Yonatan Laderman’s column “An Invitation to Reconsider” examines the different elements of a theater production in order to rethink life and theater with unorthodoxy.
I directed my first theater show on campus last spring: Waiting for Godot by Samuel Beckett, through Independent Guerrilla Productions. The people who knew me were very surprised at the success of the play and my direction, since they knew I had no background in acting or directing. I was frequently confronted with the question of where I learned to direct. To this, I simply replied: “from the witches.”
In my second gap year, I found myself under COVID lockdown in Paros, a small island in the Cyclades island chain in Greece. Paros is perceived as a very spiritual locality: in Greek and Roman times, it used to be the resort island of all the artists. Its marble — Parian Marble — supplied, and still supplies, many countries due to its high quality.
The allure of Paros has not changed in our era. Looking for Taos, a spiritual center located on a mountain behind the neighborhood of Ampelas, many spiritual practitioners and seekers visit the island. Unfortunately, when COVID hit Greece, tourism in the country, and specifically Paros, stopped short, and Taos had to cease its programs. Nonetheless, many of the people who worked in Taos as spiritual teachers, or who explored spiritualism at Taos, chose to stay in Paros during the lockdown. Mistakenly, I stayed there too.
During the seven months I lived in Paros, I attended many spiritual rituals and sessions, from dancing ceremonies on mountains to Bars sessions, tarot readings and Theta Healing. In the beginning, I thought that everything I saw could be scientifically explained. (I was a physics major in high school and a pledged materialist.) Yet as time progressed, I saw reality transforming in front of my eyes into a magical realm where anything could happen.
My first Family Constellation session was the turning point. After that session, I doubted everything I was raised to believe. It wasn’t that I saw God or myself dying or anything of that sort. In fact, some people would call it a trivial coincidence. But I knew it wasn’t that. All of us in the room knew that. It denoted something beyond anything we can explain. It was a sudden pain in someone’s leg.
A Family Constellation is an alternative group therapeutic method. In each session, there is a facilitator, the person leading the session; the seeker, the person whose family is being staged; the actors who embody the family members; and the observers, who observe the session as they were not selected to be actors nor volunteered to be the seeker. Each one of these members, regardless of role, undergoes the therapeutic process.
In that first Family Constellation session I attended, I was an observer. After the seeker volunteered, the facilitator selected the actors and staged them in a specific spatial orientation. The facilitator asked the seeker why she came to participate in the session. She replied that she felt she was carrying her family’s Holocaust trauma, passed from her grandma — the survivor — to her father, who passed it to her. The facilitator asked the “father” why he didn’t allow his “daughter” to release herself from the family trauma. He replied that she blocked him from moving forward in his life. And then he reported feeling a sudden, immense pain in his right leg, which he swore was healthy beforehand.
What seemed just a strange physical feeling turned out to be significant. At the end of the session, the seeker revealed to the group — which did not know a thing about her father — that her real father had a chronic limp in his right foot, and had difficulties building a new life after his divorce from his wife. It might sound like a mere coincidence, but this entire session was full of such coincidences. It almost seemed like the strangers who played the family members of the seeker actually embodied the spirits of her family members, eventually becoming them.
What the leaders of these spiritual rituals and sessions always emphasized is that the creation of a sacred space is key to the success of the ceremony, and that the responsibility of creating that space is shared by all participants. This statement might easily be perceived as a futile disclaimer, or just a trivial requirement. But it is not, as I learned. I could slowly pick up, as I attended more and more spiritual events, how the facilitators of these events meticulously worked to bring the participants into a space that was deemed otherworldly; a liminal space between reality and unreality; a space where magic occurs. Those spiritual leaders were no different than directors. Of course, instead of directing a play, they directed participants’ lives.
To create and hold such a sacred space, the spiritual leaders had to construct an environment conducive toward the participants feeling comfortable enough to lower their guard. Indeed, it is hard to receive criticism, and we struggle to adapt and change. Yet that resistance to shedding the perception of yourself as yourself is exactly what inhibits the creation of a vacuum in your being, a vacuum which allows growth to occur.
Usually, the spiritual leaders would produce several features in creating this sacred space. They would display complete confidence in what they say, even when caught off guard and without a good answer, and they would create an eccentric or otherworldly persona so that others might believe they might have unique capabilities. This combination made the spiritual leaders essential to the experience; one could even say that they became the experience itself. Thus, they served as parental figures in whom the participants deposited their entire trust. They simultaneously acted both as the main character, being the space, and the support character, holding the space.
I implemented exactly these observations in my directing of Godot, with the added quality of constantly confusing my actors, which I allowed myself to do since I was not directing people’s lives (at least not directly). I used confusion as a tool to ask my actors to create and recreate their relationships with their characters and the play as a whole. Thus, they would never sink into a repetitive performance. They always had to inject themselves into the characters anew; to keep their character transforming, changing, breathing — everything that makes them alive.
Without noticing, I did with Godot what is informatively described in Peter Brook’s Empty Space. On page 14 of my Scribner edition, Brook describes that a living theater is one that skeptically regards the discoveries of yesterday’s rehearsal, putting them to the test. In Godot, every new rehearsal required everyone, including myself, to disregard everything we knew about the play beforehand. This was obviously shocking to the actors, especially when I gave them notes that contradicted yesterday’s notes. Although they pointed out that I was contradicting myself, I replied that I was figuring out the play as we go and that on this day, it seemed more fit to do the scene in this manner as opposed to how we did it the day before.
It seems that in order to find the essence of the play one must renounce the idea that there is a right way to do the play. I remember one rehearsal where the actors nailed the play so beautifully that once we finished, I told them: “remember how you did the play this run. That is the way to do it. You touched every crevice of my soul.”
The next rehearsal was the worst run the actors had ever done of Godot. We were all utterly confused by the contrast between the two rehearsals. And then I understood: we all needed to forget the success we had in the prior run. We needed to find the play anew and reinvent our connection to it, free of the conception that we had perfected it in our last rehearsal.
The last example I would give about the role of the director is found in Luigi Pirandello’s play, called “Six Characters in Search of an Author.” Without spoiling the plot, I will say that the play involves six characters who interrupt a rehearsal space, beseeching its director to stage a drama within a drama. It turns out that these six are stray characters from an unfinished play devised by an author who had deserted them. It sounds like a story familiar to humankind if you replace the author with God and us with the characters… At any rate, the point is that the director, who is the main character of Pirandello’s play, must also be a support character, because he directs the play with six other characters.
This dual relationship is exactly what defines the role of the director. The director must be the main character in the creation of the play, yet also an invisible character in the play itself. From day one, the director shows the actors what the essence of the play is. The director “acts” the play, embodying its essence via the way that the director introduces the play to the actors and staff. In a sense, the director “fools” the actors into thinking that something exists even though nothing yet does. Although there is only empty space that awaits to be filled, the illusion the director employs makes it seem like there is already a stage that has always been there, merely waiting for the actors to step on it.
This article has been updated to include additional photos.