The other night I went to see a friend's play at a small theatre in the village. Friends of mine who sit beside me at the theatre know that when I go I never read the Playbill before the performance begins. I like to be surprised. In this case, it was enough that the writer was someone I am fond of, a smart and talented person I knew would keep me on the edge of my seat for 90+ minutes. I didn't need to know who was in the show.
The lights went down. The show began. And in the second scene an actress entered. Instantly my entire body became rigid. I immediately knew her. How could I not? She is one of the few actors I've ever had to fire before. And, truthfully, she's the only actor I ever fired as a defensive measure against what can only be described as abusive and sadistic behavior in rehearsal toward her fellow actors and toward me.
I wasn't going to write about seeing her again but then it occurred to me that I'd actually learned a lot about myself, about how I need to be in order to work well and what I will and will not tolerate in a creative setting. So in a sense, I have this crazy person to thank, I suppose, because years ago when she forced me to the brink with her erratic behavior, she helped me see more clearly than ever before who I am as an artist and what really matters to me.
I have always boasted to anyone who'll listen about my good fortune when it comes to divas. Somehow, I never seem to have crossed paths with them. In the twelve years I ran the opera company in Boston, I didn't really have a bad experience. There was one time when I felt betrayed by a singer-actor's choice to depart the company and take with her some of our unique rehearsal techniques, but that was it. I never had the classic diva in rehearsal -- temperamental, self-destructive, time-consuming, aggravating.
I was lucky. Or so I said.
In retrospect I realize that it probably isn't pure luck that has protected me from these kinds of people. I tend to be very intuitive and sensitive to personality quirks and I'm drawn to those who seem to just know who they are and what they're about. I'm drawn to a certain level of comfort. And I tend to surround myself with folks who are pretty centered.
So I'm not sure how it happened that in this particular instance, those many years ago, I ended up casting a certifiably insane actress in the lead role in one of my plays, but I did. Here's how her lunacy reared its ugly head.
On day three or so of rehearsal, we were still in table-read mode, dissecting the script around a table, beat by beat. The role she was playing is to this day, one of the most difficult I've written, requiring quick shifts on a dime and the engine of the play is fueled by this central character's passion. She must drive the play. She must know exactly where she's going at any given moment and must be willing and able to change direction quickly and effortlessly.
We were about three-quarters of the way through the play, having made some really great discoveries about everyone's throughline when suddenly she slammed her script down onto the table and exlaimed: "I'm sorry. I just--What the fuck are we doing here? I feel like we're wasting precious time sititng around talking when what we really need is to just get up on our feet and work!"
Now I come from the "Yes to Everything" school of directing, so although her tone was hostile, I was willing to meet her sentiment at face value. I explained that we really only had about 20 pages or so left to plough through and then we could certainly jump up and start rehearsing.
My reply was met with a heavy sigh, which was followed by several more and then, finally an overwrought exit from the room, script and knapsack in hand.
The rest of the cast and I watched her departure in stunned silence. To this day, I still get chills when I recall it. I was so shocked, so utterly unprepared for this level of rudeness. I guess I really had been spoiled by years and years of working with lovely giving generous people. I barely knew what to say.
My stage manager came to my rescue suggesting that we call it a day and pick up where we left off tomorrow. Then, when we were alone, she offered to call this actress and see what was up.
I felt that it was really my responsibility to call and sort this out, not my stage manager's so that night after I got home, I called.
When the actress and I spoke on the phone, she completely back-pedaled, apologizing, explaining that she was under a lot of stress about some personal things that had nothing to do with our work and she begged me to forgive her and promised there would be no more such outbursts. In fact, she also offered to apologize to the rest of the cast on the following day.
The next day, I began rehearsal by giving her the floor in order to make her apology, which she did, apparently in earnest. But in retrospect what I realize now (but failed to see then) was that although she was apologizing, I had allowed her to hijack our process and dictate the terms on which we would continue. The big apology to the cast was her idea and I had said "yes" which, to her sick and twisted mind, I suppose was a sign of my weakness and an invitation to further destructive corrosive behavior.
Several more outbursts followed, each one escalating a little more until her "frustration" with not knowing what we were doing morphed into an absolute disdain for my working style. Finally on the fourth day of torture, she basically announced to me and the room that although she quite liked the play and the role, she had no confidence in my ability to direct the cast and prepare us for performance. In essence, she said to us all that we were "leaderless."
I tried to be nice. And by doing so, I proved her right. I abdicated my leadership position by taking seriously her cruel and thoughtless accussations about my failings as a director.
This is still hard for me to write about, or even think about, because I'm not used to thinking of rehearsals as a me vs. them kind of enterprise. I prefer to feel as though together we are all working to discover the thrust of the material. Dictatorial thinking has never been my natural way to be. But to this particular person, I see now, as I look back on the whole sordid affair, the more I bent to her whims, the more I confirmed her fears -- that I was spineless and, worse, vision-less.
I want to think that if this kind of behavior were to present itself to me today, I'd be much quicker to draw a line in the sand and show the person the door.
But honestly, I can't be sure. One thing's for sure, no one -- director, writer, cast or crew -- deserves to be held hostage to this kind of behavior and no one in the room is in a position to put a stop to it as swiftly as is a director. In fact, I consider it one of my prime responsibilities as a director, to protect the working environment so everyone can create at the peak of his/her abilities.
I can't say I was glad to see this woman still working. I certainly am glad our paths have only crossed just this once. I wonder whether she's changed at all in the intervening years. I'd heard through the grapevine that several plumb roles had been snatched from her for similar behavior.
Maybe she's grown up since then. For the sake of my friend the playwright and the rest of her cast, I certainly hope that's true.