sunnuntai 2. syyskuuta 2018


Directors in theatre - why are they there?

Recently, a theatre play titled Turkka kuolee had its premiere here in Finland, surrounded by considerable hype. It's based on the writings and interviews of people who were in the orbit of one of Finland's most sadistic and notorious theatre directors. As much as I learned from listening to those stories, I found myself hoping the creators of the play would've looked into the root of the problem, which is the education offered in Theatre Academy and the ideological basis for the role of a director.

People, especially journalists, like to wonder out loud how it was possible for one person to acquire such unchecked power. It's like asking how Trump can do all those horrible things. The answer is simple: the system was designed that way. We simply trust that elected people or art school professors wouldn't take advantage of their position. Put differently, we sort of rely on luck. But to paraphrase the infamous Jenny Holzer line, abuse of power should come as no surprise. 

The laws and regulations also restrict what should and can be tolerated at any workplace. But sadly, more often than not, making theatre with a group of people is more akin to hypnosis or religious cult than a day at the office (but then, isn't all work like that?). Without dwelling too much on the theoretical or spiritual root of theatre, the need to believe takes in not only the audience of a play but its makers too. 

There's a way of talking, taking place between theatre professionals honing together an upcoming piece, that I haven't witnessed anywhere else. Every gesture, scene, object, word, is forced to carry extra meaning, which gives for an especially pompous rhetoric. 
All the stage actions and tryouts during a rehearsal can be analysed endlessly, usually to prove yourself to the director (something sound/light/set/costume/etc designers are inclined to do) who then decides whether your interpretation is correct. A great deal of belief in telepathy is needed to convey the ideas of a director into reverberant sound effects, dramatic backlight, epochal dresses, or the quivering movements of an actor. Or, if you zoom out a little, the day-to-day operations of a theatre house at large.

All of this is ideal breeding ground for sectarian autosuggestion. What follows is paranoia: am I not part of the in-group? What are the director, dramaturg, and video designer rattling on over there? What if I'm not deep enough, like my co-actor who everyone says transcends the script?

People have vastly different experiences from working in theatre, too, of course. What I'm aiming at here is some sort of generic idea that seems to always lurk in the background when people do theatre. It's the relative of the ghost that keeps appearing when paintings are hung: are these worth something? What if the painter really is talented? Am I not getting it? Is this image very deep but I'm not?

Almost all the major theatrical productions I've worked in, or rehearsals I've visited, have included shouting, belittling, and/or other behavior gone entirely unredeemed save for the "you know I'm under a lot of pressure" hail mary muttered as an afterthought during a break. This behaviour is almost solely coming from the representatives of one profession alone: directors. And usually no one wants to stand up to them. This will all be over soon, they are just having a bad day, it's nothing serious, we're all tired today, we tell ourselves.

But why do we have directors in the first place? Surely there is no god-given blueprint for how theatre must be done? Having said that, it's worthwhile to remember our theatrical tradition was founded by a society of men who favored slavery and strict hierarchies (OK I have no business lecturing anyone on Ancient Greece, so take this with a barrel of salt).

When I was studying sound design in Theatre Academy, in Helsinki, I constantly wondered why actors and designers needed someone to tell them what to do. You have the text in front of you, the stage is there, don't you wanna figure it all out on your own or with your friends?

And how is it possible that we still buy the line, often repeated by our professors in the academy, that you can't really do theatre without someone in charge? During my time (2003-2009) there were of course collectives or (a word I prefer over the former one) working groups making works without a director, but these were always dismissed in school as "experimental", "fringe", "artistic", and thus not Real Theatre.

In my decade of being an artist, I've never had the need for a director personally, as in I've never worked on a performance or whatever and thought if only there was someone here giving me stage directions and texting me in the middle of the night with notes. I haven't really seen any basis for their existence, ever. 

I used to be more nuanced about this for the sake of some sort of perceived civility, as in "of course there are many ways to do art and being led by a director is one possible way and I'm sure it's a good thing." I'm tired of saying that. I've been doing this now long enough that I can say this with at least some sort of experience: directors should for most parts be a thing of the past, or at best a marginal profession.

Everyone has ideas. Anyone can tell other people what to do. A director is validated through the labor of others. Yes, you can do beautiful things from that position: you can make other people shine and help them find their strength, you can see what's going on in the stage and where the problems in the dramaturgy might lie, you can handle all outside pressure, you can bring people together to achieve something. But we could all do that to each other. There's absolutely no need to institutionalise this role. For all its issues of abuse, ie. its dangers, the directorial model should be a marginal mode of working, not the primary one.

Here's a more black-and-white way of stating it: If you wanna help a group of actors and designers, then help, but don't take credit for it. If directors would be called assistants and paid accordingly I wouldn't have any beef -or I would, because I don't believe in that sort of hierarchical justice either, and I'm not here to punish anyone by turning competitive workplace games against them.

Don't tell me what to do

In June, I was visiting a workshop that consisted mostly of dancers. I talked about my survival strategies in art and shared my stories. We were talking about our experiences in the field when one of the participants said this thing that left a lasting impact on me. The way they said it was matter-of-fact, yet kind, and very reflective. "I don't understand why a choreographer should tell me what I must do with my body." 

There you have it. What does it say about our values, ethics, and worldview, that we have created a system in which one person (typically/historically a masculine man) tells others (typically feminine people, plus less-paid staff and technicians, latter being usually working-class men) what they should do? 

I get having someone in charge makes sense during a catastrophe or, say, surgery. There are situations where having a director for a play is appreciated, perhaps when one works with a group that benefits greatly from overall guidance, say, with children. In general, I can see it also comes useful in a factory, or a battle, too. But why have we copied this system into art, which is a fun human act that can literally be anything? 

Why settle on the most uninspiring model, even or especially so because it's the one that "drives home the results"? Why should making films or theatre be modelled after military regiment or industrial labor? 

You could say that if artists do not want to work with directors they can go and do what they want. That's cute, but the funding of stage arts here in Finland is based on established theatres getting most of the money so they can pay salaries. The financial system in arts upholds the traditional hierarchy of labor. If that's not enough, the unions will make sure this system stays intact. So really we're married with this system, and only way to bring it down is to tore it apart on all levels, from education to funding. 

Full disclosure: I am sitting on the board of Trade Union for Theatre and Media Finland, which is funny since I strongly oppose this static division of labor in arts. That being said, I'm always interested to hear other views, and one reason for my joining the board was to understand theatrical work better from inside a system that protects this division. Another reason is to be able to slide in a discussion about basic income, but that's another discussion.

Where does this anti-director hyperbole leads into? 

Of course, you can't make "Apocalypse: Now" if you don't have unchecked power and you're not on a narcissistic bent fuelled by drugs or whatnot to turn the world onto your own image. Is the world worse off without works of art that only an unhinged director can produce? 

These works are very important to a lot of other people, but take stock: do you find it impossible to think you would've loved something else if those works would have not existed? There's no need to stop loving those works, but there's also no need to repeat the formula that created these masterpieces of megalomania and resulted in abuse in so many cases. Why make art with a tool that's bound to hurt someone?

We all understand that works of art are, in a fundamental sense, of both equal and incomparable value: a short poem is not less or more meaningful than a 2-hour symphonic composition. As a society, we want to archive the big, popular, well-known works, as well as the so-called folk art that's meaningful for a given community. 

Furthermore, if we would cease to produce, for example, video art, we would do something else. Art as phenomenon wouldn't really lose or gain anything by video art's extinction. In terms of art's meaningfulness, there are no better or worse ways of making art. You can create great things by a multitude of ways that are in no way tied to any material pre-requisites.

The issues we should consider are the conditions in which artistic labor takes place. Who has access, who decides on this access, how are people or other living beings treated within a given production, just to name a few possible and very real concerns. 

These are tricky issues, because such concerns are also endemic to controlling artistic expression as a by-product of advancing much-needed workers' rights. This is precisely what unions do, even when they don't want to -by fighting for substantial pay, they end up reinforcing certain ways of working as fundamental to artistic practices. 

This leads to a situation where people are being educated in a theatre school to become actors, set designers, sound designers, directors, and so on. A production becomes something where everyone sticks to these roles and learns to speak as the representative of their profession. 

Additionally, this is why I've found it hard to defend certain core contemporary issues in art, from more funding for arts, to artists' associations' demands for more professional conditions for their members. I absolutely understand and respect these needs and have fought for them, but more and more, I see them reinforcing a hierarchical system where being an artist is a prized position instead of a fundamental right and a source of joy, and where artistic work is being kept in a petty, middle-class zone of harmless symbolic decor by placing artists in the creative class. 

But if I'd utter such things, I'd rub backs with some questionable people and political parties who are doing what they can to privatise the cultural sector and get rid of any kind of subsidies for artists. 

Directors keep on being directors

What happened with this one sadistic director in the past decades in Finland is not an exception to the rule. I've heard similar stories multiple times, and the accused of these stories are currently running city theatres, holding professorships, and acting as respected members of their artistic communities. I've heard people explain away the sexual misconducts of their actor peers as "actors simply being that way". My designer friends in theatre take constant shit in the form of slurs, shouting and now-I'm-your-friend-now-I'm-your-boss type of erratic, arbitrary behavior models when they work for directors. People who sign off are oftentimes cast either as privileged, preppy, or weak.

And it's not that you couldn't ask other people to help you in the actualisation of your artistic idea. Of course you can and quite often you should. I've worked as an assistant, stagehand, designer, co-creator, and in other such roles successfully and I've enjoyed a bunch of those experiences. 

I'm not saying, either, that a directorship is some cursed profession that turns you instantly into a monster. But how come we let this system stay afloat when it's entirely based on luck, ie. let's hope this director is nice and doesn't abuse their power? 


Perhaps the idea of a director is tragically tied to the idea of infinite growth. We can always do bigger, greater things! More cowbell! More everything! Push it to the limit! When I think of the sickening projects I've been in where the director tried to "save" the piece by demanding we work longer days, rehearse more, do more of everything, this theory does feel right to me. 

What kind of worldview we are feeding with such a method of making art?


Lastly, I am sending much love to all my dear friends who are directors. I'm not against you, I just needed to say my piece. This is not a closed text, it's too full of holes for that, but a conversation starter, if anything. If you're a director and felt a sting, remember you are more than your assigned role. We all are.

the author lying on stage
Image description: the author, wearing blue pants and a shirt and sneakers, lying on the floor of an almost empty stage, with a coffee mug close to their body. From documentation shot by Christopher Hewitt. New Performance Nights, Tehdas Teatteri, Turku, 2016.