Why Every Editor Should Direct a Play

Updated: Sep 6, 2019

Since an early age, theatre has been one of my great loves. It's no wonder: words, emotions, and language truly come to life when spoken aloud. Beyond that, theatre is a cooperative medium. Any lover of stories would be electrified -- electrified, I say! -- by the kind of literature discussion that occurs at a first table read of a play:

"Why does your character say this?" "Is your character telling the truth when they have this conversation in scene 4?" "How does this encounter change your character's trajectory?" "What is your character's arc, their peripeteia, their opening and and closing stasis; are they conventional, unconventional, fantastic, or allegorical? Why?"

"Why?" arises frequently in theatre.

Recently, I had the opportunity to direct Octopus by Steve Yockey, a full-length comitragedy that deals with sex, love, hate, hope, sea monsters, and telegrams from a dripping-wet delivery boy. If there's one thing I learned from this yearlong endeavor, it's this:

Every editor should make their way to a theater as soon as possible.

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Editing and Directing: Two Sides, One Coin

Though editing and directing may not be twins, they're certainly sisters. The same type of people are drawn to both fields: most editors love to write, but a managerial, top-down look at a piece of art suits them better; directors are much the same.

As an editor, you are presented with completed manuscripts to search them for cliches, consistency, emotional resonance, conflict, tension, character arcs, and areas of improvement. Much in the same way, directors don't deal personally with the generation of art -- the actors provide that -- but they are there to coach, to refine, to clarify, to structure. In other words, they edit.

Is the pacing dragging in the first act? Does the protagonist need to have a larger revelation at the height of their growth arc? Is the love confession scene coming off as disingenuous? As an audience member, are we satisfied when the antagonist is defeated? Each of these questions apply to novels and short stories as much as plays. Whose job is it to fix these issues? Ultimately, the author or the actors -- yet is the editor and the director whose job it is to notice patterns, to see the statue inside the marble.

When authors and actors are too close to their own work, it is the editor and director who see objectively and can turn the rudder of the ship. In the hands of an expert editor, an okay book can become brilliant; in the eye of a savvy director, a so-so play can become poignant.

...yet is the editor and the director whose job it is to notice patterns, to see the statue inside the marble.

Practicing these same skills in a new context was transformative for me throughout the course of Octopus. Although I had directed before, it was only for one-act plays or the music direction of a musical; in neither of those contexts was I responsible for the overall thrust of the narrative. For example, one of the actors portraying a soft, sweet, shy, sensitive character lost all of his body language in the second half of the play, suddenly becoming unusually confident, broad-chested, self-assured. Unlike a novel, I could not just reread the section to gain my opinion on it; I couldn't flip back to the beginning of the show to double-check. Rather, I had to be able to translate what I was seeing into critiques and place it in the context of the story as a whole. At the end of the day, directing is editing in real time.

Immensely challenging? Yes. Better for it? Oh, yes.

Directing Will Stretch You As a Literary Analyst

Although Octopus itself was a five-week undertaking, the process of producing a show begins far, far earlier. In the preceding year, there are proposals, production team meetings, design debates, budgeting -- but of most interest to me is the director's text analysis.

Before embarking on a directorial venture, the text analysis is key. Dozens of templates exist; however, I'm partial to one adapted & compiled from D. Ball, Wm. Ball, D. Grote, F. Hodge, R. Moyer, J. Thomas, and E. Hagen, as well as Barton's Style Checklist. Here's a little sample:

Sample of Barton's Style Checklist

This analysis forces the director to answer questions that they perhaps had no reason (or desire) to consider beforehand. (I certainly had never mulled over "What is the role of music and dance in life?" in Octopus!) However, this is no undergraduate thesis paper; unlike analyses in academic contexts, the director's text analysis is intended to be a thorough combing-through of the playwright's work, as well as a thoughtful examination of the director's own interpretation. My own text analysis is over 50 pages long, in all of its opinionated, impassioned glory. It makes no arguments and defends no stances -- rather, it observes; it takes note; it explores; it enjoys.

As a director, you're going to spend three to five weeks pulling out your hair. You need to identify every little thing about this script that you've chosen that makes you love it -- you need to understand it intimately so that the audience will too.

The last part of the script analysis is script preparation, and though far from fun, it is revolutionary. In my opinion, it is a tragedy that it is not already broadly being applied to prose. Script preparations force a director to break down a text into beats -- the smallest, barest moments, the molecules, the atoms of storytelling. These "beat books" are helpful for a director to refer to during rehearsals, but they also make inadequate moments stand to vivid attention.

Is a prose piece not functioning and you don't know why? Write a beat book. You'll be surprised.

Steps and requirements for script preparation in a "beat book"
Script preparations force a director to break down a text into beats -- the smallest, barest moments, the molecules, the atoms of storytelling.

Lastly, here is a peculiarity about scripts for the stage: they are never stagnant. Unlike novels (except for the rare revised editions), scripts constantly change and are rewritten and are re-staged in ways which shift the meaning: Julius Caesar was staged in 2017 with Caesar himself as an American politician; Sondheim's 1970 opus, Company, will come to Broadway in 2019 with a gender-swapped cast; Chekhov's The Seagull was recently produced with original music and its tragic protagonist, Konstantin, portrayed by an African-American woman. Let us not even discuss intertextuality! Take Mies Julie, an Apartheid-inspired retelling of August Strindberg's famous Miss Julie; Stupid F#%*ng Bird, Aaron Posner's savvy artist theft of The Seagull; for that matter, let us not even begin to remember that almost every Broadway standard changes masterfully between out-of-town tryouts, such as next to normal's ten-year period of rewrites and remounting, and the fact that such script revisions exist in different licensing arrangements so that the one you produce may not even be the final available revision. When undertaking your director's text analysis, you are entering a living and breathing conversation of literature and art, with the freedom to innovate, create, and contribute to the pantheon of your show's canon.

Sometimes we forget that all of the above is exactly what should occur in prose editing.

When art is stagnant, it dies. Not only does a director's script analysis truly challenge one's ability to understand the bones and the soul of a text, but it also challenges you to re-enter the stream of artistic innovation. That's part of the wonder that editing provides that writing does not -- writing is done in a locked room with much coffee. Editing is part of a conversation.

Directing: People Skills on Steroids

For an editor, people skills and tact are not useful -- they're mandatory. The pieces you edit -- the ones where you see so many opportunities for improvement, so many tiny flaws that could be brilliant if just tweaked a bit, and one chapter that simply doesn't work at all -- are your clients' children. In any given work, the author has probably stared at it for so long that the words are burned onto the insides of their eyelids. Both of you want what's best for the story, and yes, authors must be mature enough to receive criticism -- yet still, as editor you often serve as therapist, parent, and parole officer.

Directing a play is just like that -- on steroids.

If your people skills are even a little lacking, directing will show you precisely where. What's that old joke? "You think you've got it hard because your brother's a writer? Pshaw. My wife is an actress." When you criticize an author's character for being underdeveloped, it may sting, but at the end of the day, you are, technically speaking, criticizing the author's work, not the author themself. When you tell the actress playing Medea that she has too many arm movements, you aren't criticizing Medea -- you're criticizing the actress.

How, then, did I handle the conundrum of balancing the need for revision and artist morale throughout the course of Octopus? Questions. An abundance of questions. When I came to the conclusion that the protagonist was unlikable in his current state because he wasn't portraying enough guilt for his misdeeds, I could have told the actor that point-blank, and he may or may not have absorbed it. Instead, I went back to the basics, the play's given circumstances. "Does your character love his partner?" I asked. Yes, the actor replied. "Then why does he say that they may have to break up in Scene 6?"

Through the course of gently guided questioning, we landed on the topic of guilt -- "I suppose I'd feel guilty," he concluded.

"Yes!" I replied. "I think that's precisely right. I think that's also an inherently more likable tactic than your earlier choices; your redemption in the third act will be much more palatable to the audience with this in mind. I like your thought process. Let's go back to the script for a moment and review some moments that might look different in this light..."

While they are certainly some moments in which a more prescriptive approach would prosper ("You're delivering this monologue far too quickly. Slow it down, please"; "Chapter Three seems bloated. I would cut redundant phrases and paragraphs while keeping the narrative the same"), the key to any proper artistic collaboration is a combination of questions and commands, suggestions and directives. Directing will force you to pin this skill down to a science, and your actors (and clients) will thank you for it. After all, at the end of the day, a tactful yet mediocre editor will see more progress than an insightful yet quarrelsome one.

Those Who Can, Act. Those Who Can't -- Direct?

Now, yes, it is true that if you don't know the difference between upstage and downstage, then you may not yet be ready for the director's chair. Some amount of prior theatre knowledge is needed.

Still, I stand fast in my believe that every editor needs to dip their toe into the pool of theatrical directing at least once. 10-minute plays are incredibly easy to stage, especially with experienced actors; that is a brilliant place for any novice editor to begin. In the absence of directorial opportunities, local theatres and colleges often teach classes on directing -- audit a few of their meetings, or obtain their textbooks!

Some of the best literary discussion you will ever have takes place in a theatre. Likewise, you may never meet some of the people who could challenge and grow you most if you never brave that red curtain. No doubt theatre will never steal you away from your true love of prose -- I, too, know that at the end of the day, my heart belongs to the slush pile -- yet I feel that as individuals tasked with aiding storytellers, we should progress our skills as much as possible. And as we are unexpected, artistic, creative people, that very well may occur in unexpected, artistic, creative ways.

Thank you so much for reading this blog post!

Directing Octopus was, truly, such an unforgettable and edifying process. I'm returning to the world of editing as a stronger literary analyst and mentor. It truly is part of my mantra that there is much to learn from every field and avenue in the world of storytelling, so hopefully this has also inspired you to push your boundaries in the name of growth.