Harare, December 7th 2014 | Julia A. Wharton

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Ihave never liked the expression ‘to kill two birds with one stone’ because of the suggested violence against the birds! Plus, it’s a destructive image. When I’m taking care of two tasks at once, I feel pretty constructive. So I have chosen the alternative ‘watering two plants with one hose’ in talking about my most recent Almasi project. It alludes to the nurturing aim of Almasi’s work as well as the two track focus of this initiative.

The Two Plants
Almasi is dedicated to presenting staged readings of outstanding published plays as a way to expose Zimbabwean theatre artists and audiences to a wide range of dramatic literature. Staged readings also contribute to the development of actors and playwrights – the process ensures actors know how to work carefully and thoroughly on a text and playwrights know how to tell a story in many different ways. When Almasi tasked me with launching a more regular schedule of readings, I wanted to make sure Zimbabwean theatre artists directed most of them. However, this would require some director training. So I cast the next Almasi reading (‘Necessary Targets’ by Eve Ensler) with director mentees. The idea was to create a very experiential training for the mentees. Rather than them being observers in the usual rehearsal process, each mentee would be doing the play analysis, rehearsal steps and performance – a very hands on, practical training. As I envisioned it, the end result would be two ‘plants’ – another Almasi staged reading performance and a group of director mentees ready to take on a staged reading of their own in 2015.

Cultivating and Grafting
The two plants made for a lush experience! I was extra aware of wanting to employ and explain all the best directing practices, which lead me to reflect on some of the most important qualities of a good director. The obvious work of guiding a dramatic text from page to a unified staging involves careful reading and re-reading, research, analysis, interpreting, envisioning and choosing – all to get inside the playwright’s use of language to create a very specific world that is supposed to be 3D. But just as importantly, the best directors also know how to empower actors and designers to be full creative partners in the process. Good directors are strong communicators but don’t monopolize rehearsal with their own answers; they cultivate a safe environment in which to experiment while establishing the need for risk taking; they facilitate and guide more than they direct. There is much psychology at work in good directing.

While I always hope that actors I work with will feel those dynamics, I don’t necessarily draw their attention to how we establish those dynamics…it’s not relevant. But with a cast full of director mentees I needed to identify and explain director techniques and objectives as we progressed. This made for some interesting ties between the world of our play and the world of our training. The work sometimes felt like a play within a play. Or, to continue the plants metaphor, there was very interesting grafting involved in our process!

For instance, in conversation during one rehearsal we were discussing how the main character is someone who always has a plan, is always organized and accustomed to being in control. All her carefully devised systems and procedures are challenged as she attempts to provide professional support to a group of Bosnian war refugees. As the actors considered the how and why and when of this character’s struggle with her own expectations, my mind jumped sideways. I scribbled down the relevant directing stem I wanted to share with the cast and mentally returned to the conversation. When the comments and questions about this character quieted, I inserted my stem. “J.S. discovers she must accommodate, adapt to, even welcome the unexpected and this actually has an interesting parallel in a director’s process.” There was a cool silence of busy minds reviewing and connecting and venturing. I love that kind of silence and waited before I continued. “Any good director will work hard in advance of rehearsals to understand the play, have a vision and a plan about how to achieve that vision. But a good director must also be brave about engaging with creative twists and turns. The careful plan may shape shift if the creative process is alive and if the players have been empowered to contribute. The director must not run away from that.”

In another instance, one of the mentees observed a connection between the vulnerability of the war refugee character she was playing and the vulnerability that she, as an actor, felt in the rehearsal process. This particular mentee, Almasi’s co-founder, Patience Tawengwa, has done a good deal of producing and directing but no acting. She realized that from the outside, one can imagine or assume what it might take to be a good actor. But without doing some acting oneself, it’s hard for a director to fully empathize with the challenges of acting. Without that empathy and insight, how does a director communicate effectively, support and push appropriately or tap into an actor’s best work? Our rehearsals were filled with these kinds of connections which kept me adjusting the aim and pressure of the hose in order to cultivate both goals!

In any rehearsal process I follow three phases – discovery, experimentation and pattern setting. The phases overlap and loop rather than having complete and separate beginnings and endings. But each phase does require some different focus and priorities. With the staged reading performance of ‘Necessary Targets’ complete, we will look back at the process and reflect on what was learned, what worked well, what might have been done differently. That reflection will be part of the continued discovery phase of the director mentees project. As each mentee takes her/his turn as director of a staged reading in 2015, the experimentation and pattern setting phases of this training will take off.

One of our most valuable bits of reflection always comes through the Q & A session with the audience following the performance. Audience comments and questions after ‘Necessary Targets’ made it clear they felt a strong connection to the themes of the play, a deep empathy with the characters and a powerful emotional response to the experience of hearing the play. One of the true tests of a good play and a good performance is that an audience can invest itself fully regardless of where the playwright is from, regardless of how foreign the circumstances of the story might be.

One audience member made a point of letting us know that she especially loves the staged reading format because it’s more like reading a book, it creates a closer connection between the play and the audience. This gives us all encouragement to work on. As I think ahead to 2015 with the continuation of the director mentee training, and the staged readings that will result, I am eager to keep watering, keep pruning and grafting this very alive process!

Julia Wharton


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