Tuesday, July 12, 2011

Director Notes: Sweeney

So there comes a time, during the weeks before you go to direct a show, that the company usually calls you up and says.... "hey, we were wondering if you have a few thoughts to share for the program?" Usually that conversation ends like this... "and could you get them to us by tomorrow?" I don't know why it is a surprise every time! I know it is coming, they know it is coming, but every single show it sneaks up on us! Well, this summer my company (Wolf Trap!) should be commended... I got almost a week's notice. Not that I was any more prepared than usual to produce said notes, but hey, it is progress in a larger sense.

However, I am making a new goal for myself: work on the notes well in advance. Not for the company... for me! It is incredibly useful to sit down and force yourself to put IN WRITING what it is you think you are trying to communicate in the show. Has it changed since you began working on the piece? What have you learned in your study and while working on the design? It is all very well to have a sense of your message in your head, but can you actually put it into words? In working on my notes for Sweeney Todd, I found several little holes that needed filling. I had also needed to fill in the bridge between some big ideas I had. The notes may or may not reflect that homework, but the project is all the better for having done it!

Anyway... here, for your reading pleasure, are my notes this go-round. The show is staged, we are working through reviews, my lighting designer and I am gearing up conversations, our video production is well underway, and my costume designer is here for final fittings this week. It is happening!!


I saw Sweeney Todd for the first time at the New York Philharmonic in May of 2000. A naïve twenty-something, I was deeply disappointed to learn that I would be seeing a last minute replacement in the title role: some guy by the name of George Hearn. It turned out to be one of the most thrilling theater experiences of my life. With few props and very little set, these artists completely swept me away. This concert staging opened my eyes to what theater could be, taught me that music and story telling is enough...in fact, is more than enough. A very wise man said to me recently that the future of our art form, if there is one, is in forcing our audiences to use their imagination. The live theater is not best equipped to create a highly realistic world, nor should it. Rather, our job is to invite our audience to participate in a living creation process.... to engage in the performance and come on the journey with us, because using our imagination makes us feel alive.

Why should we “attend the tale of Sweeney Todd?” Todd wants revenge, one of the most primal, natural urges. He fully embraces his vengeful impulse, but rather than finding satisfaction, he becomes a shell of a man who literally destroys everyone in his path. To quote Mr. Sondheim: “To seek revenge may lead to hell. But everyone does it, if seldom as well as Sweeney Todd.” If we attend this tale and allow ourselves to feel his rage, his thirst for revenge and the inevitable desolation that follows, we create for ourselves a place to entertain unexpressed desires... without risk or consequence. Through our participation in this story, we experience a dark side of human nature that is simply not practical (or advisable!) to realize, but no less valuable for having happened in our imaginations. Could it be that when we look into the eyes of this killer, we actually feel more alive? My experience says yes. Hopefully, yours will, too!

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