosity or question, as opposed to a statement of fact.  And the work this wonderful cast is doing is incredibly nuanced and alive, in no small part due to the terrific room she facilitated.

Director Lila Neugebauer and playwright Abe Koogler, watching tech unfold:

Tomorrow, I start my assistantship with Moritz Von Steulpnagel on Important Hats of the 20th Century at MTC3.   I look forward to sharing my adventures with that piece later this month!