Jim Calder, the director of The Tempest here at Hudson Valley Shakespeare Festival, has mastered the art of diving in. Honestly, I think that’s his big goal for the HVSF Conservatory Company, and probably for his students at NYU: learn to dive in.
If it wasn’t striking enough to simply be in the room with him — our first day of rehearsal began with each actor teaching the others (and us) how to do one of the special skills on their resume without any notice — it was clear when, as we found a prop piece of bamboo was too long, Jim promptly disappeared, grabbed a saw from his car, leaned the bamboo against a strong pole, and started carving off several feet of it in the middle of rehearsal.
See pictured below Jim rolling around with a piece of our “shipwrecked” boat.
Perhaps your first reaction is, “What?” Perhaps, like mine, it’s giggling and smiling at his fantastic, involved bravado. Perhaps it’s more cynical, something along the lines of, “Well, that’s not what directors are supposed to do.” Maybe you’re right. However…
From my time at The Old Globe to now, I’ve been learning that “the job is not the job.” Justin Waldman, the Associate Producer at The Old Globe, gave me those words about assistant directing. What a wonderful phrasing of the truth.
Justin, whom I unfortunately didn’t get to spend too much time with, seems to be one of those people that knows almost everything about almost everything that’s going on. He’s always around: sitting in auditions, checking in with the various shows, communicating with different departments, and, sometimes, interviewing Drama League candidates. He’s friendly and open, but you can tell he’s always thinking. So when he asked me to get lunch during tech week, I immediately agreed.
Let me start by saying this: most of my assisting experience has involved sitting quietly and taking notes. Many of those notes are never shared. Some of them are shared, then decided against. A few sneak in, either in the way you intended or in another way altogether. From what I have discussed with other assistants, this is the dominant narrative for ADs. Every experience is different, but usually my M.O. for assisting is to hide in the background until I know for sure a note is both helpful and wanted.
“Be an information hub,” Justin told me. “Never be sitting down. Always know why we’re holding - for a cue to be written, for an actor - and know who needs that information. Don’t be eager to share it; just have the information at your fingertips before anyone asks so you can answer when they do.” That’s the key to being a good assistant, he said. That’s what makes you indispensable. And then, of course, you get used to handling all the information you need to juggle when you direct.
It was, in a sense, immensely freeing. I had permission to dive in. Not necessarily the way I’d expected, or the way I was used to as a director, but I had a domain to explore and a task I could master. After that lunch, I became a much more helpful assistant. Rebecca said so, and I could instantly feel it.
When I arrived at Hudson Valley Shakespeare Festival - where technically I am a "directing fellow" - I was armed with my new information. I was ready to sit quietly and yet still be fully involved.
Then I met Jim.
Jim is happy to be flexible about almost any detail — the length of a bamboo pole, the way you interpret a line, even the lines we’ve kept and cut — but he demands that you jump in and be flexible, too. Our cast can choose the songs they want to play in the show, and can create musical lines to fit their talents, but they have to play with whole hearts. He wants every character to be “full,” of desire, of intention, of feeling. Every physical gesture should be committed to, every sound loud and clear. Diving in no longer applies to just information; it applies to everyone, for everything.
He asked me, “What are you good at? What are you interested in? What do you want to learn from this process?” And, as he’s done with everyone involved, he listened. I’m good with text work — so I’ve been working on the verse with some of the actors and even changing the script cuts here and there. I’m interested in Jim’s sense of physicality and the process of devising a piece — so I’ve been able to watch his more physical rehearsals and he’s having me devise some puppetry work for our take on Ariel. Each rehearsal, I’m diving in along with the actors, the designers, and of course, Jim himself.
“Go!” Jim says, any time we start a new scene in rehearsal. No prompt, no discussion, no pause. Dive in! It’s not the usual approach… but why not? The only thing that stops us is fear — of looking silly, of getting things wrong, of being the odd one out. But… none of those things are why we do theatre. The interesting stories we love are usually ones about looking silly, getting things wrong, and being the odd the one out.
So, I’ve been practicing diving in. I’m fully committing to being involved, no matter what I’m asked to do. Just go. Dive in. Discover all the details — whatever that looks like. That’s the job.