Let’s start at the very beginning (I can’t say that without thinking of the song from The Sound of Music…female deer and drops of golden sun…)
The directing curriculum at Lehigh progresses through several stages. First you must take a class called “Dramatic Action” in which you study the way plays are constructed, how exchanges between characters are manifestations of them trying to effect change in each other and how these actions add up to the larger central drive of the play, or the Aristotelian Action Statement. (Aristotle wrote much about play structure in his Poetics.) Finding the action of a play is the first step toward directing. Then in the spring of my sophomore year I took the Beginning Directing class with five other students. There we studied techniques for communicating action to actors, learned and developed exercises to help actors grow, directed scene-studies acted by other theatre students, and eventually selected one-act plays for the annual One-Act Festival in the Black Box Theatre. We held group auditions and cast collaboratively, then rehearsed with our own casts for about four weeks. We designed simple groundplans for each of our pieces using cubes, chairs, and scaffolding, and served as our own run-crew (changing the sets between plays) for the performances. I directed a twenty-minute two-person play called Defusionby Brooke Berman. It was largely monologue-based and I kept the costumes and set pared-down and minimalistic, hoping to let the language and direct connection with the audience take precedence. I was challenged to develop a conceptual staging rather than a realistic one and to create visual stage pictures that were not obvious from the text.
After I completed Defusion, I applied to direct a full-length play in the Black Box as an advanced directing project. Gus Ripa, my professor for both Dramatic Action and Beginning Directing, agreed to be my mentor, and I spent the summer reading plays. After discussing several potential choices with Gus, I settled on Independence by Lee Blessing, a four-woman play about a mother and her three daughters. It was a much different challenge than my first piece – realistic, traditionally-structured, fourth wall intact. I auditioned and cast the show in November, rehearsed for a few weeks before winter break and then for three weeks after it. I worked with a full production team of designers for the first time – student designers did the costumes and lights, an apprentice in the theatre deparment designed the set – a beautiful realistic interior – and a faculty member designed the sound. The show ran for three performances in early February.
Meanwhile, before leaving for winter break I mentioned to Gus and other faculty members that I would be interested in directing in the Diamond Theater for the next year’s season. There were no other students who had directed in the Black Box and would be at Lehigh the following year, so I was encouraged to present plays I was interested in directing for the department’s consideration. Over the break I read a lot of plays. With the way the season was shaping up, my slot (the last of the season) was guided toward the comic and boisterous, and several playwrights were recommended reading, including Dario Fo, Neil Simon, and Tom Stoppard, and plays such as The House of Blue Leaves, A Flea in Her Ear, and Rhinoceros in the Living Room. I remembered a Stoppard play I had done a scene from back in middle school called Rosencrantz and Guildenstern Are Dead. I reread it, and tentatively submitted it as a possible selection.
The response was extremely positive. Stoppard would be a great addition to the season and the play was well-respected and admired by most people I talked to. Initially I was somewhat intimidated by its towering reputation and big ideas, its intellectualism and brilliance. My professors and friends consistently expressed their confidence in me and in the play, and mere weeks after Independence closed I was writing the blurb for next year’s Zoellner brochure.
I loved the play’s clever twist on Hamlet, how playful and clown-like its two main protagonists were. I saw the potential to play with physical comedy and to work with a large cast, two things I had been desiring to do more of. It combined elements of Shakespeare and of Samuel Beckett’s Waiting for Godot. It was incredibly smart but at its core pretty silly and fanciful. It was a play I would want to act in. That summer I dove into research, reading everything from John Dover Wilson’s What Happens in Hamlet (which Stoppard actually read himself before writing R&G) to as much of the Stoppard canon as I could, preparing as best as possible (though there is no ultimate preparation for the act of creation itself) for many upcoming design meetings and the first brush with actors: auditions.